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Doing the knowledge

In a follow up article to schools' funding (AJ 1.5.03), we look at university funding and the knowledge economy A new wave of change is sweeping through British universities, with talk of the knowledge economy bringing a commercial face to the stereotypical view of ivory towered academia. As Tony Blair has said, 'in the knowledge economy, entrepreneurial universities will be as important as entrepreneurial businesses, the one fostering the other'.

Patent differences A comparison between UK and US universities helps to illustrate why there has been such a consistent focus on the knowledge economy and higher education institutes over recent years.

Between 1996 and 2000 the US patent office registered a total of 369 new patents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the highest level of research development of all US academic institutions. In the same period, our own highest-performing university, Imperial College London, lodged only 36. What this demonstrates is not a failing in research activity - quite the contrary - but a wide discrepancy between the cultural attitudes of the two nations.

American institutes have long recognised the commercial opportunities offered by the development of new knowledge and have been active in the protection and exploitation of intellectual property. Despite a relatively poor track record historically in the UK, the government has woken up to the importance of the knowledge economy and taken steps to stimulate its development through both policy and funding.

As far back as 1998 in its White Paper, Our Competitive Future - Building the Knowledge Driven Economy, the government identified the economic benefits of supporting and exploiting new knowledge. This was followed in July 2000 by a further White Paper, Excellence and Opportunity - a science and innovation policy for the 21st century, which set out the government's role in creating and maintaining the right supportive climate for innovation and enterprise to thrive.

Funding to develop this new knowledge economy has been channelled into three principal areas - scientific research studies, university infrastructure and regional infrastructure:

lScientific research studies - Seven UK Research Councils, under the Department of Trade and Industry's Office of Science and Technology, give assistance to scientific research projects. In 2002-03, more than £1.61 billion of funding has been committed out of the overall science budget of £1.91 billion, which will provide grants for projects as well as support for research centres and institutes.

lUniversity research infrastructure - Since 1999, a sustained programme of joint funding between the Office of Science and Technology, the Department for Education and Skills and the Wellcome Trust has been extended to UK universities through two initiatives, the Joint Infrastructure Fund and the subsequent Science and Research Investment Fund (SRIF). Between them these two funds have, to date, provided £1.1 billion of capital investment for the provision of both new building facilities and new equipment. Recent announcements have confirmed that a further £500 million per year for both 2004-05 and 2005-06 has been allocated and will be distributed through a second Science and Research Investment Fund (SRIF2).

lRegional infrastructure support - A new 'Regional Innovation Fund' has been established by the DTI. It is designed to provide funding to the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs), helping them invest in projects and activities that will promote regional competitiveness, innovation and enterprise, and support cluster development and business incubation in their regions. In total, the RDAs will receive funding of £1.62 billion in 2002-03, rising to £2 billion by 2005-06.

This ever-increasing direction of external funds to help stimulate research activity has also been mirrored within higher education departments. Every four to five years, a Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) allocates research ratings to each academic department. Formula funding against the research ratings has a dramatic influence on the funds received, for example a 5-star rated department ('outstanding research of international standing') will receive more than nine times the funding of one rated at zero ('no evidence of research').

A natural consequence of this system has been the increasing pre-eminence of high-performing research staff, creating a 'premier league' of academics. The attraction and retention of these academics and their research teams has become a major consideration for universities if they are to continue to maintain their standing and funding.

Consequently, a raised expectation has been created among the academic elite, who now expect facilities comparable to those of the commercial R&D community. So with the next RAE assessment due in 2005-06, there is now a two- or three-year window for the development and improvement of research buildings nationwide.

Success factors As you would expect, the increasing significance of knowledge generation and academic research staff in higher education institutes has brought with it a new set of demands for 21st century research buildings.

Over the course of a number of projects, a pattern of nine critical success factors has emerged. These are central to the success of any research department, irrespective of the academic discipline, and can be traced back to several factors.

First, the drive towards increased research activity has widened the focus of attention beyond laboratories to the academic staff areas, in particular the offices, interaction and social facilities for academic staff and 'researchers' (postgraduates engaged on specific research projects).

Many academics believe laboratories are not the primary space in which new knowledge is created, but instead the location in which it is tested. In fact it is the combination of an academic's private workspace and the local interaction spaces that provides the mix of quiet contemplative thought and immediate discussion of new ideas that is the true medium for the germination of knowledge.

Second, across all academic research fields and research programmes there is a constancy of staffing structures. Typically, for every member of academic staff leading research projects there will be about four 'researchers' who are postgraduate staff engaged or employed for a specific research project.

Third, most academics have to balance research work with a number of other activities, such as administration, interaction with external funders or industry partners, and undergraduate teaching. This interaction with the external community, both within and without the university, brings with it a common set of concerns about the control of privacy, together with the confidentiality of intellectual property.

Nine critical factors lSupport of both private and collaborative working - Because most academics have to combine research with other duties, flexible screening of their work areas must enable a switch between privacy for quiet contemplative thought and openness for collaboration and interaction.

lInteraction enhancement - Mixer or 'club' spaces local to the academics' offices are vital to support immediate interaction and discussion of new ideas with co-workers.

lFlexibility - Most research projects have a defined life, so research buildings must have inherent flexibility to accommodate the changing pattern of research programmes.

lStrategic relationships - Academics frequently receive visitors to their private workspaces, especially from within the university. Strategic positioning of academic staff areas, research staff areas and laboratories must allow this interaction without disturbing the work of the researchers.

lControl of external visitors - Links with industry partners are becoming ever more important, so research institutes now expect highquality meeting and hospitality facilities that don't compromise the privacy of the individual workspaces.

lOptimal space utilisation - Tr a d i - tionally, space utilisation in higher education has been very low, typically about 20-30 per cent. New working methods and sharing between research departments are increasingly expected by funding bodies to make better use of resources.

lHigh quality for staff retention and attraction - Premier league academics increasingly expect their new buildings to reflect the calibre of their research work at both national and international levels.

lCollaborative fast-track procurement - Funding approval is usually tied in to a strict programme for delivery of the new facility, so collaborative fast-track procurement methods are vital to balance quality with certainty of cost and programme delivery.

l IT enablement - IT usage is growing in all academic disciplines. Infrastructure capacity and environmental control are essential for long-term success and flexibility.

As these critical success factors have emerged, architects working in this sector have been involved in a steep learning curve.Wherever possible we, as a practice, now work directly with academic teams at the very outset of projects, ideally at feasibility stage, to help focus attention on the success factors mentioned above, during the development of the brief and option appraisals.

As the knowledge economy becomes stronger, it is clear that the traditional boundaries between 'town and gown' as well as 'gown and industry' have become blurred. Not all will agree with this growing commercialisation of academic research, and many will be concerned about the implicit marginalisation of teaching and knowledge for knowledge's sake, but the trend is undeniable. So if we are to become players in the knowledge economy, now is the time for the architectural profession to address these new demands.

Andrew Kane is a partner with FaulknerBrowns Architects in Newcastle upon Tyne. Tel 0191 268 3007 or email a. kane@faulknerbrowns. co. uk.

Do you have the knowledge? , a PDF report by FaulknerBrowns Architects from which this article is derived, is available from the above contact address.

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