The three roles of applied research

Science can help advance the truth-finding process

Today, as an applied scientist, you now play three different roles. You have to excel and therefore count among your peers. In fact, to put it in modern terms, as a researcher you are your own ‘brand’. Context forms the theoretical framework that inspires your research. Besides scientific brilliance, team-work is also critical in tackling the big questions, but so too is scientific integrity. After all, there are many conflicts of interest at play in our complex society. Science can help advance the truth-finding process. Roger Pielke, Jr., in his book The Honest Broker, presents an inspiring reference framework to this end.

The second role involves bridging the gap between theory and practice. The applied research scientist is collaborating more and more with people who are active in practical fields – a process appropriately described by the term ‘co-innovation’. In the water sector this frequently involves technology. The Nature of Technology, by W. Brian Arthur, shows us how this comes about.

The third role, one that has steadily grown in importance over the past few years, refers to research activities conducted in the service of the private sector. In this connection, a lot of publicly-financed research is often of great value, however the results remain too long gathering dust on the shelf. But research is expensive. As part of the publicly-financed research world, you also need to do your utmost to get the private sector to share in the benefits of your work’s results. By means of this kind of research, governments, both today and in the past, frequently function as boosters for new activities. Mariana Mazzucato discusses this in detail in her book, The Entrepreneurial State.

KWR is actively working with its shareholders and clients in detailing its future path on the basis of this triptych. In the years ahead, we want to invest in all three elements, but also in their interrelations. If we are to ground the word ‘sustainability’ in deeds, we have to act. As a research institute we aspire to scientific excellence. In this quest we work in close collaboration with other researchers from all over the world. Our scientific ambitions are guided by our Water-Wise World research programme, under the heading of themes such as Health, Enabling Technologies, Sustainable Water Cycle, Society, Thinking Ahead and Working Together.

Within Watershare our goal is, with the other members, to transform research into tools that can help the water sector worldwide in solving everyday problems. Today, this involves working with 17 partners from Europe, the Far East, Central America and South Africa. With Allied Waters we have opened the path to the commercialisation of knowledge through intensive partnerships with internationally operating companies. We do this with an eye on sustainable game-changing innovations. The first Allied Waters initiative was launched under the name of Salutions: a partnership between Arcadis and KWR in the area of Aquifer Storage and Recovery.

We do all this because of our conviction that achieving a better water world calls for collaboration and the sharing of ideas and insights. With this in mind, in the time ahead we will be personally inviting leading water professionals from all over the world to contribute to a column on our website, so that they can share their insights with our international water community. We greatly look forward to their contributions.