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Universities around the world are coming under greater pressure to increase their productivity, often because of reduced funding in the context of increasing student demand. At the same time, many governments are looking to universities to produce short-term practical outcomes, commercialise their intellectual property, and chase funding, no matter what the implications of winning it. In this context of rapidly changing support, often reflecting short-term electoral cycles and a limited political vision, it becomes easy to overlook the long-term contributions of universities and the significant strategic role they play in helping to develop our society and economy. A focus on the immediate and short-term is simplistic, building on a narrative that does not recognise the complex ways in which innovation takes place or acknowledge the deeper and more profound contributions which universities make. Taken to its extreme, this approach could prevent universities from making their really significant, fundamental contributions to economic, social and cultural development or environmental sustainability. Ultimately this will lead to more fragile and less resilient societies. Research intensive universities are crucial national assets. They promote the excellence in research and education by emphasising the mutual dependence of these activities at the highest levels of learning – but they do much more than this. This paper discusses the wide role, attributes and overall importance of research intensive universities.