My week - 8 April 2013 - Professor John Fisher, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Deputy Vice-Chancellor talks about the importance of collaborative research.

Professor John Fisher

When interviewed in the Financial Times over the Easter weekend, Sir Alan Langlands – our next Vice-Chancellor and current Chief Executive of HEFCE – urged our sector to recognise increasing overseas competition and be “vigilant about the competitiveness of UK universities”.

There is no doubt that the UK and international research environment is becoming more competitive, with only the highest quality, internationally-leading research being funded. Increasingly, we have to collaborate with the best partners in order to compete.

So what makes a successful collaboration? In my experience, collaborations need to bring diversity, complementarity and additional capability, as well as excellence. Collaborations will increasingly involve industry, commerce and other public sector partners, all of whom need to be focused on a single challenge with a common goal.

Being an academic research group leader, as well as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, often allows me to see both sides of the same coin. Before Easter I attended a Research Council Panel interview for a large collaborative centre grant with partners from four other universities, industry and the NHS. Two days later I sat on the other side of the same table, acting as the chairman of a different prioritisation panel, which interviewed 10 different collaborative groups, all presenting excellent research. The successful interdisciplinary research collaborations all had a clear and ambitious vision with a diversity of partners and capabilities. Collaboration is essential to compete to win these larger and longer grants.

The University has many different types of partnerships and collaborations. Last week, like a number of colleagues in the University, I submitted an outline proposal for an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). Our CDT proposal involved 25 academic colleagues from seven different Schools in the University, and we received letters of support from 15 external collaborators. This interest and support from external partners will be critical to the success of the CDT. As a further example, over the last few months I’ve helped develop ‘One Voice’ – the proposition for the City of Leeds. Launched in March, this emphasises the importance of the different organisations and people in Leeds working together to build the future of the city and its economy. The universities are an important part of this proposition. In another collaboration, with colleagues from other universities in Yorkshire, we have been working with the NHS Trusts in the region to develop the prospectus and plan for the Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network (AHSN). This is a new initiative, which we expect will be supported by NHS England, as one of up to 15 such AHSNs in England. The objectives of the AHSNs are to improve the health service and public health and create wealth for the UK. Part of the process for developing the AHSN plan, was a panel interview with Department of Health in London, chaired by Sir Alan Langlands. (This is an example of the breadth of experience and influence that our new Vice-Chancellor will bring.) These regional collaborations are extremely important to us, as they allow us with our regional partners to compete both nationally and globally. These are just three examples of collaborations in which the University is involved, but they really demonstrate the breadth of opportunity available.

I would like to end ‘My week’ with a personal reflection. It is 20 years since I was appointed to the Chair in Mechanical Engineering at the University. The one question I remember from the interview for the position was, “How will you build a collaborative research group and what will it look like in the future?” I am sure I didn’t answer the question well and wasn’t able to describe what is needed for us to ‘collaborate to compete’ in the global market of today – what a different (and better) answer I could have given today!


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