My week - 26 February 2014 - platform technologies

A regular update from Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Langlands.

Sir Alan Langlands

The Medical Research Council (MRC) recently announced the award of a Centre for Bioinformatics to the University of Leeds with a grant of £ 5.8 million. The bid, led by Sir Alex Markham, was the best in the country, scoring ‘straight 10s’ in the MRC assessment process.  It was conceived with strong NHS and industry support, including a close collaboration with NHS England’s Health & Social Care Information Centre which is based in Leeds.

It is complemented by a £9 million award from the Health Secretary’s Technology Challenge Fund to develop the Leeds Cancer record system - arguably the best in the UK - as the basis for the Leeds Teaching Hospitals’ informatics strategy, and the N8 High Performance Computing Centre, also based in Leeds. The Centre will enable researchers to link molecular, phenotypic and health record data sets, sourced locally and nationally, to support biomedical research and high standards of quality and safety in patient care.

The University has also been successful in winning £5 million+ from the Economic & Social Research Council ‘Big Data’ Network programme to set up a Consumer Data Research Centre in Leeds. Led by Professor Mark Birkin from the School of Geography this also involves our Business School and environmental scientists. It focuses on the development of both consumer and spatial analytics for research, new educational programmes and the infrastructure required to achieve data sharing between academics, retailers and other consumer-facing organisations, and providing valuable insights into our society.

In addition further awards have been made by the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the field of data visualisation (Dr Helen Kennedy) and the Natural Environment Research Council (Professor Timothy Wright) which enable researchers to expand processing capacity for the analysis of radar data that enables scientists to monitor areas prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

In all cases – particularly bioinformatics – it will be essential to ensure that our research is subject to stringent safeguards in relation to the confidentiality of personal data, data protection and the highest ethical standards.  As the controversy surrounding the NHS data-sharing project ( is showing, public confidence is an essential ingredient for progress in this area and the research community nationally has to explain the safeguards that are in place and the tangible benefits that will accrue from their research to ensure better treatments, improve patient safety and advance medical science.

The coincidence of these major awards provides a real opportunity for Leeds to establish a leading centre in data analytics, with international reach and high impact, with cognate strengths in environmental science, biology, computer science, mathematics and social science, this approach can provide an important platform for interdisciplinary research.

The notion of well-organised platform technologies which meet industry standards and provide opportunities for PhD students to develop advanced skills and expertise, either at the start of an academic career or as a gateway to industry, is a pre-requisite for research success.  The forthcoming University strategy will therefore reinforce the importance of investing in platform technologies in the following areas:

  • special collections, archives and digital resources to support the arts and humanities
  • methodological skills, eg, the analysis of longitudinal qualitative data
  • imaging and simulation: physical sciences
  • molecular medicine; genes and development; clinical trials
  • medical and biomedical imaging
  • robotics and mechatronics
  • a coherent approach to University enterprise initiatives.

Leeds is on the move and it’s good to watch.

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