Inside track - Professor John Ladbury - 6 November 2015

Professor Ladbury reports on his recent trip to Japan.


My recent trip to Japan provided much food for thought on how my faculty, and the University as a whole, can strengthen and build links with Japanese institutions and businesses. The Japanese government is encouraging the country’s universities to internationalise and has allocated funding specifically for this purpose. There’s also a lot of goodwill toward the UK in both higher education and industry.

During the five-day trip, I visited the University of Osaka – an impressive university that, like us, has very ambitious targets. It has some excellent academics and great resources and we discussed their particular capabilities in the areas of the biological sciences and chemistry. The Astbury Centre is already collaborating with them on a BBSRC*-funded initiative in structural biology, and there was a very clear interest in further engagement with us, particularly in areas of science where there are shared interests. There are also opportunities to establish joint undergraduate degrees and move forward on postgraduate research exchange programmes. There is a clear enthusiasm and desire on both sides to get these collaborative activities underway, and I think we can now be much bolder in the way we pursue these opportunities.

I had the fortune to meet with one of our alumni, Michael Shearer OBE, who is the Consul-General for Western Japan. Michael has lived in Japan for many years and has an excellent understanding of the country. We discussed a potential industrial funding initiative that could enable a more meaningful interface between academia and industry.

This approach would involve several companies clubbing together to contribute to a single fund for external research. For example, five pharmaceutical companies with a shared therapeutic interest might each contribute £5m, to give a total fund worth £25m. They put out a call for grant applications with a defined remit, then work closely with the successful academic researchers in this area either within single, or in multi-institutional partnerships. The companies would own any intellectual property that might accrue and decide whether or not to take things further at the end of the funding period.

The University of Leeds is extremely well placed for this type of venture, particularly with ongoing investment in infrastructure and high-end equipment to capitalise on such funding arrangements. For example, with recent investment in our electron microscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance capabilities, the Astbury BioStructure Laboratory is in a fabulous position to provide access to equipment that industry doesn’t generally have in-house.

Furthermore, close collaboration with industrial partners would enable a tighter, more meaningful relationship between academic and commercial activities and opportunities for training of industrial scientists in an academic environment. It also spreads the cost, avoids duplication of effort and wasted time.

I think it’s a win-win situation and is certainly feasible in areas such as pharmaceutical development.

Michael and his team are keen to follow this idea up with Japanese companies. Michael is convinced of the potential of Japanese industrial funding, and thought that it would be a successful way to forge closer ties with Japanese industry. He’s keen to help Leeds where he can and we talked about the possibility of the British Council hosting an event for us in Japan next year, where we could meet representatives from some of the country’s top pharmaceutical companies, together with our alumni and partners from other universities and industries. It was a successful meeting and I hope it provides a platform that we can build upon.   

Next stop was the second Japan-UK Universities Conference for Collaboration in Research & Education in Tokyo. This meeting provided an excellent opportunity for me to talk to representatives from other UK universities and find out what they’re doing in Japan, particularly in relation to student recruitment. It sparked some ideas about how we could improve our offering to attract more Japanese students, and I’ll be discussing these with the International Student Office here in Leeds.

The final engagement of my trip was to discuss the RENKEI initiative, a British Council-endorsed, strategic collaboration between UK and Japanese academia and industry. Founded in 2012, RENKEI membership has been useful for building relationships with Japanese universities and has seeded a number of research initiatives and exchanges between UK and Japanese universities such as Osaka and Kyushu.

The outcome of this meeting was the implementation of a new initiative whereby RENKEI members will be invited to propose ideas for workshops, meetings and seminars, with funding allocated on merit. I feel that this could also provide an opportunity to bring industry and academics from both nations together. Just opening channels of discussion and finding out what Japanese industry aims to achieve would be very useful. The meeting has given the RENKEI membership a much clearer idea of what we want and what we can realistically achieve.

I came away from this short but fruitful visit with a great deal of useful information and ideas to help Leeds enhance its interface with Japan. Now there’s a need to be proactive, fully exploit our existing links and establish productive new relationships. 

*Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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