Inside Track - Sir Alan Langlands

Welcoming Spring: the Vice-Chancellor's latest Leader Column.

Alan Langlands 2013"From the first note the hollow Cuckoo sings, The Symphony of Spring" 
James Thomson: The Seasons (1726-30)

After a false start or two, Spring is arriving slowly and with it – in the spirit of The Georgics – comes an opportunity to move into a more stable, peaceful and purposeful phase in the life of the University... a time to focus on education and research and to celebrate the achievements of our students and staff.

In the space of a couple of days during Easter our leading researchers achieved two major Nature, publications. The first – from Giles Davies and Edmund Linfield in Engineering, with colleagues from University Paris-Diderot and ETH Zurich – was featured on the front cover and described a new class of far infrared sensitive detectors that are very fast and operate at room temperature, opening up a range of possible applications, from thermal imaging and environmental remote sensing to coherent free space communications. The second – from Hannes Konrad and Andy Shepherd from Environment in Nature Geoscience – used satellite technology and field measurements to show how Antarctica’s great ice sheet is being eroded by warm ocean water circulating beneath its floating edge.

These new insights come on top of the launch of a £9.2m research programme focused on developing sustainable, productive and climate-resistant agricultural systems in Africa; a £5m programme led by Jo Dixon-Hardy to develop new med-tech capabilities in West Yorkshire; and the renewal and expansion of Mark Kearney’s major British Heart Foundation award in cardiovascular and diabetes research. Collaborative research and development like this, which crosses disciplines, institutions and continents, is of real economic and social importance and has contributed to the University reaching number 47 in THE’s rankings of the world’s ‘most international universities’.

One person who will have taken a close interest in Nature Geoscience – and, I am sure, the whole spectrum of our education and research successes in recent months – is former Dean of the Faculty of Environment, and Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Dame Jane Francis, who will be installed as the University’s seventh Chancellor at the end of the summer term. A prominent polar scientist, Jane has conducted pioneering research – with numerous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic – and has shown accomplished leadership in promoting the UK’s polar interests. She has strong ties with the University, with a 22-year career at Leeds, and I am delighted by her appointment.

Jane will be an inspiration to students and staff, both as an academic with an exceptional track record in education and research and as someone who has pushed the boundaries of human endeavour. She is the perfect ambassador for our achievements and aspirations, and we look forward to welcoming her back to Leeds (more on page 11 of Reporter issue 606).

Jane has always been selfless in supporting younger colleagues and she will be delighted by some current successes. For example, the School of Mathematics is on a winning streak at the moment, with the prospect of up to nine major fellowship awards from the European Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Marie Curie and the Leverhulme Trust. On the eve of the Astbury Conversation – already a top international event – we are delighted that Dan Hurdiss, a Leeds undergraduate and now a PhD student in the Astbury Centre, has been selected to take part in a scientific meeting with 40 Nobel Laureates. Alongside outstanding young scientists from around the world, Dan joins the meeting in Lindau this summer.

In arts, humanities and social sciences, Tess Somervell from the School of English – who unknowingly prompted my introduction to this piece – and Laura Loyola-Hernández from the School of Geography have been awarded prestigious post-doctoral fellowships by the British Academy. Tess is focused on how 18th century poets (as a Scot, I immediately rushed to Thomson) used the Georgic mode to explore humanity’s relationship with the weather; and Laura’s work explores the emotional dimension of politics shown by the indigenous women in Yucatan in Mexico.

The success in Arts, Humanities and Cultures in the ‘global challenges research fund’ awards is remarkable and the growing influence of the cultural institute – as the Leeds International Piano Competition spreads its wings to Berlin, Singapore and New York; the University forges an exciting partnership with the Ilkley Literature Festival; and Stephen Coleman finds new expression for the politics of Brexit in collaboration with the Phoenix Dance Theatre and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance – is taking the City’s cultural offer to new heights.

In keeping with this season of transition and renewal, we recently heard the outcome of the LUU leadership race (see page six of Reporter issue 606). I congratulate all of the successful candidates and look forward to working with them during the next academic year. I also take this opportunity to thank the existing executive for their inspiration, commitment to student well-being and sheer hard work in 2017-18. The fact our students have voted Leeds into a top three spot in THE’s ‘student experience survey’ is testament to the leadership of LUU and the commitment of staff in every part of the University.

Finally (as I write*), the question of industrial action linked to the Universities Superannuation Scheme hangs in the balance. It is my fervent hope the national negotiators will take the opportunity that emerged during the Easter break to settle the question of the valuation of the scheme – the central issue in the dispute – based on a joint review of the evidence and the assumptions and tests that underpin it. This will inform future discussions about sharing risk between employers and scheme members and, I hope, lead to a settlement that is fair and just, and which will allow the USS Trustee and the Pensions Regulator to provide the safeguards for the future we all need.

I know this has been a difficult period and I thank staff in every part of the University who continue to work tirelessly to serve the best interests of students and the research ambitions of the University.

Sir Alan Langlands

*Since the time of writing, industrial action has been suspended. Read more

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