Inside Track: Research Transformed: Enabling our research to thrive into the future

Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Nick Plant, discusses the future of research at Leeds and how you can find out more about Research Transformed.

Nick Plant Inside Track February 2018

Research and innovation at the University of Leeds is outstanding, and something that we are rightly proud of. I am constantly amazed by the ground-breaking work that emerges from across the University, delivering both paradigm shifts in fundamental understanding and disruptive solutions to today’s global challenges.  

The wonderful news last week that the University is a recipient of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education is a great example of this. The prize recognises our outstanding research into tropical weather systems and climate science. It is the culmination of over 25 years’ work and critically was co-produced with research institutions and government bodies across the Global South, combining research and innovation, knowledge exchange and education to empower these regions to grow their own long-term capacity (infrastructure and people) for resilience today and the ability to respond to the emergent challenges of tomorrow.  

The work celebrated by the Queen’s Anniversary Prize did not happen by chance. Rather, it emerged through a concerted programme of collaborative work, aligned through a clear vision of our role in tackling emerging challenges and increasingly wide inequalities across the globe. It also required consistent support and investment to build the critical mass of academic and academic-related staff, develop relationships across the globe and empower the workforce and leaders of tomorrow with the skills necessary to make the most of these developments. 

However, we cannot rest on our laurels. The research landscape is constantly evolving, and over recent years it feels like we have endured a series of seismic shifts, creating both challenges and opportunities. Externally, there is increasing policy/political focus on solutions-orientated research, which is re-shaping the funding landscape alongside the political fallout of changes to overseas development assistance (ODA) funding, Brexit etc.  

On top of that, the shock waves from the Covid-19 pandemic have widened inequalities and created social and economic challenges that will take years to address. 

I believe that we are now at an inflection point.  

Trying to maintain the status quo is doomed to failure and will lead to a reduction in our opportunities for research. Rather, we must adapt to thrive, exploiting new opportunities to align, fund, collaborate and deliver our world-leading research – pushing the boundaries of knowledge, effecting positive change and driving down inequalities in the process.  

Our new University strategy places a premium on identifying our research strengths and then collaborating across disciplines to push the boundaries of knowledge. We have already shown how we can deftly pivot to opportunities as they arise or change, for example our success at exploiting ODA funding through GCRF and Newton schemes, followed by a rapid pivot when ODA spending was cut to ensure we could continue these important projects.  

But there are still funding opportunities that we are failing to fully capitalise on, and hence areas of research that we cannot pursue. We need to continue to develop our agility and flexibility as an organisation.  

We invest approximately £120m every year in our research and innovation activities. It is neither realistic nor sensible to address gaps through further investment alone. This is especially true given the financial challenges facing the sector, such as the Covid-19 recovery, the Augar review, USS and funding restrictions. We must ensure we generate clear value from any research and innovation activities we undertake and improve financial sustainability to create headroom for further strategic investment.

We envisage that in the future a significant amount of our interdisciplinary research activity will be routed through our new Futures Institutes, which will remove further barriers to inter-faculty research and postgraduate education collaboration, becoming internationally recognised centres of excellence for tackling global challenges, through partnership and knowledge exchange.

Fundamental research is also critical so we can continue to develop the new knowledge and paradigms that will underpin the understanding and solutions for the problems we haven’t even imagined yet. Focused, discipline-based activities are recognised and valued across the University and will continue through faculty-based centres or institutes. 

For the University to continue to thrive, we must do two things:

  1. As a community, understand and acknowledge our genuine research strengths and their alignment to our strategic objectives and external opportunities (including funding sources), and use this as a basis for a plan for the next strategy period that sets out how we will organise and prioritise our effort;

  1. Within this framework, support and develop our colleagues – creating an environment in which they can flourish and are fairly rewarded and acknowledged for the work they do, while setting clear expectations that are equal, transparent and consistent measurements of performance. 

Research Transformed 

Research Transformed is a chance for our University community to contribute to our vision for the next decade. It will bring together five key areas where we have already made considerable progress, creating a solid foundation for the future: 

  • Academic development and performance – as part of our Fairer Future for All initiative, creating an environment in which all colleagues can thrive and be the best they can be. 

  • Research culture – for our researchers, research staff and students to thrive, we must develop a safe, supportive and inclusive environment, where diversity increases creativity and reduces inequalities, and where all contributions to research are equally recognised. 

  • Horizon scanning – we must understand how our research portfolio needs to evolve over the strategy period, ensuring we continue to push the boundaries of knowledge and create lasting impact. 

  • Research efficiency and sustainability – to meet our strategic ambitions, we must be efficient throughout the entire research life cycle, and ensure that we recover as much of the cost of research as possible. 

  • Metric analysis – strategic decisions must be informed by robust, appropriate data, that is used in a responsible way. 

Research Transformed, Leeds Conversations

Leeds Conversations events: Research Transformed 

I would like to invite you to our upcoming Research Transformed events. I’m looking forward to explaining all of these areas in much more detail and having a great conversation with you about them. 

Without resorting to hyperbole, it is very difficult to state just how important research undertaken by universities in general, and the University of Leeds in particular, will be in meeting the needs of tomorrow’s world.  

Our research and innovation will develop the disruptive solutions for today’s critical challenges and push the boundaries of fundamental knowledge to underpin our future world. Not only that, but we will also equip our workforce and leaders of tomorrow with the skills they will need to use these solutions and knowledge. 

By acting now, and acting early, we can take control of our own destiny and put our research onto a secure, strategically aligned footing that will enable us to thrive into the future. 

Professor Nick Plant 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation  

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