Inside Track | Unlocking our full research potential

Professor Arunangsu Chatterjee, Dean: Digital Transformation, outlines our exciting plans to unlock the University’s full research potential through a major new investment programme.

Our community of outstanding researchers brings together excellence and innovation, pushing the frontiers of knowledge and discovery to help shape a better future.

Among many recent examples of our research excellence, Leeds has been at the forefront of investigations into the potentially devastating effects of global warming, from our participation at the COP27 climate talks to using cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) for tracking crevasses forming in Antarctic glaciers. Left unchecked, the melting of these glaciers could lead to a catastrophic rise in sea levels, threatening coastal communities across the world.

We continue to provide valuable insights into the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19, while development of state-of-the-art facilities, such as the Bragg Centre for Materials Research and the Leeds Institute for Fluid Dynamics, ensures the curiosity and creativity of our dedicated research community cuts across traditional academic boundaries, inspiring major new breakthroughs.

Medical advancements, from research into bowel cancer treatment, collaboration to support the work of pandemic modelling and multi-disease pathways, to digital twins enabling trailblazing virtual clinical trials and measures for improving patient safety, also ensure we continue to play a leading role in addressing global health inequalities.

Such groundbreaking work demonstrates how the University tackles challenges from different angles using its collaborative interdisciplinary strengths. 

Results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 identified that more than 90% of our research has an overall quality rating of ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, positioning Leeds as one of the UK’s leading universities for research and impact power.

Pioneering research and innovation is essential to solving some of the most pressing issues in the world today. Our planet faces unprecedented challenges, including climate change, economic instability, inequality, poverty and forced population displacements, which threaten the health and wellbeing of those affected. It’s vital we therefore unleash the full potential of our researchers, tackle challenges in disruptive ways, think creatively and diversify our resources.

Seizing new opportunities

Solving some of the complex scientific, societal and technical problems relies increasingly on advanced computing infrastructure and support. Using advanced Research IT (RIT) allows researchers to tackle problems that would be too difficult or time-consuming to solve using more traditional computing methods. This can involve simulations, analysing large datasets or running complex algorithms to process and interpret data. The enormous potential such technologies offer has been recognised by the leading research councils and is reflected in their funding programmes during the coming years to help discover solutions to these challenges.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), for example, is committed to investing nearly £2.5 billion by 2025 to advance net zero, AI and digital technologies to create improved public health programmes. This includes £95 million from the Royce Institute for advanced materials research; at least £88m for the flagship Prosperity Partnership to drive forward economic growth in our communities; and £40m to address major health challenges, from regenerative medicine to tackling infections, drawing on digital chemistry and materials discovery, mathematics and the physics of life.

To be able to collaboratively access a share of such funding, it’s essential our community of 4,000-plus researchers has access to the state-of-the-art RIT infrastructure and support required to handle complex mathematical modelling and big data at high speed. This also needs to be resilient and sustainable, with clear roadmaps for continuously renewing our capabilities and storage capacities to handle vast volumes of data involved in these research programmes, as well as the advanced software engineering support required to cope with the complexity of many research challenges.

Therefore, as part of our ambitions digital transformation strategy, the University Council recently approved nearly £28 million of investment in our RIT. This will not only enable us to maintain our current RIT-linked grant income but significantly improve it during the next five years, as well as increasing our agility to respond quickly to new research funding opportunities while making the best use of our resources and planning capabilities.

Other major benefits include helping the University to retain and attract the very best researchers in the world, driving forward our Research Transformed ambitions and encouraging enhanced collaborative, interdisciplinary research through the likes of our new Futures Institutes and the Horizons Institute, which are working towards breakthrough discoveries in globally important areas such as health and climate.

While also making a significant contribution to our Climate Plan target to achieve net zero by 2030, the investment will inform our educational offers around future skills through the Curriculum Redefined programme.

Key priorities

This new investment is naturally focused on medium and longer-term benefits, but there are several key priorities already coming into scope, complementing and building on our ongoing Digital Enablement and Be Safe programme

Firstly, we will develop a suitably devolved service from a centralised RIT model to provide dedicated staff and support in every faculty at Leeds. Academics will be able to collaborate directly with these new colleagues, not only to resolve their RIT issues but to work with them on submitting grants to secure vital funding. This represents a sea change in how we currently work at Leeds, and we hope to complete the recruitment process for these new posts by winter 2023.

Secondly, along with a defined menu of RIT services, this investment will create a new advanced research data service, providing a systematic way of accessing and managing large-scale data storage. 

Thirdly, a significant part of the investment is targeted towards sustainably upgrading our high-performance computing capabilities. While the upgrade of this infrastructure will take longer to implement, we aim to have the first phase in place by 2024/25.

Finally, we’ve established an academically led steering group, which will be responsible for the delivery of this investment aligned with our agreed RIT strategy. To provide strategic oversight and leadership, we’re in the process of recruiting a Director of Digital Research, who will lead on the delivery of the overall investment programme. We’re also establishing an international advisory group to act as critical friends for our evolving architectural design choices, service operating model and the opening up of new collaborative avenues. 

Together with all the other opportunities this new funding affords, it will ensure our fantastic research community is perfectly placed to make a significant impact on society by advancing our understanding of the world and helping solve some of the most pressing problems facing humanity.

Find out more

We’ll share further details about service design and implementation as the plans take shape, but we hope various components will begin to come online by the end of this academic year. We will share a detailed engagement plan for key stakeholders after the Easter break around co-creation opportunities for the service design and development. 

Leeds is also co-hosting Times Higher Education (THE) Digital Universities UK 2023 on campus from 17-20 April, bringing together higher education, industry and policy leaders where the fields of academic innovation and technology meet. 

In addition to Professor Chatterjee, speakers include our Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Simone Buitendijk, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education, Professor Jeff Grabill. 

We have a dedicated theme around research, with several service leaders from the universities of Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol and Exeter, together with the Hartree National Center for Digital Innovation, sharing and exploring current challenges and future opportunities around digital research 

It’s an ideal opportunity to learn from academic and industry experts and to share what we’re doing at Leeds. Look out for information about free tickets for University colleagues in future eNews editions.

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