Control group

A new grouping of southeast institutions accounts for a third of EPSRC-funded work. Paul Jump reports

May 9, 2013

A new research alliance that includes five of England’s top six research powers is not a case of the institutions “ganging up” on the rest of the university sector, one of its founders has insisted.

The Science and Engineering South Consortium, unveiled on 9 May, contains the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Southampton, Imperial College London and University College London.

It is the latest regional alliance of research intensives to be announced since the formation of the N8 group of northern English universities in 2007. The south-western GW4 alliance was unveiled in January, and the Midlands-based M5 group was formed last August.

But the members of the south-eastern consortium, known as SES-5, constitute five of the top six English universities by research council income, making it by far the most powerful grouping.

Its members also account for nearly a third of all spending by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, on whose research areas it will primarily focus.

According to David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, this “total dominance” in engineering and physical sciences made the alliance a “no-brainer” and he hoped it would permit successful bids for funds that its members would not be able to win individually.

But Philip Nelson, pro vice- chancellor for research at Southampton - which was awarded more EPSRC grant funding in 2011-12 than Oxford or Cambridge - emphasised that the consortium was “absolutely not” a case of the research giants “ganging up on the rest of the sector” and attempting to “run off with the loot”.

Rather, he said, it was about being “responsible” and sharing large items of equipment in “straitened times”.

Ian Walmsley, pro vice-chancellor for research at Oxford, concurred, pointing to the “quite drastic and very sudden” cuts to the research capital budget in the 2010 spending review: “In order for us to be able to stay at the world-leading edge of research, we have to figure out a way to manage this.”

Professor Nelson admitted the collaboration was partly a response to “nudging” by the EPSRC, which is “anxious to see bids for equipment that make sense for the sector as a whole rather than [just] for individual universities”. But he added that SES-5 members had been sharing digital infrastructure since 2010.

James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, said that the formation of SES-5 was “not a huge surprise” since it “fills a gap in the geographical jigsaw” for regional collaborations. But he noted that some significant research universities in the South East, such as King’s College London, Queen Mary, University of London and his own institution, were not members.

Professor Walmsley said that this was because, for “good reason”, the group had been formed out of successful existing collaborations, such as on high-performance computing. The “really challenging” question of how best to “partner” with other institutions was still to be addressed.

Professor Price agreed that there were “other institutions in the region and elsewhere that might benefit from being more closely associated” and emphasised SES-5 was “not closed”. But no “formal requests for discussion” had been received and, in his view, it made sense first for the large founder members to formulate the consortium’s strategy.

This remains under discussion but could include shared postgraduate training. Professor Walmsley suggested that collaboration on equipment could also lead to more partnerships on research projects.

Trevor McMillan, chair of the N8’s management board, cautioned that the scale of the SES-5 institutions might make it more difficult and less advantageous for them to collaborate on academic or industrial projects.

He said the “real value” of consortia “comes when there is well-embedded trust at senior levels - and this does not come quickly or easily”.

But Professor Price said the historical rivalries within SES-5 would not inhibit its growth, noting that UCL academics had more partnerships with colleagues from Imperial than from any other institution. He said SES-5 was part of a new “zeitgeist of collaboration”.

Chris Mottershead, vice-principal for research and innovation at King’s, agreed that major research institutions had recently become “very collegiate”. He did not feel “excluded” from SES-5 because King’s did not have most of the expensive equipment that the new alliance aimed to share.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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