A collective ambition that builds up to a critical mass

National research pools are winning Scotland an international reputation, writes Olga Wojtas

June 12, 2008

Mike Tyers was pursuing a distinguished research career in his native Canada last year. He was a professor at the University of Toronto and senior investigator at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, the strongest biomedical research centre in the country.

"Things were going very well. I had a lab of over 30 people," he said.

But he was lobbied by researchers in Scotland to apply for the directorship of the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Association (Sulsa). He is now living and working in Edinburgh, and he has not looked back.

Sulsa, a £78 million collaboration launched last August between the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Strathclyde, is one of a growing number of Scotland's pioneering "research pools" - alliances conceived and part funded by the Scottish Funding Council to help create the critical mass of resources needed for Scotland's universities to carry out world-class research.

"Research pooling is a pretty novel concept with no precedent in North America," Professor Tyers said. "The spirit of co-operation has been fantastic, and you can't overestimate the value of that."

Professor Tyers, who now holds the C. H. Waddington chair of systems biology at the University of Edinburgh, said the creation of Sulsa had raised the profile of Scotland internationally "and we've had good success in recruiting top people".

Leaders from more than 20 disciplines came together at Edinburgh last month to assess the development of Scotland's growing number of research pools.

The pooling scheme began in 2004 after the 2001 research assessment exercise revealed that many Scottish departments lacked the critical mass to compete against England's Golden Triangle of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London. The Scottish Funding Council started pools in physics, economics, life sciences and the creative arts, but researchers themselves proposed others: the chemists were so quick off the mark that ScotChem was established before the SFC groups got off the ground.

There are now 16 pools, with three more in the pipeline. They range from Sages (geo and environmental science) and Sinapse (brain imaging) to the Alliance for Self Care Research and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. Proposals for pools in informatics and clinical academic research are going to the SFC this month.

The pools have been credited for the appointment to Scottish universities of dozens of new professors, many of them international stars, backed by hundreds of new lecturing posts, research fellowships and PhD studentships.

While the pooling initiative has been enthusiastically embraced by the universities, the SFC insists on more than enthusiasm. Institutions not only have to produce their own funding to match the SFC's contribution, but proposals for new pools must go to an international review.

David Gani, the SFC's director of research policy and strategy, said: "The response we've had from international referees is: 'I wish we could do this. I've never seen anything like it before.'"

Pool members share expertise, equipment and postgraduate training, maximising opportunities for staff and students, whichever institution they are in.

Sir Tim O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh, said: "The pools are a postmodern construct that allow people to be full members of their universities and full members of interinstitutional alliances.

"I tried to do something similar in the University of London, which is a bit bigger than all the Scottish universities. But London couldn't crack this."

Professor Gani revealed that institutional enthusiasm has been so great that the SFC's financial contribution to pools is often less than a third of total funding.

The pools have levered in major support: WestCHEM, which brings together chemistry at Glasgow and Strathclyde, has seen its grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council rise from £7.6 million in 2005 to £17 million this year.

The Northern Research Partnership in Engineering at Aberdeen and Dundee has been chosen by Subsea UK to house a centre of excellence in subsea engineering and oil and gas technologies, with a new chair. The Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance, a partnership between Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Strathclyde, has acquired an OMX structured illumination microscope, one of only six in the world, which is set to transform cell biology.

One of the most intriguing pools is the Scottish Institute for Research in Economics (Sire). Researchers admit that pooling works best where there is mutually recognised strength.

But there was no grassroots move towards collaboration in economics: the SFC targeted the field because of its mediocre RAE performance. Initially, there was anxious rivalry between Scotland's ten relatively small economics departments. But they discovered that the pooling had put them on the world stage and increased their attractiveness.

Since Sire's launch 18 months ago, 13 full-time professors, a reader and 17 lecturers have been appointed within the research pool, while individual departments have hired 11 more economists.

And how might the success be built on?

Professor Tyers is now promoting the idea of "hyperpools". In his field of life sciences, a hyperpool might reach into the physical sciences: "This would identify areas between the different sciences where you need all the disciplines." In the wider context, he added, it could allow Scotland to position itself at the forefront of emerging research areas.


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