‘Be bold’ on climate research funding needs, says Oxford v-c

Oxford’s vaccine success shows what universities can do in a crisis, but following up with climate solutions means being proactive with funders, Irene Tracey tells THE summit

July 4, 2023
Irene Tracey

Universities have the breadth of expertise to tackle the climate crisis, but they need to be explicit with funders about the support they require to do so, according to the University of Oxford’s vice-chancellor.

Reflecting on Oxford’s partnership with AstraZeneca to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, credited with saving countless lives during the pandemic, Irene Tracey said universities had to be clearer about what they needed from philanthropists and funding agencies.

“The expertise is living in our institutions. We just need be bold and say that we’re going to take that on, and be more directive, rather than responsive,” she said, speaking at the Times Higher Education Europe Universities Summit, hosted by the University of Warsaw.

While Professor Tracey did not give a template for how universities could recreate pandemic successes to combat climate change, she said it was vital that they found a way to drive climate research while still accommodating investigators’ curiosity.

She said the May-December 2020 race to market of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was “a great success story of just what universities can do to meet global challenges”.

Professor Tracey is co-chairing a UK Treasury-commissioned study into how the country can better support university spin-offs, alongside Andrew Williamson, a managing partner of the University of Cambridge’s in-house venture capital fund.

She said Oxford’s own fund, which has attracted more than £2.5 billion in external investment and has supported 300 companies since 2010, had nurtured an entrepreneurial spirit at the university, as successful founders became role models for their colleagues. “It was like we lit a match, it just went,” she said of the enthusiasm among staff.

While she is currently working on the economic value of research to the UK, she said it was still important for academics to make the case for basic research – “to understand the universe and the wondrousness and the beauty of that”.

“As a sector, we probably need to think about how we measure that in ways that can persuade the government that there’s room for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and it doesn’t always have to be monetised,” she added.

Nominated last May as an internal candidate to captain the world’s most highly ranked university, Professor Tracey said she “didn’t want to have any sense of complacency” and was spending an afternoon a week on “deep dives” learning about the specific issues facing departments.

The self-described “die-hard academic” she said she was “loving the job” of leading Oxford and that the breadth and depth of research going on was “beyond what I even imagined in my wildest dreams”. While many aspects of life and work within the university were familiar to her, she told the conference that learning about the financial constraints facing the UK sector more broadly had been a “huge shock”.

Asked about Oxford’s track record on inclusion, Professor Tracey, who enrolled as an undergraduate from a state school, acknowledged that the university needed to do more, but said part of the problem was how the university was seen by potential candidates.

“Our job is to make sure we have as many streams as we can to get out there, to shine a light in those corners that are hidden, so we can expose that talent and we can get our story to those pupils so they can get a proper version of what Oxford is,” she said, adding that she was motivated in part by a “frustration” about how Oxford was misrepresented by parts of the UK media.

She said there was still work to be done to make sure staff were representative of the country as a whole and “feels like a place where you are included”.

“It’s a constant process, and you just have to always be checking yourself and benchmarking and making sure we are a place that is attractive to anybody that has the talent – that they feel this is the place for them and we’re adapting to them rather than them adapting to us.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs