Focus on interdisciplinary research or lose out, academics warned

Iain Gillespie, former research and innovation director at Nerc, explains why the University of Leicester is setting up four new institutes

June 30, 2016
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Collaborate and listen: Leicester’s plan is to push income into the four hubs

The University of Leicester is creating four new multidisciplinary institutes to take advantage of the surge of new money for research that cuts across subjects.

Iain Gillespie, Leicester’s new pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise and a former senior research council director, warned universities that they needed to “respond” to the shift in emphasis from government or risk fighting over a diminishing pot of money.

As part of last year’s spending review, the government announced the creation of a new Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), worth £1.5 billion, to tackle problems in the developing world and help hit official development assistance (ODA) spending targets.

Over the next four years, most research councils will suffer cuts in absolute terms, but multidisciplinary-focused GCRF spending not linked to any one council will grow from zero to be worth more than £300 million a year by 2020-21.

“If we don’t respond to that…frankly there will be more and more competition for less and less money,” Professor Gillespie told Times Higher Education.

In his previous role as director of science and innovation at the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc), Professor Gillespie said that one of the most consistent messages coming from government was that “you need to work more closely together”.

This drive towards interdisciplinary research was one of the factors behind last year’s report on the research councils by Sir Paul Nurse, he said.

“It would be extremely foolish of a research-intensive [university] not to respond to that,” he said. However, “it’s fair to say that research intensives are doing this at a different pace from one another”, he added.

Leicester is launching new institutes in four areas: precision medicine; structural and chemical biology; space and earth observation science, and cultural media and creative economics.

Although there will not be any new buildings and only a “handful” of extra staff hired, Professor Gillespie said that Leicester’s plan was to “push more of the income and overheads into the institutes so our academics are incentivised to work more together”, outside of their immediate disciplines.

He noted that even without the push towards interdisciplinary research, Leicester would have created the institutes “irrespective”.

He also warned that the proposed shake-up of the research councils – which will effectively place them under one umbrella body, UK Research and Innovation – would create difficulties in attracting new research council heads, who will likely have less independence and power under the new, consolidated structure.

“I’d be surprised if the research councils can continue to command the calibre of people to run what will effectively be divisions,” he said, and added that the new positions will not be as “attractive to top-notch academics”.

This was a “big” challenge for the new entity, he said, and the quality of people the councils could attract would depend on their level of independence. “You can’t have your cake and eat it,” he said, meaning that there were going to be downsides to consolidating the councils.

Professor Gillespie also said that the changes to the research councils were “not remotely” a factor in his move to Leicester from Nerc.

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