N8 remains optimistic despite REF slide

The director of a partnership of research-intensive universities is upbeat about future outlook

April 9, 2015


Source: N8 Research Partnership

The new director of a partnership of research-intensive universities in the North of England has denied claims that the region has fallen behind in setting research priorities.

Peter Simpson, director of the N8 Research Partnership, said that science in the North was in a “pretty decent position” and that it has “a lot of opportunities”.

The N8 comprises the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York. It was the first of five regional alliances of research-intensive universities.

Five N8 universities have slipped down Times Higher Education’s ranking of excellence based on the grade point average results of the 2014 research excellence framework.

Members of the N8 will also lose 8 per cent of their quality-related research income (excluding some transitional funding), based on last month’s allocations announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which are distributed according to the REF results.

Dr Simpson, former director of discovery sciences at pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, spoke to THE before the funding allocations were published. He said that it was not his view that universities in the North have been slower to prioritise and invest in research priorities than those in the South.

He said that the REF did not encompass a number of new research centres that are based in the North. These include the Centre for Ageing and Vitality in Newcastle, and the National Graphene Institute and the Sir Henry Royce Materials Institute for Materials Research and Innovation, which are located in Manchester.

“Given that the size of most of the northern research-intensive universities is smaller than some of the universities in the South, it is absolutely understood that specialisation is the way to excellence,” he said.

“The North can propose a really strong proposition…We can work together as a region and as a place, build that level of identity and understanding of our strengths. We don’t have to do that in a competitive space with any other region of the country,” he added.

He said that the N8 community has worked together for a number of years and can have an “honest conversation” about its research strengths.

Dr Simpson said that there was also an “element of trust and community” in the North, although he accepted that this was a culture that could be encouraged elsewhere. “But because the N8 has existed for longer than most of the regional university partnerships, there is an element of comfort,” he said. This helps the N8 universities to identify their strengths and weaknesses when working together.

One such example of this type of collaboration is a centre for agricultural innovation, hosted by the University of York, that the N8 is creating to bring together its members in agricultural and food science and technology.

The centre will offer a gateway for industry to access academic knowledge to solve problems and has been funded by Hefce to the tune of £8 million.


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