The N8 Research Partnership of universities is investigating the possibility of pooling its academic expertise for a major research project, according to the organisation’s new chair.
Sir Alan Langlands said that the N8 is reviewing four or five “big research themes” that would enable the eight north of England universities to “find benefit in collaboration rather than competing with each other”.
He added that for the institutions involved this is the “next natural stage of collaboration”.
But critics warned that the move could be a step too far for concentration of the science base and that the alliance is unlikely to be eligible for research council funding on such a basis.
The University and College Union added that any project should be driven by “scientific and academic considerations” and not just efficiency savings.
The N8 comprises the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York. It was the first regional alliance of research-intensive universities. There are now five such groups nationwide.
The partnership has previously worked together to build links with industry and on shared infrastructure projects, such as a high-performance computing network.
But Sir Alan, who is vice-chancellor at Leeds and was until last year head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that the N8 was now looking at working together on a “heartland research project”.
“The impact of the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts,” he said. “If we can get the research community in the eight universities in the north of England working towards these big-ticket issues we have a chance of being hugely successful.”
Two example areas under discussion are food security and industrial biotechnology. Sir Alan said that pro vice-chancellors from the N8 universities are assessing the potential research themes in terms of what each N8 institution could offer in established excellence and approaches that would be attractive to funders.
But Ben Martin, professor of science and technology policy studies at the University of Sussex, said that a combined research project would be unlikely to be eligible for research council funding unless it was a big infrastructure project because it risks creating “cartels”.
He added that the move raises questions about whether there is scope for further concentration in research. He said: “My sense is that we have begun to lose out on that score and any benefits of concentration are subject to diminishing returns.”
Professor Martin added: “Science is unpredictable and it helps to have a reasonable number of groups competing with each other, adopting different approaches, theoretical frameworks, instruments and so on. So you need a certain level of diversity, experimentation and competition.”
But others welcomed the move. Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, said that the days of universities guarding their research and not engaging with others are “long gone”.
And Kevin Schürer, pro vice-chancellor of research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, said that any project could serve as a model for other alliances, although he warned that it must be based on research excellence.