Organised anarchy? UCL research supremo on steering science giant

Outgoing vice-provost David Price reflects on changes during his 15-year tenure, plus how the REF and scholarly publishing should change

May 31, 2022

“This is possibly the most enjoyable job in British higher education,” reflected David Price, UCL’s outgoing vice-provost for research, on what many consider the biggest research gig at a UK university.

“If you consider the talent we have and our scale – 3,400 researchers entered into the 2021 Research Excellence Framework – plus our institutional flexibility, it is incredible. As someone who enjoys facilitating other researchers to achieve their potential, it’s been a very creative and satisfying time,” he added on his near-unprecedented 15 years in the role.

The job has become a lot bigger since Professor Price took office in 2007: UCL’s research spend has risen by 60 per cent to £477 million in the past nine years alone, leaving him commanding a budget bigger than the entire turnover of most UK universities.

This expansion, enabled by the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012 and the removal of student number controls three years later – student numbers almost trebled from about 17,000 in 2007 to more than 48,000 last year – has not been without critics. Some UCL scholars have claimed that a more managerial, top-down approach to leadership has taken root as the Bloomsbury institution reaches almost behemoth scale. Some also objected to the £1.25 billion project to build a second campus at Stratford, UCL East, where the first buildings are due to open this autumn, citing the financial risks and impact of over-expansion on quality.

For his part, Professor Price insisted that UCL had struck the “right balance” between listening to staff and acting on their concerns, and having to make top-down decisions.

“Others have described it as ‘organised anarchy’, but it does enable creativity and innovation to take place,” he said. “We are a very, very big institution – with more than 14,000 employees – so getting that right balance between bottom-up and top-down [decision-making] is a challenge, but there is still an awful lot of freedom at UCL to be innovative,” Professor Price continued, adding: “I don’t think it is a heavily over-managed institution.”

If there is a sense of managerialism at UCL, it comes from the slew of government regulations and checks – on visas, research accountability, research culture, national security and free speech – that have arrived since he started. “There is pressure towards managerialism, but it is driven by pressure [from Westminster] rather than a desire [by universities] to suppress individuality,” he said.

Professor Price worried, however, that such checks – particularly around visas in the post-Brexit era – may be starting to damage the ability of UK universities to attract the world’s best researchers.

“It’s becoming very expensive, and I worry that it’s becoming a barrier,” said Professor Price. “Recruiting and retaining senior staff has not been a significant challenge, but we’re seeing a reduction in postdoctoral researchers from Europe who are willing to transfer to a precarious position in the UK.

“With our falling exchange rates and rising inflation, whether we can remain internationally competitive is a worry,” added Professor Price on UK research, even if UCL’s position in London may give it an advantage over other institutions.

There are also reasons to be cheerful, he insisted. An outspoken advocate for open access publishing, Professor Price was instrumental in the creation of UCL Press in 2015, which has since published more than 240 monographs. “Those books have been downloaded more than 6 million times in more than 200 jurisdictions – people in North Korea, Vietnam, even Antarctica, are reading UCL monographs when the traditional model of publishing might have struggled to print 400 copies, most of which would have sat largely unread in university libraries,” he explained.

“Universities are in a position to go back to their medieval roots by becoming their own promulgators of thought,” he said, adding that research could “live without Nature” and other high-cost, high-prestige titles that remain at the apex of scholarly publishing.

Having chaired the REF’s main panel for maths, physics and engineering, to which some 45,000 outputs and 1,400 case studies were submitted, Professor Price was also pleased by the impact of reforms to reduce game-playing. But changes should still be made for the next exercise, he said, hinting that the opaque nature of what academics contribute towards outputs should be clarified. “I’m a big supporter of the CRediT [Contributor Roles Taxonomy] statements, and that’s something that UK Research and Innovation should require of everyone,” he said.

That addition would help the REF to promote team science and curb the emphasis on “star professors”, said Professor Price, whose own career might be seen as embodying this principle, with him having been involved in management for 30 of his 39 years at UCL, where he will remain as a professor of mineral physics.

“Taking the vice-provost role has probably damaged my own research career – even if I have done work of which I’m proud,” he said. “But we are a community of scholars and we need people to play different roles, and mine has been to enable researchers as much as I can.”

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