Our stars were not born in a vacuum

June 8, 2007

Oxbridge's scientific brilliance owes a huge debt to other UK institutions, which must continue to receive funding, argues Chris Higgins

A recipe for disaster recently appeared in The Times Higher (May 25) when the distinguished Oxford chemist Peter Atkins suggested that one approach to internationally acclaimed science would be for the Government to "invest most of its funds in Oxbridge".

Oxford and Cambridge universities are indeed world-class institutions and crucial to our national research effort. However, they would not - and could not - be in the pre-eminent position they find themselves without the diversity of thought and approach provided by the UK's other research-intensive universities.

Nobody doubts that the long-term prosperity of this country requires leadership in research and innovation. But, equally, nobody can predict where scientific inspiration will emerge. Excellence must be supported wherever it is found. Of course, critical mass is important, and increasingly large and expensive facilities must be centralised. But, given the will, modern communications make such infrastructure available to anyone with a good idea.

Oxford and Cambridge should be treasured, for together they constitute the UK's only truly global academic brands. Yet it would be utterly wrong to think they represent the majority of our intellectual firepower. Alec Jeffries' ground-breaking studies leading to genetic fingerprinting came from Leicester University; Carlos Frenk of Durham University is shedding new light on the origins of the universe; Harry Kroto won a Nobel prize for work on "buckyball" chemistry at Sussex University.

Many Oxbridge "stars" actually did their most innovative work elsewhere.

For example, Paul Nurse developed his Nobel-winning ideas on the cell cycle, which underpin our understanding of cancer, at Sussex well before joining Oxford. In 2005, the top UK institution for science citations per paper was Durham, which ranked second in Europe. In 2006, Durham, Sussex and Edinburgh universities were ahead of Oxbridge. Individually, ten universities win at least half the number of research council grants awarded to either Oxford or Cambridge. It is, of course, easy to select statistics. The point is, however, that the dominant reputation of Oxbridge is as much about size, history and name recognition as it is about its actual domination of the UK's research base. If we look for value for money, many other universities perform as well but simply do not have the endowment or fame. The fact is, size really isn't everything.

Innovation and excellence depend on individuals and their environment.

Flexibility is easier in smaller, agile institutions. Investing in an increasingly small number of institutions would denude the country of the diversity that has been the wellspring of its innovation. Indeed, Oxbridge has flourished because of this diversity. It is genuinely not possible to identify truly exceptional researchers until relatively late in their education. The country must provide opportunities for the best and brightest, from all backgrounds, to experience world-class research in order to identify "the few". Oxbridge does indeed attract many of the best and brightest young students - but there are many more just as bright and with just as much potential who choose to go elsewhere.

New ideas frequently emerge from interdisciplinarity. Scientific innovation, however brilliant intellectually, will certainly not be funded if society disowns it. Imperial College, quite rightly, is in the top three UK universities in international league tables based on excellence in science, engineering and medicine. But it has limited social science.

Similarly, innovation is of little use if there is nobody able to exploit it. The SETsquared partnership between Bath, Bristol, Southampton and Surrey universities shows how this can be done by joining-up "smaller"

universities. How will the UK exploit innovation without the armies of entrepreneurial and research-literate graduates who populate our small and medium-size start-ups, the majority of which come from outside the "golden triangle"?

In short, we must welcome and build on the fact that we have world-class research in 20 or so universities. The best research must be funded if this country is to prosper,not in one or two places but wherever it occurs. We must recognise that a substantial fraction of the UK's leading research comes from outside Oxbridge and that the brilliance of Oxbridge could not flourish without the "brilliant corona" (as Atkins put it) of the other research-intensive universities. Only with increased research resource and a more even distribution of that resource to match the distribution of research excellence will the UK research efforts and economy compete internationally.

Atkins points out, quite rightly, that the internet is radically changing the way we do science. He focuses on the global context, yet it applies even more to the UK. Enhanced communication enables us to exploit the diversity of our research-intensive institutions. Indeed, this approach is already beginning to prove its worth. In short, the time has come to ensure the UK remains elite - by forgetting preconceived notions of elitism and joining up excellence and diversity in new ways wherever it is found.

Chris Higgins is vice-chancellor and warden of Durham University.

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