Research intelligence - Adapted for greatest impact

By mixing independence and collaboration, a new centre expects to find novel ways of coping with climate change. Neha Popat reports

January 6, 2011

The government's decision to guarantee a flat-cash research budget for the UK until 2014-15 has been hailed as a victory by the science community.

But the announcement in the Comprehensive Spending Review has also prompted warnings from scientific leaders that the quid pro quo of the decision to maintain and ring-fence the UK's annual research spend of £4.6 billion underlines an even greater expectation that research will deliver economic, social and political impact.

This point is not lost on Mike Petterson, professor of applied and environmental geology at the University of Leicester and head of its new Centre for Adapting to Changing Environments, part of the College of Science and Engineering.

Professor Petterson said that decision-makers were increasingly going to look to researchers for practical solutions to emerging problems.

"In order for science and research to be translated into real policy, it has to have the ability to become something real and meaningful," he said.

By concentrating its efforts on developing technologies and solutions for dealing with the effects of climate change, the Centre for Adapting to Changing Environments hopes its research will have a significant influence on government policy in the future.

The College of Science and Engineering comprises the departments of chemistry, physics and astronomy, computer science, engineering, geography, geology and mathematics. The centre will draw on all these subjects to develop ways of adapting to global warming.

Professor Petterson said the interdisciplinary approach was crucial, and that it was particularly important to foster collaborations between science and social science.

Another strand of the centre's strategy is the appointment of three "new blood" lecturers, who have been given freedom to concentrate solely on research in their first year, without the distraction of teaching responsibilities. By building up their teaching commitments over time, the lecturers would be given "precious freedom" for other work, something that is "increasingly scarce", Professor Petterson said.

He also predicted that there would be benefits from encouraging internal networking between the new bloods and established specialists in other disciplines.

Although many academics are adept at networking with peers in their own disciplines in other institutions, Professor Petterson said that drawing on the knowledge and expertise of colleagues in different disciplines but within the same institution can "sometimes be neglected".

Roland Leigh, a lecturer in the Space Research Centre at Leicester and one of the new blood recruits, agreed that pooling the different departments would provide a "distinct advantage" as the researchers in the new centre approached their common goal from different perspectives.

"Working with specialists across disciplines as diverse as psychology, politics and economics really gives you a greater appreciation of the problem at hand," he said.

By providing the new recruits with the freedom to explore ideas with academic and industrial partners, the initiative will also result in the development of some novel courses, which will be more likely to "teach issues that are of relevance", Dr Leigh believes.

Stand by for the results

Although in its initial stages, the centre has as one of its key aims the creation of a workforce that will be able to fully understand the implications of climate change and what needs to be done to cope with it.

Martin Barstow, pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Science and Engineering, said he was looking forward to seeing the results of the collaborations.

With the new bloods acting as a "cement" across a range of disciplines contributing to large research teams, the approach would raise the "productivity and visibility" of the centre's research output, Professor Barstow predicted.

In light of the government's decision to increase the cap on tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year in 2012, Professor Barstow said it was important to acknowledge that undergraduates were going to want "more for their money", something that he said was "quite right".

However, by guaranteeing the new bloods time to research and funding for travel even in straitened times, he said he hoped to provide them with the platform and time to create a centre that produces relevant research - that all-important "impact" - as well as allowing them to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of students.

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