Research Intelligence - Renaissance man's word to the wise

UCL's vice-provost urges research-intensives to enlighten as well as inform. Paul Jump reports

January 26, 2012

Credit: UCL
Court of scholars: UCL's mix of beautiful minds and flexible management is allowing it to meet the 'grand challenges' already set

Research-intensive universities can justify their high levels of funding only if they amount to more than the sum of their parts by addressing major challenges and creating "wisdom" as well as knowledge.

This is the view of David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London and author of the institution's new research strategy, Delivering a Culture of Wisdom.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Price said that since the Thatcher era, universities had adopted the prevailing political view of them as "the engines of the knowledge economy", leading them to neglect wisdom, which he defined as "the judicious application of knowledge for the good of humanity".

He cited the huge increase in maize prices prompted by the staple food crop's use as a source of biofuel as a "classic case of the application of very clever knowledge without developing a wise way of introducing it".

The problem, he said, was that few universities possessed the breadth of top researchers necessary to generate wisdom, which required the "synthesising and contrasting of the knowledge, perspectives and methodologies of different disciplines".

However, the excellent "court of scholars" available to Professor Price made him feel like a "Renaissance princeling" and had inspired him to introduce four institution-wide "grand challenges" - in global health, sustainable cities, inter-cultural interaction and human wellbeing - in his first UCL research strategy, launched in 2008.

Addressing such societal problems also chimed with the emphasis put on "useful knowledge" by UCL's spiritual father, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and Professor Price was keen to re-engage the institution with those roots following what he saw as its loss of identity around the time of its abortive merger with Imperial College London in the early 2000s.

But cross-disciplinary collaboration did not necessarily happen "naturally", and this was where Professor Price's office justified its existence - by organising symposia, offering seed funding and even establishing cross-disciplinary institutes.

"Some universities believe that just having excellence and enough people together [means] it will all happen. I believe excellence is a key thing, but you need also to give people a refer back to," he said.

He said his approach was not "dirigiste", but that he hoped to create an ethos of collegiality in which collaboration became the norm. "I have heard of some institutions where excellent people can be destructive forces: that is not something we would hope to see at UCL," he said.

"I am very happy to leave excellent people to get on alone, but we are providing them with an opportunity to do more."

This was an opportunity that increasing numbers of UCL academics were taking up, and Professor Price cited a comment by one of the academics involved in the 2009 UCL-Lancet Commission report, Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change (another report on healthy cities is pending), about the "transformative personal experience" of working with "global experts in cognate fields and exploring areas of common ignorance".

Ambitious endeavours

UCL's research strategy will also see cross-disciplinary approaches extended to the curiosity-driven realm, with the adoption of up to 12 institutional "research frontiers", the first three of which will be the origins of life, human evolution and the dynamics of civilisation.

Again, a variety of central coordination and support will be available, and Professor Price hopes to raise any necessary seed funding from philanthropic sources, with whom such ambitious endeavours "resonate".

The strategy also embraces "impact" - although broadens it out into six elements, including scholarly and educational impact. One way this is manifested is in a push to engage more effectively with policymakers.

"It is time universities started to speak the language governments understand," he said. "That isn't saying we should do the research the government wants, but we should be able to articulate the outcomes of research in a way that is digestible by government."

Professor Price's office has formed willing academics into groups of expertise that map on to specific government departments.

As well as having access to the literature, such groupings also have the advantage of being able to transcend the rigid silos that have hamstrung government departments even more than universities over the years, preventing them from tackling effectively the many major policy challenges that require coordinated approaches.

He said engagement with the Department of Energy and Climate Change had been particularly fruitful, with UCL providing some "focused advice" on the issues it was currently facing, as well as helping it to understand where the research agenda was going and providing it with "wise counsel" about how the coming challenges could be met.

Active, not passive

Another key concept in the research strategy is "leadership", which Professor Price distinguished from excellence on the grounds that it was active rather than passive.

As well as being eminent researchers, their leadership obligations would also require senior UCL academics to "be putting back into their discipline by doing professional service, and into the institution by managing and developing strategic areas in their own departments and leading career development of younger colleagues".

Younger academics, for their part, should be "developing their leading position in their subject and nurturing students".

For Professor Price, partnership was a "natural consequence of leadership" and he was keen both to commit to joint strategic investments with other research-intensive universities and to forge links with "islands of excellence" at local institutions. UCL would offer honorary appointments to academics from such islands, and allow their most promising research students to spend some time at the UCL campus in Bloomsbury.

Such a policy would be particularly important given the recent moves - which he supported - to confine doctoral fellowships to larger institutions deemed to have a "critical mass" of research activity.

"By working with our people, [academics from islands of excellence] can have access to more studentships and facilities - and we will have the opportunity of working with very bright colleagues who just happen to be in a different institution," he said.

He believed all research-intensive universities should play a role as regional hubs, and urged the government to provide small grants to help smaller institutions commit the necessary "emotion and time" to establish productive working relationships with such hubs.

He expected the implementation of his strategy to improve UCL's performance in research assessments, and he hoped to see the institution ranked among the top 20 universities in the world in all broad subject domains within five years.

And while part of the motivation for his "voyage of discovery" had been to define what made UCL "unique and special", he also expected his policies to spawn imitators - noting that several institutions had already adopted their own grand challenges.

But he did not feel "overly threatened" since very few global universities had the universal excellence, favourable location and "flexible but not anarchic" management structure necessary to rival UCL's capacity to deliver. "And", he added, "imitation's a great form of flattery."

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