Research intelligence - Transatlantic affair of the heart takes off in big way

Paul Jump meets the pair whose desire to work together grew into the novel Yale UCL Collaborative

July 14, 2011

When Michael Simons chose Yale University over University College London, the UK institution missed out on a distinguished academic, but gained a partner in a "groundbreaking" mission to forge the globalised university of the future.

Professor Simons left New Hampshire's Dartmouth College in 2008 to lead cardiovascular medicine at Yale. But although he turned down UCL's offer to become director of its Institute of Cardiovascular Science - on the grounds that the institute did not yet exist - he was sufficiently impressed by UCL that he was keen for the two institutions to "work out something jointly" in his field.

During a recent parliamentary event showcasing the Yale UCL Collaborative, Professor Simons admitted that he had been unsure how interested the US side would be in working with UCL. He sensed that the unusual opportunity to work with a "peer" institution was likely to generate more grass-roots enthusiasm than a partnership with a university in the developing world with a less impressive research profile.

But he also noted that a high-profile project launched in 1999 to fund collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had failed to capture academics' imaginations and, to his knowledge, had produced little. And Yale's previous efforts to collaborate with Cambridge in biomedicine had also failed to take off.

Nevertheless, despite a complete lack of designated funding or promotion, it was only a matter of months before joint Yale-UCL retreats and research projects began spreading beyond cardiovascular science into other areas of biomedicine.

According to John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCL and the man who had tried to recruit Professor Simons, this spontaneous proliferation of joint projects soon caught the attention of the leaders of both institutions, who wished to see their university "internationalised".

The upshot was a formal agreement governing collaboration across biomedicine signed in October 2009. It ironed out legal issues such as how the spoils of intellectual property would be shared and established a steering group that meets annually.

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Collaboration has now spread into areas such as forestry, law and English. Historians are preparing a joint project on the fall of empires, while philosophers are exploring Plato's concept of the mind. Such initiatives are now facilitated by dedicated offices at each institution under the direction of Professor Simons and Professor Martin.

But the transatlantic collaborations remain most developed in biomedicine, which is awash with academic exchanges and joint research projects. A formal lecture series has been established, the first joint master's degree has been set up, and a joint PhD programme is in the pipeline. "If we do things right, that will be the best biological PhD programme in the world," Professor Simons said.

But it is not all plain sailing. Efforts to develop joint clinical training are hampered by the lack of mutual recognition for UK and US medical qualifications, and national funders' reluctance to spend money outside their borders impedes joint projects.

One way around the latter problem, according to Professor Martin, has been to approach alternative funders such as philanthropists and pharmaceutical companies.

Another solution is to bestow honorary appointments on the other institution's senior academics so that they can seek grants in both countries; fully fledged joint appointments are also being considered. This tactic has resulted in the award of a number of US National Institutes of Health grants to UCL researchers, and a €4.9 million (£4.4 million) award from the European Commission, part of which may be, for the first time, spent outside the European Union.

The academics recognise that the funding situation, for all its conundrums, has an upside: the two institutions would not be so keen on collaborating if they were constantly competing for the same grants. "Yale would never do this with Harvard and UCL would never do it with Cambridge," Professor Simons said.

The collaboration has also been helped by the two universities' complementary strengths, at least in biomedicine. Professor Simons foresees that harmony being enhanced as the two biomedical faculties move to coordinate development strategies so as to avoid duplicating, at great cost, each other's infrastructure.

Ultimately, Professor Simons said, such coordination could spread to every faculty. But despite his view that the "groundbreaking" collaboration was creating an "evolving global university", he did not anticipate inviting other universities to join any time soon.

"We are still trying to work out how to do this with two schools. Besides, if you want to play peer games, you don't want to bring an inferior university into the mix - and what is the third university at this level that is not in the US or the UK?"

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