Research intelligence - Variations on eight themes

The architect of the research plan at Leicester's College of Medicine explains its successes to Paul Jump

March 31, 2011

Credit: Ted Horowitz/Corbis
Joined-up thinking: A fresh emphasis on seamless biomedical research should pay dividends in the REF

As the subpanels for the 2014 research excellence framework convene their first meetings over the next few weeks, universities' attention will once again turn to how they can impress the assessors.

One man who is looking forward to challenging the current pecking order is David Wynford-Thomas, head of the University of Leicester's College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology.

Professor Wynford-Thomas arrived at the college in the wake of its disappointing performance in the 2008 research assessment exercise, the forerunner of the REF.

In his judgement, the college's "basic deficiency" was the lack of interest in collaboration among its three schools and 10 departments.

Clinicians and basic scientists, in particular, paid little heed to the modern biomedical emphasis on seamless, "bench-to-bedside" research and continued to plough their separate furrows.

One option was to reshuffle the departmental structure, but Professor Wynford-Thomas did not want to "asset-strip" the best researchers from basic science departments and force them into predominantly clinical ones where they would feel like "misfits". Nor did he want to put barriers in the way of researchers participating in more than one research stream.

Many universities have responded to such dilemmas by proclaiming a number of interdisciplinary research themes, around which researchers from disparate departments are encouraged to coalesce. But, according to Professor Wynford-Thomas, such themes often amount to "paper tigers" that make fine reading in strategic plans but "don't really change anything".

He believed that to be meaningful, his themes had to be spearheaded by academic leaders with real power to define priorities and bring together relevant researchers in "virtual research institutes", which would also undertake preparatory work for the REF.

However, he was anxious to avoid the "extreme model" adopted by many universities, in which responsibility for research is given over entirely to separate institutes, leaving departments to do "all the boring admin and teaching".

"That model is deeply demoralising to staff who aren't in the institutes and it breaks the link between teaching and research, which is one of the things Leicester prides itself on," he said.

So he settled on a compromise: an "orthogonal" line-management structure in which heads of department and heads of theme share responsibility for deciding what staff should be researching.

Risky business

But he admitted he had been "lucky to get away with my life" when he first unveiled his plans. "Phrases like: 'The medics are taking over the biological sciences' and 'This is going to be the end of biochemistry as we know it' were used, and the clinicians worried that they would be seen as the poor relations of all these basic scientists with Science and Nature papers," he said.

The key to dispelling the opposition - which Professor Wynford-Thomas said he had not heard voiced in the past year - was extensive consultation on the number and nature of the themes. "Any attempt to impose themes on people would have been doomed to disaster," he said.

He admitted that the introduction of the themes had created "angst" over academics' freedom to decide their own research priorities. But he said the college had had no choice but to "bite that bullet" because it could not risk spreading its research resources too thinly.

"If you have Fellows of the Royal Society or Nobel laureates, you would be pretty silly as a manager to try to tell them what to do, but they are the exception," he said.

"There were many areas in Leicester where it was quite clear that the critical mass wasn't there and without a massive injection of cash it was inconceivable they could become areas of strength."

A process of "persuading" researchers to change direction, combined with natural wastage and targeted recruitment, has led the majority of the college's 230 academic staff to find a natural home in one of the eight agreed themes - although there is scope for these to evolve as research "trends" change without the disruption to teaching caused by departmental closures.

Professor Wynford-Thomas oversees monthly meetings with heads of department and heads of theme in order to resolve any tensions. He admitted that such activities impose extra burdens on his time, but said it was a "small price to pay" for the huge advances he was seeing in interdisciplinary working.

"We are seeing grants rewarded and collaborative groups coming together that wouldn't have been conceived of three years ago," he said. "Lot of researchers who didn't know each other existed are now actively developing ideas."

As for the college's next "day of judgement" in 2014, Professor Wynford-Thomas declined to make any firm predictions about its likely REF performance, but added: "I would be very disappointed if there wasn't a marked improvement because we are directly addressing what was the basis for a missed opportunity last time."

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