Research Intelligence - Vim up North leaves the rest trailing

N8 is the poster group for research collaboration and academic links with industry, writes Paul Jump

March 22, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Close bonds: forming a regional network and developing joint projects based on shared strengths has bolstered research

When David Willetts, Sir Alan Langlands and Iain Gray all turned up to the launch of the N8 Research Partnership's Industry Innovation Forum in Leeds earlier this year, the group of eight northern English research-intensives knew they were "doing something politically correct".

After all, said Trevor McMillan, pro-vice chancellor for research at Lancaster University and chair of N8's executive management group, it is rare for the universities and science minister, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the chief executive of the Technology Strategy Board all to attend an event outside London.

Not that the attention was entirely unexpected. N8 had already been highlighted in the government's Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, released in December, in relation to the ability of consortia to "tackle large-scale and ground-breaking new research beyond the capabilities of a single institution".

It was also cited by Ian Lyne, Research Councils UK's head of policy, as the kind of "really good stuff" he hoped would be promoted by the publication last week of a joint statement on multi-institutional collaborations by RCUK, the funding councils, the Technology Strategy Board and the UK Space Agency.

The alliance of the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York was formed in 2007 in response to a government initiative aimed at boosting the economy of the North of England.

The universities, which had already established close links in their immediate regions, set up a company with their eight vice-chancellors as directors and their eight pro vice-chancellors for research as executives.

Since its intention was always to promote "world-class research...rather than any regional or lobbying agenda", N8 began by scouring the results of the 2001 research assessment exercise for areas "of real strength", Professor McMillan said.

Two virtual research centres were established, both of which have become self-sustaining beyond their initial four-year funding period: Regener8 (which specialises in regenerative medicine and is based in Leeds) and METRC (which focuses on molecular engineering and is based in Sheffield). Both work at the interface between industry and the academy, although the universities consider them to be primarily about research rather than knowledge exchange.

N8 has also begun to carry out demographic studies at the request of local authorities in the region, while growing awareness among its academics of collaborative benefits has encouraged some to come up with their own consortia - the latest group being parasitologists.

Powers amplified

Of course, academics often collaborate with peers from all over the world. But according to Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University and chair of N8, institutional-level collaboration has the added benefit of allowing universities to get a better sense of their own and their peers' capacities - which makes strong joint-funding bids easier to organise.

N8 successfully applied to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council last year for cash to back a high-performance computing network - based in Leeds but linked to all eight nodes in the group. And the EPSRC and Hefce are helping with what Professor McMillan called a "suite" of business plans for other joint facilities in light of the large capital cuts facing the sector and the Wakeham review's demand for efficiency savings.

Hefce is also providing the funding, alongside the Technology Strategy Board, for the Industry Innovation Forum. According to Professor McMillan, this is a response to a desire from large companies in the region for a "forum where they could come and effectively talk to eight universities at once".

Over the next three years, N8 will stage a series of themed events to address issues raised by industry. The first, held at the beginning of February, brought together 80 scholars and 40 industry figures to examine a range of issues related to advanced materials, from manufacturing questions to what Professor McMillan called "real exploratory things".

"It has created a genuine buzz within companies and universities, and we have engaged academics and business development managers to really take it forward," he said.

Hefce's £1.2 million investment will allow N8 to pump-prime some of the relationships formed on the day. Professor McMillan is particularly keen to foster companies' apparent willingness to collaborate with each other at a "pre-competitive stage" of research, and he has welcomed their offer to make some of their facilities available to academics.

The forum is being monitored closely by Hefce and the Technology Strategy Board, with a view to its being replicated by others. Professor McMillan has heard of embryonic groupings of universities forming in both the South and the Midlands, but he is clear that they will not become functional overnight: the mutual trust among the N8 executive has taken years of regular meetings to establish.

And such trust is essential to avoid squabbles over the fair distribution of credit. The funding bodies' joint statement on collaboration provides reassurance on this, but Professor McMillan said there was "a lot of working-out to be done" to make sure that credit for joint applications did not all accrue to the lead institution.

According to Professor Brink, N8 has a "simple arrangement" to decide the matter of "kudos": "If University X clearly leads in a particular area, it should lead on a bid. When the universities are pretty much equal, you even it out over time. We are all confident enough that we have areas of strength, so if we play it that way we will benefit directly in some cases and by association in others."

He is not overly concerned about the possibility of scraps over intellectual property rights, noting that universities have "loosened up a bit" on IP in recent years. However, Professor McMillan said this was an area to which the executive management group was giving some "serious thought".

N8 is also examining how databases might be devised to allow researchers to check what facilities are available throughout the group, and Professor McMillan said it might make sense for such a system eventually to go UK-wide.

He was also keen to emphasise that N8 is not an "exclusive club" and had involved other regional universities in some projects.

He also endorsed the aspiration stated in the Review of Business-University Collaboration, published last month, that consortia should be willing and able to refer businesses to other universities or groupings better placed to meet their needs.

As for the possibility that N8 might expand, Professor Brink said this was "neither ruled in nor out".

"Nobody has asked [to join] and there are limitations about how easy it would be to get people together. But I am pleased with the way it has panned out so far. Relationships work well and people are comfortable with each other," he said.

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