Scots' collaborative bet pays off

June 29, 2007

A pioneering initiative to "pool" research talent across several Scottish universities has transformed the ambitions and career prospects of researchers and is set to be copied in England.

The Scottish University Physics Alliance (Supa) was set up in 2005, with Pounds 7 million from the Scottish Funding Council and £7 million from its members: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde and Paisley. They gambled that abandoning competition to pool research would give them the critical mass they lacked individually.

So far, Supa has brought together more than 1,000 people, including more than 200 academic staff, and attracted about £30 million in research funds annually. Two years into the four-year project, Supa is optimistic enough to bid for a further £50 million, and to expand its membership. This, it says, will ensure Scottish physics competes with Princeton and Harvard universities in the US.

Ian Halliday, former chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and head of Supa's executive committee, told its annual meeting: "This is a spectacular success." There was an enormously positive air in Scotland, he said, in marked contrast to the "nervous state" of physics departments in England, which were contending with closures and budget fears.

Andrew Mackenzie, director of research in St Andrews University's School of Physics and Astronomy, said Supa was now bigger than any single physics department in the UK and had transformed researchers' ambitions. "We're scanning the physics horizon and our own strengths to see what we can do to make a qualitative leap forward. Universities are putting money into one another for lab space and operations without complicated inter-institutional bureaucracy, just mutual trust. That was unthinkable before Supa."

Sandy Cochran of Paisley University's physics department said: "We're a small department, and being part of something bigger is invaluable in exposing us to more breadth of practice across the whole spectrum."

Professor Halliday said Supa was already fishing in a much bigger pool for both staff and students. In October its national graduate school will seek applications for its PhD studentships, aimed at attracting high-fliers of any nationality.

"What is interesting is who we're competing with - the Princetons and Harvards of this world," Professor Halliday said.

Roger McClure, chief executive of the SFC, said its original investment had been a considerable gamble. But pooling arrangements had become a phenomenon, with a scale and scope that surpassed all expectations.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is keen to replicate the success in England. A paper to the board last month, on strategic research collaboration, said that such initiatives in England could help "maintain an internationally competitive base".

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