When a bit of a blether brings breakthroughs

September 10, 2004

Fears that Scottish research might miss out after the English White Paper have been allayed, due to the Scots' ability to work together. Olga Wojtas reports

.Scots may be temperamentally suited to collaboration, according to Linda Lawton of Robert Gordon University.

"We're full of good ideas and we like to blether," said Dr Lawton of the university's School of Life Sciences.

And to underline her point Dr Lawton explained how a casual chat with Andy Porter of Aberdeen University's Institute of Medical Sciences led to a collaborative research project that attracted hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding.

They research the production of antibodies simply and cheaply from bacteria in a process that rules out the need for testing on animals.

At another local research seminar, Dr Lawton got talking to Marcel Jaspars, professor of chemistry at Aberdeen, and realised they had complementary skills in analysing toxic compounds.

"He's looking at biology from a chemistry point of view and I'm looking at chemistry from a biological point of view. It helps you to come up with different angles that you wouldn't normally look at," Dr Lawton said.

Neither institution could have made the breakthroughs on its own, she said, but successful collaboration has to be bottom-up strategy rather than management strategy. It depends on individuals understanding the research possibilities and being enthused by them.

"There has to be a specific idea and a level of trust," she said."If somebody's sitting with a list of names and expertise and starts joining you up, that's artificial."

Aberdeen and RGU explored merging two years ago, but pulled back because of the uncertainties about the impact of England's higher education legislation.

"Our (collaborative) research just went on regardless. I don't think it affected me one iota," Dr Lawton said.

There have been no proprietorial tensions, with postgraduate students working in whichever institution's laboratory is most appropriate at the time, regardless of who is funding them. Neither has there been any difficulty stemming from RGU being a vocational new university while Aberdeen is a broad-based ancient institution.

"When it comes to individuals saying, 'Here, can you analyse this sample for me?' that's done without any of the institutional baggage," Dr Lawton said.

The only problems Dr Lawton found were in explaining work at the boundaries of two disciplines to funding bodies.

"You get the comments back and think they're missing the point completely.

[One research council] said, 'This is a nice application from some enthusiastic chemists.' I thought, but I'm a microbiologist."

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