Young lured by sharing culture

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.

Young academics are flocking to Scotland attracted by a buoyant research culture sustained by collaborative working, according to Tim O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University.

Professor O'Shea said that when England first unveiled its Higher Education White Paper last year, there were warnings that Scotland faced serious recruitment difficulties as English institutions benefited from increased tuition-fee income. This was in addition to concentrating more of the available research cash on top-rated departments. But the threat had proved empty so far, Professor O'Shea said.

"For me, the danger signal would be if it was difficult to fill important chairs with people of the right calibre or to attract really good PhD students to come. The fact of the matter is the reverse," he said.

"The number of good PhDs has gone up at a lick. And when you look at the quality of the people who want to be professors here, it's immensely positive."

It might be thought that Edinburgh hardly needed to pool its research because it is pre-eminent in terms of research, boasting some 60 per cent of the country's 5* researchers and ranking fifth in the UK in terms of volume of research. Which begs the question "Why collaborate with other universities?"

"It's a serious strategic question for the university," Professor O'Shea said. "I think the issue is what makes sense for Scotland in terms of putting resources in place. There are some areas where Edinburgh is so dominant at the Scottish and UK level that the argument has to be just let us focus on Edinburgh.

"There are other areas where Edinburgh is strong but there are other strong players. I think there is a simple argument that says if there are two or three groups of similar stature in Scotland, focusing on similar research problems, pooling makes very good sense."

Working in partnership increased the critical mass of researchers, increased the number of facilities available for postgraduate students and gave the Scottish taxpayer better value for money, Professor O'Shea said.

Scotland's size means it is easy to share data electronically and also to travel to other institutions.

A joint approach was nothing new, Professor O'Shea said. In the past 15 years, Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities set up the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences, while Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt and Strathclyde universities got together to create the Institute for System Level Integration, the world's first centre of excellence focusing on research and postgraduate education in system-on-chip design.

The National e-Science Centre, proposed and established by a consortium of departments from Edinburgh and Glasgow, is housed in Edinburgh and is directed by Glasgow professor Malcolm Atkinson.

"There is a willingness to work across institutional boundaries for common purposes," Professor O'Shea said.

"One of the things we have in Scotland is an environment where the funding council and [Scottish Executive lifelong learning] department are less interventionist, which makes it easier for universities to be entrepreneurial and innovative."

Scotland could not be world class in every RAE area, he said. But he believes that after pooling, physics and chemistry could be internationally competitive, joining disciplines such as medicine and computer science in which Scotland is a world leader.

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