Talking leadership: Hugh Brady on competing with US and China

Imperial president reflects on his institution’s role in UK growth and the importance of collaboration within Horizon Europe 

April 3, 2023
Hugh Brady
Source: Imperial College London

“For our students – with their focus on science and technology – it was like having a rock star on campus,” reflected Hugh Brady, president of Imperial College London, on the recent rapturous welcome given to Bill Gates.

Maybe more surprising was that Rishi Sunak, who accompanied the Microsoft founder to Imperial’s South Kensington campus in late February, was also cheered heartily by crowds of the students who gathered spontaneously as word spread of the visit – perhaps the warmest reception for a Tory prime minister at a UK university in modern times. “It was interesting to see the PM’s welcome, particularly from our international students,” said Professor Brady, who took charge of Imperial in August 2022, having led the University of Bristol since 2015.

Sitting down with the prime minister to explain the challenges faced by UK research – as Professor Brady did – was also an opportunity bestowed on few vice-chancellors in recent years, with the Dublin-born scientist urging Mr Sunak to “work with us to understand what we need to compete with the very top of the world in science”.

Professor Brady believes that the chance to speak directly to the prime minister reflects not just Imperial’s reputation (one of three UK universities consistently ranked in the world’s top 10, and top ranked in the latest UK Research Excellence Framework) but also its growing role in driving the technology-led growth that Mr Sunak has promised to deliver.

“It’s going to be very hard to achieve the UK’s growth potential unless Imperial is operating at full throttle,” he explained, adding that the “STEM- and business-focused innovation” Mr Sunak wants to scale up “is imprinted in Imperial’s DNA” given its longstanding links to industry. That is all set to expand further with the growth of Imperial’s White City campus and innovation district in west London, now home to more than 60 life science start-ups as well as multinationals such as Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis.

Recognising the rapidly increased scale of science spending by international rivals is also important, said Professor Brady, noting that the US committed $369 billion (£310 billion) to green technology last year. On the Continent, that will be nearly matched by the European Commission, which unveiled proposals last month to spend €250 billion (£220 billion) on net-zero innovation. “Both of these are massive green tech investments but they will backwash into fundamental technology like AI and robotics – so I’d appeal to our politicians to recognise the scale of the competition we are facing,” said Professor Brady.

That refrain might sound familiar but the 63-year-old former hospital doctor, who became University College Dublin’s youngest president at the age of 44 in 2004, is perhaps the right person to make the argument, having worked at the epicentre of US biomedical science for almost a decade while at Harvard University.

“It helps to know what the competition looks like – the scale and resources they [leading US universities] had, even back then, was incredible,” said Professor Brady. “That breadth of experience, the concentration of research leaders and clinical specialists in Boston thanks to Harvard, MIT and Tufts, was phenomenal.”

Having arrived in the US in 1987, following a fellowship in Toronto, Professor Brady found his stay in America coincided with the start of Boston’s biotech boom, with the once-downtrodden post-industrial city now home to 1,000 biotech companies employing more than 106,000 people at an average wage of $201,549, according to a recent Massachusetts Biotechnology Council report.

“It wasn’t that evident at the time I was there but they had the unparalleled concentration of resources – major medical schools and teaching hospitals – and unprecedented interdisciplinary and cross-institution research, which caught the attention of Big Pharma, which found land there that was relatively cheap to buy,” Professor Brady said.

Despite Imperial’s substantial resources (it collected £368 million of its £1.1 billion income in 2021-22 from research grants and contracts), Professor Brady is clear that the way for Imperial and the UK to compete with the US research ecosystem is through partnership – in particular, Horizon Europe, where negotiations over the UK’s post-Brexit association have been disrupted by wider Westminster-Brussels political disputes. “If you have an ambition to compete with America you have to look at our strengths, and how to build on those strengths through partnership. That brings you to the importance of collaboration within Horizon Europe and it’s only when we can engage in such an ecosystem do you get the scale to take on the US or China. We need those discussions around Horizon to progress because they are so important to our competitiveness.”

Having recently returned from Tokyo where he met research leaders from Hitachi and Mitsubishi, among others, Professor Brady stressed that Imperial’s research links are truly global but Horizon is still essential. “Imperial would not be a top 10 university without Horizon and the scale we achieve through it,” he said.

With the renewal of research partnerships so central to Professor Brady’s vision, it would surely have been frustrating to sever some of Imperial’s well-established international ties within just weeks of taking over as president. However, that was the case in September – under Liz Truss’ brief premiership – when the university announced it was closing two research centres sponsored by Chinese aerospace companies after two licence applications to the government’s Export Control Joint Unit, which oversees the sharing of sensitive research with international partners, were rejected.

Professor Brady dismissed the notion there was anything untoward about the research shared with the Chinese firms but accepted there are “certain areas where government will have legitimate security concerns”.

“What the government has set up is a very effective way to converse with them about these things, so we can listen to their concerns, though we regularly review all programmes anyway,” he said.

It would be unwise for Imperial to detach itself from all research involving Chinese partners because “there are other areas of research where it is win-win” for both countries, he continued. “When there are huge global challenges we have to find a way to work together while recognising legitimate security concerns,” said Professor Brady.

While some believe the UK cannot afford to cut itself off from the estimated £500 billion spent on research annually by China, Professor Brady draws attention to the importance of China’s immense scientific talent pool, now churning out world-class papers at volume.

“Within my own career, I’ve gone from getting CVs from Chinese students written on cheap typewriters to visiting fantastic labs in China that were relatively empty and now seeing phenomenal infrastructure filled with fantastic scientists repatriated from across the world, having been trained in some of our best universities,” said Professor Brady.

“China is a net producer of science and technology that we all need, so we need to find a way to work productively in partnership with one of the big players in research,” he added.

“I hope we’re moving towards more measured conversations on this issue – we need to consider properly how to compete with the best, and achieve the scale we need to keep pace with world-class competition.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.


Print headline: ‘Imperial would not be a top 10 institution without EU’s Horizon’

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Reader's comments (2)

Brady is one of the best university leaders we have.
Boston offers a locally(!) high density of top academic institutions and hi-tech industry. Why should Horizon Europe with geographically often widespread collaborators be comparable to such spatially close scientific ecosystems found in Boston and San Francisco?