UCL tops the THE league table in research grant wins

3 September 2009

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UCL has today been ranked top in the UK in the Times Higher Education ranking of research council awards 2008-09.

This is thought to be the first time that the universities of Oxford or Cambridge have been knocked from top place in the tables, and the achievement reflects the hard work and excellence of staff from across the university.

The ranking takes into account awards made by six research councils: the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; the Natural Environment Research Council; the Economic and Social Research Council; the Medical Research Council; the Arts and Humanities Research Council; and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

This follows on many recent strong measures of UCL’s success, including the university’s performance in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008.

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research), commented on UCL’s Research Strategy and the university’s coordinated approach.

What does this mean for UCL?
It builds on our success in the RAE and demonstrates to all of us that we really are working in a fantastic global institution – London’s global university. We’re out-competing the most established institutions in this country in many areas, even though they have many additional factors in their favour. We’re working very hard and effectively and we should be proud of it. Our success has benefits for everybody at UCL – by raising the university’s profile, it becomes a more attractive place to be for the very best staff and students worldwide.

It is also testimony to the excellence of our research community – especially since Oxford and Cambridge, the universities we’ve come ahead of, are much larger institutions than UCL. Their research communities are 10 to 20 per cent bigger, which means we’re getting more research grants despite having fewer people.

Why has UCL achieved this success now?  
I think it reflects the fact that UCL’s community is really beginning to cohere. We’ve always done outstanding work, and first and foremost, we depend upon the excellence of the 4000 researchers that we have.

However by encouraging colleagues to think about some areas that have developed strategic importance for the research councils, we’ve been able to bring together collaborative activities that would have been difficult to facilitate otherwise, driven by our Research Strategy.

What exactly is UCL’s Research Strategy?
Our strategy guides how we structure our research, and has four central tenets. The first is the excellence of our researchers. The second is our division into departmental groups that are fairly traditional; we have physics departments and so forth. We do that for two reasons, firstly because these divisions represent the teaching needs of our students, and secondly we have had to respond to the needs of the RAE, which is run in units of assessment that map onto fairly classical divisions.

Third comes our prioritisation of cross-disciplinary research – over the past few years, we’ve invested in many cross-disciplinary research centres, and recently we’ve supported communities in energy, environment, systems biology, and a number of other cross-cutting areas. That brings together colleagues in an environment that enables them to develop research ideas that are different from and complementary to the specific individual activities that they would have been doing. The idea is to offer researchers an environment that offers them new intellectual opportunities.

The fourth element of the Research Strategy is the Grand Challenge concept, which we’ve developed at UCL over the past 18 months. We believe we have a moral obligation to make a difference to global problems, and to combine the knowledge that our research generates to develop wisdom that can be applied in each of the four Grand Challenges: Global Health, Sustainable Cities, Intercultural Interaction and Human Wellbeing.

In what other ways is the Research Strategy helping to increase funding?
We’ve invested in some additional staff, the School Research Facilitators, who have worked with individual staff to help them target their individual research applications to some of the larger research council initiatives, and to refine their research applications so that they are as well formulated as possible. Two outstanding examples of this approach are our successful bids to the EPSRC and AHRC for doctoral training – the funds from which are additional to the THE’s new figures. Both are examples of where the research facilitators worked with the UCL Graduate School and academics.

We’ve also been encouraging colleagues to make more grant applications – the number of applications we’ve made in the last 18 months has gone up from 2500 a year to 3000 a year and that enhanced activity will have been reflected to some extent in advanced success.

We’re now developing a department-based mentorship process, where grants are read by departmental colleagues to make sure they are as compelling as they can be. We won’t see the benefit for a little while, because this process is just about to begin.

How can individual researchers gain support from UCL?
We want to provide an environment for those who wish to engage in cross-disciplinary research activities, and to provide help for anybody who requires it to maximise the viability of research applications. We only have three research facilitators for those 3000 grants, so we tend to prioritise support for the larger applications, but we can make sure for instance that anybody who is applying for a senior fellowship gets a mock interview if they would like one.

How does the Research Strategy fit in with UCL’s developments in biomedicine?
In the proposed UKCMRI for instance, there are a number of research areas that cut across the physical and the life sciences, and feed into fundamental medical research. Now that we’ve got a strong cross-disciplinary approach, it enables us to develop computational biology and computational medicine into something that stretches from the wave equation through to the patient, for instance. And with UCL Partners, our Grand Challenges map onto the Partners’ need to develop healthcare for the North London sector in microcosm. The Grand Challenges of Global Health and Sustainable Cities relate closely to addressing the challenges of urban health in a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan environment.

 

Related stories
Below are a few examples of major research grants won by UCL.


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