Professor David Price: The case for research collaboration

25 March 2011

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At this week’s Guardian HE Summit 2011 session on ‘The Future of Research Funding’ Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research), set out some thoughts on research collaboration between universities in the UK. Below he offers some further reflections.


“The UK has a history of a highly competitive research funding environment, which has helped to drive excellence in the research base. However, we face intensifying international competition in research and are seeing unprecedented investment in higher education and research by our competitors. This means that maintaining the UK’s leading position in research will be increasingly challenging.

We are faced with a problem of wanting to ensure continued research excellence and exploit all of the UK’s research capacity with limited research funds. I believe that increasing research collaboration between universities is one way of addressing this problem, and is both necessary and desirable for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the UK will need to increase domestic collaboration to enable us to compete in an international arena against the best in the world. Combining research strengths and expertise will mean that we are able to keep pace with our competitors in a way that may not be possible for individual institutions.

Secondly, research is a global endeavour, with the grand challenges that we face requiring knowledge and expertise from all over the world. Establishing partnerships between institutions in the UK will enable the application of collective expertise to some of these challenges, and enhance the UK’s capacity for international research collaboration.

Thirdly, more research collaboration between institutions enables an effective and joined-up case to be made for public investment in research. This must still be a major priority for universities and funders to ensure sustainable funding in the future. Investment in research is vital to underpin economic growth, and indeed is fundamental to the ‘growth’ agenda of the UK government.

Finally, increased research collaboration can help to balance the tension between, on the one hand, concentrating research funding on centres of excellence in our world-leading institutions and, on the other, ensuring dynamism in the research base. I believe that concentration of funding is the best way to maintain the UK’s research excellence – particularly at a time of very limited funds – and is the direction of travel indicated by Government and research funders. However, we must also recognise the excellence that exists throughout the research base, as identified by the last Research Assessment Exercise, in what are commonly termed ‘islands of excellence’.

Pursuing more collaboration between institutions, and in particular between research-intensive ‘hubs’ and smaller ‘islands of excellence’ in other institutions, would mean that researchers from the ‘islands’ could work with larger research groups and access a high-quality research environment. Such collaboration would allow funds to be invested in concentrations of excellence whilst making the most of all of the UK’s research talent and ensuring that new and emerging areas of research can be supported.

This is not mere idle talk. At UCL, we pride ourselves on the breadth, as well as the depth, of our research excellence. Indeed, we consider that as a research-intensive multifaculty university we are uniquely well-positioned to contribute to the resolution of significant problems through cross-disciplinary working. Examining issues through a combination of (disciplinary) lenses can provide, as it were, a three-dimensional viewpoint. Collaboration with excellent researchers outside of UCL is a natural extension of this process, enabling the impact of our research to be widened and deepened.

We are therefore pursuing a number of strategic collaborations aligned with UCL’s mission, at a variety of levels: internationally (for example our partnership with Yale), nationally (for example the London Centre for Nanotechnology with Imperial College) and regionally (exploring collaboration in strategic areas with less research-intensive institutions in the south-east region). We are also looking at collaboration with other institutions (for example through our participation in UKCMRI) in an effort to pool capacity and expertise.

I believe that such collaboration represents an increasingly important part of the way forward for UK research and that the Government should be doing all it can to support it. I have proposed the establishment of a ‘Universities Collaborative Partnership’ scheme which would offer funding over years to institutions that wish to establish and grow strategic collaborations. I believe this would provide a valuable incentive for institutions to develop collaborations which would ultimately strengthen the UK’s research capability and our international competitiveness.”


UCL context

As UCL Vice-Provost (Research), Professor David Price is responsible to the President and Provost for developing and implementing the university’s research strategy, and for supporting, facilitating and promoting world-class research at UCL.