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Planning for our research and innovation to thrive in the long-term

27 May 2020

UCL Vice-Provost (Research) David Price on how UCL is planning for our research and innovation to emerge from the pandemic even more purposeful and capable

Professor David Price, Vice Provost Research UCL

Last week I described some of the short-term measures we are taking to support everyone at UCL who undertakes and supports our research.  

Understandably, the entirety of our research community – including those professional services colleagues without whom research would not be possible – are also concerned about the longer-term future for UCL’s research.

Putting people at the centre

Let me say first that UCL is nothing without its people: over almost 200 years, the community’s brilliance, dedication and creativity have brought us from a start-up with radical aspirations to a globally leading university delivering a radical agenda.

Consideration of people, and our collective values, have therefore been central to our approach to thinking through the medium- and long-term future of UCL research and innovation.

This work is being carried out by a team led by Prof Nigel Titchener-Hooker (Dean of Engineering). To use the UCL crisis management terminology, this is a ‘Silver Sapphire’ team. It operates in close collaboration with the ‘Silver Aquamarine’ team I described last week, that is led by Prof Alan Thompson (Dean of Brain Sciences) and addresses shorter-term issues.

Considering scenarios

No one will be surprised that the pandemic and its aftermath pose significant risks to our research portfolio. I will not rehearse those risks in detail here, but I want to reassure you that the Silver Sapphire team has been analysing them in detail.

The team has developed a range of scenarios to help it think through the external conditions our university might face. These scenarios range from a reasonably rapid recovery, through to an environment in which we need to cope with and respond to prolonged and significant disruption. It is prudent to prepare for more challenging times, even if we are working very hard to avoid them.

Whatever scenario emerges, we are committed to the distinctive academic values that have served us so well to date, and that will continue to sustain UCL as a world-leading, comprehensive, multidisciplinary and research-led university.

Addressing significant challenges

The pandemic has also brought into sharp relief some chronic shortcomings which, while not unique to UCL, we are intent on addressing. I will briefly mention two here.

First, the pandemic presents unequal impact on different groups in our research community – for example, those with caring responsibilities, those with health vulnerabilities, and those on the lower end of our payscale or on contracts dependent on fixed funding (who are often in the early stages of their careers). This crisis is exacerbating some pre-pandemic structural issues of equality, diversity and inclusion in relation to recruitment, retention, progression and job security, to name a few. This situation is not peculiar to UCL, but we are committed to find ways to address inequities in our system, and to mitigate negative effects falling disproportionately on some groups or on some types of research.

Second, the funding of research. Rarely does a grant to undertake research cover the actual cost of delivering it, and some funding sources provide less than two-thirds of the cost of the research they support. There are some schemes, such as Quality-Related (QR) funding, that help to offset this under-funding but we – along with other research-intensive universities – have typically relied on non-research income to fill the gap. The pandemic makes these other sources of income less secure, and makes it all the more important to redress the funding shortfall that puts our research at risk.

We are determined to address both of these issues, difficult as they are, along with other significant challenges.

Engaging in dialogue

We have maintained a dialogue with our funders, in order to better understand their circumstances and emerging priorities.

We are also engaged with many parts of government in order to explore how the national research and innovation ecosystem might be sustained and enhanced. And, indeed, to remind them what a key role our leading universities can play in the post-pandemic recovery.

Analysing specific issues

The Silver Sapphire team has formed groups to focus on specific areas. The first of these, called Foresight, has looked over the horizon to identify and explore key issues that will shape the future of research, drawing on expert insights from within and beyond UCL. It explored the scenarios described above, and is conducting ‘deeper dives’ into how UCL might respond to them.

Other groups are charged with identifying, in the context and wake of the pandemic:

  • the conditions that will best support our staff and their research, and enable us to continue to attract and nurture early career researchers
  • the future challenges and opportunities in research funding
  • how we innovate and collaborate with our local, regional and national partners in supporting regrowth of the economy and society
  • the physical and digital research spaces we will need so that UCL can adapt and thrive, become more sustainable and resilient, and support cross-disciplinary initiatives.

These groups both draw on and inform the work of Foresight, and also interact closely with the Silver Aquamarine groups working in parallel to address specific shorter-term challenges relating to research and innovation.

As issues are identified, and potential responses developed, these are being shared with the UCL crisis management structure for further consideration. I am determined that we will share with you as early as is appropriate the priorities being defined and initiatives being developed.

Recognising opportunities

I have so far emphasised the risks we face. Members of the Silver Sapphire team are also determined that UCL does not overlook the opportunities presented by this pandemic. Alongside producing a great deal of robust analysis, the team is thinking disruptively about the ways in which we plan, organise, support and conduct research, as well as the opportunities for new types of, and subjects for, research and engagement with external partners.

We also wish to build on the lessons learned about collaboration at speed during this crisis.  

I believe, more than ever before, that UCL has the qualities that will help us rise to the current and future challenges and opportunities. We will need to do so, together, in order to play our part in helping humanity recover and flourish post-pandemic.

Celebrating our researchers’ responses

I cannot adequately express the depth of my pride in our researchers across UCL who have continued as best they can under exceptionally trying circumstances.

Our researchers’ direct response to the pandemic – to name but two examples, development of CPAP devices and surveys of mental health and wellbeing during the lockdown – has shown the importance of collaboration across disciplines and of working in partnership (with NHS hospitals, other universities and research institutes, charities, industry, commercial organisations and others) to benefit the UK and the world.

We should all celebrate the fact that our cross-disciplinary impacts are underpinned and enabled by the deep disciplinary expertise across the spectrum of our research. The former cannot exist without the latter.

Fulfilling our potential

I know that every one of us at UCL is determined that we should emerge from this crisis as an institution even more purposeful and capable than before.

Our breadth and depth, our collegial and collaborative culture, and our commitment to generating and applying new knowledge to improve humanity’s circumstances … these are the key tools with which we can help create a more equitable and prosperous post-pandemic world.  In closing, I believe it is timely to remind you of how I described our overarching vision in the 2019 UCL Research Strategy:

We want to stimulate disruptive thinking across and beyond our university to greatly expand knowledge and understanding, and to tackle the complex problems facing humanity. We wish to help to enable society not only to survive to the next century – an urgent challenge requiring unprecedented collective action and partnership – but also to thrive, so that the lives of future generations are worth living: prosperous, secure, engaged, empowered, fair, healthy, stimulating and fulfilling.

We believe, however, that we cannot do so in isolation but only in open collaboration with wider society. We must play an increasingly important role in connecting public and private actors, in brokering knowledge between different sections of society and in engaging with external partners to tackle the global challenges facing humanity.

This also places a responsibility on us, as a university, to create an environment and research culture that enables the necessary pursuit of curiosity, collegiality and collaboration. This requires us to: value collective, as well as individual, excellence; incentivise teamwork, as well as competition; and recognise our responsibilities to colleagues, including the next generation of researchers.  

I do not believe that the current crisis has altered this vision, and I remain committed to supporting colleagues to deliver it.

Hearing your views

Each generation of the UCL community has shaped the subsequent trajectory of our university’s research; if you have comments or suggestions about the future of UCL research, please let me know at ovpr@ucl.ac.uk.