UCL News


Vice-Provost’s View: Sustaining the excellence and impact of our researchers

22 October 2020

As the new academic year gets underway David Price, Vice-Provost (Research) highlights the continued commitment and achievement of our researchers, and shares some of the ways we are seeking to sustain our community through and beyond these challenging times.

Professor David Price, Vice-Provost (Research)

I am deeply grateful for the continued commitment and achievement of our researchers and those who support them, and would like to share some of the ways we are seeking to sustain our community through and beyond these challenging times.

Just over a year ago in a Vice-Provost’s View (‘The future of UCL research is … open’) I noted both our outstanding recent research successes, and the fact that these were taking place in “an increasingly turbulent external context”. A year on, our successes continue, the political and funding environment remains unstable and – additionally – we are in the midst of a pandemic affecting us globally, nationally, locally, domestically and personally.

In that context, the potential contribution to humanity of a university like UCL – one that is research-intensive at scale, multi-faculty with a strong culture of cross-disciplinary working and guided by a deep moral purpose – has never been more significant.

As we begin a new year, I want to take this opportunity to:

Our recent performance

Funding our research

In 2019–20 UCL researchers were awarded £523m in new grants, an all-time UCL record. For the second year in a row we captured the most funding from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), a total of £138m. These figures reflect the brilliance of our community’s research proposals and the excellent support provided by professional services colleagues.

At the European level, with regard to Horizon 2020, we are: first in the UK (and 2nd in Europe) for collaborative awards by value; first in the UK for total award count across the four pillars addressing specific research problems; and first in the UK for total award value in the ‘Science with and for Society’ and ‘Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation’ pillars. Perhaps this will come to represent going out of the EU with a bang!

Developing future leaders

We now host more UKRI Future Leader Fellowships than any other university. Stay tuned for more news on how we will contribute our expertise in the development of early career researchers on a UK scale.

The quality of our research outputs

Our own analysis of publication metrics shows that UCL’s research outputs generate the 4th-highest number of citations globally, up from 10th six years ago and having overtaken Oxford this year (Essential Science Indicators analysis of five-year rolling citation counts). And we now rank 3rd globally for number of papers in the top 1% by citations (InCites).

For well-rehearsed reasons, we take league table results with a large pinch of salt. However, the very recent National Taiwan University (NTU) report ranks universities, and their broad fields and subject areas, based entirely on quantitative data relating to scientific papers. The report places UCL 1st in the UK and 5th globally, up from 20th in 2008.

Quality at the subject level

The QS World University Rankings by Subject places 51% of our subjects in the top 20 globally (up by 8% over three years) and another 36% between 21st and 50th (up by 6%).

The NTU analysis puts us in the top ten rankings for the fields of Medicine, Life Sciences and Social Sciences, as well as for the subjects of Neuroscience & Behaviour, Pharmacology & Toxicology, Psychiatry & Psychology, General Social Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Immunology and Biology & Biochemistry.

Sharing our findings

UCL Press has published 163 open access books, accessed more than 3.5m times from around the world. Its portfolio of journals includes UCL Open: Environment, one of the first university megajournals to provide an open access and transparent end-to-end publishing model. The press is now committed to exploring greater production of open access e-textbooks.

UCL has also excelled in making use of The Conversation (now hosted by UCL Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy). Over the last 12 months UCL had the second-highest number of articles published, and attracted 12 million readers, the largest readership.

League tables

Each year we calculate the mean ranks of universities across five well-established global rankings. In 2019 we were in 6th place, for the fourth year running, up from 14th in 2013. Above us, only sky … and Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge!

What these successes mean

To describe the above achievements as indicators of UCL’s success must come with two caveats.

First, this elevated status is not an end in itself. The research funding fuels our ability to create and help to apply new knowledge, and to develop future generations of researchers. The high rankings inform a reputation that helps us to attract (and retain) the best and most promising scholars and students. We’re not in this business for glory, but to fulfil our duty to better understand and improve the world.

Second, there is no ‘UCL’ separate from the members of its community – past, present and future. When I occasionally speak of UCL’s success, what I always mean is the success of our wide research community – as individuals, in groups and collectively.

Responding to the pandemic

The UCL community’s response to the pandemic has been inspiring, not least in terms of how our broad commitment to research that makes a positive impact on the world has been so swiftly translated into focused and practical action. The COVID-19 Research at UCL website provides an astonishing insight into the breadth, quality and impact of our pandemic research.

Figures published in June indicated that UCL researchers competitively won the largest amount of COVID-19 funding from UKRI, including the grant with the highest value: £10.3m, awarded to Professor Nigel Titchener-Hooker and colleagues for the Future Targeted Healthcare Manufacturing Hub.

The UCL COVID-19 Research Project Database now records almost 500 projects (with every faculty represented), up from about 130 since the database was launched in May. Of these projects, more than half are still active or have recently been awarded funding, while another quarter have submitted funding applications. We have worked to ensure that the researchers leading COVID-19 research projects have access to the support and facilities they need to do their work, from prioritising applications for ethical approval to opening up laboratories.

In partnership with the UCL Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund, and the UCLH and Moorfields Eye Hospital Biomedical Research Centres, the UCL Coronavirus Response Fund was able to support 18 projects to a value of £700,000. The UCL Grand Challenges initiative, Recovery from COVID-19, is considering how it can best provide support during this year for further cross-disciplinary activity focused on recovering from the pandemic and taking the first steps toward a more resilient and equitable world.

UCL was among first the universities in the world develop an online platform to make all of our COVID-19 research publications and data available globally. In its first four months the platform, managed by UCL Press, has grown to include more than 750 published articles, pre-prints, working papers, data and reports, and has attracted almost 17,000 views. Where the research is open access, the platform makes the full text of the publication available.

This openness is also exemplified by our researchers’ external engagement. UCL Communications and Marketing’s latest summary of academics’ provision of critical advice and expert comment left me breathless. On the public policy side, UCL academics have played a leading role in both the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the Independent SAGE, as well as continuing to engage with external policymakers on a vast range of key issues.

Supporting your success

I am keenly aware of the circumstances in which you have continued to propel our university forward, and of the multiple and intense demands you continue to face, from rethinking the delivery of our research-led teaching and finding ways to sustain or reimagine research while working remotely, to meeting the demands of the Research Excellence Framework and Knowledge Exchange Framework as they march mercilessly on. All of this while the pandemic threatens your health and wellbeing, as well as that of your family, friends, colleagues and students.

Furthermore, as I wrote in June, we are conscious that COVID-19 presents unequal impact on different groups in our research community, and is exacerbating some pre-pandemic structural issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Our practical responses to date have included:

  • the provision of furlough and extension of leaving dates for grant-funded staff due to leave UCL during lockdown
  • underwriting of final-year postgraduate research student stipends, extension of tuition fees deadlines and provision of the Financial Assistance Fund. Ongoing support for and advice to our PhD community is provided by colleagues in the UCL Doctoral School
  • coordination of the UKRI’s £10.8m emergency COVID-19 Grant Extension Allocation. We received the second highest amount of funding and have strived to ensure that eligible researchers can access the funds as easily as possible, while keeping within UKRI’s expectations. Your cooperation and understanding in helping manage a highly complex scheme is greatly appreciated.

I thank members of the Research Operations Group, led by Professor Alan Thompson (Dean of Brain Sciences), for their expert instigation and/or coordination of many of these initiatives. We will also shortly see the introduction of a parents and carers fund.

Our professional services colleagues in Research FacilitationResearch Services and departments are continuing to work remotely to provide support in the usual way. Most funders are still accepting and processing funding applications as usual, and your colleagues stand by to help you. I appreciate that engaging with funding at this time is not always easy, so I wish to express my appreciation and admiration for what you are managing to achieve.

Delivering our research in the longer term

While we have sought to address short- to medium-term problems effectively, we have also kept our eye on longer-term issues.

Research and external engagement

The Research & External Engagement Delivery (REED) group – established earlier this year as part of the then crisis management structure – will continue to “oversee, maintain and enhance UCL’s research, external engagement and reputation, while making our externally focussed activities more than the sum of its parts”.

Co-chaired by Professor Dame Hazel Genn, UCL Vice-Provost (International), and me, REED applies three geographic contexts – London, the UK and Global – to thematic activities which deliver research and external engagement. Our initial focus is on the themes of Open Science & Public Engagement, Public Policy and Research Impact.

Earlier this year I welcomed UCL’s first Pro-Vice-Provost (UK), Professor Stephen Caddick, to my office. He has been considering, and is consulting with colleagues on, the role of a London’s Global University in relation to the UK’s prosperity, wellbeing and sustainability. This includes our role in the ‘levelling up’ or ‘place’ agenda, especially how UCL can contribute to embedding social equality and justice into a sustainable and resilient economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19 (and Brexit).

Research Strategy implementation

REED’s overarching perspective on research and external engagement is complemented by the work of the Research Strategy Implementation Group (RSIG).

Led by Professor Titchener-Hooker, Dean of UCL Engineering, RSIG was established in April to determine how the aspirations expressed in the 2019 UCL Research Strategy can best be delivered in the context of our current circumstances and those longer-term circumstances which we are attempting to anticipate. As well as overseeing the strategy’s implementation, RSIG will try to take account of the needs and aspirations of the whole UCL research community in order to identify relevant issues, make recommendations and monitor their delivery.

RSIG established a working group, Foresight, led by Professor Graeme Reid in my office, to help it think through the external conditions our university might face over the medium and longer term, ranging from a reasonably rapid recovery, through to an environment in which we need to cope with and respond to prolonged and significant disruption.

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, cross-disciplinary and research-led university.

Three other RSIG working groups were established to address issues relating to people, research funding and finance, and digital and physical infrastructure:

  1. Professor Alison Fuller (UCL Institute of Education) and Professor Steve Wilson (UCL Life Sciences) lead the People working group, which has been analysing the conditions that will best support our staff and their research, and enable us to continue to attract and nurture research students and postdoctoral early career researchers. Three sub-groups were established to focus on: supporting independent early career researchers through the pandemic; risks for researchers on short-term contracts; and inequalities in the ability to undertake research. The People working group has been deeply concerned with equality, diversity and inclusion issues, and originated the proposal for the parents and carers fund I mentioned above.
  2. Professor Tony Kenyon (UCL Engineering) leads the Research Finance & Funding Opportunities working group, reporting jointly into RSIG and the Research Operations Group. It has been looking at the future challenges and opportunities in research funding and finance, including: better understanding the diversity of our funding portfolio, and how it might (or should) change during and after the pandemic; and the economic sustainability of various sources of funding, including issues of overhead recovery and requirements for institutional commitments to projects. It developed a tool to enable modelling of various scenarios for our future funding landscape. It has also put forward proposals on how UCL could better manage relationships with our key external stakeholders regarding research and innovation.
  3. Professor Paola Lettieri (Director, UCL East), leads what was initially conceived of as the Research Infrastructure working group, and which has evolved into the Sustainable Physical and Digital Places for Education and Research (SPiDER) group, reflecting a holistic approach to achieving the right physical and digital environments for UCL researchers and students. It has been examining the conditions we will need so that UCL can adapt and thrive, become more sustainable, resilient and flexible, to support cross-disciplinary initiatives and external engagement in the future. These include reimagining the relationship between digital and physical spaces, and exploring tools which bridge this gap, to encourage collaboration, creativity and community. Two recent alumni from UCL Computer Science are working with the group to explore collaborative online research tools and also an opportunity for a virtual library study space. The group is also considering the future of research labs, combining the concepts of shared facilities and remote operation, and how they can embrace the digital, including collaborative online lab tools and automation, while not losing sight of the importance of physical presence.

Alongside producing a great deal of robust analysis, RSIG 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.

RSIG works closely with the Research Operations Group, which is focused on practical and shorter-term issues. As potential responses are developed, these are shared with REED and the UCL Senior Management Team for further consideration.

Three exciting developments

I would like to highlight three initiatives that both reflect and will support our institutional commitment to delivering public benefit.

First, REED has recently endorsed early proposals for the development of a pan-institutional UCL Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Initiative, the emerging vision for which is that:

We deploy the breadth of our expertise, evidence, networks and activities in support of the SDGs through:

  • being a global academic thought leader in the practice, application and methodology of the SDGs
  • bringing together partners within and beyond UCL to help achieve the Targets set out within the Goals
  • working and learning in ways that reflect the ethos of the SDGs. 

We are midway through a flagship SDGs activity: our two-week virtual conference, Beyond Boundaries: Realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals, co-delivered by UCL Grand Challenges and the UCL Global Engagement Office. There is still time to register for next week’s sessions.

Second, building on our successes with open access to research and data, Dr Paul Ayris, Pro-Vice-Provost (UCL Library Services) has founded the UCL Office for Open Science/Scholarship, which aims to support the UCL community in the adoption of open research practices and approaches.

Third, UCL has been awarded almost £4m by Research England to explore ways of improving academic-policy engagement, in partnership with the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham and Northumbria, as well as Parliament, Government and policy organisations. The three-year project, Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (CAPE), is piloting a range of interventions to improve relationships between universities and public policy, mobilising academic expertise to respond to emerging and pressing questions in an agile, targeted way. By working in partnership, it is hoped that both researchers and policy professionals will be able to connect more quickly and co-develop effective interventions based on reliable evidence.

In closing

The 30th Nobel Prize for a current or former UCL staff member or student – recently awarded in Physics to Professor Sir Roger Penrose (UCL Mathematics 1952) for his work relating to the formation of black holes – prompts me to make a couple of final observations. One is that research can be a long game, and that we justly celebrate those who make fundamental discoveries alongside those whose work has more immediate applicability. Another is that our graduates and alumni are among our most significant legacies; the research-based education we provide now will equip them to address the most interesting questions and pressing challenges that their future will pose.

If you have comments or suggestions about the future of UCL research, and how we can best support your aspirations, including any suggestions for the future work of any of the bodies described above, please let me know at ovpr@ucl.ac.uk.

Stay safe, and may you, your family and your loved ones prosper.

Professor David Price
UCL Vice-Provost (Research