International solutions to global challenges

queenslandAt the Universities of Exeter and Queensland we believe that partnership is key to seeking the answers to the most complex, global challenges – ranging from food and water security and political instability to ageing and mental health. Solving these problems requires interdisciplinary research spanning institutions, countries and even continents.

To deliver international solutions to global challenges, we are launching a pioneering approach to cross-continental research, creating an innovative new virtual research institute that will provide a forum for our world-leading academic staff to collaborate, bringing  fresh perspectives and expertise to bear on some of the toughest problems our world faces.

The QUEX Institute for Global Sustainability and Wellbeing will focus on the crucial inter-disciplinary themes of Environmental Sustainability, Healthy Ageing and Physical Activity and Nutrition. The QUEX Institute will undertake bold new research ventures investing in the next generation of researchers. We will create a continual flow of staff, knowledge and ideas between Exeter and UQ, building a cross-continental think-tank and publishing QUEX Policy Reports which will provide far-sighted, clear and practical policy advice, based on cutting-edge research, for policymakers around the world.

Nobel Laureate and former President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse FRS, has stated that the most important discoveries come from research that is “permeable and fluid, allowing the ready transfer of ideas, skills and people in all directions between sectors, research disciplines, the span of the research endeavor, and its potential beneficiaries”.  The evidence backs this up. Where Exeter and Queensland collaborate, the impact of our work (measured by field-weighted citation impact score) is more than double the average of each institution.

Both institutions are investing substantially in this multi-million pound partnership, creating the conditions for novel and innovative research, backed by first-class student experiences.  We are establishing a joint PhD programme which will enable students to access world-leading academic expertise at both institutions and to graduate with a PhD from both universities. This will nurture a cohort of the brightest and best new researchers from around the world who we will empower to take on the greatest global challenges.

There are many similarities between Exeter and Queensland and both are recognised as world-class institutions. Exeter is a member of the Russell Group of leading UK universities and Queensland forms part of the Australian Group of Eight (Go8). We also share common values and, like all good partnerships, the QUEX Institute is based upon complementary strengths and shared ambition. Exeter will bring our global-leading expertise in health, disease and dementia research from both its Medical School and flagship Living Systems Institute, as well as its pioneering environmental research carried out at the Environment and Sustainability Institute. This is in perfect balance with UQ’s world-leading reputation in health and genetic, environmental, and mental health research.

With this partnership, Exeter and Queensland, two of the world’s leading universities, are taking bold steps in solving the most pressing problems of our times.

On the Higher Education Bill and TEF

Last July I wrote that, while I was a strong supporter of the aims of the Higher Education and Research Bill, I had some concerns about the details. Having sat and listened carefully to Jo Johnson’s speech to university leaders last Friday, I was genuinely convinced that he has listened to those who provided detailed critiques of the Bill. Indeed, I think that was the overwhelming feeling amongst his audience: this was a Minister who listened and then tried to accommodate the concerns of critics. Whilst of course there are some aspects of the Bill that I still have reservations about, I am now persuaded that this is now a Bill that I can fully support.

Not only has the government provided welcome and sensible safeguards to moderate the powers of the Office for Students, particularly with respect to standards and the revocation of degree awarding powers, it has gone further. By enshrining in law, for the first time ever, broad-based protections for institutional autonomy, academic freedom, dual support and the Haldane Principle, Jo Johnson has ensured that this Bill will be an historically significant document. Make no mistake: this represents a landmark stand in defence of university freedom at a time when it is globally under threat.

The amendments, though, are far more than a simple tidying up exercise or maintenance of the status quo. In a whole host of areas, not least in the new proposals on accelerated degrees and credit transfer, they take meaningful action to support social mobility, focus on students and ensure that anyone with the capability to do so can truly benefit from a university education.

The Minister also made a welcome announcement on Friday about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). I have been a supporter of the TEF since its conception – and, like almost every other English university, Exeter is currently taking part in the first round of assessments. I believe it will provide a much-needed counterbalance to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), allowing us to restore teaching to its true place in the university, as a genuinely equal and inextricably intertwined partner to research. And I, like every other member of the Universities UK Board, support the link between an effective TEF and fees. In order to provide the best quality education and student experience in our universities it is essential that we are allowed to maintain our fees in line with inflation – but it is entirely reasonable of the government to demand in exchange that we are providing a high quality education.

Some of the most controversial aspects of the TEF are, in reality, essential to its success. Genuine, clear differentiation is critical if we are truly to incentivise teaching – though the government’s commitment that there will be no arbitrary quota on the number who can get the highest rating is vital, as the TEF guidance spells out. There is clear evidence – for example in the recent report on Moments of Choice[1] –  that simply providing more and more complex information, by itself, does not help to narrow the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged. And those decrying the focus on outcomes would do well to consider the investment students now make in their higher education and their reasonable expectations of tangible return in highly skilled employment.

The Bill itself, of course, says very little about TEF. This is not a weakness but a strength. Its counterpart, the REF, was first designed as the Research Selectivity Exercise by no less an intellect than Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, a former vice-chancellor of Cambridge. Despite that, it has undergone numerous reviews and alterations over the years to ensure it remains fit for purpose. This essential evolution has only been possible because its details are not frozen in aspic by primary legislation.

The Bill gives the right legislative framework for us to continue to work with the Government to create the effective TEF we all want. I believe it would be entirely wrong to add additional clauses about the TEF in the Bill, however well meaning. Attempts to constrain the development of metrics, ratings or modes of assessment would surely be regretted in the years to come. Of course, there are ongoing design questions about the TEF, and I remain strongly of the view that absolute performance on the metrics must be taken into account by the TEF panel as they evaluate the benchmarked data. But the government has repeatedly shown its willingness to listen and act, most recently in its commitment to a genuine lessons-learned exercise and an additional year of piloting. Such dialogue is the way to ensure that the TEF develops into an effective measure of teaching excellence.

In the current age of uncertainty, the Higher Education and Research Bill is needed now more than ever. Now that the Government has listened to critics of the Bill and accepted the majority of amendments suggested by universities, I hope that it can be passed as soon as possible.




Universities to Play Crucial Role after Trump Victory

There was an unnerving sense of déjà vu waking up in the early hours to hear that Trump would win the Presidency. There were distinct echoes of Brexit. As Trump said, his win would be like ‘Brexit plus plus plus’. Brexit and the Trump Presidency were two of the most closely fought and divisive public votes in living memory. Heralded as a celebration for the average person, the overthrow of the intelligentsia, Trump declared in February; ‘I love the poorly educated’.

For practically every Brexit and Trump celebrant we can conclude that there is someone feeling despondent, lost, incredulous, heartbroken even. We know from Brexit the lines along which this divide can fall: 28 of the 30 areas with fewest graduates voted for Brexit. Where has this rhetoric come from, this vitriol and more importantly how do we mend the divide? Universities are the answer.

If it is the fight against the intelligentsia and nasty politics which has galvanised these elections, how can it be that universities are the answer? Universities are institutions of learning and free speech, knowledge-creation and enabling individuals to reach their true potential. Higher-education institutions are home to some of the brightest, best and able minds in the world.

It is the role of universities to understand these election results. To understand the deep divide and anger which has become apparent by applying the power of our combined knowledge. Intelligence is not a force for evil. Knowledge is our resource, our best resource. We must use the combined knowledge within our institutions of learning to understand and to heal.

It is universities in their modern and best sense which can provide the answer. Academics are no longer in ivory towers. I believe there are three key areas where universities are now even more important than ever: promoting informed free speech, engaging the public with our research and by delivering through inspiring education.

Universities are the home of free speech. At Exeter we engage our communities through events, debates and external speakers. Many of the debates are challenging : that is how it should be.  Universities provide the safe space in which views and the evidence behind them can be debated and challenged with rigour and fairness. We need this spirit of healthy and objective debate and challenge to extend and proliferate. This is different to the smears and allegations which are entering political debates. Universities can be a guiding light in this regard. Only when we can be satisfied that there has been proper and true debate can we be satisfied with democratic outcomes, regardless of whether this was our voting choice or not.

At Exeter our academics conduct engaged research which is co-created with the public and which is socially desirable. Our research has impact and produces real results for people and addresses challenges which affect all of us: the disaffected and the engaged. Our challenge now is to better engage with our communities to understand and to respond with rigour and integrity to find solutions. Through co-created and public engagement we can reach and engage with all of our communities. But here is where we can learn from Trump as well. He has proven himself able to energise and engage, especially those who are disenfranchised and sceptical of the establishment. As institutions and as a nation we must improve our communications by being accessible. There is no point in generating knowledge if we cannot articulate it.

It has been too difficult for too long for young people from less-advantaged backgrounds to access higher education. This isn’t fair. We know this and we are working to address this. Donald Trump in his victory speech promised for all Americans ‘the opportunity to realise his or her fullest potential’. Universities offer this experience. Our social mobility and widening participation projects aim to reach more young people and from an early age to inspire them and engage them in higher education. We are working with schools and with the education system as a whole in our widening-participation activities. These results are a call for us to go further and at a faster pace.

Whether you are celebrating or commiserating today, the divide in our communities is becoming increasingly apparent. It is our responsibility to promote free speech and evidence-based views and to empower and engage with our communities. If change is needed it is needed, but let us all be fully informed and engaged. Universities are the answer.



Tagged with: , ,

HEi-think: How to reform the REF – the Stern challenge

As the Stern Review comes to an end, Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Nick Talbot takes look at how why the REF process mtters to research, and how this costly procedure could be improved. This post  first appeared on the Media FHE website.

Professor Nick Talbot

Professor Nick Talbot

Last month saw the passing of the deadline for responses to the Stern Review of the Research Excellence Framework. Professor Nick Talbot, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Impact) at the University of Exeter, gives his thoughts on the key issues and how the REF could be improved.

March 24 marked the closing of the consultation on the Stern Review which seeks to analyse arguments regarding the format, shape and scope of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Nicholas Stern is best known for his Review of the Economics of Climate Change published in 2006, a review that became extremely influential in provoking debate around the sustainable economics of climate change– indeed it altered the debate quite profoundly. Will his review of the REF have a similar effect?

The remit of the Stern Review of the REF is to determine whether the evaluation of research quality in UK Universities is being carried out in the most sensible manner, using the most appropriate tools and the clearest drivers.  It also asks whether the administrative burden on universities– estimated to have cost as much as £246 million for REF2014  – can be reduced. The consultation asks a series of questions regarding the mechanisms by which the REF could be improved and streamlined. The review comes on the back of the Wilsdon Metric Tide Review published in 2015, which made recommendations regarding the use of responsible metrics in the evaluation of research quality.

Why does the REF matter?

The REF, and its predecessor the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), have become deeply ingrained in academia, stretching back to 1986. They have had a profound influence on both the shape and quality of the research base across the UK, driving research concentration into a small number of larger research-intensive universities, moving resource to departments excelling in particular disciplines, and fuelling a transfer market for the highest-performing academic staff.

Although ostensibly a mechanism for HEFCE to distribute Quality Research (QR) funding (one half of the dual support mechanism for funding research) to universities, the REF has always had a number of other purposes. It ensures accountability for the use of public investment in research and bench-marks the quality of research in subject areas across the higher education sector.

But the REF/RAE has also been a driver of academic behaviour and management priorities.  Although much less acknowledged (and even controversial), the REF/RAE has been an external driver of performance management in universities, helping provide selective pressure on senior managers to evaluate academic staff performance much more closely than they might have otherwise.  Although management is often unpalatable as a concept in academia, it is hard to argue that this has been unsuccessful. UK academia after all produces a much higher proportion of the most highly cited research than expected, based on the size of its academic community (as noted in the Nurse Review) and inward investment in the research base has been exceptional in the last three decades. Like it or loathe it, the REF/RAE would appear from all the evidence to have driven up standards.

Most recently, the introduction of an evaluation of the broader impacts of research in REF2014 provided evidence of how academic research has informed public policy, contributed to societal good, and led to significant innovation and (the part that governments like the best) wealth creation. As a consequence of the REF, the generation of impact has now become much more recognised as an activity by academics– indeed it has spawned entirely new processes and support structures in most universities.

How could the REF be improved?  

How then to improve the REF while also making it much less onerous? The two biggest criticisms levelled at the REF are, first, that it is too expensive and burdensome, and second, that there is too much gaming of the system by universities.

I am not sure that either is completely warranted, even if one accepts the £246 million figure for REF2014 (which includes lots of assumptions of time engaged in internal evaluations and selection). This is still less than 1 per cent of the total £27 billion public research investment in the HE sector over the 6 year REF cycle.  The REF actually involves intense activity by only a small number of staff in each university. Most academics have little to do with its preparation, other than the research they would be doing anyway, while the evaluation itself involves a tiny (relatively speaking) group of hard-working panellists. The gaming undoubtedly goes on, but is largely about reputation and league tables.  It is quite hard to game the QR funding formula. You either have research strength in volume, or you don’t, and the funding table is the only one that actually matters in the end.

Some big questions appear to me to be settled. Peer review, for all its faults, remains the gold standard for evaluation and, importantly, commands confidence across the sector.  Responsible metrics can help inform judgments, but can’t drive the process, and this seems broadly agreed. The REF also needs to be divided into subject-level evaluations for reasons of benchmarking, so this also seems unlikely to change.  Large reductions in the actual cost of running the REF process (£14 million), are therefore unlikely, and probably undesirable too, when there is more than £10.2 billion of QR to distribute in a defensible manner.

The main way, however, that the REF could certainly be improved, in my view, is in providing a more even evaluation, which limits the (inevitable) gaming that does go on by institutions. The most obvious way to achieve this would be to require all staff on academic contracts that include research to be required to submit publications to the REF.  If 100 per cent of all such staff in all institutions had to be returned, then we would really have a pretty fair reflection of research quality.  In such a system, the present requirement for up to 4 publications per academic could be retained, but with all staff having to submit their best work (even when they have published less than 4 articles).  This would limit the most onerous part of the REF preparatory process, which is selecting which publications, and therefore which staff, to return.  It would, of course, lead to some gaming by institutions in changing staff contracts (which they would deny), but it would be harder to do this in large numbers.

I think it is extremely unlikely, however, that the review will recommend mandatory 100 per cent REF returns. So many less research-intensive institutions would see their league table advantages in some subjects disappear, while larger research-intensives would have to admit to having much larger numbers of less productive researchers than they would like.  I doubt they will vote for that. A compromise might be an entry threshold, where you can only return in a subject if you include outputs from 80 per cent of your academic staff, for example.  This would be progress.

Breaking the individual performance link

There is, however, a lot of discussion in the sector about moving the attribution and ownership of the publications away from individual academics to the institution. This would break the often perceived link between individual performance of an academic and inclusion in the REF.  Although not an explicit link in many institutions (ours included), some universities have used REF selection as a key criterion for performance management.

One way to avoid the link, and also to limit the power of individuals in the academic transfer market, would be to allow an institution to showcase its very best publications within a particular subject area but not tied explicitly to individual academics.  Each unit of assessment (subject area) could be asked, for instance, to submit its very best publications at 4x the total number of staff – so no staff selection.  In an extreme case, the papers could all be authored by one academic, but this would be heavily penalised. The REF environment score would require an authorship dividend by which the intensity or wide spread nature of scholarship within a unit would have to be evaluated. So, if every academic in a unit contributed to the authorship of the selected papers, this would provide the maximum intensity score. The number of publications could also be altered for particular disciplines, for example, 2x or 3x for Humanities and Social Sciences, with double-weighting allowed for monographs, as now. An equality and diversity process to protect staff would, of course, be necessary (and was one of the very best developments of REF2014). In this model, publications would be claimed on the basis of the authorship address and not the individual.

Such a solution would allow universities to showcase their very best work, reduce the workload, but also encourage collaboration and collegiality, as all academics would have a vested interest in helping their colleagues to do well (imagine that).  It would also put the ownership of performance management back with the HEIs themselves and more explicitly separated from the REF. Worth considering I think.

Other possible innovations

There are a number of other innovations that could also, in my view, help improve the REF.  The current format of the REF could be simplified, the research environment statement could be populated (particularly in science disciplines) with the responsible metrics highlighted by the Wilsdon review, automatically generated by HESA.  Data could be collated and linked to the RCUK systems (such as the unpopular ResearchFish, or its offspring) in a more automated way. The portability of Impact could also be looked at, to ensure that when academics do move, both universities have an incentive to capture the impact activities of that member of staff.  Many really important impacts of academic research were lost completely to the sector in REF2014 due to staff movement (driven ironically by the REF transfer market).

The REF could also be made much more forward-looking by allowing QR calculations to be calculated on current staffing levels, rather than historic ones, even when the performance measurement are inevitably historic.  This would help to encourage growth and vibrancy, and allow institutions to plan more easily. A lot of relatively small innovations, would reduce the overall workload in REF preparation, without impacting on its resolution or accuracy.

Stern has a difficult challenge ahead in terms of navigating the many disparate views it is likely to get from the sector.  We are, after all, very diverse organisations and rather than embracing and celebrating this diversity, we all like to compete in a ‘one size-fits-all’ REF process and then boast about our results, spinning for all its worth (which we all deny of course).

The final thing that is perhaps worth saying is that the Stern consultation, like so many other recent reports, is quite insular and inward-facing.  It feels as if the UK is all alone in grappling with how to evaluate research quality. One final hope I have, therefore, is that an international comparative analysis of other evaluation procedures and funding mechanisms could form part of the review.  While the UK has wholeheartedly adopted an institutionalised national research evaluation, other countries have rejected such a model, and we should at least consider some really radical alternatives from other vibrant academic systems, or more revolutionary innovations to the REF than might come from the consultation.

We’re in this together!


This is my first blog entry for 2016, and I am looking forward to writing about exciting developments this year, including the opening of the new Living Systems Institute in the summer and the launch of Exeter’s new Research and Impact Strategy. There will be areas of interest in our new strategy for all academic staff, irrespective of their discipline, with new and important investments across the Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. 2016 promises to be an exciting year.

Reflecting on the start of a New Year also leads me to think of the issues that are critical for sustaining our success as a Global 100 institution and taking Exeter forward to new achievements.

This isn’t just about attracting and retaining our best researchers and teachers, or attracting the very best students, but it is about how all colleagues feel about working at Exeter.

I feel very strongly that everyone at Exeter, and indeed across the Higher Education sector, should be given the opportunity to achieve their greatest potential. This means all staff, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, or opinion, should be able to have the very same chance to succeed and be fulfilled in their careers. Universities are after all about freedom, equality and diversity. Only by embracing diversity in all its forms can we truly understand the world about us, which is what really motivates us to be academics.

Given my own views, which I suspect are shared by the majority of my colleagues, I was dismayed (but unfortunately not surprised) to read in the Times Higher Education before Christmas that twice as many male academics as female scholars earn more than £50,000 a year. Across Higher Education in the UK, although the percentage of women academic staff has risen from 27.6 per cent to 44.6 per cent over the last 20 years, only 22 per cent of them are Professors. Last year, King’s College London announced that it was going to favour women for top jobs when there is little to separate candidates as part of efforts in order to close its gender pay gap.

An extreme measure or a necessary one to remove the barrier for women entering leadership roles?

The Office for National Statistics published data late last year that suggests that Higher Education in the UK is making progress in this area, and the gender pay gap for full time staff IS shrinking (a 13.5 per cent gap in April 2014 decreased to 11.1 per cent in April 2015.). However, there is still much more that could be done to level the playing field. An 11 per cent pay gap is not acceptable in 2016 is it?

The Athena Swan (AS) charter was created in 2005 to try and address the problem of the under-representation of Women in Science and, in particular, their ability to apply for and be appointed to senior roles. The AS accreditation charter mark has since (from May 2015) been made available to the arts, humanities and social sciences to reflect and hopefully solve the problems for women progressing in academia as a whole. The charter also now recognises work undertaken to address gender equality more broadly, and not just barriers to progression that affect women.

At Exeter I am proud to say that all of our STEM/M departments now have an Athena Swan accreditation, at either bronze or silver level.

College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences:
College of Life and Environmental Sciences:
University of Exeter Medical School

The University was also pleased to be included in the Gender Equality Charter Mark (GEM) trial. The Department of Classics and Ancient History participated in the trial and was awarded a Bronze Departmental Award (April 2014). Further information can be found on the Classics and Ancient History GEM webpages.

Athena SWAN charters are about taking evidenced-based action. Firstly, you look at the academic pipeline to see at what stage women may be dropping off the career path and then you start to question why this is happening. For our STEM/M disciplines the common issues we are currently addressing include supporting women to apply for promotion, increasing the visibility of role models, and the availability of mentors.

There are also the little everyday things that make a big difference too, such as the gender balance of images on websites and the wording of job descriptions – we may unconsciously be using words considered to be more masculine and therefore less appealing to female candidates. Unconscious bias is something we all need to be aware of and some recent work by The Royal Society, including a valuable animation, is worth looking at ( We need to remember that, in spite of what we might think, research shows that bias still exists in selection processes in academia (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 PNAS 109: 16474–16479; Reuben et al., 2014 PNAS 111: 4403–4408).

The University is supporting all of its STEM/M disciplines to reach or maintain their silver Athena SWAN accreditations in 2016 and we are seeing some excellent examples of best practice being shared that will ultimately benefit gender equality for all. Find out more about what we are doing at Exeter.

One key consideration in an academic career, of course, is when to have a family. Clearly, this affects both men and women, but I know that often junior female academics worry about this decision enormously and often believe that there is a single formula to success, or that they need to sacrifice family life to be a top-performing academic. In this regard, the work led by the Professor Ottoline Leyser FRS at the Royal Society provides an excellent demonstration of the fact that there are numerous ways in which highly successful female academics have had families and also reached the pinnacle of their profession. The sheer diversity of their experiences shows how career breaks can be taken at various stages of a career and family life can be balanced very effectively. These role models are vital for women entering the profession and, indeed, for men too. Family life and paternal commitments matter enormously too. Work-life balance and family-friendly policies are, indeed, for all the family. It is only by making these responsibilities truly shared and strongly ingrained in academic culture that progress will be made, for which we will all be enriched.

I would encourage everyone to watch Professor Michelle Ryan, our Dean of The Doctoral College, give a TED talk that discusses work-life balance. Her research uncovers the fact that balance is not just about time available for each part of your life, but often how you feel about your work place. If you feel better about your workplace the likelihood is that you will feel more able to achieve a work-life balance. Her research references a New York Times magazine article ‘the opt-out revolution’ which also details how high achieving women are often choosing not to run the world, despite the fact they could easily do so. Personal choice matters.

We need to be even better at supporting the families of our employees by being better at supporting women returning to the work place after a short maternity leave break, or both women and men returning to work after longer career breaks. It can be really daunting for anyone, of any gender, at any stage of a career to return from a family focused break and we need to ensure that their personal and professional confidence and career momentum is not lost in the process.

Women are running some of the most prestigious Universities in the world including Harvard (President Drew Faust) and Imperial College London (Professor Alice Gast). I hope that our progress with Athena Swan at Exeter enables even more of our female academics to realise their full potential, whether they want to be Research Fellows, Teachers, Professors, Deans, or Vice-Chancellors. Indeed, however, any of our colleagues wish to achieve their ambitions, we should provide support and a conducive environment and in the future mentor early career researchers to do exactly the same.


Interpreting the Nurse Review?

Professor Nick Talbot

Professor Nick Talbot

The much-anticipated Nurse Review ‘Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour’ was published on the 19th November. Authored by the current president of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse, the review is typically thoughtful and perceptive.

Indeed, the thing that really stands out in the Nurse Review, is that it is very clear throughout that it is authored by someone who has thought long and hard about the research endeavour, the nature of scientific investigation, the differences between discovery science and applied research, and how to organise research so that it delivers for the public good. These are difficult and complex issues and the opening sections should be required reading for anyone associated with the administration of research, including of course politicians, who do not always understand the motivations of scientists, or the nature of scientific enquiry.

The review starts from the premise that the very best research system thrives on excellent scientists, who are motivated by their own curiosity and have the freedom to pursue their intellectual interests. This is, of course, enshrined by the Haldane Principle of 1918, which states that decisions about how to spend research funds should be made by researchers rather than politicians. The Haldane Report led to the establishment of the Research Councils, starting with the Medical Research Council, and has clearly served the UK very well. We have, by most objective criteria, one of the most successful research communities in the world– a very high proportion of the most cited research discoveries are from the UK, compared to our population. Changing the structure of a highly successful research system should therefore only by embarked upon with considerable care and thought.

So what does the Nurse Review conclude? Well, the main recommendation, which has been picked up in most commentaries, is the establishment of an overarching non-departmental government body called Research UK (RUK), which should be headed by a highly distinguished scientist to act as a single Accounting Officer for all seven Research Councils (RCs). They would be supported by the current Chief Executives of the RCs, as an executive committee, but would be the single accountable voice for research, reporting to the Secretary of State. RUK would be responsible for determining spending allocations between the RCs and would also ensure more coherent cross-council strategy– of increasing importance in this era of interdisciplinary research.

However, Nurse is also a political realist. He has, after all been a University President and currently heads the Crick Institute. He knows that the interaction between scientists and government is critical and that ministers, as the elected representatives of taxpayers, must play a role in determining science policy. To provide for this role, he suggests formation of a government committee chaired by a senior minister with cross-cutting cabinet responsibilities that would act as a forum for discussions between policy makers and the research establishment. This has been picked up by some as being a threat to Haldane, but strikes me as a potentially clever move. After all, isn’t it better for there to be a forum in which policymakers and scientists can discuss spending allocations and large science capital decisions in full view of the evidence? At present, it is clear that political considerations, however understandable (why wouldn’t we want to build the northern powerhouse, or put another huge research institute in London?), can lead to decisions about science spend that can appear, at best, opaque. Creating a forum in which legitimate political and economic factors can be balanced with the need for scientific excellence, seems both logical and sensible. On top of that, it might develop a common view about the research priorities of government departments, which are often contradictory and underresourced.

Nurse goes further in recommending that ‘Place-based Innovation’, a concept at the heart of the current government’s industrial policy, becomes a responsibility of the RCs, who would be charged with undertaking a mapping exercise of the UK’s research strength, building upon the Science and Innovation audits, recently announced by BIS. This would ensure that the best research can be supported wherever it is found, but with due recognition of key regional strengths, such as Graphene in the North-West, Aerospace in the South-West, and Satellites in Surrey (although I should stress that these are my examples and not Nurse’s!).

Nurse also suggests that in a post-HEFCE world (as suggested in the recent Green Paper), the Research Excellence Framework and its distribution of Quality Research (QR) funding should also sit within RUK. Thus, both strands of the dual support system for universities would be controlled by a single government body. As dual support already sits in the same government department, this is probably not as revolutionary as it sounds, but one of the real powers of dual support has been the delegated freedom of universities to spend QR exactly as they please (not exactly loved as a concept by ministers). RUK would, therefore, need to assure the HE sector of this core principle and their ability to keep political pressure away, preventing the diversion of QR to strategically directed, project-related spend. This will not be an easy task and, arguably, harder than when QR was distributed by a body whose primary responsibility was for the quality of higher education.

So, will the Nurse Review save the RCs from being part of the government’s promised bonfire of the quangos? The single accounting officer model of RUK creates more efficiencies, as the back-office functions are already merged. It would also allow RC chief executives more time to be strategic and not ‘managing-up’, which I suspect they spend an awful lot of their time doing now, keeping inquisitive ministers and their civil servants at bay. Perhaps Nurse has prevented a merger of the RCs, even if the McKinsey report recommends it. He has provided a framework that could, in my view, work very well.

The question of course is whether the review will be acted upon and whether the forthcoming spending review outcome will simply drown out any serious debate, as the realities of austerity descend upon the university and wider research sector. The government, and perhaps the Treasury even more than BIS, understands that the knowledge economy they seek can only happen with a well-funded and organised research base working closely with business and government, with world-class discovery, innovation and economic growth in mind. So for now, we still live in hope and I share Sir Paul’s cautious optimism.

First published on HEi-know, the HE intelligence service

So what’s not to like about European funding?

I often hear academics talk about their aspirations to start applying for funding from the European Union, but a sense of trepidation that doing so will be extraordinarily difficult and involve reams of bureaucracy and detailed partnership negotiations with disparate groups of people scattered throughout the European continent, some of whom will have little tangible contribution to make to the project. I have to say that this is a long way from my own personal experience of EU funding and also from the joys of carrying out research in collaboration with European partners.

I first became involved in European funding through the Marie Curie Initial Training Networksgrant programme, that has existed in various iterations over the years. The first network that I was involved with was formed almost 15 years ago. That Network involved a group of friends who had known each other for a long period of time and who were from various countries across Europe. We got together at a conference and talked about the work we could do collectively to address cereal pathogens which were of increasing importance to the European agriculture economy (and indeed still are..).  We met with two companies, engaged in associated research with which some of us already had collaborative research projects, and we put together a training project that we felt would be valuable for PhD students to embark upon.

Our aim was to carry out a set of broad training for PhD students across Europe; this would enable them to acquire the relevant skills and expertise with which they could become highly employable, either within academia or within the agricultural biotechnology industry.  They learned bioinformatics, genomics, proteomics, biochemical techniques and some cell biology.  The project was great fun, involving us meeting each other in various European capitals across the following three years and our students engaging in week long training activities in each of these beautiful locations with dedicated expertise enhancing their postgraduate training environment.  I have no doubt that the training they received was far in excess of anything they could have achieved within a single country, plus they had knowledge of other scientific systems and cultures, and a wide network of friends.  This set them on a very positive career path and many of those students are now group leaders in academic or industry.

Since that time I have been involved in another three of these network projects involving a raft of different partners.  It has meant that the number of academic group across Europe with which I have worked has increased enormously and also my knowledge of the funding situation and the way that science is carried out in those countries has also increased extraordinarily during the same period.

This is one of the tangible benefits of EU funding that people often overlook, it really awakens you to the knowledge of how funding works and how science is carried out in different countries and various stages in development.  The Marie Curie schemes of funding are still a very successful element to the current Horizon 2020 programme, and should you get the opportunity, I would encourage you to grab the chance to be a part of such projects. Above all, they are fun and that’s what academic research is supposed to be like (lest we forget).

Perhaps that biggest single opportunity afforded by European funding is that generated by the establishment of the European Research Council. The ERC is a wonderful, innovative agency that funds research at the highest standards in international excellence where the emphasis is on curiosity-driven basic research opposed to the more applied/focused research which is the subject of many European applications in the Societal Challenge area of the Horizon 2020 programme.

The ERC has been tremendous for Exeter, the UK and, indeed, for Europe. We now have received 26 ERC grants across the university in various different departments ranging from Astro physics all the way through to Political Science. The ERC affords one the opportunity to carry out real blue skies research, long term research that will lead to a step change in conceptual breakthroughs in our understanding in particular aspects of a subject (pretty much any subject).

The three ERC competitions starter, consolidator and advanced grants mean that people at various stages of their academic career are able to apply for funding. This leads to extraordinary opportunities to carry out work of real long term benefit. My own experience of ERC funding is down to the fact that I am a holder of an ERC Advanced Grant, called GENBLAST.   This funds a significant number of post doctoral research fellows in my laboratory, carrying out detailed research to develop our understanding of how a fungus causes disease on a plant. This is a fundamental project but one I couldn’t have dreamed of as a young scientist in the early stages of my career. There was no scheme like it.  It is fantastic that such opportunities now exist, for every level of academic in the institution and in every subject.  Imagine what you could do with five years dedicated to a single piece of work, bought out for much or your time and with research assistants to support you.

So I would therefore strongly encourage everyone to think about seeking EU funding. We have excellent support services here at Exeter that provide a brilliant level of support in costing grants and putting together applications. Don’t be put off by the tales of administrative problems with EU grants; the latest Horizon 2020 programme is genuinely simpler than previous ones, you will get a lot of help to prepare your bid and progress your project. As with any application there is effort and planning required but it is a price well worth paying for the fun, excitement and the sheer energy associated with European funding. It honestly is a great experience, and I have learned so much from my EU funded interaction. I encourage you all to dive in.


Research Integrity: If research is not about the truth then why do it?

Research integrityRecently, I have been updating the University of Exeter policies on research integrity. As a leading research intensive university the University of Exeter is seeking to maintain the highest standards of scientific scholarship and professional integrity in all of the research that it carries out.

What this means, is that we expect all of our researchers from undergraduates to Professors to always give due consideration to the ethical, social and environmental issues arising from their research and, importantly, to ensure that the highest standards of scientific rigour are followed in all our research.

Many colleagues will be aware that there have been a number of recent cases of research misconduct around the World. Some of the cases have featured not only in the news sections of journals such as Nature and Science but also in the popular press. There are some very high profile research papers being retracted and misconduct charges brought. Examples, include the stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency (STAP) research on stem cells reported in the last few years and a whole series of cases associated with social psychology research by a prominent researcher from the Netherlands.

In 2009, a systematic review showed that 1.97 per cent of researchers admitted to fabricating, falsifying or modifying data associated with published research and astonishingly 33.7 per cent of researchers admitted to questionable practices such as honorary authorships, image or data manipulation, data mismanagement, breach of protocol or good practice, or data mis-representation (Fanelli D (2009) How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738).

What is so astonishing about these statistics is that researchers seem unaware that misconduct or corner cutting will inevitably be uncovered based on the wider scrutiny by the academic community. Furthermore, it makes no sense to carry out such practises when invariably they will undermine the integrity of a research finding and the ability of others to reproduce findings, which are at the core of academic research and the scientific method. If our research is not about truth and integrity then surely it has little value.

The importance of research integrity is therefore absolutely paramount. Any research misconduct undermines the public trust in research and in an era of constraint in public spending, where we have to argue for every penny of government funding, any undermining of public trust in the academic community has to be avoided. Of course, the issue is rather more profound than that and actually strikes at the very heart of why we carry out research as academics.

It is therefore very important that all of us, whether research group leaders or practitioners of research, are vigilant to issues of potential research misconduct and that we always attempt to carry out the research we do with the upmost standards of rigour and honesty.

At the University, we have a research integrity framework in place which is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity complying with ethical, legal and professional regulatory frameworks. This has the primary aim of creating a research environment which supports a culture of integrity, dealing with misconduct rapidly and with zero tolerance, and working together to strengthen the integrity of research. We are also subscribers to the UK Research Integrity office and carry out policies which are consistent with the UUK Concordat to Support Research Integrity.

In the next few months there will be a series of events in each of the constituent Colleges of the University associated with promoting research integrity and highlighting potential examples of how research misconduct can occur, so we are better able to detect any cases that may emerge.

As many of you will be aware there are now numerous sites on the internet which are monitoring research activity and carrying out post publication peer review. Your Associate Deans for Research will be coordinating these events in your Colleges and I will be carrying out a presentation to all academic staff to highlight some of these issues on Monday 28 September, 3pm at the Innovation Centre Phase 2, conference room 1.

We must work together to try and promote a culture of research integrity. Exeter has a dynamic research environment and an excellent reputation, built up over decades by thousands of talented academics. It is essential that we ensure a truly honest research culture is embedded within the organisation to preserve and enhance this reputation and to do the best research we can.

The publishing revolution – Why Open Access?

ORE logo

Exeter’s Open Access repisitory is called Open Research Exeter (ORE).

Many of you will have received the email which I sent to all staff concerning the importance of open access publication. There are clearly some compliance issues around open access and this is at least part of the motivation for contacting all staff. However, the issues run much deeper than this. Indeed, there is a sea change under way in academic publishing.

Open access is a movement which is revolutionising the publishing industry. At its heart, open access is based on the principle that all publicly-funded research should be made as widely available as possible and, in particular, should be available to those who originally funded the research, that is the taxpaying general public.

However, open access is also clearly linked to the progression of the internet and the manner in which access to written information is rapidly changing across the globe. Anyone who is a user of social media will know how frustrating it is to follow a thread to an interesting publication only to find that it sits behind a paywall and is unable to be viewed. I am sure that many researchers in the institution have also experienced the frustration of following a chain of logical thought to a particular publication of interest, only to find that it is inaccessible because the library does not subscribe to the relevant academic journal and therefore it is unable to be viewed. We have all been there (!) and it hampers our thoughts and our academic work.

If information flow is to be enhanced across the world, it can only be by free and unfettered access to written material, so how then does the publication industry need to change?

Well, clearly one model is the author-pays, open access model which is being promoted by journals such as Public Library of Science who have really pioneered this approach and Bio Med Central . In this (gold) model, the author pays an article processing charge (APC) which enables the publication that emerges to be free at the point of access to anyone who wishes to read it. This model has the capacity to change the way the publication industry works. Rather than meeting their costs through subscription charges, publishers will instead gain their income through ‘the author pays’ APC.

The UK, and to an extent the European Union, have embarked on promoting open access publication but clearly it is very difficult to act unilaterally– it is much easier when associated with an international movement. It is possible that in the next 10 years or so the entire publication industry will have remodelled itself on this new publishing paradigm. However, the alternative route to open access is the one being promoted by the Higher Education Funding Council of England, and this derives from a detailed analysis to the problem through the Finch review. The green open access route entails publications being placed in online repositories and then made freely available within a few months of publication based on agreements made with publishers. This model places the responsibility for compliance with funder policies, firmly with the institution that hosts the work, but also provides a straightforward route to making publications available.

In principle, I am a strong individual proponent of open access publication because I believe it provides free and unrestricted access to the outputs of publicly-funded research which is what we all want isn’t it? Open access will increase the number of citations of our papers and the reach of our work to the widest possible readership. Importantly, it will allow researchers in other countries to access our papers who don’t have the same resources as we have to access information and data today.

We are, however, clearly in a difficult situation because we have a hybrid publication system which is likely to stay in place for at least the next 10-15 years. Journals will still seek subscription fees and the overwhelming majority of research published world-wide will remain behind pay-walls. If we want to access it, then universities like Exeter will need to pay to allow our academics access to this work, while also paying for our own research to be published via open access routes, either gold or green. An expensive and, frankly, unsustainable position for the long term.

Currently at the University of Exeter we are therefore taking a pragmatic view of encouraging green open access as the default or the usual means of publication for all of our journal-based research, while funding gold open access where it is mandated by funding agencies. The underlying principle, however, is clear– let’s allow as many people as possible the opportunity to read the research from this institution.

Looking forward: RKT strategy consultation

nicktalbotinoffice2Many of you will have taken part in the series of consultation exercises that have taken place over the last two months around the Research and Knowledge Transfer (RKT) Strategy.

This strategy will guide the University’s overall research direction for the next five years. During this period, we expect to embark upon major new developments in the Humanities, Social Sciences, The Business School, the enlargement of our new Medical School and further investments across both the physical and life sciences. At its heart, the RKT Strategy has a strong commitment to inter-disciplinary research and, increasingly, the formation of larger trans-disciplinary groupings– research aimed at addressing really large, complex, and difficult academic questions.

The proposed RKT Strategy on which we have been consulting has four pillars:

The first is that we aim to develop a World class research environment. This means an environment in which obstacles are removed as far as possible from researchers, enabling them to work as creatively and positively as possible. This requires us to invest further in smart research systems and in the financial operation of the institution, such that procurement, purchasing, and day-to-day operations of researchers, are as easy as possible, with single points of contact and a rapid and responsive culture of research support.

The second pillar is to develop trans-disciplinary research themes. These I would expect to grow predominantly in a bottom up fashion, driven by the ideas and creativity of our academic staff. Ideas are the true currency of universities and the generation of new, bold and ambitious ideas is the hallmark of any truly great institution. There are a number of ideas that have been presented from the academic community. These encompass areas such as arts, culture, creativity, the idea of sustainable, ecological and economic models, the study of conflict, human behaviour, the importance of identities, beliefs and the operation of new, integrated and sustainable energy systems. One thing we have is no shortage of ideas!

One of the biggest ideas that is being discussed actively in the institution is the Exeter Global Vision 2050 Project. The concept, which has been developed from our Sustainability Review last year and a series of events and retreats, is of a transcendent, over-arching project and set of values for Exeter. The Exeter Global Vision 2050 project poses a very simple question.

What will the world be like in 2050 and how can we use research to shape the future development of our planet?

This is clearly a massive question and one that can only be addressed by framing specific research questions that, at their very heart, will be inter-disciplinary and require disparate, complementary expertise that can be found right across the institution, from economics to atmospheric physics and from ecological humanities to data analytics. Lots to be excited about for many of our academic colleagues.

The Exeter Global Vision 2050 Project, could also be a means by which we can channel support from the centre of the institution for new, inter-disciplinary research fellowships, PhD studentships, funding for international visitors and a means by which advanced studies can be carried out within the institution. There are many models for how this might work and, indeed, I am keen to hear more (which is what the comments section below is for). The active discussion going on in the institution currently is around the shape and form that Exeter Global Vision 2050 might take and whether there are any other strategic themes that might emerge that are not encompassed within that.

The third pillar of the RKT Strategy is associated with external partnerships and industrial engagement. This encompasses engagement with NGOs, and social enterprises as well as the private sector. If we are to become more resilient in terms of our income generation then we need to engage more actively with different kinds of partner. This may take a variety of forms depending on the discipline eg, numerous interactions with SMEs in the creative industries; more in-depth relationships with larger Blue Chip corporations with which we already have strong relationships; or starting up our own ventures around the new Exeter science Park coupled with increased entrepreneurship from our academic staff and our students in Exeter and Cornwall. Importantly, the new RKT Strategy is trying to frame a better ecosystem and means of supporting such endeavour, and we shall be driven by the ideas and creativity of our academic staff.

The final pillar of the RKT Strategy is seeking to make our research activity as efficient as possible to ensure that we make the proper returns on investment, that our overheads and estates rates are competitive and that our infrastructure for research is as high quality as it can be. We have a lot of work to do in this regard, some of it basic work around grant costing and capturing associated costs consistently across the institution, some more advanced work around the collective organisation of research and how it can be best supported.

Collectively, there are a lot of potential means by which academic staff can feed ideas into the RKT Strategy. The consultation is currently open and this is a large and genuine consultation, and I am hoping that many academic staff will contribute. More details on the RKT strategy counsultation are on the Research and Knowledge Transfer website.

As we embark on the next five years of our development, it is important to think about the ways in which all of us can contribute to taking the University forward. The last ten years have been extremely progressive ones for Exeter, associated with rapid change, and there is no reason to suggest that the next ten years will be any less dramatic or positive.

Skip to toolbar