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Vice-Chancellor's Office


EU Ministerial Conference on the European Research Area
Sopot, Poland, Wednesday 20 July 2011

Keynote speech by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge

Preface - welcome

It is a great honour to be invited to address this distinguished company, and a distinct pleasure to be doing so here in Poland, the land where my parents were born, and the country to which the European Union has now entrusted the presidency. I know that Poland will repay that trust.

The UK has a reputation for being semi-detached when it comes to Europe. Speaking as a British national with a Polish name, (my fellow Brits can usually manage the first two syllables of my surname before suffering linguistic collapse), my own enthusiasm for Europe, its achievements and its potential, is unashamed. It gives me pleasure that the European Commission and the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation has made tremendous progress in the areas we are discussing, just as it gives me pleasure and pride that my institution, Cambridge, is ranked as the leading European university.


My remarks today are focused on universities, and what we can expect of them. For my starting point, I turn briefly to the past: in September, last year, His Holiness Pope Benedict visited the United Kingdom, and during that visit he beatified an English intellectual, Cardinal John Henry Newman. In academic circles, Newman's most celebrated writing was The Idea of a University, a series of published lectures given in 1852 to mark the foundation of the Catholic University of Ireland, of which he would be the head. Those lectures are still the subject of scholarly attention and debate, because they help us to frame some questions about the purpose of modern universities, and the creation of intellectual capital. One question posed by Newman is whether universities should teach with an end result in mind (in our context, that might mean economic productivity, for example) or impart pure knowledge - "knowledge for its own sake". Newman, in 1852, is firmly in favour of knowledge for its own sake. And he believed that the purpose of universities was teaching - the diffusion and extension of knowledge, not its advancement through research.

His was not the only philosophy concerning the 'Idea of a University'. Perhaps the prevailing continental European approach was that of Humboldt, that resulted in the dominance of the German system that was exported to the USA. In the UK these philosophies, complete with the embedding of research into Universities rather than Institutes, has resulted in the development of most leading Universities.

This philosophical approach is in contrast with the terms of our modern debate. A hundred and fifty years after Newman, it's all about money: how to finance an expensive university system, and what return we might get on our investment. The language of the European Research Area Committee's published Opinion on the Modernisation of Universities, let me tell you, would leave Cardinal Newman and Humboldt summoning medical help.

However, the Cardinal and the European Research Area Committee share the conviction that the health of our universities is of critical importance to the health of our societies.

Multiple roles of universities

Universities have many parts to play these days. In the world of globalisation, universities are regarded as crucial national assets. Governments worldwide and increasingly business see them as vital sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking, as providers of skilled personnel and credible credentials, as contributors to innovation, as attractors of international talent and business investment into a region, as agents of social justice and mobility, and as contributors to social and cultural vitality. And of course we are also warehouses of knowledge, which we pass on from one generation to another; we are cultural institutions, and we are national and regional symbols. Are universities expected to do too much? Sometimes I think so - these roles are in tension with each other to some degree - but in general the world's great universities do all of this - and we are good at it. It is no surprise that government and industry and society look to universities to help them, because we have a deep and long-lasting as well as long-term influence and understanding larger than any individual politician or government.

But we must recognise the historical influence of Newman and Humboldt which has resulted in the diversity of universities that exist in the EU. Such diversity has to be seen as a strength NOT a weakness. Discovery, innovation and knowledge are not fully predictable, and although financial investment generally results in a greater probability of advances resulting in social and economic benefit, where and how it arises is less certain. Therefore alongside financial investment supporting diversity maximises opportunity.

So let me pick three purposes of modern universities, and examine them.
[grand challenges, impact on private sector research, and creation of intellectual capital]

a. Grand challenges...

Firstly "grand challenges" - increasingly, universities are defining strategic research themes, often targeted at large, multi-disciplinary, problem-oriented areas, such as energy sustainability, water conservation and distribution, global security, pandemics, interfaith conflict, healthy ageing. These challenges are international, and require international collaboration, and innovation.

Governments must empower and expect research-intensive universities to provide solutions. There is an urgency about this: some of the threats to our own and other species are pressing. We need innovation-bright ideas - to solve these problems, and some of them must be solved within this generation: our citizens and our planet deserve rapid solutions.

Universities are in a brilliant position to help. We can help, firstly, because of the discoveries we make and the innovations we produce. Specific solutions to specific problems, which, in aggregate, represent a significant response to the challenges I have outlined.

Take one example: as the use of computers becomes more common - and as computers become more powerful - so energy use soars. Researchers are seeking new concepts of electronics that sustain the growth of computing power, while decreasing energy use. An emerging technology called spintronics, which exploits the tiny rotational movement of the electron, may eventually replace current semiconductor technology. That research is being undertaken in the University of Cambridge's Cavendish laboratory, in collaboration with a laboratory at the University of Münster in Germany. I could, of course, have chosen from many hundred other examples of current research at Cambridge and elsewhere.

How can Europe support universities in addressing global challenges? I have three answers:

First, support fundamental research in institutions of research excellence, and be prepared to wait a decade or more for the results. The best technology with the highest impact comes from increasing understanding of how things work: in the case of spintronics, the nature and behaviour of the electron. Such fundamental research requires stable, reliable funding in places where there is critical mass, and strength across many disciplines. There are other funding sources available for applied work; fundamental work requires national and European support.

Secondly, don't use research funding to try to level the playing field between institutions, regions or nations. That is what structural funds are for: research funds, in contrast, should support excellent research wherever it is found.

Thirdly and lastly, if it is thought necessary to create new research institutes to add power to a promising area of science, then consider building in an end date. In other words, it should be clearly understood that after ten years, this new institute will close. When I was head of the Medical Research Council in the UK I was amazed by the power of that concept, which releases funds for new imperatives. About 70% of MRC institutes closed at the end of a review period. When, I wonder, was the last time that Europe agreed to stop doing something? All too quickly political imperatives will dominate academic and scientific priorities and renewal.

b. Impact on private sector research: a case study - the Cambridge Phenomenon

My second example of a role for universities: Governments have long known that science and technology generate wealth, both in the region which creates it, and through export nationally and internationally. My University is at the centre of Europe's largest and most successful cluster of high-technology companies. Last year we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of what has come to be called the Cambridge Phenomenon.

The Cambridge region is in many ways rural, with a population of 750,000 - including only 110,000 in the small city of Cambridge itself. This "Greater Cambridge" region, however, supports 1,400 high-tech companies employing over 50,000 people. Its biggest competitor is Silicon Valley. A 2007 Report showed that of all the high-tech companies created in the UK and backed by venture capital, 18% were created in the small region around the University of Cambridge. This growth of high-tech industry has brought great prosperity to Cambridge - the jobs created are attractive, and these industries have little environmental impact. Indeed, many of these high-tech businesses are themselves tackling environmental problems. A single example: researchers at the University's Institute for Multiphase Flow have created a Cambridge-based company called Breathing Buildings, which manufactures energy-saving natural ventilation units. They have been installed in schools and colleges around the UK. This is clean, positive economic growth.

In the past 50 years, the importance of the University to the cluster of companies high-tech companies surrounding us has decreased, as the cluster has taken on a critical mass - but still we see proximity to the brains of the University among the prime motivations for companies - I might mention Microsoft, Genzyme, Xerox, Kodak, - who choose to locate in Cambridge.

c. Creation of intellectual capital

My third example of a role for universities, and the theme of this ministerial conference, is the creation of intellectual capital. The European Union, and the governments of its member states, foster this because of its economic productivity. That is the proper role of governments. Our citizens also cherish it, because of its life-enhancing effect on individuals. That is the proper role of citizens, and in this happy instance governments and citizens have common cause.

For the creation of intellectual capital there are two important conditions: time, and autonomy.

1. Time

Trickle-down from basic science can take a long time - in biomedical science, studies such as the MRC/Wellcome Trust RAND Corporation study 'What its worth?', have shown that it takes 17 years for an idea to get from a laboratory into use in hospitals and community doctors' surgeries. In business terms, that sort of timespan can seem geological - but university scientists know that in order to make any sort of difference whatsoever to the problems of the world, their discoveries and inventions need to get into the private sector. And the drive from the interaction with the private sector is a positive benefit and retains the emphasis of practical and appropriate solutions that are not just for tomorrow but for the here and now.

2. Autonomy

Autonomy operates at two levels - the institution, and the individual.

Academic staff must have the time, resources and infrastructure to develop their own interests and to attract others to forge strong teams. It is individual researchers who, through their curiosity and commitment, foster the spirit of discovery. This is what we call the "bottom-up" model, and its strength is that it harnesses the natural curiosity of our academic staff, and gives them complete ownership of the direction of their research. I firmly believe that it is this emphasis on individual autonomy that has enabled Cambridge to win 89 Nobel Prizes! More than any university in the world. In this regard the ERC support for individual investigators is particularly welcome. There are weaknesses to the bottom-up model - in particular, individual academic staff are mobile - they more from institution to institution, and they retire. If research projects are to have a life beyond the individual enthusiasm of an academic, they need to be rooted more firmly in the institution. The bottom-up model also fails to draw together academics who are working in complementary ways. It is not good at tackling big challenges that need more than one leader.

For innovative research projects that are both innovative and stable, therefore, autonomy is necessary at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the institution. Institutional autonomy - the power of a university to choose and pursue a direction - quickly creates both internal stability and external diversity, and diversity is a powerful strength, recognised as such by the European Research Area Committee. Diversity is also under attack, by national governments and, I observe, by structures created by Europe. I will mention two which are, in varying degrees, promising on the one hand and threatening on the other.

First, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the EIIT, may prove to be a powerful force. It is unfortunate, though, that the topics of focus have been selected in opaque ways - centrally, not organically - and announced to the academic community, not developed by them. That is a feature of centralisation, not of respect for autonomy and diversity.

Secondly, the proposed set of league tables, U-Multirank. Again, the intentions are good, and the project incorporates some unique design features - but the uniform experience of league tables so far has been that, withouth exception, they have been the enemy of diversity. Even though a user of the tables may know, in his heart, that universities are complex institutions, that our missions diverge, and that we do not do the same thing in the same way - still, the temptation is to look at University A, notice that it has been placed in a list one place above University B, and conclude that University A is 'better'. Soon the head of University B will be looking at how he can emulate University A, and the risk of homogenisation becomes clear.

In an economic environment of austerity and cutbacks, autonomy appears to be a luxury, and governments are tempted to create incentives for universities that are fine-grained in terms of desirable outcomes, and heavy-handed in terms of rewards and penalties. Governments know what they want: economic growth. But autonomy is not a luxury. It is an absolute and indispensible condition for excellence, and every step which tends to remove the power of universities to decide who they educate and how; and what they research and why; is a step towards mediocrity and paralysis. Cardinal Newman knew this in 1852; and the European Research Area Committee knows this in 2011.


I conclude that Europe can expect a very great deal of its universities, if they are treated with respect, funded adequately and appropriately, and allowed to follow their own paths and forge an intelligent diversity. The keywords are quality and critical mass and collaboration.


In the ceremony of beatification in the UK last year, the Pope praised Newman because, quote, he "applied his keen intellect and prolific pen to many of the most pressing subjects of the day" [end quote]. That remains the task of Europe's universities 150 years later.