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Vice-Chancellor's Office

 

LERU 10th Anniversary Conference, Barcelona, 10 May 2012

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

Introduction

I feel privileged to be addressing an audience of fellow Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors, in particular since my own tenure is of such recent date, and also since the UK has not always been a full and positive partner in European ventures. Still, I understand that the Oxford intellectual C S Lewis once started a speech by saying that since the organizers had invited a middle-aged moralist, then - however unlikely it may seem - they must have wanted to hear the views of a middle-aged moralist. You have invited a British scientist and Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, so I will assume - however improbably! - that you want to hear the views of a British scientist and Cambridge Vice-Chancellor.

I am delighted that, in this context at least, my un-British name is a useful signal: that I approach European matters with a fine appreciation of the tremendous benefits of European integration and partnership. I also bring to this speech a Curriculum Vitae that includes being Vice-President of EUROHORCs, the European Heads of Research Councils; and Chairman of the Health Research Advisory Board for the DG Research at the European Commission.

In the next 45 minutes or so, I shall explore the purpose and organization of research in Europe's universities. The title that Kurt gave me for this slot - "the Research University of the Future" - combined with the title of the conference as a whole, invites me to speculate on what the research university of 2050 might look like. I shall do no such foolish thing, but at the end of my remarks I shall extrapolate a little from trends. That is an approach which might take us, just about, to 2020, but I shall leave 2050 to science fiction writers.

The roles and contributions of Europe's research universities

The universities represented in this room are a brilliant asset for Europe. They, and universities like them, will be the principal providers of research for Europe. Indeed, governments worldwide see universities 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. 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 influence.

The values of a research university

If these roles constitute a job description for research universities, then what does that list have to say about our values? I suggest two key shared values for what I might call "LERU-like" universities: excellence, and relevance. I shall consider these values in relation to research, because it is research alongside education, rather than education alone, that shapes the unique contribution that LERU universities can make.

The essence of a university in the 20th and 21st centuries has been the unity of teaching and research. However, our teaching staff are not usually hired for their brilliance at teaching, but more often for their brilliance at research. We place heavy bets that enough of our faculty members will have a taste and aptitude for teaching - bets which are hedged by the great variety of modes of teaching we employ, and bets which, at institutional level, pay off. Although we have local, national and international responsibilities to admit talented students and to teach them to the highest degree of excellence, it is by our research performance that we stand or fall, and that our global reputations are made.

What is our research for?

Our research efforts are relevant, then, to the societies which we serve. If ever there was an age which contrasted ivory tower universities with 'the real world, that age is over. Serving society is at the core of what we do. We share these objectives with the authors and signatories of the Lisbon Treaty, whose aims will largely be delivered through the European Research Area. And if the work of universities is to be relevant to society, then it is natural that we focus on the problems facing society, and ask how we can contribute. The key political and societal focus at present - prominent in the French and especially Greek elections last Sunday, and consistently the biggest concern of voters in UK opinion polls - is the economy. Faced with the pressing need for economic growth, how can universities help?

Our universities are already making a huge economic contribution through our research: that much is obvious. Much of the research we perform is commissioned by governments, business and industry through contracts and grants, with economic productivity as an expressed aim. Also, we make discoveries and inventions which, formalised in recent years as 'technology transfer', are put directly to work by the private sector to generate economic return.

What is less obvious - indeed counter-intuitive - is that universities' contribution to the economy is so effective precisely because it is not our primary objective. Economic productivity is a by-product of the teaching and research that we perform for other reasons. If it were turned into a primary objective - if universities became the Research and Development branch of Big Industry - then our distinctive contribution would be lost. This is the first point that I particularly want to emphasize. If universities are asked to do near-market research, we will do it, and do it well - but it is not our primary mission, and nor is it even the primary economic contribution that we can make.

The nature of research

One reason for this is that the discoveries that make the biggest contribution economically tend to result from blue-skies, fundamental research, not applied, 'near-market' research. If a pharmaceutical company sets universities the task of improving the efficiency of a particular drug, for example, then the result will be economically and societally useful, but limited and maybe more effectively done within the company. However, a more fundamental question such as identifying a new target molecule is far better sited in a large multidisciplinary research intensive University. In such a circumstance, a university researcher primarily sets out, from curiosity, to discover how a fundamental biological process works, and the results can be unlimited - and transformative. This is what Francis Crick and James Watson did in Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratories in 1952: their discovery of the structure of DNA has had an effect on all our lives (and, as an example of economic benefit as a by-product, has generated uncountable billions of euro).

The two examples are of course connected: today's applied pharmaceutical research relies on yesterday's 'blue skies' research. Although the pipeline from one to the other is long (one study that I commissioned as Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council suggested that the time required to get a drug from laboratory bench to use in patients can be as long as 17 years) it is evident that the pipeline must not be broken - the basic research we do now will be applied by our successors in the years to come. We must not leave the cupboard bare for them. George Porter - a former President of the Royal Society, the UK's science academy - went further, insisting that fundamental research and applied research are at heart the same thing: "there are two types of research: applied, and not-yet-applied".

One further point about research: the vocabulary is understood differently in different European languages and traditions. In English the word "research" can apply to any discipline, but perhaps leans towards science. The word "scholarship" similarly can apply to any discipline, but has a definite tendency towards the arts and humanities - disciplines which suggest a single researcher rather than a team or lab group. It is important not to ignore, because of the biases of language, the contribution - cultural, economic, and societal - of arts, humanities and social science disciplines. The reason so many thousands of people come to Barcelona and other European cities each year is the "heritage industry", which depends ultimately on these disciplines.

How to organise research to maximise benefit to society?

Once we recognise a taxonomy of different kinds of research, it becomes important to ask how to organise it in order to maximise benefit to society. I shall consider two ways in which research can be organised: firstly the kinds of institutions that perform different kinds of research; and secondly how funding organisations channel resources to support research, and how the design of funding programmes affects the outcome of the research. Where should research be done?

First, then: where should research be done? Universities have competitors: big companies, even small ones in some sectors, can carry out their own; and research institutes are plentiful in Europe, some funded by the state, some by charities. There are plenty of successful examples, most obviously in Germany, where universities share space with Max Planck Institutes and Fraunhofer Institutes. However there are cultural reasons why the University model can be successful, even though in some, especially in universities with a strong past and present commitment to the arts and humanities, the "business-facing" attitudes necessary for innovation are sometimes viewed with suspicion.

My purpose here is not to argue that separating fundamental research from innovation is always wrong - but to argue, rather, that it is not always right, and that rigid, deliberately designed separation of these functions at European level would damage a diversity of approach which is fertile and fruitful. Here is a case study which I hope shows that pure, basic research and innovation - the whole pipeline - can exist productively under one roof (and, indeed, in one laboratory).

Case study: Plastic electronics at Cambridge

In the mid 1980s in the Cavendish laboratories in the Department of Physics at Cambridge, Professor Sir Richard Friend began a direction of research which has now resulted in the creation of two high-tech companies - but as he says (importantly, for our purposes): "my interest was pure curiosity". His initial research was about understanding how electrons might be made to move in carbon-based semiconductors: commercial use was far from his mind - but when he discovered a light-emitting plastic, he asked the University for help in protecting his Intellectual Property.

The first company he created was Cambridge Display Technology, or "CDT", to develop what are now called Polymer Organic Light Emitting Diodes. Using this technology, displays can be created by dissolving the polymers into a solution and printing them onto a surface. But the relationship between the commercial spin-out company and the University remains very close. As Professor Friend says: "Over the years, we have sent a lot of ideas [from my university laboratory] to CDT, but in return we have had access to the materials and methods that CDT has developed and this has helped us to push our fundamental research along much faster than would have been possible if we had had to do everything in the University".

His research group's second, related invention was an effective polymer-based transistor. Development of that invention also got to the point where, as he says, "I had a strong sense that the future seminal events in the development of organic transistors were going to be engineering events, not science events, and I believed that these were more likely to happen in a well-focused industrial environment". In consequence, he founded Plastic Logic, a company which is the global leader in the emerging field of plastic electronics: using its technology, you can carry hundreds of documents - spreadsheets, PDFs, Word documents - on an electronic device which is as thin and light as a pad of paper. It is unique because it uses plastic transistors, not silicon, and its flexible display is also plastic, not glass.

In 2008 Plastic Logic raised more than 100 million US dollars to build a large
manufacturing plant in Germany. In January 2010, it raised a further 700 million US dollars from the Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies (RUSNANO), and now has a further production factory near Moscow. Its corporate headquarters is in California, but its research and development department remains in Cambridge. Plastic Logic's Russian factory is now producing an electronic document reader for school students, whose rucksacks and tendency to drop things will make an interesting test for a plastic display which is claimed to be unbreakable.

This is an example of fundamental university research creating real value - economic value and practical value - for global society. In times of economic hardship, the UK government, at least, is tempted to focus its research funding on applied research: we are trying to persuade them that today's applied research is only possible because of yesterday's fundamental research!

Case study: The Cambridge Phenomenon

I feel that I have given too many Cambridge examples already, but I hope you will forgive me for this one, because the cluster of high-tech companies around Cambridge is a development worthy of examination. I can also mitigate my focus on Cambridge by stating clearly that although various actions by the University and its Colleges encouraged these companies, the "Cambridge Phenomenon" is not a process owned or managed by the University, and perhaps the most important policy that the University adopted was a policy of interfering as little as possible.

As a matter of history, in 1960, a pair of Cambridge graduates formed a company called Cambridge Consultants, starting the development of a cluster of high-tech companies around the University. This was later described as 'the Cambridge Phenomenon': the process by which entrepreneurial scientists created companies to take advantage of the proximity to a great research university - and, as the cluster grew, to other companies doing similar things.

To put this development into perspective you need to be aware how small Cambridge is as a city - just 100,000 people - and the surrounding area only grows this number to 600,000 or about 1% of the UK population. Despite this we now have around the city over 1,400 high-tech and bio-tech companies, from tiny recent 'spin-outs' from university laboratories to arms of multinational companies like Microsoft. They are in diverse sectors - information technology certainly, but also bioscience, medical sciences, telecommunications, consumer goods, and industrial services. And they have brought 40,000 knowledge workers to the Cambridge region - and the regional population growth rises to 80,000 if you include their families.

Eleven companies which started in the Cambridge cluster are now valued at over 1 billion euro - including Autonomy whose business software is in use in every industry, and ARM, whose microchips are in your mobile phone, your car and your TV. To illustrate the economic value of basic research, I only need to observe that
Autonomy Corporation, which was bought by Hewlett Packard last year for 10.2 billion US dollars, began life as the PhD thesis of one of our engineering students.

That initial spark - the foundation of Cambridge Consultants - was important of course, but it took much more than that to create the vibrant cluster of companies we see today. Along the way, Cambridge established the UK's first science park (in 1970), and the UK's first incubator for start-up businesses, the St John's Innovation Centre, in 1987. The example of the Cambridge Phenomenon argues against forcing universities down the narrow path of fundamental, blue-skies research, while leaving 'applied' research and innovation to research institutes, and private-sector R&D labs: What the University of Cambridge offers to the companies in the cluster is access to an entire spectrum of research from fundamental to applied, with the support services (technology transfer offices, science parks and incubators, seed funding) that go with it. Separating "applied" from "not-yet-applied" would certainly not be wise, and may not even be possible.

Universities are the last institutions able to integrate knowledge from many different sources and many different disciplines. Universities can identify interesting developments in unexpected places and combine them to produce practical solutions to big problems. We can only do this because of firstly, our academic breadth, secondly because we are autonomous, and thirdly because we give freedom to our individual researchers to follow promising avenues.

I draw three conclusions:

  1. Europe's globally competitive research universities can, already do, and should drive innovation.
  2. Blue skies and applied research are part of the same spectrum and both contribute directly to innovation.
  3. Horizon 2020 should avoid perpetuating an artificial distinction between Research and Innovation. They are not the same but innovation that drives national economies and creates jobs is largely dependent on research. Such innovation is most successful when conducted in tandem with research. I believe this will be as true of research Universities in 2020 as it is today.

Research funding models

So far, I have discussed the location of research, and in particular I have argued that Europe's research universities offer a valid home for innovation as well as for blue-skies research. I now turn to how the design of funding models can influence what sort of research you get.

Research is the dominant component of Europe's LERU-like universities - but there are major national differences, which make policy-making and framework- making at a European level difficult. All our universities depend on winning research funding competitively. We all know that researchers will competitively seek resources to fund their work and we will support them.
Funders are well are of this financial driver and use it to promote their immediate priorities. To avoid distorting our missions unacceptably, responsible research funding must, in its design, ensure support for novel, innovative directions, as well as build on what is already known. The major funding bodies direct resources to research in different ways, but trends are apparent - some obvious, some subtle; some intentional, others not - which may have a significant impact on the research university of the future.

I will consider the three main funding models, each with advantages but also disadvantages - and identify trends which may predict how they could influence the future research university. The three funding models are:

  1. Investigator-led, responsive-mode grants;
  2. Grand Challenge model;
  3. awards to support individuals, rather than projects.

1) Investigator-led, responsive-mode grants
In this mode, an individual investigator submits a project funding proposal which is peer reviewed, and awards made on the basis of the review. Funders are encountering problems with this model which they find difficult to address:

  • Demand always far exceeds supply
  • Administrative costs to the funding body
  • Peer review is still the gold standard used by funders and remains the best that we can do. However, we have to be very aware of its limitations. It is not clear how effective peer review is at discriminating between several research projects which are all at an international level of excellence. It is arguable that peer review is good at defining whether a piece of research is internationally excellent, but that it can't distinguish at a more granular level than that. When funding success rates fall below a threshold (usually <20%) this becomes a real issue. If research described in a proposal is unorthodox, it tends to get marked down by reviewers, who as a body often act conservatively. Used indiscriminately it can perpetuate the status quo - for example, the National Institutes of Health in the USA reported recently that most investigators were in their 40s before obtaining their first independent award.

2) Grand Challenge model

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation led the way in popularising a different mode of funding: the so-called 'grand challenge' model which identifies an ambitious target - the eradication of malaria, for example - and funds large teams to meet that challenge. Problems with this model:

  • Universities and institutes all want a slice of these very large pies, and so configure themselves to meet the best-known challenges: meaning that they all end up focusing on the same problems. It might be more sensible in certain circumstances to direct resource at a problem that is 'on the way to' a grand challenge: a halfway house.
  • This tends to produce thematic 'centres' in universities (Energy Centres, Institutes for Food Security, etc.) which attract talented researchers (and,
    particularly, researchers who talk a good talk) - potentially depriving the discipline-based faculties and departments of funds and people to develop and retain core skills upon which successful research relies.

3) Awards to support individuals, rather than projects

Especially in the sciences, investigators building a serious programme of research will have several research projects in their lab. Since many more grant proposals are made than are funded, investigators are constantly writing (often fruitless) grant applications. To break out of this pattern, the research community has petitioned funding bodies to make large, bold, investments in stellar individuals, so that this generation of Einsteins does not spend their time and energy on writing grant proposals. (the peer review process is not good at supporting true paradigm-changing research, so it is entirely possible that today's Einsteins will have their grants rejected.) Problems with this approach:

  • Investing in individuals rather than responsive-mode grants takes out of circulation a huge sum that would have gone into thematic research.
  • The approach also picks 'winners' at an early age, risks creating a demoralising two-tier system - those with individual funding and those without - and potentially leaves very able researchers without the means to set up their research group.
  • There is an "unwritten rule": even if the lion's share of award-worthy individuals are in one department, or one institution, or one country, the unhelpful signals sent by allocating resources accordingly are often too unpalatable for the funding body, which may impose - probably without articulating it - a quota.

European structures

The development of the European Research Area (ERA) along with Horizon 2020, and its associated funding, has significantly challenged our thinking. There are three pillars:

  1. Basic science, delivered primarily through the European Research Council and/or elements of a response-mode framework largely by support for individual researchers.
  2. Innovation and technology transfer largely supporting applied research and interaction with industry.
  3. Research in support of societal challenges and infrastructure - a thematic grand challenge approach.

There are many positives in this approach, but I worry if themes are decided 'top-down', with limited input from the community of European research-led universities and their researchers.

Research funding models: some conclusions, and some questions

The systems-oriented changes outlined above will have a tremendous impact on research intensive universities. It leaves us with challenges, which include:

  • How do we ensure that a university structure which is still largely based in discipline based units can deliver multi-disciplinary solutions?
  • How do we combine grand-challenge approaches with investigator-led research, preserving the distinct benefits of both?
  • Support for individuals, coupled with increased mobility of researchers and increasing requirements for costly infrastructure, increases institutional instability. How do we avoid that trap?
  • As international universities we are all seeking strategic research partnerships, with academia and with the private sector. How do we use this changing environment of research funders to continue to promote such activity?

These new shifts and tensions in research funding carry enormous implications, with risks and opportunities in equal measure, both for funders and performers of research - but also for the wider world. We have a responsibility to get it right. My strong recommendation would be that provided national-level funding is sufficient and appropriately focused, European funding can and should concentrate on long-term, fundamental research excellence. In implementing Horizon2020, then, the EU should recognise that it is university research, in particular the "not yet applied" variety, that produces the sustainable, long-term growth and the societal contribution that Europe desperately needs.

The role of LERU and its members

So let me close by doing a little crystal ball gazing looking at the next 10 years or so. Firstly, must recognise that Europe is fortunate to have strong, research-intensive universities which can step up to meet the challenges that we are and will continue to encounter as a society. Let me use the four words that make up the name of LERU as an economical framework to consider who we are, what we do, and what contribution we can and must make.

League

We are a voluntary association there is no coercion or any artificial attempt at delivering uniformity. Indeed our membership is diverse and competitive - both are healthy attributes. However, we all understand the need for PARTNERSHIP. We can and do work together to complement our research endeavours between ourselves, other academic institutions, industry and society. This trend will grow because infrastructure is getting more complex and expensive and will need to be shared and complex problems need a multiplicity of approaches which cannot be totally confined to one institution. Here our diversity is and will continue to be our strength. Many trends tend to drive towards uniformity - that is probably the biggest mistake that we or our countries could make - ask the dinosaurs what happened when the meteorite hit! Diversity enables adaptation and sustainability of the sector and will ensure its health especially when the predictability of the world of tomorrow is so difficult. While we compete, this also drives quality but being in LERU also means that as friends we share experience to deliver greater excellence in education and research. I believe that that commitment to excellence characterises this group and will be equally essential in the future.

European

We are European and therefore the sphere of our operations is important: Europe is of the right scale because as globally competitive universities scale and the international dimension is key to our future success. Europe, both as member states and the Commission, must sustain competitiveness with North America and increasingly the East if we are to maintain our economic prosperity. We individually and as LERU must rise to this challenge to support this effort if our missions which strive to serve society are to be meaningful.

Research

It is our research mission which allows us to develop solutions to our pressing problems. Today's leading Research Universities already embrace excellence in research, innovation and knowledge transfer. How are we distinctive from other research providers especially Research Institutes? Here the commitment to education led through research is fundamental - we do not just produce research results but we have the responsibility of educating those who will follow us. We must imbue them now and in the future with those academic values that have stood the test of time and characterise our universities.

But there is something more. As research led universities we have a breadth of disciplines in our institutions that allow for natural integration of arts, humanities and sciences and are a natural basis for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. Such work will be at the heart of the 'grand challenges' that face society - in my own research the major hold up for vaccine development is so often not the technological discovery but its acceptability to policy makers and society as a whole. Therefore understanding this is not down to the biomedical disciplines alone but involving others from social sciences, psychology and political sciences. We are the natural home for societal challenges and must engage actively with the private as well as public sectors to ensure the benefits of research are realised as rapidly as possible. This drive will increase as policy makers and research funders increasingly measure success by outcomes and we must adapt to this. That means that certain academic disciplines will disappear and new ones will emerge - that's progress. However, we must resist the real danger that the long-term fundamental research agendas are sacrificed as well as the focus on the development of individuals working in our Universities. My personal belief is that this is important because it is through the support of individuals, such as the examples I have spoken about, and their ideas that deliver the paradigm shifts that will develop the new industries of tomorrow.

Universities

Above all we are Universities. We are all committed to excellence in all aspects of our activity - a value that cannot and must not change. As I have argued, our institutions gain from the unity of teaching with research; they gain from breadth of discipline; and they gain from being a set of interconnected ecosystems, where the unexpected may happen. But our globally competitive Universities do something more than just educate a workforce and deliver research outcomes. We educate the
leaders of tomorrow and that is a heavy responsibility yet one we must accept with alacrity.

But are there necessary conditions to enable us to continue to contribute to society in this positive way? In medicine, I have no idea what a clinician will be required to know in 30 years but I do know that, if she has studied with us, she will be well equipped to adapt to the future world because of our commitment to education rather than training that is inherent in LERU Universities' ethos. To deliver to society there is a perspective that must not be lost sight of and that is that Universities have to plan for the long term and cannot be deflected from that by short term vicissitudes. Therefore we must continue to support and if necessary fight for institutional autonomy. It is a strength, that maintains diversity and delivers the long term perspective that is characteristic of our Universities.

I underlined this in a speech I made at the opening of the Competitiveness Council of EU Ministers in July last year, under the Polish Presidency. I said:

"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 indispensable 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."

Why it matters

So why does this matter and why do universities want these onerous responsibilities? The answer lies in our mission: to serve society. If ever there was a time when academia was in contrast to the 'real world', that time is surely over. Serving society is at the core of what we do. By pursuing research in all disciplines and at all points in the spectrum, from the most direct form of applied innovation to the most fundamental inquiry into the way the world works, Europe's globally competitive research universities hold the key to growth in our economies - and the wellbeing of our society now and well into the future.