Nurturing 'islands' of excellence in a developing UK research landscape

Nurturing 'islands' of excellence in a developing UK research landscape

27 April 2018


We invited Professor Sir Ian Diamond, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and chair of the Expanding Excellence in England (E3) assessment panel, to share his thoughts on developments in the UK’s research landscape and the potential for Research England’s first new funding scheme.

The UK is, without doubt, a research powerhouse and one can easily list a plethora of statistics to evidence this. My own view is that this position of eminence has come about as a result of many things but notably a continued commitment to funding both the people and the infrastructure to enable great research to take place; and by doing so in an environment that privileges excellence and is prepared to recognise excellence wherever it is found.

At present the opportunities have perhaps never been greater. The government has, in trying financial times, committed fully to investing in research and innovation as a central plank of driving sustainable growth and promoting social cohesion. The significant extra funds in this parliament; the commitment to building UK research and development to 2.4 per cent of GDP; and the introduction of UK Research and Innovation all point to a positive future for the UK research community.

As part of this positive future, it is great that there is support, across the research council spectrum, for the fundamental science that will lead to future breakthroughs, and there is also support for a number of exciting interdisciplinary initiatives. Some, such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund have the potential not only to break new ground in research but to impact on local economies and societies across the UK. In addition, the Global Challenges Research Fund will impact on people in low income countries across the globe. I was recently privileged to chair a panel awarding funding for work on early childhood development and can attest to the benefits of the response mode approach taken by the British Academy and to the amazing quality of the research proposals.

Yet, while there is great research in the UK and while the UK has many outstanding centres of excellence we should never rest on our laurels; it is critical for government funders and the universities to continue to work together to maintain the excellence of the research base. A hurdle may exist in that as subjects and areas of research develop or as individual ‘islands’ of excellence need nurturing, there is not the opportunity to build critical mass in a short time period; and hence to jump start major research opportunities.

That is why I welcomed fully this initiative by Research England to fund the development of capacity and quality in English institutions where the opportunity exists for sustainable growth. I am further excited by the fact that proposals to this fund can be from consortia of institutions – where there are clear divisions of responsibility and of governance; and by the fact that proposals can come from across the research spectrum and have the potential to advance fundamental research or to impact on economic development or social cohesion.

It is a real privilege to be asked to Chair the panel that will make the decisions on these awards; invites have now gone out to, and I would be delighted to be joined by, highly distinguished colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. We will make the decisions using a two stage applications process and I know I speak for all my colleagues in that we cannot wait to be inspired, as I know we will be, by the proposals.

Further information on the Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund and details of the first, expression of interest (EOI), stage of can be found here. The deadline for submissions to the EOI is noon 17th July 2018.