|Photo: Paul Boyle|
Major reviews of the way it is funded, assessed and organised present universities with the chance to explore new avenues and approaches, as well as requiring many to make some difficult choices. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will add further uncertainty to the situation.
As policy changes take shape in this new environment, further ambitions around multidisciplinary research seem very likely to emerge.
Of course, plenty of multidisciplinary work was supported across the Research Councils UK before the government adopted Paul Nurse’s recommendations for a fundamental shift in the research landscape. But one explicit aim of the proposal to bring the research councils under one umbrella organisation, UK Research and Innovation or UKRI, is to encourage and aid multidisciplinary research.
Since UKRI will also absorb Innovate UK, it might be reasonable to expect an increase in the amount of cross-working that has already been taking place between Research Councils UK and Innovate UK.
Here, it is important not to assume that research and innovation are independent and separate entities. In fact, the new structure represents an opportunity to move away from such linear descriptions and to adopt instead the language of an ecosystem approach that recognises that research/innovation interactions occur with most new ideas...
Multidisciplinary research institutes
At the University of Leicester, we are beginning to address this by launching four new multidisciplinary research institutes in Precision Medicine, Structural and Chemical Biology, Space and Earth Observation Science, and Cultural Media and Creative Economies.
Multidisciplinary research institutes are not new as a concept – there are plenty of examples in the United States and a growing number in the UK. But I believe the approach we will take at Leicester will be distinctive, and the timing of our launch is significant, given the current policy environment.
The word ‘institute’ has a certain cachet, but without careful management there is a risk that they can become little more than coalitions of the willing sustained by heroes. They should be ongoing ventures that are more targeted than research networks where people from various disciplines are simply encouraged to work together.
As our Richard III research has shown, Leicester already has a strong track record of multidisciplinary working, but we want to build on this and take it to the next level in our institutes, which will act as beacons of excellence across areas where we are particularly strong.
As we establish the institutes, we will also be grappling with the challenges of funding, governance and internal communication that other universities seeking to follow a similar route also face.
In order to deliver what we are asking of them, our institutes will have their own budgets and a good level of autonomy, underpinned by clear measures of performance. That does not sit well with the traditional structure of an institution where departments are like the vertical pillars through which research funding usually flows. The institutes need to be more like horizontal girders of research excellence spanning the university.
Source: University World News