University of Exeter grows by ‘breaking down boundaries’

Posted On: 
5th December 2014

University of Exeter’s reputation as a leading science institution is driven by a commitment to inter-disciplinary research, explains Prof. Nick Talbot.

Climate change and sustainability are two of the areas of science research that will be vital to changing how we live in the coming decades, and the University of Exeter has built up an international reputation in both fields in a very short time.

Professor Nicholas J Talbot FRS, the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer, has been instrumental in establishing its science reputation in recent years.

“Exeter has always been very well regarded for its humanities and social sciences, it has always had really strong groupings in English, History and Politics, for example, but in the last ten years we have made a really concerted effort in improving the quality of our science base,” he tells Central Lobby.

“That has been predominantly done in an inter-disciplinary way, so we have built a very large grouping in Climate Change and Sustainability research, for instance, that builds on our links to the Met Office, which is in Exeter.”

Indeed, the university now has the largest grouping of climate change scientists anywhere in Europe.

Talbot says renewable energy research “is also an area of real strength” for Exeter, along with life sciences work, with a particular emphasis on disease research.

“Our medical school has a world-renowned diabetes group, known in particular for its work on genetics of type II and early onset childhood diabetes.”

Talbot is a molecular geneticist, and his speciality is plant diseases. He has been at Exeter for two decades, and has led the change in focus to inter-disciplinary working and building the university’s reputation for science research.

“I became Head of the School of Biosciences in 2005, shortly after we restructured science here, and we really refocused our scientific efforts on key strengths.

“One of these areas was systems biology; another was astrophysics, translational medicine, functional materials and, of course, this is how we built climate change research. We reorganised our sciences into these large inter-disciplinary themes and I was very involved in that process.

“I built up biosciences and undertook large-scale recruitment of scientific talent- most of the staff arrived after 2007. We went from a department with about 13 academics to one that now has around 80.

“When I became Deputy VC for Research in 2010, I set out to reorganise a lot more of our research along inter-disciplinary lines. We harnessed our humanities and social sciences expertise into themes such as Global Uncertainties and Identities and Beliefs, which address significant global challenges in geopolitics and human behaviour.

“Exeter has set out its stall as being truly inter-disciplinary, to mix people up into novel groupings. We have buildings filled with people from all sorts of academic backgrounds working together on common questions, which is exciting and interesting.

“What it does more than anything else is enable you to study problems that you simply could not study otherwise. If you are siloed into traditional subjects there is a limit to what you can address.

“Arguably if you want to understand sustainability, for example, you don’t need to just understand atmospheric physics, meteorology or climate mitigation, you need to understand human migration, the effects on economic development that result from a low carbon economy. Things you could not think of doing on your own.”

The biggest change in Talbot’s academic life has been the growth of the internet “a real revolution in science”.

“I was quite late to social media - I was encouraged by my own PhD students and research group to use Twitter, for instance".

“I am amazed by how much scientific discourse there is on Twitter, and now an awful lot of the papers I read are ones I find using social media."

“And of course when I read a paper I will now go online and see what everyone else thinks about it. The movement of ideas across the globe and the critical analysis of those ideas is now much faster and I think science will actually be the better for it, because of the scrutiny and discourse"

“Twitter can, of course, be quite shrill and reactive but once you cut through some of that, you can have a serious debate and exchange of ideas and you can read much more detailed work that you are led to find".

“The PhD students are so much part of that culture, and academic conferences have changed too with social media debate happening alongside debate in the hall.”

With the general election just six months away, the political parties are already putting together their manifestos. Talbot calls on them to consider how best to keep the UK’s university ‘ecosystem’ in balance, to ensure our world-class research continues.

“We get science done in the UK relatively cheaply compared to our competitors,” he explains.

“The OECD data shows that, as a proportion of GDP, we spend far less, yet from that we generate more highly-cited science."

“Of the most highly-cited work in any field, the highest proportion of that pro rata comes from the UK."

“We need to make sure we have a sufficiently robust ecosystem of research universities. Arguably if we are going continue to have universities in the top ten in the world, we really need another 20 to 30 universities which are also at a very high level and anchors for innovation in the regions"

“To sustain that you have to focus a high proportion of research funding on them."

“Given the public finances, the difficult decision the UK has to make is how to concentrate research funding to enable that pre-eminence in science to continue."

“After the election the chances are we will end up lower down the list of priorities so we have to start a debate about what is the best way to focus resource to get the biggest return on science investment."

“The Russell Group and other key research universities, around 25 to 30 of them, need to be well-funded for research and not just making their way through teaching revenue. “There needs to be robust funding for research to enable us to allow academics to spend time on pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.”

Talbot says Exeter’s rapid rise up the ranks for science research is also due to the traditionally hands-off approach from government to the sector.

“One of the great things about the UK system is that universities are sufficiently autonomous and we can set out our own priorities and because of that, you get universities like this one which can rise very quickly."

“Our research income has more than doubled in the last five years, and even over the last four years Research Council income has gone up 55% - we have made some spectacular rises."

“Every six years the UK goes through an evaluation of all the research carried out in the HE sector and that leads to the stream of income called QR – quality research.

“Some our research money comes through that route and the rest comes from research grants which academics apply for through the Research Councils.

“We end up with considerably more from the grants stream, because of industrial income and European income and others, but the QR income is nevertheless absolutely vital.

“It is money we can spend strategically on supporting our academics in any way we wish and it means we can set out into new areas. A lot of the inter-disciplinary work we would not be able to do without QR funding."

Talbot says that continued autonomy is vital to the future of UK universities.

“There are a number of threats to our universities, and it is not just the public finances, as we have been treated well by successive governments"

“I would like UK universities to attract more foreign students. We have such a strong reputation and we can attract some of the finest young minds in the world to come here, but this tends to get caught up in the whole debate on immigration."

“I would like to see international students outside of the immigration figures. They bring significant revenue so it’s good for the country, but from my perspective, it is really about us wanting to attract the finest young minds to work with us, irrespective of nationality. It is hugely beneficial to the UK"

“If you talk to BIS and the Treasury they absolutely understand this, but the Home Office can take a different view because of the political factors that influence their thinking.”

Food for thought for those involved in the political inter-disciplinary exercise that is putting together an election manifesto.