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Who should set the research agenda in Universities?

Universities are complex, organic institutions. Their heart is the academic hub of scholarship and research, sustained  by the ever-changing life-blood of students who come through to learn, to challenge, to grow, and ultimately to leave,  having left their mark on those who have taught them. The excitement of working in a University environment is the daily experience of being challenged to think in new ways to solve old problems. Teaching  forces you to develop a perspective on problems in a way that then allows you to explain them to students. In turn, this can bring new clarity to your research, giving you new ways to come at the problem, and new ways of seeing things. And then, of course, that new understanding feeds back into the teaching.

To support all of this activity, though, requires money, and a lot of it. Money for people, for buildings, and for the resources that underpin scholarship. To give an idea of scale, Oxford University receives about £1000 M in income every year. Of this billion pounds, less than 20% comes from student fees, while over £400 M arrives in external grants and contracts from research sponsors. Most of this money for research comes in the form of project grants: funding solicited by an investigator, or group of investigators, to solve a problem that they have defined. But of course, there is never enough project grant income to go around. Success rates for applications to the major funding bodies (research councils, charities) are often 20% or lower and, increasingly, it is difficult to find the funding  to replace, overhaul, or even just to maintain the essential services and facilities that everyone relies on to keep the research flowing. With this as a backdrop, and with the global competition for the best scholars and researchers, it is perhaps only natural for Universities to look to diversify their research income.

In the field of science, there is a great deal of high quality research that goes on that is pushing entirely at the ‘blue skies’ frontiers of knowledge. This curiosity-driven research is, perhaps, most likely to be funded by research councils or charities. But scientific research has also always been about solving problems, and about equipping people with the intellectual and other skills to solve ‘real world’ problems. Recent years have seen a huge growth in activities related to identifying and understanding the drivers behind global environmental change. And currently, there are great efforts to understand and to tackle the leading problems that will define the next twenty to thirty years of environmental research: the future of food, of energy, of biodiversity, and natural resources. So who should set the research agenda in this area? And should there be areas that are out of bounds? There are no easy answers, but would it be appropriate for students of Earth Sciences not to explore fully the questions of how natural resources form? Or not to be exposed to the global challenges of how to meet the unsustainable but growing demands for energy and materials that are still being driven by consumption in the developed world? At the heart of it, research in Universities remains in the hands of the researchers. It is they who set the research agenda, and find pathways to the solutions. If Universities have become more effective at facilitating researchers to seek external funding to support their research, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Today sees the formal opening, in Oxford, of the Shell Geoscience Laboratory. This partnership provides £5.9M funding for a small number of staff (a Professorship, and several post-doctoral researchers and graduate research students), and some core laboratory equipment. The sum of money involved (equivalent to ca. £1M/yr over about 5 years) is, indeed, significant in the context of a research group – but is both a tiny proportion of Oxford’s annual research income (< 0.25%), and a small fraction of current external funding received by Oxford for studies into Earth, the Environment and the Climate System: Oxford’s current research portfolio from the Natural Environment Research Council currently exceeds £60 M. This does not look like funding that is buying ‘influence over the research agenda‘.

If we wish to demand greater social responsibility from the major global institutions, would it not be better to focus, as ShareAction are doing, on the rather more significant interests that Universities in general, and the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) Pension Fund in particular, hold through their investment portfolios?  In 2012, USS alone held investments of £900 M in the ‘hydrocarbon’ sector, and over £500 M in the minerals and mining sectors. Wisely used, that looks like a lot of leverage.

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David Pyle is a volcanologist, and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford. His first encounter with volcanoes was at the age of 7, when he visited Villarrica, Chile, shortly after an eruption. David studied geological sciences at the University of Cambridge, and later completed a PhD on the 'older' eruptions of Santorini, Greece. After a short post-doc at the California Institute of Technology, David returned to a lectureship in Cambridge. In 2006, he moved to his current post in Oxford. David tweets at @davidmpyle

2 Comments

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    Thanks for writing this interesting article. Whilst I personally have not strongly sided with either side of the arguments over the new Shell research laboratory I feel like the criticisms centre not just on the funding buying influence over the department but more on the apparent hypocrisy. For instance, how can a department which dedicates large amounts of time, effort,and expertise researching the extent and impact of climate change and being at the forefront of publicizing to the general public the importance and urgency of this research then also house a laboratory which studies the more efficient extraction of.hydrocarbons and their future emissions. For me this is the more difficult criticism to rebut.

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      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I can see why it might appear contradictory to have different research teams studying both the evidence for and consequences of climate change on the one hand; and studying the factors that control hydrocarbon formation and storage on the other. But this is the nature of science: in my view it is not contradictory to wish to advance knowledge of the whole problem, starting with trying to understand better how it is that stores of hydrocarbons become trapped inside the Earth. After all, if we can understand how it is that fluids can be immobilised inside the Earth for hundreds of millions of years, we can improve strategies for starting to remove some of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

      As I was trying to say in the blog, I think that it is also a mistake to characterise research in a top-down way: my department doesn’t of itself have a particular research strategy – beyond hiring individuals in particular fields, expecting these individuals to contribute to excellent quality research output, and putting in place structures and mechanisms to help facilitate this.

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