Reflections on Research & Innovation at The University of Surrey in 2018

Approaching the completion of my first year at Surrey, I consider how we stand in research and innovation, and talk about the future and how I see the role of the VPRI portfolio.  It is a long read – so I have tried to provide sub-headings so you can browse.

Rankings

We have much to be proud of in research and innovation, and this is reflected in the overall performance of the University in the main international rankings that we follow: ARWU (372); QS (248); and THE (256). Our five-year trends are all upwards, which is encouraging. Each ranking is measured differently emphasising different aspects of our performance, but collectively they present a picture of steady improvement. Our target in the Corporate Strategy is top 200 in each of these. Subject rankings vary likewise, but we are placed in the top 100…

For ARWU: Hospitality and Tourism (5); Telecommunication Engineering (41); Aerospace Engineering (42); Transportation Science and Technology (51-75); Veterinary Sciences (76-100);

For QS: Hospitality and Leisure Management (4); Nursing (51-100); and

For THE: Business & Economics, Social Sciences, Psychology, Engineering & Technology, Computer Science, and Law all sit between 100 and 200.

Individual Honours

Many individuals shone this year, including: freshly minted Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), Professor of Physics Jim Al-Khalili, new Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering Guglielmo Aglietti; Rahim Tafazolli was awarded the prestigious Regius Chair in Electronic Engineering; Ravi Silva received the Institute of Physics’ James Joule Medal and Prize; Adrian Hilton received the Institute of Engineering & Technology Achievement Award; Faith Gibson was awarded a prestigious Lifetime Achievement award from the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP), the first nurse ever to receive this accolade; and continuing on with Nursing, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) bestowed one of its highest honours ad eundem to both Jill Maben and Ann Gallagher – Fellowship of the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery. All these achievements build on the efforts and strength of the University’s Research and Innovation community.

An Example of the Great Research at Surrey

Of the many examples of outstanding research this year, I will relay just one that struck a chord with me – the Technology Integrated Health Management (TIHM) for dementia project, a collaboration between Surrey, the NHS, and 16 other partners. This project has seen the development of monitoring systems to help better manage dementia patients in their homes, through the combination of clinical insight, remote sensing/Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. The project is led at Surrey by Prof Emma Ream (Health Sciences), and Prof Payam Barnaghi (Centre for Vision, Speech & Signal Processing), who was promoted from Reader in this year’s promotion round. When I visited this team, I was struck by the effectiveness of the on-screen monitoring system – Payam’s team have nailed the challenge of collecting a massive amount of data and distilling it into a form meaningful to health professionals – by no means a straight-forward challenge. The importance and excellence of this work has seen it win a string of awards in 2018: HSJ Award; NHS70 AwardBest Mental Health Initiative, e-health IT Awards; Guildford Innovation Awards.

In many ways, this effort epitomizes Surrey: excellence, collaborative (two of our core values), driven by the desire to make a difference, and mixing advanced technology with social and human factors. I understand that this project will move from research to roll-out within the NHS within two years, and part of the group has just been successful in attracting further funding as part of the £20m Dementia Research Institute Care Research & Technology programme.

How to Broaden our Research Base

Overall, though, the narrowness of our research base impedes us in several ways – we are just too small compared to our competitors and too reliant on a small number of researchers. In part, we overcome this through our strength in collaboration: our top ten collaborators, in rank order, are: University College London; Imperial College London; University of Oxford; the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS); University of Cambridge; King’s College London; the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC); National Physical Laboratory; Royal Surrey County Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; and University of Manchester. An impressive 72% of our papers are published with a collaborator.

We are seeking to broaden our base in different ways. Our flagship is the Strategic Hires campaign, in which we seek to appoint new stars who complement and strengthen our existing base. 2019 sees our first two groups joining us – to be led by Prof Inga Prokopenko in FHMS, and Prof Tao (Tony) Xiang in FEPS, and we anticipate up to 20 appointments via this route over the next five years. There is also the Vice-Chancellor’s Fellows scheme – fractional (0.2 FTE)  3-year appointments designed to establish greater engagement of external researchers with Surrey – a sort of “collaborator on steroids”. Both of these schemes are managed through the Strategic Recruitment Steering Group led by the Provost – talk to your Dean! We also have a new overall Fellowships strategy, led by Atti Emecz, Director, Research Strategy, and approved this year by Senate, which includes an internally funded Surrey Research Fellowship scheme for ECRs, with deadline at the end of January: apply here! Through this scheme, we shall appoint three fellows per year to three-year positions and mentor these researchers to become independent academic leaders of the future, and seek to graduate them to national fellowship schemes, such as the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships scheme.

More PhDs at Surrey

Another key issue in relation to scale is the size and quality of our PhD cohort and, here again, we are investing in our future, seeking to double our PhD cohort within five years. Again, at a little over 1000 FTE in PhD students, we have at least a 25% smaller cohort size than our competitors. We seek to recruit at least 250 more students in 2019/20 with an opening marketing campaign  “Come to Surrey and Change the World” featuring initiatives such as the Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship – a high-value prestigious award for outstanding graduates. And, we are increasing our investment in marketing for PGRs, with the webinar series  proving popular, and applications overall up by 40% on last year and more than 70% on two years ago.

But, of course, increasing applicant numbers alone is not enough – we need a recruitment system that is responsive and selective. To convert the best student applicants to enrolments, we need to move fast. This year, we identified, through an external consultant, that our processes were sub-optimal, and have initiated a project led by the Doctoral College to address this. We are also actively considering how we measure applicant quality across the university to ensure our scarce scholarship resources are spent on attracting the best students overall. Whereas our best academics may well be able to see a weak student through successfully, strong students provide the base for great and productive research – this is where we wish to be. That our current students are satisfied with the Surrey “value-add”, seeing us attain the 7th highest rating in the UK Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, is gratifying, but we are not resting on our laurels. The Doctoral College team has recently been reorganised under a single expanded structure to deliver a greater value-add to our PGRs and extend this in a still more integrated way to our ECRs – with a goal to reach best-in-class as regards the employability of our postgraduates – including a stronger focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. The Doctoral College leadership team, led by Chris France, involving Manager Shane Dowle, and the Associate Deans Doctoral College, Jeremy Allam (FEPS), Rachel Brooks (FASS) and Kate Gleeson (FHMS), are exceptionally well aligned and ambitious to take us forwards, which is great to see.

Citations

As well as broadening the base of our research profile, another area for improvement is our overall citation performance – we consistently achieve a field-weighted citation index below too many of our peers, whichever of the various groupings we consider – by at least some 10-30%. Whilst there may be good reasons for this, such as working on nearer term applied research, overall it points to the need to raise our quality profile – it does not advantage us to be an outlier based on this metric. Such metrics are impacted by the narrowness of our base, and are not altered quickly, but we are seeking to ensure that we are well calibrated as regards international quality benchmarks – across all areas of the University from Advancement to Faculties to Research & Innovation Services, we need to make sure we all know what world-class looks like.

Research Funding

On the research funding front – we are tracking in the right direction, with total funding in 2017/2018 reaching £38.6m, well up from £29.5m five years ago, but needing to continue on a strongly upward trend to meet the Corporate Goal of £60m by 2021/22. Much of the above will feed into increased opportunity through a wider and more able research base, and the opportunity presented through the Industrial Strategy is huge, even when tempered by the potential disruption/loss of European funding caused by Brexit. Turning opportunity into actual funding, however, requires constant effort – and efforts around the Industrial Strategy, Global Challenges Research Fund, Fellowships (as mentioned), partnerships such as NPL, forging new and growing our existing Research Themes, and international links are all ongoing. Of particular note is the increased effort from Advancement – which has delivered several shots of research funding directly into our system, which is very welcome indeed.

Innovation

The importance of Innovation nationally has been ratcheted up this year with continual impetus and reinforcement provided by the Industrial Strategy. We have a strong reputation for our innovation performance – sitting in the top five nationally for many years for income from IP, through our spectacular success in spinning out Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. However, of late, we have come back to the field and now are out-performed by our peers, earning only around £600k pa from our IP. Of course, income generation is only one measure of success of an innovation ecosystem, and the Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) will help us generate a more sophisticated overall measurement framework.

It was gratifying to see the continued success of SETsquared, including being awarded world’s best university-based incubator for the second time, and our further engagement with SPRINT, SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology, a Space sector high-growth programme for SMEs, just kicking off now, led by Leicester, and involving Edinburgh, Open University, Southampton and Surrey. Congratulations to Caroline Fleming and her team!

In another example, I was delighted to see the renewal of Nigel Gilbert’s ESRC-funded Centre for Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), enabling us to form a company to help ensure the methods and tools developed within this centre may be effectively disseminated to government in helping to develop better policy. And still more: An Innovate UK funded Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between Plastipack Ltd and the University of Surrey won the Institute of Physics’ Business Innovation Award – our quantum optics and photonics researchers helped design a swimming pool cover that keeps out visible light, suppressing algae growth, but lets through infra-red light, helping keep the water warm – brilliant!

Innovation, the Surrey Research Park, and our Offer to Business

A further worthwhile example is our finding that 53% of the 140 or so businesses on the Surrey Research Park have some form of engagement with Main Campus activities – we feel we can deepen this engagement and, of course, there are 47% who at present do not have any engagement. Malcom Parry, Director of the Surrey Research Park, is working with Jenny Ritchie in the Research & Innovation Services Business Development team to improve on this aspect – and we will measure the results. This study, and other interactions, have highlighted our somewhat disjointed approach to Business at present, with no one single integrated offering, linking our existing activities in student placement, PGR projects, research collaboration, consultancy, engagement and philanthropy – something we will continue to pursue.

VPRI Portfolio and Role

In the first half of 2018, we re-organised the structure of the VPRI portfolio to bring research and innovation, the Doctoral College, and the Surrey Research Park under one umbrella – and created two Strategy directorates – Research Strategy led by Atti Emecz, and, in late 2018, Dr Claire Thorne joined us to head up Innovation Strategy. Claire will spearhead efforts in 2019 on a number of fronts – including rejuvenating our innovation culture, to ensure all our academics understand what is involved, and have the opportunity to engage in innovation in general. Part of this story will be to update and clarify our IP Policy, and how we are organised to perform technology transfer, as well as how we partner with Industry in general. All projects of considerable scale and importance that should support improving our Innovation performance overall.

So, finally, there are two “capstone” elements I wish to touch on before I conclude.

First, we seek to ensure Team Surrey is fully aligned strategically – aligning Department Research Plans, to those of Schools and Faculties, and University. Making sure we are fully joined up is key to ensuring we maximise the results of our collective efforts in Research and Innovation. Thanks to those of you who provided your latest research planning documents earlier this year – as we seek to update and refresh the Research Strategy, combine it with an Innovation Strategy and see it published in Q2 2019 – to sit alongside the Corporate Strategy.  And let us all not forget the important role of Advancement in this – research funded by philanthropy has the potential to grow if we work effectively together.

Second, we need to ensure we support our academics with a world-class administrative framework – a one-stop shop for Researchers. Operationally, this “shop” extends from Advancement, Employability & Careers, Global and beyond to all central and Faculty-based Research and Innovation services. This process has commenced within Research & Innovation Services (RIS) – bringing the Research Pre-Awards and Research Legal Contracts teams into RIS; separating out the big-picture strategy elements into Research Strategy and Innovation Strategy (also supported by RIS); establishing a single senior point of contact in Research Finance (Rachel Harris); and moving Gill Fairbairn’s REF team into Strategic Planning to better access the analytical skills in this unit. (Our REF 21 readiness is excellent, by the way, with considerable ongoing work from many colleagues on output review, and especially on impact case studies.) Our new Interim Director of RIS, Saniyah Testa, knows she has a big job on her hands, but the VPRI team and RIS staff are right behind her on this journey – there is huge appetite to do things still better – so please do provide your feedback whenever you can.

Throughout this year, I have been constantly reminded of the strength of the Surrey community – its energy, commitment and capacity to make a difference – and its goodwill and preparedness to try something new.  For my part, despite the apparent sea of chaos created by Brexit, Augar etc., I see much opportunity and a bright future for those who can seize it. Let us be one of the winners to sail forth from this uncertain period.  A bright 2019 to you all!

Next time….thanks for reading.