Speech: The Future of the Research Silk Road: A perspective on collaborative research with Asia

The Heriot-Watt University Vice-Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture, 20 February 2018

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening!

I am extremely honoured and delighted to be invited to give the Vice-Chancellor’s distinguished lecture.

In the next half hour or so, I will talk briefly about my own institution – the University of Surrey. I will share with you some personal perspective on the ‘Research Silk Road’ and the importance of collaboration with Asia. I will highlight some areas of opportunities for partnerships and how we can best approach to developing effective partnerships.

Obviously I don’t look like a Scotsman nor do I sound like one, even with my funny accent. So… who am I? I won’t bore you with my CV, but I’d just like to share a bit about myself that is not normally in my bio.

I grew up in rural China, during the cultural revolution, when Chinese universities were closed. Little did I know back then that I would go on to enjoy a academic career that would take me to the forefronts of knowledge and innovation.

After the cultural revolution, Chinese universities were able to re-open. Aged 16, I entered Northeastern University with a scholarship. I went to Australia to study at the age of 24, for my PhD at the University of Queensland, with $20 in my pocket and a scholarship promise by the University.  The first week I survived on the $3 left after a cab-ride from the airport, plus a good deal of kind help from my fellow PhD students.

Through my personal experience I know just how universities can change people’s lives for the better. More importantly, it can give people the opportunity to help change the lives of others, through education and research.

And that’s what all of us do at Surrey and Heriot Watt. We change lives.

Let me share with you how the University of Surrey has been changing lives locally and globally.

Since its royal charter 51 years ago, the University of Surrey has become a truly global community of talents and ideas, forged by effective collaborations across institutions, business and industry. Surrey was the University of the Year in 2016, and won a TEF Gold Award in 2017. We were also awarded our 4th Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2017, in food and nutrition sciences. Other awards include four Oscars, seven Grammys and 12 BAFTAs bestowed to our extraordinary graduates from music and performing arts. With more than 16,000 students, and 116 companies on the Surrey Research Park, we make a significant contribution (£1.7bn) to the national and local economy.

One of the USPs of the University of Surrey is its great tradition and capacity in working with industry and business through more than 2,300 partners locally and globally. Another is our Professional Training Year. THE rated us as one of the top 50 in the world among the Tech Challenger universities in 2017.

Ultimately our ambition is to inspire people to make an impact!

  • As a global community of ideas and people, we are dedicated to life-changing education and research
  • Through exceptional teaching, we inspire and empower our students for personal and professional success
  • Through world-class research, we aim to make transformational impact on society, not the least helping to shape the future digital economy
  • We can only succeed by agile collaboration and partnerships with businesses, governments and communities.

In achieving our goals by working together with our partners, we help shape a better world for tomorrow.

The real impact that a university makes, through its graduates, and research is the global recognition and prestige, which in turn translate into what I call the “reputational capital.” This will, over the long run, add to the resources needed to sustain excellence in teaching and research. Such is the virtuous cycle of impact and growth. Among the input factors, there is a key element I would like to single out: collaboration – collaborations between academia, business, industry and other institutions. The word “collaboration” may be perceived as rhetorical, or even sometimes a bit cliché, but doing it well is not easy — more an art than science. I will return to this point later.

Seriously, great collaboration can help us act faster, work smarter, improve value and reduce costs. The benefits of great collaborations or partnerships can recur year after year, so it does feed into this virtuous cycle. Collaboration isn’t just ‘nice to do’ but is absolutely necessary. We simply cannot succeed without adapting and collaborating. This is doubly true for higher education, particularly in the current challenging environment, which is becoming ever more competitive both in funding and attraction of talented students and staff — not to mention Brexit and the HE Funding Review. We cannot stand still, and must constantly pursue new and innovative ways of achieving success. In my view, strategic collaboration is one effective way for the HE institutions to meet these challenges and make greater impact.

In respect to collaboration and partnerships, I have been asked to talk about the so-called “Research Silk Road.”

A good historic example of the benefits of global trade is the Silk Road. This ancient network of trading routes established around 114 BCE served to link the east and west through commerce and cultural interactions. The route extended over 4,000 miles across Europe, Arabia, India and China and was named after the lucrative silk trade originating in China around 200 BCE.

The Silk Road opened long-distance political and economic relations between civilisations; cultural exchanges flourished as readily as tangible goods flowed. One of the key centres along the Silk Road is Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, which was a prominent strategic center of scholarship, commerce and trade along the Silk Road. After the fall of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Road disintegrated in 15 century AD. However, after the Tashkent earthquake in 1966, the capital city rebuilt itself and triggered the revival of modern cities along the Silk Road, which paved the way for the ‘New Silk Road’.

As well as physical trade routes, since the 1980s the information superhighway — the internet — has also enabled civilisations to expand faster and wider, accelerating the globalisation trend. And the world has benefited tremendously.

Global economic growth continued, but with the industrial revolution and dwindling of the Qing dynasty in China, the world economic centre of gravity started to shift and in the span from about 1820 to 1913 it moved from Asia to Europe. And the history is clear after World War Two: that is the point when the economic centre moved across the Atlantic to the USA.

However, the combination of lower growth in developed countries and fast urbanisation of the emerging economies triggered the most rapid development in Asia, particularly East Asian countries. So between 2000-2010, the economic centre of gravity swept back to Asia.

Well known to this audience is that as part of the phenomenal economic growth story, Asian higher education has risen rapidly too.

At the 2017 HEPI Annual Lecture, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan (former NUS president) spoke about “major shifts in global higher education: A perspective from Asia.” He highlighted the ‘massification’ of HE in Asia, and the importance of universities to innovation and the expansion of research. Nick Hillman said, in introducing Professor Tan, that: “The rise of Asian universities is, without doubt, the single most important current change happening in global higher education. It threatens the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon models… while also providing unrivalled opportunities for international cooperation.”

A striking point made by Prof Tan is: “By 2020 China alone will have more than 37 million students in HE and India will have more than 27 million! In terms of quality of publications, currently Chinese researchers already published 20 per cent of top 0.1 per cent highly-cited citations.” It only takes a glance at the rankings tables to see the dominance of Chinese and Hong Kong universities in the top 10 in Asia.

Now, let me switch gears to the China story, and the New Silk Road.

Unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to revive and extend the historic trading routes that once linked Europe, Asia and Africa by enhancing infrastructure and promoting trade. And by improving connectivity, it will also increase understanding between people and nations. And — it is a great opportunity for universities as well.

The economies along the BRI routes are home to almost 3 billion people – that’s half of the world’s population! According to James Cameron, Head of Infrastructure and Real Estate Group at HSBC, China’s banks have already pledged over $2 trillion in BRI-related financing, and companies invested $126 billion in projects along BRI routes in 2017.

The British Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said: “…This initiative is truly ground-breaking in the scale of its ambition …with the potential to raise the living standards of 70 per cent of the global population.” As the Belt runs through Europe, this would also present an opportunity to engage in multilateral collaboration across the UK, China and Europe, particularly in the post-Brexit world, despite a certain degree of scepticism and questions about how China will play.

So what are the multilateral opportunities in collaborations with China?

China already has a strong influence in Southeast Asia, and is investing considerably in Asian countries including Malaysia and Indonesia. Billions of dollars are being spent on infrastructure and innovation projects. Malaysia has now become the world’s third largest solar cell manufacturer after mainland China and Taiwan. I know Heriot Watt has a campus in Malaysia. So there is potential for multilateral collaborations with Malaysia, China and the UK.

China is Germany’s number one trade partner. More than 5,000 German companies are currently operating in China and a rapidly increasing number of Chinese enterprises is investing in Germany. Since 1995 the Sino-German Center for Research Promotion has facilitated and coordinated thousands of research and development projects with several hundred millions of Euros in investment. China is also focusing on cooperating with Africa, and is investing in the future of Africa’s higher education. Due to the demographics in that region, we can foresee a rapid increase in the demand for HE in 20 years, thus offering tremendous opportunities for UK universities.

In terms of global leadership, Great Britain boasts a fascinating history of international trade and collaboration.

For example, following the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era, the UK flourished. It was a period of economic expansion that saw British invention and ingenuity both shape and tame the global landscape. However, the current political climate is both challenging and uncertain, if not dangerous for the UK, given Brexit and what is happening in the USA with Trump in the White House.

But a time of change also presents great opportunities. Never has there been a better time to concentrate on strengthening our international relationships in business, in research and in higher education. I think that that UK will be able to redefine its leadership position in the post-Brexit world by working with both China and Europe.

Zooming in on the recent history of research collaborations between the UK and China — this has been an increasing and significant bilateral relationship. For example, since its inception in 2007, RCUK’s China office has facilitated numerous partnerships between the UK and China. They helped to support the best researchers in the UK and China to develop high-quality, high-impact research collaborations. To date, more than £195 million investment has been made in co-funded programmes.

In 2015, Research Councils UK launched another 12 joint research programmes (over £30 million). So far major priorities have been energy, environment and smart cities and food security.

The Newton Fund is a major UK investment set up to develop solutions for global challenges and promote economic development and social welfare. It is part of the UK’s official development assistance (ODA) and is managed by BEIS.

The UK-China Research and Innovation Partnership Fund (£200m), part of the Newton Fund, is driving cutting edge research and innovation collaborations between the two countries. The projects funded include those focusing on pressing global challenges such as air and water pollution, biodiversity, food security and natural disasters.

China and the UK do seem like a natural pairing. Firstly, China sees the UK as a world leading science nation with a world-class higher education system. In turn, the UK values China’s deep talent pool and ever increasing funding and capacity for technological innovation and translation.

In December 2017 former Science Minister Jo Johnson and Chinese Vice-Minister Wang Zhigang signed a joint agreement to boost science and innovation between the UK and China. This was particularly significant as it references the new industrial strategy. One of the new joint proposals is that UKRI and NSFC are launching the UK-China Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Centre Partnerships Initiative under the umbrella of the Newton Fund. During the PM’s visit to China, a raft of trade deals with China worth £9bn was signed, a significant component of which is on education involving math and language teaching. Indeed the Sino-British innovation wheels are already in motion.

So what are the fertile areas of opportunity for collaboration? There is a remarkable increase in research and development expenditure in China, surpassing the EU in 2015, currently at 2.1 per cent of its GDP. By 2020 it will be 2.5 per cent GDP total spend, surpassing that of the USA. China’s industrial strategy, “Made in China 2025,” is a blueprint for upgrading the country’s manufacturing sector. The strategy focuses on the internet of things, smart appliances and high-performance computers, AI and machine learning. It will enable China to transition to an innovation-driven economy with efficiency and quality, and environmentally friendly manufacturing and services. At the core of this transition lies the change to a smart and connected economy –  dubbed Industry 4.0. China is already leading the world in high performance computers, solar cells, drones and electric vehicles.

According to MIT Technology Review, of $15.2 billion invested in AI start-ups globally in 2017, 48 per cent went to China and 38 per cent to America (the US was at 77 per cent in 2013).

For universities, producing talent and innovative ideas to enable this vision to happen is an exciting opportunity. I am sure that there are many researchers at HWU as well as Surrey who recognise the potential in collaboration with China in these areas.

To give you an idea of China’s current impact on the digital economy, it’s worth looking at a couple of Chinese companies:

Tencent is the world’s biggest digital investment corporation, valued over £300bn, bigger than Facebook. The company owns WeChat with 900m users and Supercell with over 100m players. According to Boston Consulting Group, Tencent is the world’s most valuable social media company and one of the world’s most innovative companies. Their hundreds o subsidiaries cover online finance, e-commerce, bid data, AI etc.

Huawei Technologies Co is now the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, with annual revenue exceeding US$100 billion in 2017, and a research and development budget over $10B. Huawei operates throughout the world, including in the UK. It boasts a extensive international collaborations including many universities.

In November 2017 Huawei and BT announced a new five-year research and development centre in Cambridge worth £25m, to develop cutting edge technologies in photonics, and access network infrastructure technologies. Huawei is also a key partner of our 5G Innovation Centre.

There are many more examples of productive partnerships between UK institutions and Chinese companies, ranging from energy, materials, manufacturing, AI, digital health and telecommunications.

In energy

Since the signing of the UK-China Clean Energy Partnership in 2015, many projects have been advanced to boost the two countries’ cooperation in low-carbon research and industry. For example, Tus-Wind invested wind energy development and China General Nuclear Power Corporation and China Huadian Corporation are the key partners for the Hinkley Point C project with some £6b investment from China.

AI and machine learning

In 2015 Chinese finance company UCF donated several million to the Imperial College’s Data Science Institute and Hamlyn Centre for medical robotics. We are also working with UCF in block-chain and digital health research.

Cocoon Networks is Europe’s first financial technology investment platform. The company has a £500m fund specialised in nurturing innovation and supporting Sino-British start-up communities in FinTech and AI.

I know that Heriot-Watt has a proud track record in global research collaborations. Since 2014, Heriot-Watt has produced 3,730 joint publication with researchers across the world.  No wonder the Sunday Times awarded the 2018 International University of the Year to HWU. My warm congratulations to you all on this fantastic accolade!

I note that a strong research capability of Heriot-Watt is in solar energy. I am aware that Dr Tadhg O’Donovan and his team are working on the Innovate UK funded project with two Scottish companies, AES Solar and Soltropy, and have tested their exciting new products, and breakthrough technologies on your Edinburgh and Dubai campuses.

Professor Bhaskar Gupta, together with the Bangladesh Green Energy Foundation, has opened the world’s first fully autonomous, solar powered plant to safely remove arsenic from the water supply. The technology has the potential to help millions of people who are being chronically exposed to high levels of arsenic in water on a daily basis.

As you may be aware, China’s overseas investment in the energy is huge. There has been a rapid rise in Chinese investment in energy, which reached $44 billion last year.

In December 2017, British and China governments agreed to set up a £750m investment fund for research and development demonstration to be chaired David Cameron, part of which is the £220m investment in wind energy development to be coordinated by the Catapult on offshore renewable energy.

So there is a huge potential for Heriot-Watt  and other UK universities like Surrey to get involved. HWU is in a strong position to take advantages of such opportunities, because HWU is well known in wind and tidal energy research and development. I am aware of Professor David Lane’s work on human-robotics hybrid solutions for the maintenance and operation of offshore wind farms, which is a great example. I am also pleased to note that there are already good collaborations between our two universities.

As I alluded to earlier, the University of Surrey’s research has already demonstrated global impact, thanks to many of our partners across the world. More 50 per cent of our research output at Surrey is jointly authored with our international partners. For example, an exciting partnership with EU and US researchers is the eSMART Project. Thanks to a €6m H2020 grant, the project uses mobile technology to remotely monitor patients undergoing chemotherapy to reduce side-effects and provide better quality care.

In 2017 researchers from Surrey launched Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) to tackle local air pollution problems in India. This is a joint initiative with University Global Partnership Network to develop solutions that will ensure “clean air for all” in both developed and in developing countries.

Our £80m 5G Innovation Centre is an open innovation centre of excellence with more than 20 industrial partners, dedicated to developing  5G wireless telecommunication technologies. It recently received an additional £16m grant from DCMS. We will see the world’s first end to end 5G functional network operating by end of this year on our campus. This follows the first demonstration in Europe of a 5G network controlled driverless car in December 2017 on our campus in Guildford. Huawei is one of our key partners and is deeply engaged in live testing of new-generation 5G mobile technologies.

In October 2017, we marked the 10th anniversary of our Surrey International Institute in China with students and staff from the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics. Many of our young alumni from SII-DUFE have become leaders in government and private enterprises in China and globally. SII-DUFE is a great example of our collaboration with Asia; it has been recognised as ‘a shining example of Sino–foreign partnership’ by the British Council and the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Surrey’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management was ranked number one in the UK (Guardian and Complete University Guide). In three international league tables  — QS, THE and ARWU — this discipline was ranked in the top five to six in 2017. The school has a joint partnership with Harvard’s School of Public Health to develop ecotourism opportunities for Tianfu New Development Zone in Chengdu. In 2017 it won an award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to China’s Tourism Industry’ from the China National Tourism Administration.

Now let me broaden the discussion to some strategic partnerships, and how the University of Surrey has been working effectively to develop fruitful research collaborations.

A true strategic partnership we are involved in is the NPL Strategic Alliance between the University of Surrey, the University of Strathclyde and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), which draws on the expertise and knowledge of all three organisations to address some of the major scientific challenges we face today. The regional hub NPL South of England is hosted at Surrey, and several joint appointments and joint facilities have been established. These include the Joint NPL-Surrey Hyper Terahertz facility, the Joint Centre for Non-Linear Microwave Metrology and the Postgraduate Institute for Measurement Science.

The University of Surrey also has a fascinating history in commercialisation. For example, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd was a spin-off company established in 1981 and later partnered with Elon Musk. The company was sold a few years ago for £50m, and is now owned by Airbus. SSTL is responsible for 47 launched space missions and is a major supplier of the 22 satellites for the Galileo Project – Europe’s own GPS system.

The University of Surrey and Airbus partnership continues through the Surrey Space Science Centre. Recently, this centre established the Future AI and Robotics for Space (FAIR-Space) Hub with £29m investment from EPSRC and partners including Imperial College, Warwick, Edinburgh and overseas companies like Airbus, China Aerospace CorpChinese Academy of ScienceEuropean Space Agency (UK)Intel and KUKA Robotics.

As a university aspiring to make real world impact, we are also very much engaged with local start-ups and SMEs. Involving five universities in the south of England, a unique partnership called SETsquared has played a pivotal role in growing high-tech start-ups through its incubation programme and business acceleration services. Its business incubation programme is ranked by the University Business Incubator Index as the best in the world, and over the last decade it has helped over 1,500 high-tech start-ups to develop and raise more than  £1.25 billion of investment. Independent research carried out by Warwick Economics estimates the economic impact of SETsquared member companies to be £3.8bn over this period, with the creation of 9,000 jobs. SETsquared is a model open innovation platform for SMEs.

Speaking of open innovation, one of the key attributes for successful partnerships is the mechanism for multi-institutional collaborations with multiple inputs of ideas, and multiple outcomes and pathways to market.  It is the diversity of partners and expertise that makes the partnership strong and fruitful. When I worked at the University of Queensland in Australia, I led the establishment of several such centres, for example:

  • Baosteel joint R&D centre: Universities of Queensland, New South Wales, Monash and Wollongong: AUS $25m
  • Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation: AUS $10m
  • Fangyuan-Codelco Fellowship: New copper smelting technologies: Over AUS $5m.

From my own experience, and I am sure many of you present here today can also relate, to make an academia-industry partnership to work is not easy, and it does need a plenty of mutual understanding and joint effort. Let’s look first at the major differences in the nature, culture, priorities and focus of business versus HE institutions. What can universities offer to businesses?

For academics, research is usually the emphasis, but companies may not prioritise research; more often than not they will focus on skills and talent first. Consulting services are also sought-after by industry to solve their immediate problems. Ultimately, to achieve real impact, it takes the two sides of the partnership to align priorities and resources. It is important to not only focus on solving current problems, but also on developing long-term capabilities or a kind of ‘technological innovation pipeline’, for sustained excellence and impact.

There are some common pitfalls we must avoid:

  • Failure to understand the diversity of universities, and there are always different niche strengths
  • Failure to stick with it: academics can’t change direction as quickly as firms can – but we need to provide that safe space for academics to thrive, and give them the space to fail
  • Failure to allocate enough ‘face time,’ and too-formal communication channels
  • Arguments over ownership of IP rather than the ability to profit from it
  • Misunderstanding academics’ motivations and incentives
  • Viewing a Vice-Chancellor or President too much like the CEO of a company; in reality, VCs are more like the head academic whose role is to lead and inspire academia and manage a with multitudes of stakeholders, but not shareholders.

On top of the usual challenges, there are additional barriers to effective international collaboration. These lie in:

Difficulty with setting up joint initiatives with institutions

  • Particularly concerning IP issues, there is a great deal of difference in IP management and practices between China and UK
  • The key is to establish high-level goals and strategic principles that are far-reaching and beneficial to all parties
  • Never let the lawyers get bogged down too early.

Governance and coordination

  • Effective structure should be set up but should not be rigid
  • The Chinese are very dynamic and pragmatic;
  • Constant communications and informal interactions are important (Chinese are more responsive to Mobile calls/Wechat texting than emails).

To build long-lasting and productive partnerships with Asia, particularly with China, we need to be cognisant of the cultural difference and subtleties. We should focus on building trust and friendship that can stand the test of time, based on mutual respect, understanding, and patience:

  • Confucius teaching  “己所不欲,勿施於人” –  “Do not do unto others that which you do not want done unto yourself”, is good guidance for true friendship
  • It is important to engage in a direct and ongoing manner about common interests, investing time and energy in developing deeper relationship at the personal level (Guanxi)
  • Be cognisant of the cultural subtleties, e.g. the Chinese care a lot about “Mianzi” or face
  • And there is a high level trust among classmates, army colleagues, or folks from the same township or villages; Chinese systems often lack the ability to plan ahead events /visits; the whole country’s calendar is somewhat dependent on one man’s diary.

Let me finish by summarising the key factors underpinning successful international partnerships. Generally, we need to ensure:

  • A clear set of common purposes and an understanding of how each partner can add value to the other’s business
  • A transparent and effective relationship, which recognises the technical strengths and weaknesses of both parties
  • Recognition of the differences in nature, focus and priorities
  • Effective communication through both formal and informal channels
  • A robust mechanism to review and assess progress and outcomes.

To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, both Heriot-Watt and Surrey Universities have made a huge mark on the higher education landscape in this country, and both institutions take pride in making a positive impact on industry and society. The Research Silk Road will take us on a collaborative innovation journey, and our two universities are both well equipped to venture down this exciting path. But a huge part of the journey is also about who you meet along the way; this is what shapes and defines our future destination. Multilateral collaboration will make our journey a varied and impactful adventure. As travel writer Tim Cahill once said: “A journey is best measured in friends, not in miles.”

Thank you for your interest and attention today. I hope I have given you some insight into Sino-British future landscape of the Research Silk Road, and more broadly on academia-industry partnerships. I look forward to working with colleagues from Heriot-Watt and all of our friends we will meet along the way. The journey has only just begun.

Thank you very much!