Research and Innovation in a post-COVID world – The University of Surrey

In this blog, I discuss the role of research and innovation in a research-intensive university – The University of Surrey – in this new era post the arrival of COVID-19, and set out ten tenets – guiding beliefs and principles, which may be used to inform our forthcoming actions.


I was taught in physics that there is a type of change which is so gradual as to be imperceptible – for much of my life, I have been fortunate enough to live in a place and time of such “adiabatic” change.  I grew up in an era when globally only a small percentage of the best and brightest went to university, but for those who did in Australia, everything was free, and the government even paid a living allowance to those who were from low-income backgrounds. A small percentage of that small percentage chose to go on to postgraduate research. Research in universities was generally strongly associated with academic freedom – the freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and both undergraduate and postgraduate university education was not strongly coupled to jobs, with the perennial exception of the professions of law and medicine. Within universities, intellectualism held sway over effort and campus life proceeded at a measured pace and somewhat detached from society – the ivory tower. This situation persisted for many decades from the 1960s until the 1990s.

Change began to accelerate with the encouragement of the population to better itself through higher education, combined with the accessibility of that education – a function of the more egalitarian sharing of wealth post-WWII. This combination of desirability and availability were two of the preconditions for the global boom in participation that continues until today. The third precondition was the broadening of what constitutes a university education into the vocational disciplines, not previously available to study for degree, and the positive feedback that broadening created by the increasing importance of the currency of a degree.

As the rise in participation generated a bill for the taxpayer increased by nearly ten-fold in value, governments began to seek ways to pass on the costs to the “consumer”, without inflicting short-term electoral disadvantage. Faced with declining government support per student, universities diversified their income streams to compensate, began to become more focussed on revenue, and realised that international students would pay handsomely for the privilege of a degree from a prestigious university – with demand and price dependent upon prestige.

These circumstances generated strong competition between universities: a tertiary education “arms race” had begun, and it is now widely understood that we have been travelling towards a precipice of unsustainability. That precipice has just been sharpened in gradient and brought closer by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, against this backdrop, what then should a university look like post-pandemic?  In the following, I address a series of topics – with an emphasis on the role of research and innovation – and introduce a series of tenets which could be used as a basis to drive the future of a research-intensive university, such as ours. These tenets provide a basis for determining and guiding future actions, some of which have already been put forward in the internal discussion paper “UoS Strategy Reboot – R&I Manifesto”, and others are to follow.

The Teaching and Research Nexus in a Research-Intensive University Post-COVID-19

A university will remain primarily a place of higher learning, where knowledge is imparted to the next generation – across a broad spectrum of domains and skills – both generic and specific: knowledge of the world we live in, pursued for its own sake and personal enrichment; knowledge of culture and values to create good citizens; knowledge of how to learn to cope with the ever-changing world; and vocational knowledge of short currency and rapid change.

Parts of this knowledge spectrum, even all of it, could be acquired outside of a university system, and how to best configure post-secondary education is the subject of ongoing political debate as we speak.  As has been the case for hundreds of years, it is reasonable to expect that a university will continue to be the primary source of teaching of premium knowledge – the pinnacle, the state of the art. What percentage of our current university system needs to provide such premium knowledge? Arguably much less than needed to support the nearly 50% participation rate that we have today. But if it is your objective, as it is ours, then research is a natural partner.

To transmit such knowledge at the cutting edge, at the full extent of human capacity, requires teachers who have acquired it, sometimes through practice, but generally through the conduct of research – itself, by definition, a natural vehicle for acquiring and maintaining this knowledge at the leading edge.

Tenet 1: Premium knowledge is readily acquired and conveyed through the efforts of leading research-active academics.

If you accept Tenet 1, that a research-intensive university and premium knowledge go hand in hand, the next step is to consider the connection between research and teaching. It is common that the two become separated in research-intensive universities, to the detriment of all – students, teachers and researchers. Do your leading researchers teach?  They must!  It is they who carry the knowledge to provide that edge.

What prevents your leading researchers teaching?  There are many contributing factors. There is one I would like to focus on. Sometimes our researchers are impeded, if not actually prevented, by a disconnect between teaching programmes and research agendas.  In reality, researchers need to find their own topics, and research centres need to have their focusses. I argue that teaching needs to follow. My basic rationale for this is that, in all cases, the breadth of what might be taught in a discipline exceeds what can be taught; choices must always be made, and those choices should be made to more strongly connect research to teaching – a virtuous synergy supporting better teaching, better research, and greater efficiency for the individual academic. Exceptions must of course on occasions exist – where good pedagogy demands. Such mismatches should be in the minority, though; because if we are truly a research-intensive university, then we will be research active in the disciplines we teach!

Tenet 2: Curriculum choices on what is taught are made to fit the research agenda, unless strong pedagogic arguments exist.

The research-only workforce provides a deep reservoir of teaching opportunity often not fully utilised, again, to the detriment of all.  A nourishing and productive academic life at all career stages should contain a balance of activities.  As a postgrad or a postdoc, one’s focus should be on research, but again deepening understanding in one’s discipline by teaching, albeit for a fraction of the time and at the right level, including supervising undergraduate research, can only enrichen the experience, and develop a superior skills set. Of course, there may be other options to teaching, such as outreach and public engagement, or professional society involvement, that also represent valuable opportunities.

Key to the success of the widest possible engagement in teaching is supporting the teachers. Much is already being done, but there is still more to do. The traditional practice of throwing our junior teachers in at the deep end should have stopped long ago. My own experience was probably typical – my support as a new lecturer was a reduced teaching load in the first year, and a set of course notes taught by my predecessor!  We can do better! We must ensure all participants are well prepared for the experience and are required to demonstrate their preparedness to practise this aspect of their craft at the same level of excellence we expect of all activities.

Tenet 3: All researchers are provided with the means and opportunity to teach.

The discipline of research involves the sourcing, critical judgement, synthesis and assimilation of information, often in large quantity, and the application of information to create ways to solve new problems or develop new approaches and insights to questions. Research also requires superior communication skills in: concise writing; public speaking; and communicating challenging complexity in simple terms.  Then, there are the generic aspects of technical methods – for example, graphics design and presentation, and mathematical calculation, modelling and simulation.

Most of these skills are lifelong learning skills not restricted in their utility only to research, often deployed in research conducted as part of everyday professional life, and often not identified as such.  Many are already developed to some extent in most undergraduate degrees – and compared to rote acquisition of short-currency knowledge, represent a much greater value proposition for our undergraduates.

There is a further benefit of identifying these skills as research skills and having them taught by researchers – undergraduates find the experience inspiring, and are attracted to the prospect that they are engaged in the research endeavour at some level.  Inspiration in education is perhaps one of the most profound experiences we can give our students.

Tenet 4: Research skills, identified as such, are embedded in the undergraduate curriculum.

A still more radical extension of this proposition is to create a parallel but distinct research stream in the undergraduate curriculum for the most talented students, and design programmes with non-traditional bases – examples might be computer science and biology, sociology and electrical engineering, or business and nursing – combined with bespoke researcher training, designed for future postgraduate research studies. This stream would be highly competitive both for entry by students and for participation by staff. Such a stream, whilst boutique in nature, represents a symbol of excellence and a bridge between research and teaching; beneficial for recruiting, inspiring for students and academics alike, and generating spin offs into the wider curriculum and practice.

Tenet 5: A high-profile, future researcher stream is part the undergraduate curriculum.

Research & Innovation Post-COVID-19

Let me begin this section by reiterating the justification for why we undertake research in a university, and considering on what scale that needs to be.  In principle, to convey knowledge and learning to undergraduates, at some level, does not require the co-activity of research, as is demonstrably the case in our sector.  However, to convey such knowledge at the premium level requires teachers who practise at the leading edge of this knowledge. As stated in the preamble to Tenet 1, this knowledge can be most readily gained through the conduct of research – in the pursuit of, or in the application of, this corpus of knowledge.

Conducting research, in turn, generates other benefits for society – new knowledge solves existing problems and creates new opportunities across multiple time horizons, from right now to yet-to-be-envisaged futures. And furthermore, it makes universities attractive places for gifted and talented people – the raw material needed to practise excellence.  Thus, this beautiful synergy has gained traction across the world as a model for higher education “with benefits”. Key to the success of this strategy, though, is achieving the right scale to generate this synergy – especially in achieving sufficient research intensity.

Tenet 6: Achieving synergy between university education and research requires the right balance in scale between the two activities.

How should we approach research?

It has been an accepted fact for most of my career that academics chose what they wanted to work on and blue-sky research – that which is curiosity driven without an end in mind – was the most valued and perceived to lead to the most important outcomes. This behaviour and belief fitted well with the existence of the university as an ivory tower of excellence, not directly serving its community, but indirectly doing so, by providing it with an ornament of prestige, a wellspring of intellectual prowess, and a means to educate its best and brightest.

Firstly, I and many others would dispute the pre-eminence of blue-sky research – lots of applied, these days called “challenge-led”, research has borne exceptional fruit. Efforts in WWII spring to mind, for example, in radar and the atomic bomb – leaving aside the moral judgement of that research.  The notion of blue-sky research had its roots in the Haldane Principle emergent in the UK at the end of WWI, and in the recommendations of Vannevar Bush in the US at the end of WWII. The motivation was primarily to avoid too much political influence in choosing what research to undertake (that is, to fund).  This tension between investing in what you value as a society, a perfectly reasonable aim, and the notion of senior officials overly directing and being motivated by a particular ideology remains a live topic.  However, ceding a high degree of control to researchers who saw themselves as somewhat separate to society, I would argue, was not going to lead to an optimum use of scarce public resources. To reiterate, there is no innate advantage of blue-sky research over directed research, in my view, and the notion of research directed by the needs of society is very valid.

Secondly, just as in the explosion of participation in university education, the game has moved on in research – as the number of researchers has grown commensurately with the number of students – meaning that the burden of research on the public purse has also substantially increased.  As well, just as universities have widened their discipline base to be more vocational, they have embraced their mission to serve society more directly and governments have pushed this strongly. Thus, research more tightly coupled with the society’s needs has developed much greater currency.  Witness the UK Industrial Strategy, as a good example, and now to some extent the UK R&D Roadmap.  Universities such as Surrey are in the vanguard of this change. Since our Battersea Poly days, Surrey has always taken a pragmatic, closely societally connected view of its remit, working especially closely with business on problems and opportunities that matter today.

Let me come back to blue-sky research to make a separate point.  In my career, I have seen only the brightest of the bright make the sort of fundamental advances that we all associate with the notion of blue-sky research.  In the case of those gifted individuals, I can fully endorse the approach of funding them well and standing back, as taken by the European Research Council, for example.  But those individuals are few and far between.  If, as a sector, we are to justify the large amount we spend from the public purse on research, then we need to take a more pragmatic approach overall – all researchers need to be able to perform research which matters and will make a difference.  It is no longer tenable, as it once was when our community was much smaller and affordable, to have the luxury of engaging in unproductive research.

Tenet 7: Research is justified by internationally benchmarked excellence or by its likely or actual impact.

To draw together the discussion leading to Tenet 7, we must recognise that undertaking research is a privilege not a right, that it costs society a substantial amount, and there is a responsibility to ensure a high value generated by that research. This means that most us will be working on challenge-led, real-world problems with relatively near-term aims, whilst a smaller proportion, our best and brightest, will enjoy the chance to work on blue-sky topics.

What then of academic freedom? Of course, academic freedom must be preserved and a researcher’s choice over what they work on will remain paramount. But in research, I believe that our duty to society means that choice must be practised in the context of true excellence or by the (very!) likely or actual impact of that research.

There is an important emerging aspect of how research is changing in universities.  Pragmatic, challenge-led research commonly involves large-scale multi-organisation collaboration – to bring the right team together – requiring the right project management and leadership skills.  This type of research is increasing in prominence as HMG seeks to deploy the nation’s research capacity to achieve real impact on societal challenges.  By contrast, we have a community of researchers, in the main, used to working in small groups on small projects.  How do we upskill our researchers to deal with the scale and complexity of large-scale projects, to be better placed to participate in and to lead them?

Tenet 8: Our researchers are proactively supported to participate in, and take on leadership of, high-complexity and large-scale research.

The role of postgraduate researchers

A pre-eminent aspect of a research-intensive university is its postgraduate researchers.  Does society need more of them?  Well, even without the 2.4% of GDP target on R&D spend set by HMG, an economy operating at the high value-added end of the spectrum needs highly trained individuals operating at the leading edge.  These individuals often take one of two roles – those with superior leadership and generic skills operate in senior management; and those with true technical depth, acquired through a long period of scholarship on a single topic, form the foundations of creating and maintaining goods and services at the leading edge. Experience globally suggests both skills emphases are needed.  Do they have to come through the PhD route?  Again, experience shows they do not, but this route, if properly configured through an effective and contemporary PhD experience, is an ideal pipeline.  So, do we need more – emphatically yes!

As well as being vital to our economies and societies, our postgraduate researchers play an invaluable role today in our universities. Although they are critical to most research engines in the university, postgraduate researchers too often report that they feel isolated and stressed. If they were truly at the heart of what we do, then at least the isolation would considerably diminish. I have previously written on individual versus team-based research, and the need to better train and reward teamwork in academic research, which undoubtedly applies more widely within the university, and which would enhance our postgraduate researchers’ experience and tool kit.

Postgraduate researchers, as we all know, have the energy, creativity, and lack of boundaries that university research and innovation thrive upon, indeed depend upon, and that inspires our undergraduates. We must engage them better than we do.

Tenet 9: Postgraduate researchers are placed visibly at the heart of all that we do in teaching and research.

The role of Innovation

It is a statement of the obvious that if universities are taking their obligations more seriously to directly benefit society through their research (and other activities), then engagement with business is a key element of that, as is knowledge exchange more generally and entrepreneurship – activities we collectively refer to as Innovation, and which is often referred to as Enterprise elsewhere, including at Surrey in the past.

These activities should not be seen as distinct from research, but as an aspect of research, part of the research life cycle – in taking ideas and questions through to realisations and solutions.  Research and Innovation are a continuum that all academics should participate in.

The University of Surrey already ranks strongly in the proportion of its publications coming from industry collaboration, as evidenced in the Leiden rankings, for example.  We would argue that “shaping the future” through impactful, practical research is in our DNA, generated by the Victorian manufacturing legacy of our Battersea roots.

So, what more should we do?  Indeed, if you except the assertion made above that our research must be distinctive through its excellence or impact (Tenet 7), then we have still more to do to embed Innovation in our research culture, and post-COVID-19, the imperative to do this will only continue to strengthen.

We need to operate an overall system in which we provide opportunity to connect our researchers to real-world applications and problems, through making our campus life still more porous to business, at all levels and types, to third-sector, and to government, so that our researchers are exposed to the people and the issues.

We need to provide our researchers with the wherewithal – directly training our whole research workforce in knowledge exchange and entrepreneurship, not just expecting them to catch on, or offering training to the small fraction of enthusiastic early adopters, and this training needs to operate at all levels of career.

Our professional services, operating in a coordinated way, will support our academics in this endeavour, and our promotion and rewards systems will feature Innovation in every aspect and value it as part of the spectrum of research activities.

Tenet 10: Innovation is a mainstream research activity.

Prioritisation of research versus teaching

Much has been spoken on this topic – and my counterpart in Education – Osama Khan and I have written to you all to reinforce the key points – those of you who are teaching and research academics have personal decisions to make about how you prioritise your workload – just as you do every summer, but this summer the constraints are different.  And just as every year, you have commitments to excellence in undergraduate education as you do to research – and education this year is looking different and requires a rethink.  And your decisions, just as every year, will be made as part of a group – in part supporting your individual goals and, in part, supporting the collective endeavour.  We all have a role to play at our institution in generating excellence – excellence worthy of the University of Surrey.

Concluding Remarks

I began this discussion with the observation that, over much of my career, I have enjoyed adiabatic change – gradual imperceptible movement over long periods. Such an experience is not good training for the disruptive change that COVID-19 has brought upon us. But in the wide range of new happenings, there are all manner of opportunities, and the attributes behind Surrey’s reputation for being can-do, avant-garde, adventurous and risk-taking have the chance to come to the fore.

There is also the chance to re-evaluate why we do what we do, to strengthen our core values and mission as an institution, and to make decisions in the face of uncertainty that are true to those values and mission.  Such a strong guide star is critical at this time.

One of those guide stars is the recognition that the twin activities of education and research have the potential to produce a superb synergy, if we grow them together and not apart, if we create their synthesis and not disintegration.

Research is a beautiful and virtuous activity – it feeds premium education of the best and brightest minds in our society, it trains postgraduate researchers for the next generation of leadership of our knowledge economies, and it directly benefits society through its outcomes.  As we move forward over the next few difficult years toward new beginnings at the University of Surrey, I invite you to form and evaluate our plans and aspirations against these basic tenets – I hope they will provide a guide star to direct us on our collective mission.

As ever, thanks for reading.