The Reporter
Issue 506, 21 March 2005
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Leader column

Professor Michael ArthurThe place of research at the very heart of our University has unanimous support from everyone I have spoken to about our emerging strategy. Two key issues have come to the fore; bringing research across the University up to world-class standard, and creating ‘selected peaks of excellence’ that help lead the way forward for all.

But what, I’ve been asked, will these selected peaks look like? How will I know if I’m in one, or on one? And what will it mean if I’m not lucky enough to be part of such activity?

The first important point is that, peak or not, everyone in a research-intensive university should be improving their profile and raising their game to world-class level. In a phrase coined by one RAE panel, if you’re good, you’re aiming for dead good, and if you’re already dead good, you’re aiming for dead, dead good! We want everyone to think about ways of improving: perhaps you need to work in a bigger team, or reorganise your time. Our culture should encourage, reward and support research excellence, and we will of course be looking ‘centrally’ at how we can help researchers – especially to create that precious commodity, time.

So does this mean we’ll stop doing research that isn’t ‘up to scratch’? Not necessarily, no. One of the great strengths of our University is its breadth. I would like to retain that breadth, and see everyone be successful. But it might mean more focus within schools, institutes, faculties or, even, research groups. If parts of our University can’t improve, or repeatedly fail to improve, then of course we will take a view. But as far as I can see, and I’m still finding my way around, much more common is the school trying to do perhaps ten or more things to world-class level. So the question for that school might be, would it be better to focus on fewer research themes, and over time devote attention and resources to those activities – always with an eye to creating those ‘peaks’.

The journey to research excellence will depend on where you are. In my own field, it would entail developing a big theme, asking interesting and important questions and building teamwork around that focus. You would recruit people or collaborators to contribute new angles, and keep the theme going for a sustained period, developing a reputation which attracts more funding. In arts and humanities, where there’s more of a lone scholar model, it might be about giving support and time to researchers. Individuals, teams, schools and institutes should be thinking about how they do it in their fields.

So what, then, might our ‘selected peaks of research excellence’ look like, and how many do we need? They will have critical mass – typically they will be collections of individuals organised into a cohesive entity, with a sustained track record of international excellence. Their research would, intermittently, shift paradigms and have significant impact on global society.
They would have major international partnerships and, where relevant, be actively engaged with our partners in Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). They will often be the places international agencies go for answers and/or research. And they will usually, but not exclusively, be interdisciplinary.

Our peaks will also be relatively high income earners; in sciences, that might mean multiple programme grants and centre grants, doctoral training accounts, a major profile with research councils and charities; in the arts and humanities, grants will be smaller, but relatively high compared with peers. I’d also expect our ‘peaks’ to be thinking about our city, region and nation, and what they can contribute to their economies. That might be providing knowledge transfer expertise, or spinning out their intellectual property, or engaging with industries and other agencies for contract research and active partnerships.

Our transport studies institute is a good example. It’s very successful, with a sustained track record and major grant funding, and it’s a place governments ask to help them solve problems. A ‘peak’ could also be an entire school – those which earned a 5*A in the last research assessment exercise are automatically identifying themselves as peaks of excellence – and we would wish to continue supporting them.
We might eventually have somewhere between five and ten major peaks, and they will rightly expect a high priority in strategic funding. But they won’t be the only places in which we’ll invest. We will need a pipeline of new activity aspiring to be that good, and we need to support research generally within and across disciplines.

People are already thinking exactly along these lines. Geography is engaging staff in its future direction; the same with philosophy, which has just produced a strategic plan. Things are on the move, and that’s very encouraging. The development of our strategy and this year’s planning round offers the opportunity to think through all these issues in more detail and to bring forward new ideas. The list – and the strategy – belongs to us all.


Page owner: | Updated: 18/03/05

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