Professor Jonathan Knight

Blog for the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research)

Our world-leading research!

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Universities get known for their best research. That research will have some combination of factors which make it so: world-leading individual academic leaders, innovative and dynamic researchers at a range of career stages, topicality which makes the research significant for funders, an ability to address (or even solve!) real-world problems, attractiveness for doctoral students, and interest – even sometimes fascination – by the general public. Those combine with more practical requirements: a critical mass of researchers who can form a research community in which people can develop, facilities which enable that community to thrive and to remain globally competitive, and professional support that enables the research activity to grow and satisfies the requirements of both researchers and funders.

We can probably agree that not all of the research at the University of Bath is world-leading, much as we would like it to be so. However, some of it really is – in some areas, University of Bath researchers have consistently been globally leading. The University – and hence all of its members – benefits from those areas of excellence and the reputational advantage they bring. Of course, things change – both due to changes in the external environment, and because research activities are often tied to small groups of individual researchers. However, the nature of critical-mass activities and the relatively slow changes in research priorities give these areas a useful lifetime measured over many years.

Given that, a perspective of our current outstanding strengths would clearly be of interest to me as PVC-Research, and so I have been engaged in a process to identify those strengths: an internal audit of our very best research. The process was based on gaining views and data from a number of sources across the University, including the Faculties/School, Research and Innovation Services, the Library, the Public Engagement Unit, the Registry, the Department of Development and Alumni Relations and the Office of the Vice Chancellor. I then reviewed all of this, and found it relatively easy to identify groupings which are performing at the very highest level in one or several ways.

There were also some generic lessons. The most obvious was that leadership, either by an individual academic or even better by a small group, is essential if these communities are to thrive. Identifying, attracting and cultivating such leaders is a job which we must all share if we are to achieve our research ambitions. “Leadership” encompasses research leadership – identifying research directions which others will follow – but also personal leadership within the University community. A second lesson is that research students frequently make a massive difference to the scale and quality of a research team, helping to define the research community and often making a major contribution to the outputs. Hence, the link in our strategy between increasing our numbers of postgraduate (research) students and increasing our research power is strong. We need to continue to identify opportunities to attract significant numbers of doctoral students (and studentships) to our research strengths, and to ensure that we make best use of those areas where students are already well funded. Engagement with the real world is a strand running through much - even most - of our strongest research activities. Finally, I have found that our distinctive Bath attributes, as defined in the University’s Strategy (including a determination to excel, a supportive culture, a collaborative approach), are features which we need to acknowledge and cultivate if we are to grow our research culture and power. They are a part of what makes Bath unique.

Audits are somewhat reflective, and so it is not that surprising that the exercise largely formalised outcomes which many of us would have been able to guess. For example, the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies, based in the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering but with research spread widely across the University, is an obvious University asset which is performing at an outstanding level against a wide range of metrics, including global engagement. Likewise, the Powertrain and Vehicles Research Centre in Mechanical Engineering is broadly recognised as a national centre of excellence, and forms a vital part of our research profile. The PVRC is currently working towards establishment of a major off-campus facility (The Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems) which would be strongly engaged with a range of industries and serve as a major stimulus to the regional economy. Activities like these, of which we have a few, are assimilating a critical mass of researchers and resources which will need to be continuously supported in a variety of ways.

Other activities which are established as outstanding, such as our research in International Development (ID - based in and beyond Social and Policy Sciences), provide opportunities in different ways and have different needs. Expertise in ID could be the key which enables us to play an important role in meeting the Grand Challenges through the Global Grand Challenges Research Fund. We’d really like to be able to do some of that work with our international strategic partners. On a different scale, the activities in the School of Management in the field of Entrepreneurship and Innovation have significant potential to work with local enterprise and others in the region to develop the economy on a range of levels. This would fit very well with government priorities and those of the local councils.

We have a number of similar strengths across the University, which greatly enhance our reputation for academic excellence and many of which also offer opportunities in additional ways. We’ve previously decided as a University to support the development of strengths in Mathematical Innovation and in Policy Research, through the establishment of our two Institutes, and we simultaneously need to continue to invest into those areas.

We also have a range of nascent strengths. As examples, I note the work in Visual and Sensory Technologies based in Computer Science, and the grouping in Humanities and Social Science around Security, Risk and Conflict. These activities and other like them have the potential to develop to be globally significant: they are building the critical mass and core expertise, and the external drivers are becoming evident. We should hope that their need – and case - for support and resources will continue to develop. Health and Healthcare represents an opportunity for the future. We have research that fits this opportunity right across the University, and will continue to work to build a coherent University position in this area.
The audit provided a view of our research, but the profile will inevitably change with time. It is my intention to analyse “research growth” (as opposed to “research strength”) areas next. We also need to cast our net more widely, to identify opportunities which lie outside of our current areas of interest. As always, I’d be happy to hear your ideas of how we might improve what we do.

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