Strategic vision for powering ahead – Edinburgh University is positioning its research to build on its reputation for ground-breaking innovation
For any institution, what lies ahead is as important as the past. For a university with an impressive heritage of innovation, the challenge is to build on that reputation.
At Edinburgh University, the 400-year roll-call of past achievements is undeniably impressive – the world’s first medical school, the pioneer of anaesthetics, Europe’s first first research hub on artificial intelligence (in 1963), the prediction of the Higgs Boson, Dolly the Sheep, the UK’s national supercomputer … the list goes on.
But in a competitive academic environment how does a university make sure it keeps its position as one of the leading innovative institutions in the UK – and the world?
The person tasked with guiding the University of Edinburgh’s ambitions on the innovation front is Professor Christina Boswell, the vice principal for research and enterprise.
Although Edinburgh had launched a university-wide strategy in 2019, when Professor Boswell took up her post in August 2023, it was clear to her that research and innovation was an area ripe for its own roadmap.
“Strategy 2030 is quite a broad brush strategy: it is across four areas, one of which, is research.
“So it was really important for me coming into this role, to say ‘I’d like to take that strand and flesh it out more fully’. It will be a guide to our activity and our priorities.”
Professor Boswell is quick to point out that the university has always been very strategic about how it develops priorities and invests in its research and innovation.
And its track record is impressive, illustrated by the university being chosen last month by the Government to host the UK’s next generation of supercomputers at its Advanced Computing Facility.
The Exascale will unlock a new level of power, allowing researchers to model all aspects of the world, test scientific theories and improve products and services in areas such as artificial intelligence, drug discovery, climate change, astrophysics and advanced engineering.
Forging partnerships with industry to turn innovative research into entrepreneurial solutions is another of the university’s strengths.
For instance, MAXBlade, a €10 million project aims to improve the performance of tidal turbines. The multinational project is supported by the university’s commercialisation service Edinburgh Innovations and led by TechnipFMC, the global energy services company.
And in 2018, the university became a partner in the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal to deliver a £660 million 10-year programme of data-driven innovation.
The new research and innovation strategy is currently under consultation and due to be launched by the end of the year.
Three main areas have been identified: research, engagement and environment. “They’re all interconnected, but each very important in their own right,” says Professor Boswell.
“Within research, there are two main strands. One is about strengthening what we call discovery research, which is the blue skies research across all of our disciplines, where our scientists and researchers are carrying out really innovative transformative research. That kind of disciplinary research is the bedrock of everything that we do.
“The second area is our interdisciplinary work, where different disciplines come together and innovate in new and creative ways.”
One of the key planks of the research and innovation strategy is likely to be how this interdisciplinary research is delivered.
“Within our interdisciplinary work, there are three really important, crucial challenge areas or ‘missions’ as we call them.
“One is designing future health and care. So that’s about empowering people to enjoy healthier, longer, fulfilling lives, through innovations in physical and mental health and care systems.
“That straddles all three colleges within our university. So there are many, many disciplines that come together to help address that mission.”
The second mission is tackling the climate and environmental crisis. Professor Boswell explains: “This is obviously about marshalling our research to understand the causes and effects of climate change and help communities to adapt and to mitigate those effects.
“There again, our research straddles many different areas from Earth systems, farming, food and agriculture, energy, manufacturing, social sciences and humanities.”
She continues: “A third area is harnessing data, digital and AI for public good. There we’ve got really strong research at the technological end, which can unlock solutions to a range of different social, economic, environmental challenges.
“Obviously, those technologies and that innovation needs to be developed in a way which understands the social, ethical and regulatory contexts in which it’s being rolled out. Again, it’s a profoundly interdisciplinary area.”
As Professor Boswell underlines, setting the new research and innovation strategy’s balance correctly across all the university’s research efforts will be vital.
“We have these missions, which is where we apply our work in an interdisciplinary way to tackle really urgent, pressing global and societal issues. But we know that the bedrock of all of that excellence has to be sustaining and supporting our discovery work.
“So it is about getting the right balance across discovery research and the missions.”
Engagement will be another key element of the strategy which Professor Boswell is guiding.
“It’s how we engage with the many different organisations and publics (for example, patients, business community and government) to ensure that we can co-produce solutions to key problems; that we can apply our research to maximise social and economic benefits.”
Industry engagement is obviously a focus. “The University of Edinburgh has made fantastic strides forward in its innovation and industry engagement over the last five or six years,” she says.
“We’ve hugely expanded the number of start-ups and spin-outs. We’ve hugely grown our income from industry, our income from licencing, our intellectual property and the investment that we’re securing to support our spin-outs and start-ups.
“So it’s a really, really fantastic track record, but we want to continue on the same trajectory.”
Alongside the partnerships with industry, there are other types of engagement.
“They are also really important to us. Public engagement – working with communities, both locally and globally – is one. Another is policy engagement, working with government at all levels. And then we also have a strong focus on international engagement and partnerships.”
The third element of the new strategy will focus on the research environment.
Professor Boswell explains: “This is about the research culture that we foster. How we support our researchers; how we address any barriers to unlocking their potential; how we recognise and encourage what we call collegiality and citizenship as part of the academic’s role.
“Quite often research is seen as a sharp-elbowed business where individuals are competing, but actually we know that research works best when it’s a collaborative endeavour and we want to be able to better recognise and reward those sorts of behaviours.”
Once the new strategy is agreed what does Professor Boswell hope it will achieve?
“We have ambitious plans to substantially expand the number of academics with an orientation towards innovation and commercialisation.
“We’re establishing an innovation career path. We already recognise innovation activity in our promotion criteria and how we support academic staff, but we want to make it much more transparent and have a really clear career trajectory.
“Thanks to our excellent results in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, we’ve already been able to make some strategic investment. We were able to channel additional income into developing talent and recruiting 60 Chancellor’s Fellows – a prestigious, research-intensive route for early career researchers.”
As professor of politics, Christina Boswell brings both her academic interests and her professional experience (from working in international organisations earlier in her career) to the table in her vice principal role.
She identifies two ways in which this has helped in this strategy-building process. “The first is that one of my main research areas is the use of research and science in policymaking.
“So that idea of how we can apply research to improve society has been absolutely crucial in my own thinking and evolution. I research how that happens and how that can happen better and improve that link. I’ve also done a lot of work with government myself.
“The other way is that my research has looked at the use of performance measurement and other types of data in organisations. That really informs how I think about how we measure and incentivise and communicate performance in different ways.”
She adds: “That understanding of how information and data work within organisations is really crucial when you think about how you might set goals and targets within your own organisation.”