Collaborative research that punches above its weight

December 7, 2017
Professor Nick Talbot

For every £1 GW4 spends on collaborative research communities, we capture £11.73 in external research awards. We hear from GW4’s Chair of Board, Professor Nick Talbot, on the growing importance of pooling expertise and resources to tackle future global and industrial challenges. 

Since GW4 was established in 2013, we have been committed to supporting authentic collaboration between our universities, founded on the pursuit of research excellence.

We have to date funded 68 research communities in a variety of research areas and disciplines, such as: biofuels, post-truth politics, mental health, quantum technologies. Our communities work with over 140 external partners as diverse as the Ministry of Justice, Airbus, Sky News and the European Space Agency.

These research communities are all reliant on a combination of skills and resources that would be impossible for one university alone to achieve. We believe that this type of research – collaborative, scaled-up, interdisciplinary – can benefit our local communities across the Great West as well as answer the ‘big questions’ of 21st century society.

To quote one of our community leads, Prof Anne Barlow, University of Exeter on the Family and Law community: “A completely new vision of how to research and support DIY family justice was made possible by using innovative methods across disciplines, taking a truly GW4 interdisciplinary approach to a current societal problem.”

Collaboration is also fundamental for major research initiatives such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, whether this is across universities or with industry partners. By bringing our communities together, we are able to act at scale and depth, capitalising on the resources of four of the UK’s most-research intensive universities with over 8,000 academic staff and a combined turnover of £1.8 billion.

In a recent review of our Building Communities programme, we have found that, to date, our investment of £2.3m in 68 research communities has generated £27m in research income. This means that for every £1 GW4 spends on collaborative research communities, we capture £11.73 in external research awards. And that figure is growing as communities develop and create more opportunities for further joint funding bids and new partnerships.

That is a powerful statement of our impact as a research network. It demonstrates the importance of truly authentic collaboration, and vindicates our belief that working together at scale can achieve more than going it alone.

Many of these communities have also contributed to knowledge transfer (with 30 academic papers published and counting) and real-world impact in terms of addressing policy, economic, societal, health and environment challenges. Researchers involved in GW4 collaborative communities have also benefitted from professional development opportunities, demonstrating how this investment also nurtures new research talent across our four universities.

This year we have also seen important developments in other areas of GW4 support, such as shared infrastructure, with the launch of a flagship GW4 cryo-microscopy facility and the establishment of a shared GW4 PETIC scanner in Cardiff University’s cutting-edge CUBRIC centre.

But there is more we can do. We want to build on the success of our investment to date to support major strategic initiatives that address global or industrial strategy-led challenges.

An example of this would be VSimulators, a £7.2 million government-funded national research facility which will explore the impact of vibrations from very tall buildings and wobbly bridges and floors on people’s health and wellbeing. The joint project from the universities of Bath and Exeter began life as a collaborative GW4 research community.

GW4’s ‘Isambard’ supercomputing initiative, which brings together GW4 researchers with industry partners the Met Office, Cray Inc. and Arm, received GW4 accelerator funding and a £3m grant from EPSRC, and was subsequently shortlisted for the Times Higher Awards’ Technological Innovation of the Year. Isambard, which enables researchers to choose the best hardware system for their specific scientific problem, is demonstrating better performance than the very best leading edge systems available today.

Another example of this type of initiative is the GW4 Water Security Alliance, recently awarded £2.3m from NERC to establish the first Centre for Doctoral Training dedicated to freshwater bioscience, safeguarding the “world’s most important but most threatened natural resources”. The group, which brings together over 200 academic experts, has the potential to make a global impact by combining our existing and complementary strengths across universities in informatics, engineering, environmental science and biology.

These collaborative initiatives are still nascent, but indicate our ambition and the future direction of travel of GW4.

GW4 has amply demonstrated that collaborative research punches above its weight in terms of income and impact. Now is the time to consolidate this success, and we look forward to continuing to support our academics and industry partners to deliver globally competitive research and innovation.

Professor Nick Talbot is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Impact) at the University of Exeter and Chair of the GW4 Board.