How does consumer behaviour affect energy prices? Why does understanding the carbon cycle help us to protect our environment? How can identifying different prostate cancer cells benefit patients? The answers to questions like these touch us all – and are provided by university researchers. In fact, according to figures from Universities UK, more than three-quarters of all publicly-funded research and development takes place in universities.
Alongside teaching, research is a university’s core purpose and it’s the role of Fiona Lettice, UEA’s newly-appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, to ensure that our research portfolio continues to thrive – and helps to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world.
“University research can be seen as a rarified academic pursuit, but it underpins our understanding of the world and delivers solutions to problems and innovations that improve our lives,” she said. “Without our own and other universities’ research, not only would many questions remain unanswered, they might not even be asked in the first place!”
UEA ranks in the top 100 universities worldwide for research excellence (Leiden rankings 2016), and the top 15 in the UK for research impact. Much research is carried out alongside other institutions, from fellow universities to charities and businesses.
“It all depends on the nature of the project and where the expertise lies,” said Fiona. “We work closely with our Norwich Research Park colleagues as well as other universities in the region, and have formed networks, such as Eastern ARC with Kent and Essex universities, to establish more collaborative research and to bid for funding for joint projects. These relationships extend abroad through partnerships like our European network Aurora and with the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China.”
Beyond the academic world, partners include the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), local authorities, policymakers and businesses, across a range of sectors that need to access UEA’s research and expertise to develop their policies, products and services.
“Research covers all disciplines and ranges from ways to improve wellbeing at work to discovering new bacteria that help fight disease,” said Fiona. “We do, however, have particular areas of focus, and these include understanding the fundamentals; human and natural environments; rethinking society; culture, creativity and belief; securing energy, food and water; and healthy living and ageing.
“The link between food and health is a significant research area, and one that will develop further alongside the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and the former Institute of Food Research at the new Quadram Institute.
“Whatever its theme, university research is all about making a positive contribution to society. It’s often closely interlinked with innovation and enterprise, whether that’s a spin-out company, patent, consultancy and training, or developing new products and services,” said Fiona. “We’re here to make a difference, whether that’s providing the evidence for policy change, enabling people to access and explore links to their heritage, or developing a new cancer treatment.”
With Brexit under way, funding is an increasing important element in Fiona’s role. “While we don’t yet know the impact of Brexit, it’s important to develop different funding streams – but without losing our independence and integrity. “Attracting and retaining the most able researchers is also a key challenge and we need to ensure that, in addition to accessing funding, we can continue to travel freely in Europe to work with colleagues there, and attract European talent here. I am confident that we will find ways to ensure our successful collaborations continue and UEA will continue to support students and staff from all over the world who come to study, research and work here.”
Whenever there’s something new in society, it will be picked up and investigated by university researchers to understand and explain – and they are working alongside and guiding post-graduate research students as they prepare for future careers in universities or other organisations.
“There are 1,500 research students working across UEA and the Norwich Research Park, and our role in training the next generation of researchers is vital,” said Fiona. “We’re passing on and helping to develop the skills needed to address global challenges, work in multidisciplinary teams, collect and analyse data and find answers and solutions.
“It is also, I believe, important to engage with the public and communicate what we do and help them to learn about new ideas, which is why we participate in events such as the Norwich Science Festival. It helps people to understand that universities enrich and contribute to society and that we are not separate from their everyday lives.”