Guest Blog: A new start (and a trip to Sunderland)

20 Jan 2016

Starting a new job is usually fairly typical. The process has common patterns and rituals: introductions; an induction; learning how people take their tea; all that stuff.

Less typical during the first week of a new job, at least in my experience, is a 500-mile round trip to Wearside. But who wants typical?

The University of Sunderland hosted a Research Conference earlier this month at which million+ Head of Policy and Research Alan Palmer was to speak.

So at 4pm the day before the conference he and I as well as my fellow new starter, Senior Parliamentary Officer Adam Haxell, made our way to Kings Cross to catch our train.

The next day Sunderland Vice-Chancellor Shirley Atkinson opened proceedings before Alan, Professor Andrew Derrington and Dr Tony Ikwue made their presentations.

Alan made a passionate defence of the translational research conducted at modern universities, arguing that it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves in the national conversation, adding that the UK risks being unable to seize on emerging areas if it concentrates too much money in top-performing unis. He also argued for greater research funding, quoting Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures showing that the UK invests less in research than the 22 leading OECD countries.

“The OECD stats show that when government invests more in research, so does business,” he added.

He re-affirmed the million+ position that the lack of representation from modern universities on Lord Stern’s review panel was a glaring omission, one not helped by Lord Stern’s comments that he was looking for “people who are outstanding”.

Following Alan’s presentation, Professor Andrew Derrington spoke about how to build a vibrant research culture and the nature of research, saying that research “isn’t about self-gratification. It should contribute to and benefit society.”

Then Sunderland’s Director of Enterprise and Innovation, Dr Tony Ikwue took the audience of 150 or so through the “hellishly complicated” UK innovation and research landscape.

“Make it easy for business, government and the community to interact effectively with the university,” he said.

After the conference we were treated to a tour of the university’s hugely impressive facilities by Head of Communications Steve Heywood. The CitySpace building and the striking “computing cathedral” of the David Goldman Informatics Centre, all sharp angles and diagonal lines, look as fresh and contemporary as they did the day they opened.

Now I’ve been in the job a couple of weeks, compiling the daily press summary, scanning Twitter and talking to my very knowledgeable colleagues, I feel as though I’m getting a better handle on the issues facing the sector (and the acronyms – so many acronyms!), but there is always more to learn and much more to do. I’m excited to get started.

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