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Vice-Chancellor news

Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff email – November 2016

30 November 2016
Colin Riordan

Dear colleague

This month we received the sad news that my predecessor Sir Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson has passed away at the age of 90. Sir Aubrey was a pivotal figure in the history of Cardiff University, overseeing as he did the merger between the University of Wales Institute of Technology and University College Cardiff in a manner that not only resolved an acute financial crisis, but created the basis of the successful University that we know today. I did not meet Sir Aubrey myself until I became Vice-Chancellor here, but I well remember the momentous events of 1988 and even from my standpoint at that time as a young lecturer at the then University College Swansea, knew about the extraordinary achievements of ‘T-D’, as everybody called him, in turning round the fortunes of Cardiff. On behalf of Cardiff University I should like to extend our deepest sympathy to Sir Aubrey’s family and record our recognition and gratitude for his exceptional stewardship of this great institution.

In my last email before the summer vacation I made a plea that we should not take our foot off the accelerator in terms of our involvement in European research networks and funding mechanisms. We remain members of the European Union until the UK leaves, and we should continue to participate in the collaborative opportunities and apply to this important source of support for as long as possible. I am very pleased to confirm not only that our applications have remained buoyant, but that we have scored some notable successes. In the first four months of the academic year we have submitted bids worth over £50m to the European Commission, including £33m to Horizon 2020, covering the full range of funding schemes from the European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) to the Societal Challenges and Industrial Leadership programmes supporting collaborative research across Europe and beyond. The University has now passed the milestone of 50 research contracts awarded from Horizon 2020, representing over £25m of research awards; here are just a few of the highlights.

Dr Penny Lewis of the School of Psychology has won an ERC Consolidator Grant worth £1.7m, for her project SOLUTION SLEEP – Understanding Creativity and problem solving through sleep-engineering, which will start in February 2017. Professor Vincenzo Crunelli, School of Biosciences, is a partner in the MSCA European Training Network EU-GliaPhD, a consortium of leading European research institutions and industrial companies, led by the University of Saarland, which will involve 12 Early Stage Researchers working collaboratively across Europe. The research is centred on the role of neuron-glia interactions in brain function and pathology, with a strong emphasis on epilepsy. Funding for our participation will approach £200k. Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, School of Psychology, who is a current ERC Starting Grant holder, is a partner in the recently awarded collaborative project CHEETAH – Changing Energy Efficiency Technology Adoption in Households, led by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation in Germany, with partners in Austria, France, Netherlands and Sweden.  Our share of the funding will be £71k. Finally, Professor Yacine Rezgui of the School of Engineering has been awarded just over £500k for his involvement in two energy-related projects: THERMOSS – Building and district thermal retrofit and management solutions, and PENTAGON – Unlocking European grid local flexibility through augmented energy conversion, both of which are coordinated by the UK company Exergy Limited, and have partners in Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. One of the UK partners in PENTAGON is Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council which builds a nice bridge to our engagement activities. Congratulations and thanks to all concerned. Just to be clear, whilst the funding is welcome and important, retaining the collaborative networks is a key advantage. Retaining and developing international research networks is going to be one of the biggest issues we face after the UK exit.

Of course it is important to broaden our support base in other ways too, and on that note I am delighted to be able to say that we recently received a donation of just over £1m from the Hodge Foundation to establish the Hodge Centre for Neuropsychiatric Immunology. This exceptional gift will allow us to make a step change in research capabilities, and marks the start of a new 5-year partnership with the Hodge Foundation, who for a number of years have generously supported us in other areas, including Cancer Stem Cells and research in the Business School. Also in neuroscience it is great to see that Cardiff has a won a Momentum award from the Medical Research Council, which will give us a share in a £4.3m of support intended to boost the UK research base in dementia. We are building real strength in the broad area of neuroscience and mental health, with research spanning a range of Schools and disciplines. This kind of strategic approach is key to success and will serve us well.

November also saw the publication of the Welsh Government’s response to the Diamond review of fees and funding. I’m pleased to say that almost all recommendations were accepted in principle, with some variation in the student support model that the review proposed. I think that if all goes as planned, then Wales will have the most progressive student support model in the UK, with grant funding not only for undergraduate full-time but for part-time and postgraduate students, and resources being concentrated on those who need it most but retaining an element of universal grant. What the response does not tell us is what the implications will be for university funding, but it is understandable that the Welsh Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales will need to work through the details of that, and I am sure that all relevant arguments have been made through the review process.

Just a few points to conclude with. It was pleasing to see that the US News and World Report Best Global Universities ranking ‒ widely respected and referenced in the United States – placed Cardiff at 149th in the world (a rise of 29 places from last year) and 18th in the UK. We also improved our placing in the People and Planet sustainability ranking, rising eight places to joint 38th. It was good to see in the latest iteration of the London Economics report on economic performance that we now contribute some £2.9bn to the UK economy, including a 60% rise in our international activity to £217m over the last two years alone. And finally, I happened to be leading a Cardiff Futures session the morning after the result of the US election. We decided to spend some time discussing the implications of that result, a debate which was as much emotional as it was academic. What the full implications will be we cannot know of course, but three things struck me. One was the inevitable similarities to the mood after the Brexit vote, and a reminder that we become detached from whole swathes of opinion at our peril. The second was the need for a much better understanding of why it is that reasoned debate and adherence to facts on the basis of broadly shared values no longer necessarily seem to underlie the political process. Without that understanding it seems to me that universities could become dangerously remote from the society we seek to serve. And thirdly, it reminded me of the need for perspective and resilience in a changing world. It is hard to avoid the feeling that every few months we are being confronted with an unpredicted seismic shift. It’s worth remembering that such shifts have happened before in human history and they always will; I don’t want to complete that sentence with a platitude but I certainly find some comfort in taking a historical perspective and recalling the resilience of our democratic processes.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan