‘There’s scope to grow humanities and social sciences’

By Miriam Frankel
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14-09-2012

Last month UCL celebrated the acquisition of star historian Lisa Jardine and her team at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London. David Prince, UCL’s pro-vice chancellor for research, talks to Miriam Frankel about how the appointment fits into the institution’s broader plans for research.

Should we expect more poaching of star academics?

Nationally, there is quite a lot of jockeying for positions by some institutions that feel like they need to do that. It is not something we explicitly do at UCL because it’s a continual part of our programme to recruit people of the highest calibre. I also think it’s really important for UCL to have a balanced portfolio. Institutionally, we are about 50 per cent to 55 per cent biomedical sciences. I think in the future, as the institution grows, we have to make sure that we don’t lose that balance. And therefore further development in the arts and humanities and social sciences is very important.

Why is it so important to have a broad portfolio and what other particular areas do you want to grow?

I think a multi-faculty comprehensive university is a place where you can actually find solutions to the world’s problems, which would require you to tension technology development with social sciences. Our entire research strategy is based on the importance of how you impact the research being done; it can only be done through really social science and humanities filters. I think there’s scope to grow humanities and social sciences because we’ve got excellent people but the numbers there aren’t quite as large as they might be. Also, engineering is growing very strongly and there’s strong development in biomedical engineering and high-performance computing. So those are all areas in which the institution is strategically putting efforts.

What are you expecting from the new provost you’re seeking?

We’re obviously looking for someone who is going to be able to agilely develop and exploit the existing strengths of UCL and the strategies we have in place. The competition for applications closes on 14 September and then the process rides through to early December, when I think the appointment will be made.

How are the plans to build an East London campus going? You said in November last year that the full proposals would be ready within six months.

We don’t have our full proposals for the site—that’s being developed in the next couple of months. We want to make sure that we can secure some very attractive locations for student accommodation and also for staff accommodation. Also, to ensure that UCL is having a footprint in Newham we will ensure we will do something that is of benefit to the borough, particularly in the area of the provision of public health, and also perhaps culture and infrastructure in libraries or that sort capability. It won’t be a gated complex, it will be very much part of the redevelopment of the area. It would be a very sensible place to think about putting some research activity relating to the future city, but that’s still in flux.

Another big thing for UCL is the Francis Crick centre, to which you will contribute some £46 million and transfer about 100 staff. Does that mean you will have to close any of your current laboratory facilities?

We’re not closing any activity because of it. What we’re expecting to do to some extent is ease some of the pressure that we’ve got on our own resources. Over the last few years, we’ve grown our postdoctoral community by 20 per cent and our PhD numbers by 30 per cent, so there’s a little bit of pressure on laboratory resources.

UCL has its own open access repository. As an enthusiastic proponent of green open access, how do view the future of this service?

We are planning to enhance that so that we can perhaps generate more institutionally produced journals and also perhaps help academics—particularly in the arts and humanities where the concept of gold open access doesn’t exist—to develop more effective green open access. How it will evolve will depend a little bit on the finances but given that we’re likely to think about spending £6m a year on gold open access fees, increasing our staff commitment to supporting our own green open access system could be a cost-benefit. At the moment it’s on the order of £100,000 per year but what I’d like it to grow to would be half a dozen staff [rather than a couple] who could help academics produce some sort of final published forum. That would be a lot cheaper than unconstrained gold open access, which would be economic madness.

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