Universities for the benefit of society


Looking back at my letter from Autumn 2016, it seems like an eternity has passed.  Despite the many things that have occurred in this year, we are still faced with more questions than answers, and the world is still full of uncertainty.  One thing the past year has caused me to do is to reflect more deeply on how we got here, and what we can do about it.  It is not easy to step back from the near-term concerns about immigration, funding, and our world of higher education to look at root causes of societal problems and to think about solutions that may be long and challenging; however, that is what I would like to do with this year’s letter.

I would like to begin by reiterating our stance, which has not waivered, that Imperial is a European university with global reach. Imperial offers opportunities to the most talented British students and staff. We must and will continue to educate smart and ambitious students from the UK. At the same time, our extensive international community of students and staff and their ability to move easily across national borders is vital to our success. The UK and Imperial must continue to be a destination for talented people from around the world.

Universities benefit society in many ways

I am a strong advocate for international higher education and all the benefits universities bring to society.  I firmly believe that working to fulfil Imperial’s mission of excellence in research and education for the benefit of society is among the highest callings we can have. The dedication of our staff to pursuing this mission is palpable.

I see, time and again, in many parts of the world, the hope and expectation that universities will develop new technologies, discover new cures, educate the next generation of leaders and create jobs.  The benefit of investing in higher education is the one thing that governments around the world seem to agree upon. From Kazakhstan to Singapore, there is a belief that investment in higher education will improve lives and contribute to societal development. 

This belief is well placed. We see many ways that universities, and Imperial in particular, benefit society.  Our researchers work with collaborators around the world to provide breakthroughs in identifying genetic variants linked to osteoporosis that will help identify targets for drugs and ways to screen people for their risk of the disease. Imperial students developed a bio-membrane that will condense water from the air to provide clean water to people who desperately need it. Their company, ThinAir, was named the UK student start-up of the year by Enterprise Nation.  

Imperial brings tremendous benefits to society through discoveries and start-ups like these and through our influence on business and public policy, as well as our educated graduates who bring intellect and insights to a wide range of professions. 

Others see the power of investing in Imperial’s mission. One important project, Target Malaria, received a $17.5M grant from the Open Philanthropy Project to control and reduce transmission of malaria.  The UK Dementia Research Institute is opening a centre at our White City Campus to bring our multidisciplinary expertise to address challenges posed by dementia.

The UK government recognises these benefits and has committed £1.5B toward The Global Challenges Research Fund. Among the first awards, the SUNRISE project  brings together UK and Indian solar power experts including Professor James Durrant, and colleagues from Imperial’s Centre for Plastic Electronics, to create affordable, printable solar panels to be manufactured locally.

What has changed?

Clearly, universities like Imperial do benefit society, in myriad ways, day after day.  One thing that has changed for me, is the realisation that today, to some, higher education is viewed as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It is not viewed as benefitting sectors of society, not helping people who feel that universities are irrelevant to them. While we strive to be elite universities without being elitist, we fail to connect with parts of society.

The reasons for the disconnect are being analysed and debated, with much of the focus on the lack of listening by government and business leaders.  One fundamental conclusion is the need to treat people with respect and to try to understand their own perspectives. It is truly hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if their lives are so very different from your own. It is much easier to turn away. Even those in the higher education community who strive hard to provide opportunity, access and support, can look like a closed club or society.

I believe that this is a fundamental moment. We need to share our world of discovery and innovation more broadly. Imperial has done this well with our excellent programme of outreach to school students, our work with patients, and our public engagement.  We can and will do more.

We need to provide hope, confidence and opportunity in new ways.

Schools Outreach

Imperial College has an excellent programme of outreach to school students. Since 2010, the Wohl Reach Out Lab has given thousands of children an excitement and appreciation of science through hands-on sessions in our labs with our staff and students. We have sustainable impact through INSPIRE, training our own students to become teachers of science and mathematics. These activities bring science to life, and raise aspirations among students and teachers. 

While our campus-based outreach involves schools primarily in the south-east of England, Lord Winston (our Professor of Science and Society), outreach team members, staff and students visit schools across Britain.  Inspiring students from Hay to Hull, there is nothing like hearing about Imperial science. In order to benefit even more schools, teachers and students throughout the UK, we are turning to digital technology. 

Young children are naturally curious, and all have the potential to learn and be excited about science.  Thus, we have focused on supporting science education by providing online resources, called Reach Out CPD, now being used by 17,000 primary school teachers across more than 8,000 schools in the UK through an exciting partnership with Twig World Ltd. In a new phase of this partnership, we are developing materials for markets around the world. 

We have also created Reach Out Reporter, an online and free resource with topical science stories to help primary school children understand how science relates to the world around them. Thanks to support by The Goldsmiths’ Company, it is available to anyone in the UK free of charge and helps parents and teachers support children’s interest in science.

In addition, we are investing in state-of-the-art online and digital education for our own students that will bring our research and innovation to university-level learners from the region and around the world. 

Imperial’s volunteer spirit

We are building upon a very strong foundation of people who understand that giving their time and energy to others is enormously rewarding.  We learn by doing at Imperial, and plenty of people do a tremendous amount. The benefits accrued to Imperial’s students and staff by volunteering in the community are already well-known to the thousands of students and staff who give their time and energy to people across London, the UK and the world.  Our students devote over 25 thousand hours across more than 150 community organisations.  Some of these initiatives are turning into sustainable social enterprise startups. 

This volunteer spirit persists beyond graduation. Our student volunteers graduate with a passion for helping others and they become lifelong servers of society. Our nearly 200,000 outstanding alumni, bring Imperial intellect and energy into communities around the world.  

The White City Opportunity

We know that we cannot work cloistered in isolation to solve the challenges the world faces. We need partners to collaborate with us to pursue excellence in research and education for the benefit of society and to mend the seams of societal division. 

Land in London is scarce. The opportunity we have in White City to create a place where great academics are working on leading research in close collaboration with corporate partners, entrepreneurs, venture funders and the community, has exceptional promise.

As we communicated last spring, we have been engaging in a rigorous and intensive master planning exercise in order to get the scope, focus and place right in our White City Campus. We are creating an integrated collaborative campus, with embedded corporate, academic and community partners. The specific areas are evolving as we seize opportunities to tackle new grand challenges. We already see this growing as our I-HUB fills with exciting start-up companies tackling health, environmental and infrastructure problems.  We are currently working to expand our incubators and accelerators.

In addition, we are seizing the opportunity to create a new model of a university working in partnership with its surrounding community.

Effective community engagement in White City

White City Campus is 3.5 miles from South Kensington, a short walk from our Hammersmith Campus and a short tube ride from St. Mary’s. It is one of the most densely populated parts of the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. Its household incomes are among the lowest in the borough.  

Our campus will make a tremendous difference in our new neighbourhood.  We can and we must share what we have, excellence in research and teaching, with people we have not historically reached.  We can do this in multiple ways as our presence in White City grows.  We are focusing our initial efforts on education, entrepreneurship, health and employment. I want to highlight two important cornerstones of this effort: The Invention Rooms and the School of Public Health.  Both are exciting and important ways we will work with the community, treat our neighbours with the respect they deserve, and help them to see a brighter future for themselves and their families.  Our impact here will not only be felt locally; if we do this right, it can be a model for others.

Community engagement and the Invention Rooms

In order to be effective in our work with the community we must respect the talents and abilities of the people we are serving, and we must listen to their needs and desires. This requires great people, institutional commitment and philanthropic support. 

We have an excellent team, led by Associate Provost Maggie Dallman with Tom Pearson and Priya Pallan who are doing just that.  Working with the community, they are identifying the places where our leadership in science, engineering, medicine and business can be most helpful.  They are building upon the considerable local talent and the enterprising community organisations active in the area.

In the past 18 months, Tom, Priya and student and staff volunteers have been part of the W12 Festival and held well-attended activities such as science and sport with QPR, drone design at the White City Youth Club and technology support for the elderly at the Edward Woods Estate.

Imperial College invested in renovating Stadium House, not far from the White City underground station, in order to create The Invention Rooms, an exciting and unique approach to community engagement. A mixture of workshops and interactive spaces, it allows members of the community to come together to work personally and directly with our staff, students, alumni and partners to test out their creative ideas, and share in the excitement of research and innovation.

Three zones invite staff, students and neighbours in:

  • Reach Out Makerspace – a workshop and design studio for young people from the community. We will offer hands-on experience of prototyping new products. The aim is to transform lives by sharing practical skills in design, innovation, manufacturing and entrepreneurship, and to build young people’s confidence.
  • Interaction Zone – a vibrant public events space where local people and College partners can discuss science and connect with Imperial’s research through a wide range of events and activities. There are meeting rooms for seminars and classes, as well as an informal café for social events, exhibitions and community activities.
  • Advanced Hackspace – a workshop environment with specialist prototyping and manufacturing equipment for inventors and entrepreneurs from the College’s students, staff and partners. These facilities include technologies such as robotics and 3D printing, as well as a bio-lab, for synthetic biology and molecular fabrication.

We realise that we cannot do everything on our own and we are working with excellent partners. This work is amplified and sustained by generous philanthropic support already received from the Mohn Westlake, Berkeley, Garfield Weston, J. P. Morgan Chase  and Elsevier Foundations. We are working closely with additional philanthropists who will make it possible to create a new paradigm with the potential to fundamentally change outcomes for our community.

Public and Community Health in White City

Imperial College has one of the leading Schools of Public Health in the world. We are committed to improving health in populations throughout the world by combining excellent research, outstanding training and influential evidence-based advice to policymakers. The School of Public Health is unique in combining world-class research at local, national and international level with translational work on major global health challenges such as obesity, cancer, heart disease, dementia and infectious diseases.

In the coming decade, rapid advances in informatics will allow us to better understand the interaction between our genome, microbiome and environment, providing unprecedented new capabilities for disease diagnosis, treatment and ultimately, prevention. At the same time we face an ageing population with increasing burden from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Our epidemiologists have been at the forefront of research showing the significant role of lifestyle elements such as nutrition, exercise and external environment in these diseases. By combining the power of informatics with studies of large populations, our School of Public Health is poised to have a pivotal impact on population health and well-being through prevention-focused interventions, at community, national and international level.

As we move our School of Public Health to White City, we will consolidate and build on our outstanding expertise in public and global health in a state-of-the-art, purposefully community-facing hub.  We will take what we learn from our global research and apply it in our community and, conversely, take what we learn from White City and bring it to bear in other parts of the world.

In addition to focusing on prevention of disease and intervention in the community, we recognise the important interplay between physical and mental health.  Our work will take into account the continuum of mental and physical wellbeing as we become active partners in the lives of our neighbours. We strive to bring our research findings to the issues that most affect or impede people. 

Health improvement is clearly a key local priority and the significant challenges locally are reflected in communities throughout the world, exemplified by the global rise in childhood obesity. We aim to leverage the expertise of our Faculty of Medicine to align research initiatives to the White City context, and capitalize on our close links with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, primary care practices and Hammersmith & Fulham Council to make an integrated impact on local health and wellbeing.

The White City Campus provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring all these things together through community engagement, technical expertise, partnerships with other universities and corporations and support from philanthropists.

Why this is part of our mission

This wider community has not been in the focus of our world-leading university in the past.  We excel at research and teaching at the university level. That is our mission.  We do all that we can to ensure that we have sufficient funding, talented staff and students and ample space and support to pursue our mission of excellence in research and education. 

I believe, however, that if we do not now embrace the challenges we are facing in society and find additional ways to make a difference, our long-term role as an institution leading societal advancement will be endangered.  We cannot afford to let our elite status disconnect us from the world around us.

We each take up our individual responsibility to society in our own way. As a university, we combine forefront research discoveries, innovative breakthroughs, inspiring teaching, supporting staff and tireless volunteers to make the world a better place.  Some members of our multi-talented community will bring their capabilities to this arena, supported and cheered on by those focusing instead on their research and teaching. We need to share our passion and love of science, discovery, problem-solving and understanding with society in new ways to reach people we have not connected with before. Together we are powerful.

Professor Alice P. Gast
Imperial College London

9 October 2017