Staying Focused: Avoiding a "Cognitive Deficit"

I hope that everyone had a refreshing summer with time for friends, family and relaxation. We begin the academic year with high expectations about what we will accomplish together. We have an ever increasing responsibility in society, as a global institution making a difference to people locally, regionally and around the world.

There is much to do, and yet the uncertainties we face, such as Brexit and shifts in government priorities, seem to pose threats to accomplishing all that we aim for. In this Autumn message, I focus on our priorities and decision-making while facing external distractions.

I am confident that we will accomplish what we set out to do, we will be resilient, and we will remain vibrant in decades to come.

Like many of you, I find that summer is a time to reflect, to think more deeply and to read more. Some summers ago, I read a book by an expert in societal effects of internet technologies, Clay Shirky. In his 2010 book, “Cognitive Surplus”, he describes the collective capacity of people to use technology to connect, create and collaborate. This idea appeals to me. Everyone has creative energy that they can put to good use if given the time and inclination to do so.  Given the scarcity of time to reflect and think deeply about things, it is all the more valuable to spend our attention and energy wisely.

After the 2016 referendum, I was concerned about the amount of time, attention and energy that would be spent on dealing with Brexit over other priorities for the College. Indeed, Brexit and other world events are sources of disruption that necessarily consume our attention. Rather than benefiting from a cognitive surplus, we live and work in a time of turbulence and distraction. Perhaps, instead of a cognitive surplus, we face the challenge of a “Cognitive Deficit”.  In times like these, our focus on priorities is essential.

During the past year, we demonstrated our ability to progress during a time of uncertainty. We were first to call for a Joint Expert Panel to help us find a way forward with the USS pension scheme. We worked together on our Pay and Benefits Review. We launched a fundraising campaign for the School of Public Health. We raised more money than ever before. Our Chemistry Department is moving into the Molecular Sciences Research Hub at our White City campus.  The first cohort of students graduated from LKCMedicine. Our Learning and Teaching Strategy guided us as we successfully navigated the first round of TEF. The Dyson School of Design Engineering moved into a newly renovated space and will graduate its first cohort this year. We recently established a partnership in mathematics with CNRS and another partnership with Technical University Munich, building upon many collaborations we have across College in France and Germany.

In order to excel through periods of change and challenge, and to find the opportunities within these challenges, we must rely on three attributes:

  1. Strong mission and goals
  2. Shared values
  3. Ability to deal with trade-offs with agility

Imperial clearly has the first two attributes and we are working on the third. 

We are an enduring, strong and fast-moving institution that time and again seizes opportunity. We have a very clear mission: to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society. We have clear goals set forth in the College Strategy. We have a master plan for our two major campuses in South Kensington and White City and we are building an estates strategy for all of our campuses.

We share a commitment to excellence, diversity, hard work and accomplishment. We celebrate these values through College awards, the annual garden party, research and teaching excellence funds and university web stories. Imperial Expectations guides the behaviour of all staff. Our new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy sets forth our intentions.

The third attribute, the ability to deal with trade-offs with agility, is challenging for any large institution. We need to make important decisions in a rigorous yet timely manner. We need to be both collaborative and responsive. We need to work together to ensure that all perspectives are heard and considered, that the full range of consequences and effects are understood, and to do so in a way that moves things forward. We will excel through turbulent times by enhancing our ability to respond to opportunities and by improving our decision-making process. This is something we, as a leadership team, are focusing our time and attention on.

We have a strong leadership team. During the summer, Council asked me to continue to serve as President until 2022 and, in September, we welcomed Professor Ian Walmsley as Imperial’s new Provost.  Over the past several months we have worked to make the President’s Board and the Provost’s Board more effective and transparent in decision making. Our Deans, along with the President, Provost, Vice-Provosts and CFO, are an active and vital part of the leadership team. 

Working well as a leadership team to weigh trade-offs and make decisions involves a lot of collaboration. I like the story Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs used in the “Lost Interview” about a rock tumbler as a metaphor for working through something as a team:

…as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous trade-offs that you have to make. …..

… I’ve always felt that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like when I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. …And one day he said to me, “come on into my garage I want to show you something.” And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got just some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.”

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.

And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.

That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.

We have stones to polish with the challenges ahead and opportunities to seize. Our leadership team will devote their time, and cognitive energy, to our priorities:

  • Supporting and valuing our staff. We will continue the constructive conversations on our investments in people that we started during our Pay and Benefits Review. We welcome the recommendations of the Joint Expert Panel and will continue to listen to your views as we work towards a sustainable, equitable and fair solution on pensions.
  • Improving the student experience. We need to demonstrate the centrality of education to our mission. This includes a continued commitment to excellence in teaching as well as providing better spaces and places for our students to work and relax.
  • Enhancing diversity. We agree with the Office for Students that increasing diversity is important. We want to and will do better in recruiting and retaining diverse students and staff. We need to draw upon the talents of staff and students from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds from the UK and from all over the world. We have work to do, and we are committed to doing that.
  • Pursuing our collaborations with determination. Building upon our multi-disciplinary research into global challenges we will find new opportunities for collaboration. We will do all that we can to prepare for the possible impact of Brexit on our mission. We will help our staff and students navigate through the transition. We continue to promote our international values to government and partners.
  • Gaining external support for our research and teaching. We have high aspirations and we have important partners in corporations, friends, and donors who can help us meet our goals despite shifts in the external landscape. We will work hard to bring in resources from those who support what we do.
  • Acting courageously and innovatively pursuing new opportunities. We will need to take calculated risks in order to seize opportunities for greater excellence in research and education. We will build new partnerships with universities and corporations in the UK and abroad. Seizing such opportunities requires decisions and trade-offs and we will pursue them by carefully weighing options and focusing on our mission.

I know that we will be successful in meeting these challenges and seizing these opportunities.

One measure of the importance of our mission and work, and a key enabler in achieving it, is the philanthropic support we receive. We have built a professional Advancement team to increase support of Imperial’s ground-breaking research.  Last year, we received a record £59m in donations, a significant increase over the annual average of £17m in the years 2004-2014. This critical support from alumni and friends is an affirmation of what we do.

One particularly exciting opportunity to benefit society is to transform our world-leading School of Public Health by moving it to White City and building its collaborations across College and in the community to meet the needs of this century. We will take what we learn from the world and apply it to our local community and take what we learn from our community and bring it to the world. A generous £25m gift from alumna Marit Mohn, for the Mohn Centre for Children’s Health and Wellbeing helped us launch our £100m campaign for this mission. Gifts like this open up new opportunities such as the Dyson School, Michael Uren Biomedical Engineering Hub, and their impact is enduring.

As I write this, we do not know how Brexit will be resolved, nor do we know what else the future will bring. We will support our staff and students and advocate for our international community and collaborations. External forces will not stop us from achieving our goals. We have met such challenges in the past, and we have always turned threats into opportunities.

Professor Alice P. Gast
Imperial College London

11 October 2018