President's address 2015
The Great Hall, South Kensington Campus
3 March 2015
Tonight we celebrate the achievements of the Imperial community - our staff, students and alumni. I am honoured to make my address as a prelude to the wonderful gala dinner celebration, as it is the excellence of Imperial’s people that has most inspired me.
The range of accomplishments is impressive. Some of the honourees were on the New Year or Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Others have received an award for their research, served as an advisor to Government, or been elected as an academic society fellow. Some are being honoured for their teaching, or for the many ways that they make Imperial College the outstanding institution it is.
And our students are being honoured for academic achievement and their service to the community.
I congratulate all of them.
Tonight is a reminder of how fortunate we are to be part of Imperial. We are surrounded by people who care about their work and excel at it.
I have been struck by the spirit of discovery here, the passion for research and education, the sense of purpose. At Imperial, there exists a compelling commitment to our mission to achieve enduring academic excellence and lasting benefit to society.
I am proud to be here and proud to be your colleague.
And I thank you for your warm welcome, and your patience with my American English.
I feel especially fortunate to be here at a time when the world most needs our individual and combined expertise in science, engineering, medicine and business.
What is it that defines Imperial?
From what I have seen: Excellence. Collaboration. Impact.
We set the highest standards for ourselves, and we expect the same from one other. We are a diverse community. We employ a highly talented staff of 118 nationalities. Over half of our students come from outside the UK. But there is one thing we have in common. A desire to excel. We all want not just to do our best. We want to be the best. We are self-motivated. We are our own harshest critics.
We collaborate across disciplines because we want to address truly challenging problems with the absolute best teams. We share a mutual respect based on our high standards. This allows us to build relationships across disciplinary divides and to gain the trust and commitment of our colleagues from across the college and across the world.
Three quarters of our papers include an external co-author. Last year our published papers included co-authors in 141 countries, working across over 6000 different universities, businesses and other research organisations. Working with collaborators across the globe we innovate, we grow synergistic relationships, and we take on global challenges.
Our work makes a difference to the world. Our diverse collaborative community contributes to society in myriad ways. We see this daily in the news alerts. Imperial ranked first for impact in the Research Excellence Framework, the most recent government assessment of the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. While no measure is perfect, the process of writing impact case statements for the REF showed us just how much the work at Imperial is changing the world.
Vision, goals and aspirations
We should rightfully take pride in our work and accomplishments. But we also must continue to look forward. We must ask ourselves what we will do to contribute to Imperial’s greatness?
How will we honour and further this legacy?
We must build on our existing strengths. And we will create new strengths.
We are in the midst of developing our five-year strategy. This has been a quintessentially Imperial College process, with hard work, vigorous discussion and forward thinking by many. Several general themes have emerged.
First, we will take a broad, and innovative view of our educational mission. We will continue to provide the most rigorous academic training. And we will also provide our students with the practical, entrepreneurial and intellectual skills necessary to tackle societal problems. We will do this by expanding the opportunities for undergraduates to work alongside researchers and other experts in their fields.
We will take better advantage of our London location, our connections and our expertise. London, like Imperial is a global hub of thinking, activity and ideas. We can, should and will serve as a regular and frequent convener of gatherings of leaders from government, industry, academia, the media and elsewhere. These gatherings will expand knowledge, drive decisions and increase goodwill. We will become a hub of influence and impact.
We will build and maintain better ties with our friends and alumni. They have much to offer us and I believe we have much to offer them. We will engage them in our mission of academic excellence and societal impact and we will ask for their ideas and seek their partnership in what we plan to do.
We will share the wonder and importance of what we do. Our university will only be successful with the continual support of the public and government, and a continual supply of talented students. They should know of our triumphs, our plans and our hopes.
We will expect a culture of excellence and mutual respect. We will build a supportive, diverse, considerate, and highly-motivated community across all disciplines, functions and activities. We will achieve excellence through the quality of our intellects and our regard and respect for one another.
Finally, we will ensure that we have the financial strength to deliver our mission. Our university needs to endure in perpetuity.
We will be prudent in our spending.
We will be conscious of the costs borne by our students.
We will be diligent in finding productive ways to increase our revenues.
And we will place greater importance on philanthropic fundraising because we know that diversifying our support is essential to our future.
These sound like reasonable, sound goals. And yet they will not be easy or simple to achieve.
There are threats and great challenges in our world of knowledge and discovery. I think we must be especially diligent in addressing three threats to our future:
- The threat to reliable and sustainable support for research and education;
- The threat to free flows of talent across our borders;
- The threat of rigidity in a world of changing social contracts and modes of learning.
These are all challenges to the status quo.
I admire the “ring fence” around government funding for science in recent years in the UK. It is an important statement of the value that comes from investing in scientific research. This is an investment that needs to be protected.
Our ability to sustain a world-class science, medicine, engineering and business university has been limited by inflationary pressures on flat-cash budgets, and reduced government capital funding. The upcoming election and the subsequent spending review are critical times for the Government to remain an integral partner in our mission to deliver academic excellence and societal benefit for the foreseeable future.
We also rely on collaboration in all sectors, including government. Our talent pool of students, staff and collaborators is highly international. Retreating from the European Union would not serve the interests of our community.
Limiting international student and staff access would also be self-defeating.
The world is changing rapidly. We are seeing huge changes in society as technology, social media and the sharing economy break cultural, social and personal barriers daily. These changes will directly affect education and research. But universities are not known for changing swiftly.
I believe that our future success will be determined by our ability to rapidly and effectively engage in a connected, collaborative, and contributory world of research and education. We need to make these changes work for us, not against us.
It will not be easy. We are naturally competitive and we need to develop new ways to work together.
In light of these challenges, how will we increase and broaden our societal impact? How do we best use what we know? How do we turn knowledge into action? How do we achieve a higher good?
We will do this by combining our continued and vigorous pursuit of collaboration with our willingness to take risks.
Collaboration and risk taking go together. In order to collaborate, one needs to be open, build trust and compromise. Successful collaborations also often bring together fierce competitors joining forces to work together on a common goal.
This is risky business, collaborating with your arch-rival.
I am a fan of sport and of music. In both you can find great examples of collaboration and rivalry. The coveted chairs in an orchestra are fiercely competitive yet the ensemble plays beautifully as a collective body. I think of the great physical and mental fortitude that athletes display in their competitions. In order to compete in a world rowing championship, the most elite rowers from around a country will vie for a seat in the boat. They battle for the spot in seat races, and then, when selected, they must become a team, one crew, a single organism working in synchrony, in harmony, together. Success comes when a team shifts their focus from competition to collaboration.
This has happened before in the world of science. We see it in global health crises. In February 2003, the world learned about the “severe acute respiratory syndrome” which started sickening and killing people in 2002. Since the disease origin was unknown, and the epidemic was spreading quickly, the quest to identify and understand it motivated an international collaboration of unprecedented scale and speed. From March 12 to April 16, 2003 a close international collaboration of 13 laboratories from 10 countries discovered a new pathogen, a member of the coronavirus family never before seen in humans and the cause of SARS. These collaborations persist in the development of diagnostics, treatments and cures. In a crisis, even the most competitive can collaborate.
Unfortunately, competitive forces often prevail. In 2012 the outbreak of MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus began. The international race to understand this disease was diverted by the race instead to the patent office. MERS Research has been dangerously slowed by lack of sharing and intellectual property dispute.
Clearly we need to find appropriate reward structures to induce sharing and collaboration.
There is hope that such sharing is possible; Imperial is a founding core partner of the Innolife consortium of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. Innolife brings together more than 50 core partners from businesses, universities and research institutions across 9 European countries to develop innovations in healthy living and active ageing.
This takes courage
Researchers are courageous. We probe the boundaries of science, we explore, delve into the unknown and we discover new things. We take calculated risks when we know we are onto something important. We find collaborators and colleagues readily.
We already know how to do this.
Universities are more conservative. Universities need to support the common good and create an environment where researchers can be courageous and can push back the boundaries of their fields. We need to make working together easy. Universities need to reward both judicious risk taking and effective collaboration.
We need to follow the example set by our researchers and make Imperial more agile and courageous.
Imperial knows how to be courageous. In 2009 and 2013 Imperial made the bold move to purchase 25 acres in White City.
We now have a unique opportunity to redefine collaboration as we expand our estate.
Prince Albert led the Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851, and invested the profit from the Exhibition to, and I quote, “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”. With this investment he created our incredible hub of science, art and music at South Kensington.
Now we at Imperial College have an unprecedented opportunity in White City to extend our influence, augment our collaborations and broaden our social impact. This will be our chance to create the Albertopolis of the 21st century. Imperial West will be one way we increase and redefine our collaborations with one another, with academic partners, with corporate collaborators and with governments.
We already have a courageous leading edge going to White City. Our postgraduate students have paved the way by living in Wood Lane Studios (known as GradPad) and our research and translation hub is under construction.
In 1872, the Royal College of Chemistry moved to Kensington, in what is now the Henry Cole wing of the V&A. It is fitting that 145 years later our department of Chemistry will be the first to seed a molecular sciences neighbourhood, leading fundamental, innovative and translational grand challenge work at the White city research hub. We are actively seeking partners and collaborators for the adjacent translation hub. Our plans to fill out the health and wellbeing part of the campus include the multidisciplinary Michael Uren Biomedical Engineering & Research Hub, a residential tower and a new state of the art home for our world leading School of Public Health.
We are beginning to plan the opportunities at the rest of the site and we will dedicate at least a third of the space to diversify our income in order to sustain our mission.
Capacity at White City and South Kensington will allow us to redefine collaboration and find new ways to work with partners. We excel at relationships with industry and I believe we can lead in the era of true collaboration engaging both academics and industrial researchers. Our corporate partners want to work with us, not just toss a project our way. We will be able to increase these relationships, and create an environment for discovery, creativity and innovation.
What we will do
Over the coming years we have a unique opportunity to make Imperial even greater, to increase our influence, impact and importance throughout the world.
Our focus on science, engineering, medicine and business is exactly the right focus for these times. And our commitment to collaboration is exactly the right means to contribute to the grand challenges facing the world.
We are blessed to have the opportunity to do important, meaningful work within a community where excellence is the norm. Each of us must dedicate ourselves to making the most of the opportunities that are before us.
What will we do? I can think of three areas to pursue vigorously together:
- advocacy for research and education,
- agility and courage in our investments,
- individual and collective collaborations.
We will advocate for education and research, by showing the world the value in our work and motivating support for it.
We will be vocal advocates of government support of STEMMB research and higher education. I believe the government and the public can understand the value of this funding, but they need to be reminded of the decline in excellence that inattention can bring.
We will also speak up when we see political threats to excellence. Competitive peer reviewed funding is a hallmark of US and UK excellence. Circumventing that process is hazardous, and we must do what we can to prevent it. The erosion of true, competitive peer review funding is an erosion of excellence.
Second agility and courage
We will follow the culture set by our researchers and make Imperial more agile and courageous. We will adjust our processes so that we can make swift informed decisions to seize opportunities and both start and stop new initiatives.
We will make investments to pursue the new and the risky. We will support ideas that are potential breakthrough programmes that put us in a leadership position. We will place our bets even if the idea is ahead of its time and has not received outside funding. And we will invite our friends and alumni to invest with us and be a part of these forefront and avant-garde ideas.
Third individual and collective collaborations
We will look to our academics to show us where collaborations are most effective and we will grow those that are appropriate and seed new relationships when opportunities arise.
We will look at our system of rewards and ensure that collaboration and collaborative work is recognised and rewarded in evaluations for promotions and awards.
We will be strategic in our selection of partners. We want partnerships that are mutually beneficial and distinctive. We look for partners with synergistic strengths and needs. We seek good working relationships.
As we embark on this era of advocacy, agility, courage and collaboration, I ask that each member of the Imperial College community seize this opportunity.
I ask everyone to be vocal advocates for what we do, to be agile and courageous with new ideas and to seek out new collaborations.We expect great things of ourselves and of each other.
We each have a role to play and contributions to make to Imperial’s future. It is our individual and combined efforts that will write the next chapters of Imperial’s history.
I am confident that we will do great things. I am confident that our time together at Imperial will be a time of accomplishment and success.