Great Universities in Times of Change: Collaboration, Excellence, Patience and Sharing  

Delivered at Tsinghua University on the 24 October 2017 following Professor Gast's acceptance of an Honorary Professorship


President Qiu, thank you for the kind introduction.

Professor Zhao, Dean Li, distinguished guests, and members of the Tsinghua community.

I am deeply hounoured to be awarded an Honorary Professorship at Tsinghua University. I will always remember this day with fondness and appreciation. 

I am also grateful for the opportunity that comes with being an Honorary Professor: the chance to add my voice and ideas to the Tsinghua Global Vision Programme.  This an increasingly important forum for sharing ideas, broadening perspectives, and increasing understanding.

The Global Vision Programme strengthens the bonds between China and the rest of the world.  I am proud to join the list of illustrious speakers who have preceded me. 

Tsinghua University and Imperial College London have a long history of collaboration.  It began over twenty years ago and has grown stronger and more vibrant over the years.  Today our two great universities are working together on research on biomedical imaging, nanotribology, microsatellites, computing, energy and a host of other areas.

In addition to research, we have established education links between our undergraduate and graduate students. This past summer, 13 Imperial undergraduates participated in the learning and cultural programme hosted by Tsinghua. They described the experience with expressions like: “eye-opening and enriching”, “a great adventure” and say things like: “I believe I am now a more international person”.  This is what it is all about; using educational exchanges to allow students to open their eyes to other parts of the world, to become more international.

Next summer doctoral candidates from Imperial will participate in the Imperial-Tsinghua Global Fellows Programme on Global Climate Change and Energy. And other Imperial and Tsinghua students will work together once again and develop lasting friendships through our Global Fellows Programme, Tsinghua’s Environment Summer School, International Summer Research Placement Exchange Scheme and other outstanding exchange programmes.

We are eager to do more together as we find that our students, our academics and our leaders have so much in common.  It is with these common interests and our common vision that I frame my remarks today.

The Imperial-Tsinghua collaboration is representative of the friendship and close cooperation that exists between the UK and China.

Imperial is proud to be the UK’s number one research partner with China. Imperial experts and our Chinese university partners are working together on cutting-edge research in fields that include nanotechnology, bioengineering, computing, data science, advanced materials, offshore energy, environmental engineering and public health. Together we are addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges. 

We at Imperial College London were deeply honoured that President Xi Jinping visited Imperial during his State Visit to the UK in 2015. He was given a tour of two Imperial facilities with notable links to China: the Data Science Institute, and the Hamlyn Centre. 

Our collaborations with China are on the rise. My colleagues at Imperial have co-authored more than 3,000 papers with their peers in China over the last five years. Last year alone, Imperial collaborated on over 700 publications with researchers in China and 130 publications with researchers in Hong Kong.   

Our collaborations with China are of high quality. Many of our joint papers appear in Science and Nature.

Imperial College is an attractive destination for students from China. We are pleased that Chinese students are coming to study with us in increasing numbers. Five years ago, we had 1,800 students from China. We have 2,600 today.

These lasting ties between Imperial and Tsinghua, between Imperial and other leading Chinese universities and between the UK and China increase understanding, develop new knowledge and are mutually beneficial.

Tsinghua and Imperial College London play an increasingly important role in today’s world. Like other research universities, we educate tomorrow’s leaders, provide solutions to pressing problems, and look beyond the immediate to advance the frontiers of knowledge.

Society’s demands on universities have never been greater. The world of knowledge and learning is changing rapidly. Our ability, as great universities, to rise to the challenges and opportunities we face requires an openness to collaboration, a commitment to excellence, patience when facing complexity, and, a desire to share our world of innovation and discovery.

Cassini Mission

I want to begin with an example that I think captures all of these characteristics: the just completed and highly successful Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.  

Like other large projects, Cassini required collaboration. Teams from 28 countries worked together. The mission was managed in the US by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  The Huygens lander was developed by the European Space Research and Technology Centre.  Instruments, like the Italian high-gain antenna came from across Europe.

Cassini required patience. It was conceived in 1982, launched in 1997, and arrived at Saturn, its final destination, in 2004.  It explored Venus and Jupiter on the way.  Over the past few months, the grand finale captured everyone’s imagination. After 13 years producing wonderful science orbiting Saturn, Cassini ran out of fuel. Its orbit could no longer be controlled and the risk of hitting one of the moons and harming the fragile conditions for life was too great. Cassini was driven into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Cassini required excellence.  One example is the Imperial magnetometer, an intricate device designed at Imperial College two decades ago by our space physics group.  The Cassini magnetometer team was ably led by Imperial’s Professor Michele Dougherty.  They saw some strange magnetic signals which suggested that Enceladus, a tiny icy moon of Saturn, might have an atmosphere.  They convinced the international Cassini team to take the spacecraft on a close flyby of Enceladus.  Cassini’s sensors confirmed that this atmosphere existed. This inspired a decade of discoveries and breakthroughs.  They found water, chemicals and energy on Enceladus: all the components needed for life. 

And it involved sharing.  Cassini’s findings are available to scientists in nations all over the world. And this will continue for years to come as its wealth of data continues to be analysed.

Cassini is a powerful, very visible example of the importance of collaboration, excellence, patience and sharing.  These same characteristics are found at great universities like ours.


Great universities and their people share a passion to make a difference in the world. But universities and researchers cannot do this in isolation. The grand challenges facing the world and the complex approaches to surmounting them require international teams.  

Collaboration across geographic boundaries and academic disciplines is essential to a vibrant academic and scientific community.  It produces breakthrough solutions that are the result of a diversity of thought, expertise and perspective.

As scientists, we are naturally competitive.  We strive to be the best, and we strive to excel as individuals in our chosen fields.  But we also know that many of the challenging issues we tackle through research require not just our best individual efforts, but they rely on the best collaborative efforts. 

Successful collaboration brings together fierce competitors, and helps them join forces to work together towards a common goal.  It can of course be risky, collaborating with your arch-rival.

But we have seen, time and time again, how success follows when we move from competition to collaboration. It has happened many times in the world of science.  We see it happening often in global health crises. 

The outbreak of the Zika virus began in Brazil in 2015 is one such case. In early February 2016 the World Health Organization declared a health emergency because of the cluster of Zika cases. Ten days later a combination of 30 scientific journals, research institutes and non-profit groups based in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the US, signed a data sharing agreement. Collaborative efforts happened around the world, involving academics, governments, and corporations. They are still working together to map the genome of the Aedes mosquito, understand the pathways of infection for Zika, Dengue and other illnesses, and to develop effective detection, prevention and treatment. Competing researchers are collaborating to overcome global health threats. 

By contrast, we saw what happens when competition prevails. In 2012, we saw the start of an outbreak of MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. The international race to understand this disease became instead a race to the patent office. MERS research was hindered by the lack of sharing and competition over intellectual property. 

Universities must remain true to their values of openness and inclusion. We must continue to collaborate across borders. 

International collaboration not only produces better research, it produces better people. International collaboration builds trust and creates friendships. It produces people who think about problems in new ways.


 I believe that each of us carry a personal measure of excellence. We each hold ourselves to high standards.  We know and understand quality in our own terms. We push ourselves to do our very best.

 Although excellence may be driven by us internally, it requires external validation. We all struggle when we try to measure excellence. Measures such as peer evaluation are imperfect.  Sometimes the most creative and potentially impactful work by researchers will not be appreciated by others. I think the debate about peer review versus metrics should become a balanced combination of peer review and metrics.

League tables are, of course, another measure.  They are a primary way that we are ranked by the world around us. One of the challenges with league tables are the inputs – are they weighted toward financial investments in universities, or are they looking at outputs like publications and citations?  Even then, citations vary across disciplines and they can be manipulated. How can we measure outcomes?  True impacts from research and education are difficult to measure but we need to find ways to understand them.

Great universities, however, measure themselves. They set high standards and develop ways to evaluate how they and their academics perform internally against those standards. Measuring ourselves can and should recognise the power inherent in bringing the diversity of individual strengths and qualities together in collective excellence.

It is also important for universities to measure our students’ experiences.

At Imperial, we know that we cannot separate research and teaching and we should not oversimplify measurement of the outcomes of an education. We need to define a richer set of outcome measures reflecting how our students’ knowledge and experiences prepare them for the world.

To do this, we are improving our dialog with students to improve the student experience.  Students know excellent teaching when they see it.

It is important to celebrate excellence in order to promote excellence. Awards, recognition and communications are the means to do this.  We can and should do more.


 Whenever there is a crisis, an abrupt change, or a problem, our natural human desire is to 'do something'.  While we all should be trying to do the right thing, to help out, and to make our contribution, I think that we also need to try to be patient. We sometimes need to step back, take a deep breath and assess the situation. Just as there is a time for action, there is also a time for assessment and reflection. 

As scholars, we know all about the long slow process of research. We appreciate that understanding comes from working methodically.  We know that research and education, take time, and we know that this time invested is well worth the wait. 

We must take that discipline of the academy, so well-honed by centuries of learned academics, and make it work for us. We must make it work in a world where we are conditioned to move quickly, answer WeiChat messages, or run for the train.

These times of urgency require patience. 

There are four areas where I think patience is especially important for great universities. 

The first is research. 

Funding for research brings accountability.  Everyone wants to see their resources put to good use.  We are impatient for results.  We are all driven toward results. But we must not neglect the long, slow, and careful process essential to excellent research.  In the modern-day frenzy for 'impact' we need to continually remind ourselves, and the public, that research takes time.

We know from experience that the wait is worth it.  Think of some of the incredible breakthroughs that have happened after many years, decades, of hard work and patience. Imperial’s Professor Steve Bloom made a pioneering discovery about gut hormones and their influence on appetite regulation and their role as neurotransmitters in the 1980’s. His research brought us appetite reduction therapies that work in initial tests showing that people consume fewer calories after taking the hormones. He is now working on an EU funded project with another Imperial Professor, Chris Toumazou, who is developing a microchip to recognise and process the signatures of appetite, mimic instructions to the brain, and reduce the urge to eat.

These revolutionary advances came some thirty years after the initial discovery.

Supporting new, risky, ground-breaking research is a priority for.  This was the reason we established the Excellence Fund for Frontier Research.  These programmes will take time, courage and fortitude to be successful but we hope that government, foundations and philanthropists will take note, and they will follow our example by adding their support.  It is critically important to support hard research that takes time.

We must make the case for looking to the long term with regard to research and we must not rush forward with research solely driven by short term needs and problems.

The second area is teaching.

Universities also need to be patient in their approach to teaching. 

We are passionate about teaching students.  Education is at the heart of our universities.  We have generations of stellar alumni who make us very proud of what we do.  When I visit Imperial alumni, and we talk about their time at Imperial, I am struck by how little the essence of an Imperial education has changed over the years.  We still have extremely rigorous courses that inspire our students to learn, to think, and to dig deeply into themselves to master the concepts.  This is the mark of an Imperial education.  From what I know of your alumni, I think that this is true here at Tsinghua as well.   

Yet our students of today are very different from students in past decades. And we know that the world they will work in has changed significantly, and will continue to change, rapidly.

We know that we need to be open to new ideas about the way we teach.  But we must do so in a way that does not harm approaches that have withstood the test of time. At Imperial, we created an Excellence Fund for Learning and Teaching Innovation.  It has been a catalyst for generating innovative ideas for how we teach at Imperial.  These approaches will challenge our students to fulfil their potential and, in turn, our students will challenge us to deliver a world-class educational experience. I hope that this will be a fruitful area of further collaboration with Tsinghua.

There is great value to our society from our system of higher education, perhaps more than we commonly appreciate.  It is hard to imagine where the world would be without the millions of university graduates contributing to society as a whole.  How can we measure the value of an educated citizenry?  How can we appreciate the lives well-lived and the communities that thrive thanks to experiences gained in the formative years in university?

We must look to the long term with regard to education and be careful not to rush forward with teaching metrics solely driven by short term measurements.  

The third are is the translation of discovery.

I was impressed with President Xi’s call to “mass entrepreneurship”. He is right, we can raise our conscientiousness and find ways we can all be more entrepreneurial.

Perhaps nowhere are we more impatient these days than when we engage in entrepreneurial activities.  The promise of a new invention gets everyone excited, yet sometimes that promise is still a long way from certitude and it may take years to come to fruition.  Expectations can get out of hand and disappointment may overtake our enthusiasm.

Governments rightly look to universities for the research that will bring innovation and translate discovery into commercial enterprise. But we must take care to protect and support those ideas having great societal, but little short term economic impact. We need to provide 'patient capital' and invest in ideas that take longer to develop. Tsinghua Holdings is doing that with its incubators and accelerators.

In addition to trying to create small start-up companies, it is important for universities and corporations to work together to turn ideas into commercial applications.  

At Imperial, we are doing our part to promote innovation amongst our students through a host of programmes. We have our new Enterprise Lab, the Althea-Imperial programme, our Venture Catalyst Challenge and our Incubator at the I-Hub at our new campus in the White City area of London. We are building these and more. We are looking for partners with patience and foresight, partners to help us be even more innovative.

Partnership is essential.

Tsinghua and Imperial College London excel at collaboration. We are wonderful partners, and we build relationships.  We know that collaboration is positively correlated with academic excellence. This is more important than ever as the UK negotiates its changing relationship with Europe and we strive to maintain our strong partnerships throughout the world.

Imperial has invested in seed funds for collaborations with MIT, and with European colleagues. We will do more of this and we would like to convince others to support this type of sharing. 

The UK, like 25 other nations, contributes significant funding to the absolutely unique facility and research at CERN.  The involvement of so many nations and scientists is its strength.  What if we took the same approach to working together, across nations, around the world, to tackle antimicrobial resistance, climate change, food or energy supply?  We could, as a global community, muster some incredibly powerful collaborations to tackle these and other fundamental challenges. 

Just look at the breakthroughs that the European Research Council has brought about by patient investment in individuals and by fostering European collaboration.  The support for Imperial Professor Zoltan Takats and his work on the iKnife allows surgeons to immediately know whether the tissue they are cutting is cancerous or not.

Also, there was the support for Professor Andrew Davison whose research into robotic vision enables robots to move beyond controlled environments and successfully navigate the real world. Incidentally, the iKnife is based on electrosurgery, a technology invented in the 1920s, the same decade that the word robot was first used. Once again, we see the virtue of patience.

At Imperial, we have excellent corporate partners and our relationships with them have persisted and grown through economic cycles and leadership transitions.  Strong partnerships endure.


Great universities benefit society in countless ways.  It is our mission.

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. 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 benefit society.  At Imperial 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.  

One thing that has changed in the UK, the US and in other parts of Europe is that some 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.

I believe it is important for great universities to be ever mindful of the importance of sharing their world of discovery more broadly.  There are many ways to do this.  By working with school-age children to get them interested in science and engineering at an early age.  By paying attention to local problems in additional to global issues.  And by serving as source of inspiration for the wider community.

Times of Change

I began by using the Cassini mission as an example that captured the characteristics of great universities.  I would like to conclude with another example that illustrates the rapidly changing world of knowledge and its implications for how universities think about education in the future. 

This week Google DeepMind made a significant announcement about their world-champion computer, AlphaGo.  This caught my attention because we at Imperial are collaborating with DeepMind on an important project to improve clinical data sharing, task management and quality medical care.  We are using artificial intelligence and mobile tools to help improve medical care in the NHS.  This will allow our healthcare providers to optimise their time, and improve their care of patients in a world of expanding information and data. 

We, like other great universities, have research on data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning and its application in a number of areas.  As we make great strides in artificial intelligence and machine learning it is good to evaluate where we stand in terms of human intelligence and person learning. It is interesting to ponder this work they have done on the complex and intricate game of Go.

As you know, Go, or weiqi has been played for thousands of years, originating in ancient China. it cannot be mastered with simple rules and requires a great deal of intuition. Players spend years studying strategy, playing and learning from a master. Computer analysis by brute force is impossible due to the 10^170 possible moves.

DeepMind’s approach with AlphaGo used neural networks to allow the computer to learn from observing the moves of a hundred thousand amateur games.  Then they set the computer to play against itself millions of times, using what they call “reinforcement learning” - that is, learning from its mistakes and improving each time. 

They put AlphaGo up against the world master, Lee Sedol and beat him 4-1.  What is remarkable is not just that they beat a world master but rather how AlphaGo did it and what it meant to the community.  You see, apparently the computer tried new creative moves that opened up new possibilities to the experts.  In the end, the Go community was inspired by some of the creative and new approaches AlphaGo used – imagine that, Go masters inspired by the creativity of a computer.

Now they invite AlphaGo to their summits, like another grand master sharing ideas.

What was announced this week is that the new version, AlphaGo Zero doesn’t need to start by studying human games.  Instead, it starts with the basic rules of Go and competes against itself to learn.  As they say, they have “removed the constraints of human knowledge”. 

Where does this leave us humans?  Are we destined to have jobs taken away, to have computers take over at a grand “singularity”?  I think not, and in fact, universities are more important than ever.

Firstly, the people at DeepMind and my own colleagues in AI acknowledge that Go is a particularly rich field for reinforcement learning as it is a “game of perfect information” where chance plays no part.  We still rely on human judgement and intuition and it will be the collaboration between humans and machines that will make the biggest advances. 

So perhaps we in universities should be focusing on teaching judgement, intuition, and patience. 

Excellence requires judgement, and judgement is a culturally relevant thing that we humans learn in ways that are still beyond computers. 

Excellence requires patience and the ability to look beyond the immediate and to think about broad contexts.  Machine learning and AI help us pull disparate and large pieces of information together but finally it is up to humans to guide the decisions.

An interesting example comes from Imperial’s Vice Provost for Research who is an expert in AI and machine learning. He collaborates with Rescue Global, an organisation that responds to disasters.

In an emergency or disaster situation, time is of the essence. Today we have more resources at hand and more data to help us make the right decisions Yet, it is hugely challenging for humans to process such disparate sources of information from the people communicating from a disaster, aerial images and data obtained by governments or private sources, response agencies and charities with people on the ground.  How do you put it all together to make the best possible response?

This is where computers can assist with rapid challenging situations – much like in hospital emergency wards. Disaster response is being transformed by modern digital technologies. In the first few hours following the response effort, information may be coming from diverse sources and is typically unstructured, delayed, and, in the worst case, manipulated. They use a scanner to take this information and classify some of the reports and then call upon a machine learning algorithm called Bayesian Classifier to classify the remaining reports.  Based on these analyses, they create a heat-map define areas of high emergency that can then be used to generate priorities and targets for response.

Similarly, in a hospital ward, we want to be sure that the valuable time and attention from our medics and our nurses is optimised.  These are the critically important frontiers of AI and machine learning that we are forging today.

We are fortunate to live in exciting times. We are also fortunate to be a part of great universities whose work adds to the dynamics and excitement of meeting today’s challenges.

We at Imperial look forward to continuing our long and productive friendship with Tsinghua.   

Thank you again for this great honour.