July 27th, 2022
Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, is joining Research England in October as Executive Chair, responsible for its critical role in providing more than £2 billion annually in grant funding to English universities for research. Here she reflects on her time at the University of Nottingham.
I appeared before the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee last week for my pre-appointment scrutiny for the role of Executive Chair of Research England. The event was certainly a point for reflection. Alongside the challenges of getting to London in 40C via a not fully functioning transport system, our hospitals were struggling with huge increases in people needing care.
I was posed questions as to how to set priorities and funding for research. How to balance providing immediate solutions to the massive challenges facing society in a world that is no longer functioning as we need it to, with the need for long-term, fundamental research. Thankfully they agreed that I am on the right track and endorsed my appointment, though the committee’s approval ended my denial about leaving the university at the end of September.
At Nottingham, we continually face these questions as we set direction and strategy. We must work out how to use our resources to deliver our core business of providing an excellent and life-changing education for our wonderful and talented students and delivering high-quality research across a broad disciplinary base. At the same time we must put energy and resources into those areas where we can make a real difference in tackling societal challenges.
Over the last five years we have found a way to do this through the Beacons of Excellence programme, which committed to focus our areas of transdisciplinary strength on UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Beacons provide platforms for the next era and over next five years, as an integral part of our renewed research strategy, we plan to develop research and innovation clusters.
The Propulsion Futures Beacon is helping drive progress towards a zero carbon cluster, which will help establish Nottingham and the East Midlands as an international hub for the translation of net zero technologies.
Precision Imaging is establishing a national ultra-high field imaging facility, following the award of funding to secure the UK’s most powerful MRI scanner and the creation of a health research cluster will accelerate the translation of our discoveries into patient care across the East Midlands and beyond.
Digital Nottingham meanwhile is a new programme in partnership with local stakeholders that uses our research expertise in data science, technology and artificial intelligence to provide further tremendous potential to drive regional innovation, investment and growth.
Growing out of Future Food, a new Food Systems Institute is proposed, and our Rights Lab continues to build its extraordinary work supporting human rights and ending human exploitation through enforced labour.
At the same time, much has been done to strengthen the environment of support for research. A research culture survey, workshops and our first research culture conference underline our commitment to building and maintaining a healthy, positive, supportive and enabling working environment.
When I arrived at the university in January 2016, I received such a warm welcome. I remember thinking of myself as a research tourist and visited as many areas of the university as I could to meet research groups and see facilities. It was inspiring and a way to connect and build relationships and surface issues and problems. It became the foundation for the 2017- 2022 research strategy.
There was remedial work to be done. We were in no way on track for a strong performance for REF2021. Many parts of the university were unable to give confidence that research outputs would be in place or that we would be able to produce the required impact case studies. Together we set off a big programme of work led by REF coordinators, heads of schools, FPVCs and APVCs and research support leads.
Providing our individual academics with meaningful support and time to achieve our goals was crucial. We made enormous progress, well-rewarded in the final REF outcome. But now we need to move on from an approach that involved so much heavy lifting, to embedding all this into business as usual for all. At the foundation of this is producing highly impactful and world-leading outputs.
There are so many things I could reflect on from my time at the university. First and foremost, the many, many friends I have made over the last six years. The brilliance of colleagues and the extraordinary work I have encountered almost daily. Behind every door in the university, something remarkable is going on. We have superb facilities and enjoy a very collegiate environment that even the pandemic does not seem to have dampened. While there is plenty to do, our culture is becoming more inclusive. We are less focused on a few principal investigators; there is fuller recognition of women and others from diverse backgrounds; there is greater insight into the ways we inadvertently hold back careers.
I have learnt so much. It has been a real privilege to serve as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange.
For anyone wishing to reflect with me in friendship, please join me at a gathering in September, when I look forward to thanking you in person for your extraordinary contributions and celebrating our wonderful research environment and community. Look out for further details after the summer break.
I sign off, not with a goodbye but with heartfelt and huge thanks to all my friends and colleagues at the University of Nottingham who made my time here so wonderfully rewarding.
My sincere best wishes
Professor Dame Jessica Corner
Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange.
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