formerly N8 and then N9 science events

Nanogon: December 17th, 2014.

Sir Alan Langlands talks of the N8
research partnership

by Helen Gavaghan, Leeds, UK

Interview: 16th December, 2014. Published 17th December.

When the new director of the N8 research partnership, Dr Peter Simpson, takes up his post in January 2015 he will find the chair of N8s' board, Sir Alan Langlands, has a firm view of the board chairs impartiality. "It's not just that I need to be neutral," Sir Alan Langlands told me yesterday, "I am neutral."

I interviewed Sir Alan in his office at the University of Leeds, where he is the vice chancellor. As a group, he said, N8 has not incorporated, and is bound by trust, good will and social capital.

Currently N8 is waiting to hear if it will be granted multi-million pound funding in the field of agriculture and food security for its first big collaborative venture across all eight member universities. Sir Alan was reluctant to talk about the subject, but clearly excited. The eight universities have some 250 to 300 researchers working on this topic, he said, and five farms among them.

The N8 also have plans for talks with the new Francis Crick Institute in London, which, said Sir Alan, is not only for London. He added there are other research partnerships, highlighting the west country and Cardiff (Bristol, Bath, Exeter and Cardiff) and Scotland.

As a group the N8 pull in about one billion British pounds per year in research funding across science, arts and the humanities. Each university is fully autonomous and free to form whatever links it wishes, among its own members, and with others nationally and internationally. "This is not an exclusive club," said Sir Alan. However he made clear he thinks it fair to characterise the members of the group for their research excellence, as demonstrated by publishing output, reputation and rankings in the research excellence forum (REF), and for particularly outstanding schools or faculties.

When we spoke Sir Alan had just received the most recent REF results, but would not discuss the content. Instead, I asked Sir Alan if he would talk about a typical N8 board meeting agenda. Discussion might be about a large capital project, he said, or industry fora, which give commercial enterprises an opportunity to say what research questions interest them.

Operational details of collaborations are overseen by the pro vice chancellors for research, said Sir Alan, taking this opportunity during the interview to draw attention to the N8 dedicated office based in Manchester - this is the office to which Dr Peter Simpson is appointed. It is easy for University staff with ideas to contact N8 staff, simply by emailing them, said Sir Alan. And he added that in Leeds he could guarantee that people holding chairs will have had at least one opportunity during the previous year to be in the same room as the PVC research.

Of his own role, Sir Alan said it is not onerous. The board meets only a few times a year, and he is occasionally asked for advise. Essentially what is driving the N8 research partnership, he said, is working together when a project combining all of them gives output greater than could have been accomplished separately.

The N8 Universities are:
Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield and York


The Francis Crick Institute

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