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  1. Fostering research
About City

Fostering research

2013 was dominated by the preparation of City's submission to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise. Investment in this crucial area began to pay dividends as staff across the University prepared detailed reports on research undertaken between 2008 and 2013.

Fostering researchProfessor John Fothergill, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise), surveys the strides being made to support outstanding research and enhance City's profile. From landmark funding successes and groundbreaking inter-disciplinary collaboration to comprehensive provision for research students, he reveals a vibrant scene characterised by an unswerving commitment to making a real difference to people's lives.

Following numerous late nights and countless redrafts, research academics across the UK are by now only too familiar with the peculiar demands of the REF, the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs). Replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the primary purpose of REF 2014 is to produce assessment outcomes for each submission made by institutions, with funding bodies using these outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their research funding to HEIs, with effect from 2015/16.

As the primary yardstick used by the government, funding providers and the compilers of league tables, the results of REF 2014 are critical to both the financial wellbeing and the research reputation of the University. Under the 'dual support' system that administers public funding for research in English higher education, City has for several years received around £8 million of Mainstream Quality Research (QR) funding as part of its annual Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) grant and around £8 million of funding from Research Councils and other bodies by way of Research Grants and Contracts (RGC). The next round of QR funding will be determined by REF 2014.

Acutely aware that a strong REF performance is crucial to the fulfilment of our Strategic Plan, City's academic community mobilised to produce a submission described by the Vice-Chancellor as "stunning". Featuring the work of 426 colleagues, it comprised 146 pages of text on our research environment, 1,505 academic outputs such as journal articles and 49 impact case studies. The results - and the ramifications for research funding - will be revealed in December 2014.

Research with impact

In a move to increase accountability and transparency, REF 2014 introduced the requirement to submit impact case studies alongside the usual research publications. Defining impact as "an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia", this stipulation presented a significant challenge to all HEIs, since there were no precedents from which to draw comparisons. 

The research underpinning each impact had to have been performed at City over the last 20 years and preparing the case studies provided an opportunity to reflect on the successful research environment that City has fostered in recent decades and to acknowledge the outstanding academics responsible for that success. Several measures were taken to help academic and professional staff prepare impact case studies, including the creation of an Impact Advisory Panel, the allocation of extra finance to Schools and the establishment of structures to facilitate the review of case studies by external academics, other case study authors, professional and other staff within the University.

This systematic process of self-examination and evaluation offered an invaluable opportunity to understand and articulate our research activities in terms that resonate with the people whose lives they are intended to improve. Viewed alongside the University's equally dynamic ventures in the enterprise arena, the framing of our activities in a more concise and compelling way points to a future in which closer ties with business and the professions lead to ever more effective research.

With so many outstanding stories of impactful research showcased by our REF 2014 submission, even a slim cross section shows how the nurturing of a culture of expertise focused on delivering real-world outcomes has begun to bear fruit:

  • A widespread practice in the UK and beyond, immigration detention involves thousands of vulnerable individuals being held for long periods without trial or proper access to justice. Research undertaken by Dr Daniel Wilsher of The City Law School has contributed to improvements in the treatment of detainees by influencing the legal framework and practices that govern detention. As a result, courts and governments are today demonstrating greater respect for the fundamental rights of detainees.
  • Aphasia is a language disorder typically caused by stroke that affects around 250,000 people in the UK, with numbers likely to grow as the population ages. Research by Professor Jane Marshall has had a major impact on the treatment of this condition and on the way that treatment outcomes are assessed. Reflecting the fact that research in Language and Communication Sciences has been a major strength at City for over 25 years, Professor Marshall and her team have pioneered therapies that significantly enhance language and communication skills and created measures of quality of life that can be self-reported by people with aphasia and used to assess rehabilitation outcomes. Today, these therapy approaches and assessment tools are widely used across the world and are recommended in National and International Clinical Guidelines.
  • In the past decade, research in the UK has shown that employees who have a stake in the organisation they are employed by have greater commitment to quality and are more flexible in responding to the needs of their organisation. Research at Cass Business School on employee ownership (EO), conducted by Professors Joseph Lampel and Ajay Bhalla, has made a substantial contribution to the evidence base used by the UK government to formulate and introduce policies aimed at boosting employee ownership. Their research has also led to a greater focus on EO in the public sector, with government policies now being formulated to encourage greater adoption of EO, specifically in the areas of health and social care.     

Funding success

2013 witnessed notable successes in securing research grants from the European Commission and marked significant progress towards the targets in the University's Strategic Plan.

As part of a €8.1 billion package of calls for proposals under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7). Of this, €4.8 billion was invested in thematic areas, with specific priorities to preserve oceans and water, make better use of raw materials, explore efficient energy, promote efficiency in the processing of biological resources, develop smart cities and tackle issues such as public sector reform, brain research and anti-microbial resistance.

City currently hosts 45 research projects funded by the European Commission's flagship FP7 programme and total awards amount to over €17 million - the highest figures City has ever enjoyed, both in terms of the number of projects and the size of the grants.

At the School of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences funding of over £2.4 million has facilitated research by Professor Manolis Gavaises and his colleagues into new ways to control vapour pockets, known as cavitation, that occur in diesel fuel injection nozzles. The work has led to the design and manufacture of more durable and efficient fuel injectors that have been taken into serial production and are now used by major engine and component manufacturers such as Toyota, Caterpillar and Delphi. The prevention of erosion by cavitation and greater fuel efficiency have generated economic benefits through a rise in sales of advanced injection systems and an extended life for engine components, while cleaner and more efficient engines bring significant environmental benefits.

With FP7 support, Dr David Barling of the Centre for Food Policy, is spearheading research into more efficient methods of distributing essential resources. The Foodlinks Knowledge Brokerage promotes sustainable food consumption and production by bringing together scientists, policymakers and civil society organisations while Purefood, which explores urban, peri-urban and regional food dynamics, aims to establish an integrated and territorial approach to food.

National funding plays and equally crucial role in the nurturing of groundbreaking research. At Cass Business School, Professor Charles Baden-Fuller's Building Better Business Models project has benefited from almost £1 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. He is exploring how firms are applying and engaging with new digital technologies to become more efficient, profitable and dynamic. The project will generate new understanding about how digital technology can be commercialised more effectively and will help firms in the UK to create more jobs, inspire economic growth and improve services.

With an injection of £418,580 from the National Institute for Health Research, Professor Susan Ayers at the School of Health Sciences is using expressive writing interventions to promote health in women after birth, through her Health after Birth (HABiT) project. "My research aims to improve mothers' mental health and general experience of being pregnant and giving birth," explains Professor Ayers. 

A commitment to the future

The Graduate School was established in 2012 to support the development of the next generation of academic staff. Since then, it has implemented several initiatives that support the University's growing number of research students. For example, the School has awarded funds totally approximately £20,000 to more than 25 research students, to help towards the cost of attending conferences at which they can present their research. Beneficiaries have travelled extensively to major international events within the EU and as far afield as the US, China and Japan, acquiring invaluable transferable skills and networking with peers in their fields.

The School has also strengthened the research student voice through its participation in the biennial Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) and work with the Students' Union. Committed to responding promptly and constructively to feedback, the Graduate School is constantly exploring ways to build on the University's research student feedback and representation mechanisms with the Students' Union . Looking ahead to the future careers of research students, policy development led by the School in 2013 is increasing access to the University's research skills training through the implementation of its Framework for Doctoral Skills Training.

Professor John Fothergill
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise)

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.