Meet Innogen Associates: Prof. Iain Gillespie

10 June 2021

We speak with Innogen associate Prof. Iain Gillespie about his recent appointment as Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Dundee. He tells us about some of challenges facing research in the higher education sector and his plans to deliver impactful innovation that changes things for the better.

What does your new role at the University of Dundee involve? What are you aiming to achieve?

As Principal and Vice-Chancellor I am the head of the University, so I have multiple roles: Chief Executive, Chief Accounting Officer, Chief Academic Officer and member of the Court. Dundee is in the overall top five universities in Scotland and is the highest ranked institution in the UK for its Life Sciences research. I want to build on that so Dundee, Tayside and Scotland can benefit from that excellence in ways that create jobs, productivity growth, sustainability and well-being. Nothing short of ambitious, but doable nonetheless!

What are the main challenges currently facing research in the higher education (HE) sector? How are you planning to address them?

Despite the fact that the UK is a true global research super-power (and Dundee is the UK’s fifth most research-intensive university) we achieve that through fundamental structural underfunding of research in the HE sector. The old adage has it that research loses money, home students break even, and international recruitment fills the gap. In fact, in Scotland, it’s not that sure that home students do always break even. What is sure is that HE has to find ways to subsidise the great research we do from other income streams.

As well as the structural underfunding, the environment is rapidly changing. The future of European funding remains unclear – will it be taken from within existing UK funding or will it be maintained as an extra income stream as it was pre-Brexit? Will we see ODA funding restored? and how much essential blue-skies research will continue as our governments (UK and Scottish) look for us to work ever more closely with business to crowd-in their research spending?

However, as well as challenges, the rapid rate of change also creates opportunities. At Dundee, like at other leading research-intensive universities, we will be looking to build on our excellence to partner and deliver impact at scale using a much wider portfolio of funding than the “traditional” UKRI-dependent model of yore.  We will aim to do that in a way that creates impact: and that impact will attract more funding. The trick is to make that a virtuous and not a vicious circle.

As a champion of research and innovation, how can the UK ensure that innovation is used to greatest effect?

Innovation isn’t innovation unless it finds a market and meets demand. I want to see innovations that do that in a way that delivers tangible impact and benefit. I have my own views around some of the determinants of what constitutes such benefit – economic, a measure of opportunity and equity, sustainability (both environmental and social) and our health and wealth. But I suppose the main thing is that innovation changes things and, however it’s measured, changes things for the better.

Ideas and frameworks like responsible innovation play to that agenda but, traditionally, what governments worry about is mainly jobs and productivity growth, and meeting their declared political priorities. Right now, that includes growth and jobs but in a way that meets zero carbon targets, levelling up and the idea of shared prosperity.

I take a view of empowerment and accountability when it comes to innovation. Government needs to set clear framework conditions that align to our collective sense of where society needs to try to be, delivers the tools (including financing, regulation and systems of responsible governance) to enable innovation, and then lets the innovators get on with it.

Of course, no innovation system in the world really works like that – multiple actors tinker with the framework conditions, the tools and the freedom to operate, and alignment between supply and demand side incentives is remarkably bad.

The key things we can do are to come together and focus on where we can make the greatest difference, and act in a strong and sustained partnership. The best thing governments can do is have more patience, tinker less and provide greater predictability and continuity. Too much change is a bad thing.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

People and the community they make up. Universities are really just groups of people coming together to generate knowledge and pass it on in a way that delivers impact. The buildings, the facilities, are just means that allow us to do that. Place matters, but bricks and mortar much less so. A great university must be a porous yet focused community striving to make a difference – to transform lives. My job is to provide inspiration and leadership that empowers people to achieve those transformations. If I can contribute to that goal that is the most amazing reward I could imagine.

How did you become associated with Innogen?

I first came across Innogen when I was in the OECD in the early noughties leading the development of what was then the revolutionary idea of a  bioeconomy. Innogen, and Joyce Tait in particular, was one of the few groupings that really ‘got it’ at the time. Joyce and I have known each other since the early nineties, when we worked together on GMO regulation and I was one of the UK regulators in the then Department of the Environment. I have worked with, for and alongside Joyce and Innogen ever since, and it (and she) remains an important intellectual and disciplinary anchor for me.