SFC news published since 2018. See SFC archived content for earlier news articles.

Independent review of research pooling

Research pooling

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has today published the results of an independent review of its Research Pooling Initiative. The review, led by Professor Louise Heathwaite, confirms that the investment made by SFC to facilitate collaboration across Scotland’s research base has had significant benefits.

In 2005, in the face of increasing global competition which posed significant challenges to Scotland’s research landscape, SFC partnered with Scotland’s universities to launch a major initiative to drive collaboration across Scotland’s core science disciplines. This pioneering investment recognised that in order to compete on a global stage, Scotland needed to create a critical mass of excellent research in order to compete effectively for funding, research staff and doctoral students both nationally and internationally.

The main findings from the Heathwaite Review include:

  • Research pooling has built a critical mass of research excellence in a number of disciplines important to Scotland’s research base enabling Scotland to retain its place as a global science leader.
  • Growing critical mass and developing a collaborative research culture takes time and the long-term commitment, supported by long-term investment, is to be applauded.
  • High performance of research pools is associated with growth in international collaboration.
  • Outputs from research pools are highly cited, exceeding the UK average.
  • Research pools are successful in attracting research income.
  • Research pools have successfully supported multi-institution graduate schools, building a critical mass of early talent that is distributed across Scotland.

The review also highlights some important challenges and makes recommendations for the future to ensure that Scotland remains competitive in the modern research landscape.

Commenting on the report, Stuart Fancey, Director of Research and Innovation at the SFC said:

“The Scottish Funding Council welcomes the findings of this review. Scotland took a bold step in bringing its top research teams together to create virtual departments large enough to take on the world’s best universities. We are therefore delighted that this investment has paid off and that Scotland remains competitive on the global research stage.

From securing investment to establish a Scottish centre of excellence in medical imaging to facilitating university collaboration to deliver solutions to industry challenges in advanced manufacturing, research pooling has had a real impact on the people of Scotland and the wider Scottish economy.

We would like to extend our thanks to Professor Heathwaite and to all those who contributed to the review. SFC will now take time to consider the Review’s recommendations for the future.”


Background: Research Pooling Case Studies

SINAPSE (Scottish Imaging Network: A Platform for Scientific Excellence)

In November 2018, a SINAPSE-led collaboration of 15 partners across academia, industry and the NHS was successful in securing £10m from Innovate UK to establish a Scottish centre of excellence in medical imaging and digital pathology with artificial intelligence (AI). The Industrial Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research in Digital Diagnostics (iCAIRD) will build on significant investment across Scotland and focus on the application of AI in digital diagnostics, ultimately enabling better and earlier diagnosis and more efficient treatment of patients. iCAIRD’s medical imaging research will include developing solutions for more rapid treatment for stroke, expert chest x-ray reading, and partly automated mammogram analysis for breast cancer screening. The centre will also carry out digital pathology research to achieve rapid and more accurate diagnosis in gynaecological disease and colon cancer.

The existence of SINAPSE was significant to the success of the funding bid given its 10-year track record of developing and strengthening relationships among the iCAIRD participating organisations involved with medical imaging. Reviewer feedback referred to “well established existing partnerships”, “clear evidence of nationally leading research and innovation in the targeted areas” and “an existing environment of collaborative working”.

SRPe (Scottish Research Partnership in Engineering)

SRPe is a key delivery partner in the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), providing a pathway for Scottish universities to collaborate on skills provision and delivery of solutions to industry challenges in advanced and digital manufacturing. Within the NMIS programme SRPe has secured £1.5M of additional investment from SFC as part of its Advanced Manufacturing Theme for skills provision to meet critical industry skills gaps. Within this SRPe is delivering 30 industry doctorates (NMIS-Industry Doctorate Programme in Advanced Manufacturing (NMIS-IDP)) and a CPD programme in Advanced Manufacturing Technology and Leadership for Scottish industry / SMEs to support their journey towards Industry 4.0 / digital manufacturing. This investment will leverage a further £1.8M of external investment, at least £1.5M of which will come from industry.

SUPA (Scottish Universities Physics Alliance)

SUPA’s graduate school is seen as one of the flagship successes of pooling. It encompasses all Physics graduate students in Scotland and has state of the art video classroom facilities. SUPA students are asked to complete 40 hours of advanced specialist courses and 20 hours of professional development training during the first two years of their studies.

Offering such a comprehensive range of specialist courses delivered by top researchers from across the SUPA partnership is unique in the UK, and the number of collaborating universities at this level is probably unique in the world. This gives significant advantage in recruiting high quality PhD students and is an important factor in funding bids to EPSRC, STFC, EU and other bodies.

MASTS (Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland)

Building on their reputation for collaboration and previous track records in environmental research, members of MASTS, through the Scottish Universities Partnership for Environmental Research (SUPER), have secured £5m of funding from the UK Natural Environment Research Council for its innovative Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP).

Recognising that individual ecosystems or geographical areas are parts of larger systems that must be studied together, the SUPER DTP has been designed to take a joined-up ‘Catchment to Coast’ approach to understanding our freshwater and marine environments, including their marginal habitats. The £5 million award will fund between 60 and 90 PhD students.

SULSA (Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance)

SULSA was instrumental in securing the establishment of the IMI European Lead Factory in Dundee, a pan-European platform for drug discovery. This represented an investment of over £80M in Scotland. SULSA also received additional funding of £3m from Scottish Government through SFC to secure and anchor this investment and to maximise the use of the facilities across the sector.

SULSA also facilitated the entry of 10 Scottish programmes into the first phase of the European Lead Factory (ELF). A further £1.25m of funding has been secured from the second phase which was announced in May 2019.

SICSA (Scottish Informatics and Computer Science Alliance)

In November 2017, SICSA launched the SICSA Cyber Nexus, which aims to establish a coherent and vibrant Scottish Cyber Security and Resilience innovation community linking academia, business, government, the public sector and the third sector. The SICSA Cyber Nexus delivers a range of funding and events across Scotland, including: Workshops; Conferences; Summer Schools; Innovation Projects; Distinguished Visitor Fellowships; Industrial Fellowships; and a Researcher Exchange Programme.