Professor Colin Riordan charts the success of Cardiff University
11 October 2012
As I take the helm at Cardiff University, I feel very proud of the impact that our research has in every academic field, bringing social, environmental, economic and health benefits not only to Wales but to the wider world.
In my first month alone I've seen how 10 years of painstaking research at Cardiff has helped uncover a potential new treatment for male infertility; how a new international Nato-funded collaboration will help create an anthrax vaccine to counteract the threat of bio-terrorism; and how our research is contributing to the improvement of policy on law and order.
I'm proud to be taking charge at an institution that has been awarded four Queen's Anniversary Prizes. This honour has been awarded for pioneering research into the causes of violent injury and new ways to reduce harm, for work identifying genetic causes of diseases, for state-of-the-art engineering facilities and for the pioneering use of chemiluminescence in clinical settings, a piece of work that has revolutionised biomedical research and clinical diagnosis.
Wales can be proud of the fact that the university boasts two Nobel Laureates in Professor Sir Martin Evans, recognised for his ground-breaking discoveries concerning embryonic stem cells and DNA recombination, and Professor Robert Huber who was one of three winners of the Nobel Prize for unravelling the full details of how a membrane-bound protein is built up, revealing the structure of the molecule atom by atom.
In recent years, Cardiff research has led to breakthroughs in areas such as Alzheimer's and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and to the discovery of a new antibiotic resistant gene in UK patients.
However, as an institution and as a nation, we should not be complacent. Cardiff University exists to create and share knowledge for the benefit of all, and Wales needs a university that is consistently among the top-100 universities in the world.
In order to achieve that, Cardiff has invested in three major research institutes as part of our commitment to pursuing new scientific approaches to some of the world's most pressing concerns. The institutes are carrying out ground-breaking research in tackling cancer, in relieving the suffering of mental illness and in meeting the challenge of creating a sustainable future for communities.
These research institutes build on existing expertise and excellence. In medical genetics, the Medical Research Council (MRC) invested in our Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics. This is the first MRC centre in Wales and the first aimed specifically at harnessing the genetics revolution for research in mental disorders.
The environment is another area where university research can make a demonstrable difference. Cardiff University and partners at Swansea, Glamorgan, Aberystwyth, Bangor and Glyndwr universities have created the Low Carbon Research Institute (LCRI).
The institute supports the Welsh Government's aim to deliver a low carbon nation, providing high quality research on cutting emissions through a range of disciplines, including architecture, engineering, chemistry and the biosciences.
In one recent initiative, the university's research vessel Guiding Light and Swansea's Noctiluca put to sea and headed for Ramsey Sound, off the Pembrokeshire coast, some of the trickiest waters around the UK.
A team of hydrographers, marine biologists, engineers, marine archaeologists and ornithologists from five universities took part in a two-week survey of the potential for tidal energy from the fast-flowing waters off the sound. The team also studied local populations of fish, seabirds, porpoises and seals.
Whether we're talking wind farms or tidal power, offshore energy is likely to remain a matter for controversy. The LCRI's aim is to provide a bedrock of hard scientific data, both about the energy potential and the potential environmental impact, which will allow the Welsh Government to make well-informed policy decisions in the best interests of the people of Wales.
Further afield, work in our School of Biosciences has been helping conservation work with the pandas of China and the orangutans of Borneo. Professor Mike Bruford has developed and applied genetic techniques to this work, giving projects on endangered species a scientific basis they have often lacked in the past.
He has shown that previous estimates of the giant panda population of the Wangland reserve are inaccurate. On the basis of Prof Bruford's work, the Chinese authorities have redesigned their panda surveys.
In Borneo, the school is working with Malaysia's Sabah Wildlife Department at our Danau Girang Field Centre. Cardiff's research has shown that unless urgent action is taken to reconnect the Kinabatangan forest, under threat of palm oil land conversion, many isolated orangutan populations will become extinct in our lifetime.
The field centre is also a unique teaching resource for Cardiff University, allowing us to train the conservation scientists of the future and ensuring Cardiff students gain a unique experience as part of their own studies.
International partnership is one of particular relevance to Cardiff's research into cancer. At Cardiff's School of Medicine, Professor Bob Mansel trialled a new technique where a single node was removed from the armpit of breast cancer sufferers to check if the cancer has spread.
The previous practice was to remove all the nodes, often leading to shoulder pain and restricted movement. More than 200 UK surgeons have now been trained in the technique, sparing thousands of breast cancer patients discomfort and unnecessary surgery every year.
Now China is picking up the benefits of the Cardiff research, with the new technique being taught at Chongqing Cancer Hospital, which has more than 1,000 beds in Western China. Building and nurturing links with countries like China and others is crucial.
My predecessor led a high-level delegation to China to launch a new joint institute for oncology research involving Cardiff and Peking University, one of the most highly-respected institutions in China. A new International Centre for Biomedical Research was also opened, this time involving Cardiff and China's Capital Medical University.
This partnership, which aims to find new ways of detecting and treating breast cancer, won in the International Collaboration category at the annual Times Higher Education Awards in 2011.
For several years, research fellows from Capital Medical have been coming to Cardiff to work alongside the School of Medicine's Professor Wen Jiang. Prof Jiang is originally from Shandong province in China, but he has worked at Cardiff since 1989 and has become one of the world's leading breast cancer researchers.
Some 21 research fellows have come to Cardiff so far, and many of them have now returned to China as accomplished clinicians and medical researchers. The project shows what can be achieved by bringing together world-class researchers in international partnerships.
Innovation will only be successful if we challenge traditional ways of working, look beyond our own institutions and collaborate to pool the depth and breadth of the knowledge we have in Wales. Collectively, Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Glamorgan and Swansea universities represent over 70% of all students in Wales and more than 95% of the nation's research activity.
With a combined annual turnover of approaching £1bn and a significant contribution from international sources, the big five universities are a substantial economic generator for this country. But we must not be afraid to collaborate beyond the borders of Wales, with universities in the rest of the UK and with international partners. The watchword must be excellence: to compete with world-leading international universities we have to ensure that we focus resources on research of world-leading quality.
The knowledge economy is a global reality. Those countries that are able to mobilise their higher education systems to produce graduates and researchers of the highest standard are those that will be economically successful into the future.
Cardiff University, with its collaborative partners, is playing a key part in helping Wales to create not only an innovative and dynamic economy, but a just society for the 21st century.
Professor Colin Riordan is vice-chancellor of Cardiff University. Next week's Researching Wales looks at the University of Glamorgan's contribution to the nation's research base.
This article first appeared in the Western Mail on Thursday 11th October 2012.