Celebrating MPLS colleagues and their success

howison credit john cairns photo

One great by-product of taking on a senior role at the University is that it expands one's intellectual horizons. As the head of any department or division, one needs to know about the research questions that preoccupy one’s colleagues, to be able to support them effectively in their endeavours. I have derived endless interest and fascination from simply asking colleagues what they are up to. Licence to grill, you might say. The variety is extraordinary, as so it should be, given that science can claim the whole universe as its domain of study. So too is the quality of work, recognised by a stream of awards and accolades. Only last week the Royal Society made eight awards (about a third of their total) to Oxford scientists, six of whom work in the MPLS Division.

One Royal Society award struck me as particularly interesting: the Copley Medal, to the OxfordAstraZeneca vaccine team. Apparently, it was the first time this medal had gone to a team, and I think it illustrates an important point: modern science is mostly done in teams. There is still plenty of room for the 'lone scholar', but collaboration is ubiquitous (it is ten years since my last single-author paper, for example). Most of our academics lead groups of students and postdoctoral researchers, and many work as part of large international collaborations, such as those at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) or in astronomy. This is often due to the sheer scale and complexity of the research problems they are tackling; the scarcity of 'big' equipment (there is only one Large Hadron Collider, after all, and only one James Webb Space Telescope); and the manifest benefits of bringing different points of view together. Perhaps it is time for society to rethink the way we regard and reward scientific achievement: should team awards become more standard, alongside (or perhaps even replacing) individual recognition? And what might be the implications for the REF, appointments, career progression, and so on?

One thing is very clear: the huge challenges that society faces – such as climate change, biodiversity loss, energy and food security, and global health – demand coordinated responses that pay no heed to our administrative boundaries. I see this imperative to promote and support cross-disciplinary work as a key task for the divisions. During the last three years, we have welcomed the INEOS Oxford Institute for Anti-microbial Research, the Oxford Quantum Institute, the ZERO Institute (focusing on energy solutions) and Oxford Net Zero (policies and technologies for decarbonisation). We are also planning several new initiatives, including one to embed Artificial Intelligence training and practice into science across the University.

Much of this spirit is embodied in the new Department of Biology, formed from the merger of our former Departments of Plant Sciences and Zoology just over a month ago. The department’s new HQ, the Life and Mind Building, where staff will work alongside colleagues from Experimental Psychology, is growing fast. So too are the department’s plans for exciting new research and teaching on life in all its astounding variety, complexity and interdependency. Now, more than ever, the work of our biologists, and indeed that of all our scientists, has a critical contribution to make in tackling the challenges we face together.