March 21, 2023, by Rob Ounsworth
It’s been quite a privilege: my 30 years at Nottingham
Professor Neil Crout, Interim Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, is retiring. Here, he reflects on 30-plus years at the University of Nottingham
The university in 1990(ish)
Money was very tight, staff numbers had fallen in our school, and recruitment was rare. We were worried about the low A-level grade of our incoming students. The government of the day didn’t much like universities. Research funding was mythical and politics had delayed our access to the European Commission’s Framework programme. There was some new system for research assessment that everyone said would take up all our time. The building was hot or cold (uncorrelated to the weather), and people said the new chalk was rubbish (yes chalk!). Lots of clever, conscientious and wonderful people got on with it. No change.
I vividly remember many of the challenges of my early days as an academic, they ranged from exciting to terrifying via confusing. The astonishing thing (now I think of it) was the complete lack of what, nowadays, we would call “training”. Colleagues told me I was lucky, there used to be a new lecturer’s course, but the person had left and not been replaced, so I wouldn’t have to bother with it. However, my real luck was to have very generous and supportive close colleagues who helped me navigate mishaps and fix my worst mistakes. Nowadays maybe we’d call them mentors?
I can swear, on my pension, that our systems for staff development and support have changed utterly and for the better. Of course there is room for improvement and I’m delighted that the Research Strategy Delivery Plan has expanded resources for research staff development.
Hopefully we haven’t lost the generosity amongst colleagues that got me through my early days? But I can’t really judge that from my perspective.
One of the initiatives in the research SDP is to improve our systems and processes as they affect research and KE. It’s the biggest complaint I hear around the research community (loud and clear).
I’ve been clearing out old stuff from my Sutton Bonington office. Lots of evidence of ye olde Bureaucracy. One example I found in the lower levels of notice board residue (early 2000s I reckon) was a complex flowchart for grant approvals. Scribbled over it in the handwriting of a former school manager it says “just call [redacted], she knows what she’s doing”. Possibly that’s one thing that’s not changed as much as it should – working around a poorly documented system you don’t understand through a special contact. It didn’t work. As I recall [redacted] didn’t respond quickly and usually just referred me back to the unclear flow chart. I am not sure this sort of thing has really got worse, just different. But I am 100% sure we can, and must, make it better even though it’s a big job, and one that’s never really finished.
If you’d told me 30+ years ago that I’d be proud to have helped establish a university initiative to improve our bureaucracy…
I have been very lucky to have worked with wonderful collaborators throughout my career (some of them for decades). In my early days I think management expectation was that you would gradually stop working with others and develop your independent reputation in some magical way. This has changed enormously, and, certainly in my discipline, collaboration is standard, team working is a critical skill and reputation is supported by collaboration. Vestiges of the old way of thinking still exist of course, we still use the phrase ‘principle investigator’. However in a recent UKRI conversation the idea of abolishing it from their forms and systems was mentioned, I saw lots of nods. Big change.
In some disciplines international collaboration has always been important. I think I am right to say that now it is a critical part of research reputation in more or less all disciplines. Through good luck I was involved in early framework projects and had the eye opening experience of working with colleagues from across Europe (and beyond). It really really did expand my thinking and looking back I see that almost all the pieces of work I am most proud of arose from international collaboration. Obviously this is a plug for the relaunch of our International Research Collaboration Fund under the research SDP. I am really chuffed we have been able to do that, and even more pleased to have supported the development of longer term plans to assist international collaboration in our university.
You’ll have spotted the cheap promotion of various parts of our research SDP. Niall O’Loughlin has summarised quite a lot of that activity in his excellent and much pithier piece. We also have really good progress on integrating our various research support systems which Professor Vicky Chapman has summarised in my regular and final research update.
I came to Nottingham by accident, luckily stayed through combination of mistimed opportunities, family constraints and mature fruit trees. Looking back, the day to day upsets, argument and mishaps look pretty small. The big view is that I worked somewhere with a purpose of education and discovering stuff, which is full of clever, conscientious and wonderful people. Quite a privilege.
Professor Neil Crout became interim Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange in August 2022. A Professor of Environmental Modelling, Professor Crout joined the University of Nottingham as a post-doctoral researcher in 1989 studying radionuclides in the food chain in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. His research area focuses on models of environmental and agricultural systems, examining trace elements in the environment to shed light on environmental change and crop yield forecasting.
He was Head of the School of Biosciences 2012-16 and also served as admissions tutor, director of teaching and learning, research director and Head of Division. He was Senate Member of Council 2013-17 and co-ordinated the university’s submission to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, becoming Associate Pro- Vice-Chancellor for Research in 2021.
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