Research and innovation heritage and performance

The University of Surrey has a long and distinguished heritage in both research and innovation dating back to its origins as the Battersea Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1891.

Since the University moved to Guildford and received its Royal Charter in 1966, it has continued with its traditional strengths in science, engineering, and industrial engagement, and broadened its base to incorporate humanities, arts, business and the social sciences.

The University has reached considerable heights in many areas:

Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Higher and Further Education

The Queen's Anniversary Prize 2017

The Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Higher and Further Education were first awarded in 1994, and recognise subject areas for outstanding excellence, innovation and beneficial impact. Surrey has won four such prizes in:

  • 1996 – Engineering for the space industry
  • 2002 – Ion beams and optoelectronic devices
  • 2011 – Safe drinking water and sanitatio
  • 2017 – Food and nutrition.

USPs, collaboration, organisation and esteem

The University has invested in and nurtured a variety of areas that have grown to the scale needed to obtain global recognition.

The Surrey Space Centre, working closely with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, continues its long-standing research and innovation in cube-sats, with projects such as RemoveDEBRIS – testing innovative means of removing space junk from the Earth’s atmosphere, and leading nationally on robotics in space.

The 5G/6G Innovation Centre, part of the Institute for Communication Systems, has broken new ground with its membership model and 5G testbed that have seen the world’s leading telecommunications companies come together under Surrey’s leadership alongside in total some 60 companies and applications partners from around the UK and abroad.

The Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing, founded 30 years ago, contributes to a wide range of areas centred on machine perception, including AI, computer vision, audio, big data, blockchain/distributed ledger technologies, and the Internet of Things.

Across the University, advanced materials continues to be a Surrey strength, from our long-established leading work on structural materials, such as adhesives and composites, to novel materials: for harvesting and generating energy; sensing and detecting; and interacting with biological systems; all underpinned by excellent materials characterisation via, for example, the facilities in the nationally unique Ion Beam Centre.

Other highlights

As well as research and innovation at scale, Surrey has many other smaller established and emerging unique selling propositions (USPs). Examples include research in sleep science and chronobiology, which regularly features in the national media; as does our Queen’s Anniversary Prize-winning research on food and nutrition, on topics such as food labelling practices, and vitamin D deficiency.

The intersection of emerging digital technologies and health is leading to award-winning innovation: in health monitoring of dementia patients in their homes; and of animals in the food chain, via the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, created in 2015 as only the 8th in the UK.

In the humanities and social sciences, examples of distinctive research include in technology-enhanced language translation, the Surrey Morphology Group’s study of rare and dying languages, and the Surrey Centre of Digital Economy’s varied contributions to contemporary digital business practice. Indeed, many contributions to the impact of technology on society are being made across the disciplines from engineering, to psychology, sociology, business, tourism and law.

The University’s core value of collaboration is evidenced by its strong partnerships and the value it places in them – we intend to continue strengthening global, national and local linkages. Already, more than 75 per cent of the University’s publications feature a collaborating author from outside the University, and 71 per cent of those involve an international author.

Our membership of the University Global Partnership Network (UGPN) has seen 170 joint publications over the last five years.

Our partnerships with industry are strong and growing – we work with more than 50 per cent of companies on the Surrey Research Park. Our top industry partners include household names such as Airbus, Eli Lilly, Glaxo Smith Kline, Huawei and Rolls Royce. But we do not only work with large corporates – as a founding member of SETsquared, with our partner universities Bath, Bristol, Exeter and Southampton, which has twice been named the world’s leading university-based business incubator, we take a leading role in nurturing emerging businesses – more than 100 of them in the last year. Latterly, through the SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT), we have also teamed up with Leicester, Edinburgh, the Open University and Southampton to drive new business opportunities in the digital space sector. And when we create and nurture a new business, we are often able to support it financially through the S100 Club Angel Investment Network, and our own University Strategic Seed Fund Ltd.

We continue our strong commitment to making a difference locally, working closely with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), as a strategic partner with Strathclyde University and the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, including hosting the NPL South regional hub, with focuses on the space sector, medical imaging and digital health, quantum technology and telecommunications. Similarly, we have relationships with organisations such as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, NHS Surrey and Borders Partnership, the Pirbright Institute, the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory, Guildford Borough Council and Surrey County Council, all of whom are well placed to help extend the scope of our research and help us deliver impact and innovation.

As part of NPL’s Postgraduate Institute, we jointly supervise more than PhD students, playing the largest role of any university nationally. Indeed, Surrey places great importance on its postgraduate research student community and our Doctoral College as the hub for research and innovation training – the success of its recent efforts is measured by its 7th place nationally in the 2018 PRES survey of postgraduate research student satisfaction. As the Doctoral College grows over the next few years, we will increase our emphasis on producing highly employable PhD graduates suited for careers within and beyond academia and integrating our upskilling along the journey from undergraduate to postgraduate to postdoctoral and early-career researchers and alumni.

An important element in this inclusive, collaborative ecosystem is how we support the connecting of our capabilities within Surrey. One avenue is through research themes, and currently established themes of Urban Living and Sustainability provide opportunities for researchers from many disciplines across the campus to interact and to discover new opportunities to work together. New themes will be forthcoming over the next period and will draw upon emerging examples of collaboration, for example, in AI and in digital health. An important element in working together is our emphasis on equality, diversity and inclusion, and the practice of our value of respect. The University holds an Athena SWAN Bronze Award, and our Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion is leading efforts to raise our level to Silver.

Research infrastructure is well recognised at Surrey for its vital role in building distinctive capability and opportunity. The Ion Beam Centre is unique in the UK, and the Satellite Control Room is the only one based in a UK university. The Surrey Research Park is nationally leading, as is the 5G testbed, turning our campus into a living laboratory, which will be further augmented by the forthcoming Learning Hotel and Global HOM campus home. Our sleep laboratories in the Surrey Clinical Research Centre provide us with the rare capacity to conduct overnight studies on patients, and our School of Veterinary Medicine has a digital pathology capability matched only by a few other places in the UK. These examples demonstrate our commitment to creating and sustaining world-class facilities at Surrey.

Excellence and ambition are in ample evidence amongst the University’s research and innovation community. Led by a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher, Vice-Chancellor Professor Max Lu, we value all our highly cited researchers, Fellows of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and many other learned societies, Regius Chair and myriad medal and award winners. All such esteem is built on the efforts and strength of the University’s research and innovation community.

Our place for research and innovation

Nationally, our strategy must take account of the great uncertainty and opportunity of this unprecedented time. The Government has committed to achieving a target of 2.4 per cent of GDP invested in UK R&D by 2027. Through the Industrial Strategy, launched in November 2017, it has committed to investing an additional £7bn in R&D over a five year period as part of the National Productivity Investment Fund, representing the single biggest investment in science and research for 40 years. This picture of increased national funding is set against an uncertain international picture associated with European funding in the context of Brexit. The UK has been a net recipient of EU funding, which has supported some 17 per cent of UK university research and, during 2017/18, some 20 per cent at the University of Surrey. Overall, our strategy is predicated on the UK Government remaining our principal funder, through diverse routes – but with an increasing emphasis on industry funding, with ambitious growth targets for both.

We will continue to encourage our research community to apply to the Research Councils ‘responsive mode’ for the support of cutting-edge projects. However, it is evident that the main areas of funding growth will be linked to research with more targeted objectives. In this respect, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) and Global Challenges Research Fund are particularly relevant to our strategy. The ISCF will be the principal route through which the Government will aim to increase R&D funding by £4.7bn over the next four years. The focus is on collaborative research between industry and university and is targeted on four Grand Challenges: Artificial Intelligence and the Data Driven Economy; Clean Growth; Future of Mobility; and Ageing Society. With our heritage of delivering industrially relevant research and with strong collaborative networks already in place, the University is well placed to benefit from the Industrial Strategy. A part of our response will be to consider how to rebalance our research portfolio, in some areas, from its current emphasis on Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) 1-3 to a model covering TRLs 1-6. The objectives of the Industrial Strategy emphasise the role that the organisations active at TRL 4-6 can play.

In 2015, and as part of its Aid Strategy, the Government established the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) with a budget of £1.5bn over five years. The GCRF is focused on bringing Official Development Assistance (ODA) research together with, and for the benefit of, countries on the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee list.

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals also provide a framework for defining relevant research.

Alongside the many collaborations our research community has developed, the University Global Partnerships Network and our particularly strong links with China will be important in our strategy.

To be successful, our research and innovation must be as relevant to the local and regional agenda as it is to national and international priorities and challenges. Taken as a whole in 2016-17, the University and its Research Park generated almost £1.75bn in gross value added for the UK and supported 17,800 jobs, including 13,900 in the county of Surrey and 11,200 in the Borough of Guildford. The University’s research and innovation activities comprise an important part of that total. Our spin-out activity provides an illustration of that contribution. In 2017-18, we recorded 21 active spin-out companies employing more than 600 people. This includes over 450 jobs at six formal spin-outs established using intellectual property originating at Surrey, such as SSTL, and over 160 jobs at 15 spin-outs that are partly owned by the University. The total turnover of all 21 spin-outs in 2017-18 was over £75m.

In delivering successes such as these, our relationship with local and regional organisations, such Guildford Borough Council and the Enterprise M3 Local Enterprise Partnership (EM3 LEP), are critical and already well developed. Such organisations represent important partners at both the individual project level and more strategically. To illustrate the former, in 2018 residents in Guildford took part in an international study to help improve air quality in the town carried out by the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) at the University of Surrey in partnership with Guildford Borough Council and the University of Hasselt (Belgium).

As part of the Industrial Strategy, the Government has recognised the importance that the factors and characteristics associated with a geographic ‘place’ play in driving growth and productivity. Supported through funding such as the Local Growth Fund, Local Enterprise Partnerships are a primary channel for government funding to deliver economic benefit. For example, since 2012, Enterprise M3 has allocated £218m in capital funding from central Government. The establishment of the University’s Veterinary Health Innovation Engine (vHive) facility with Zoetis was supported in part by that funding. At the regional level, we have worked together with the EM3 LEP and other LEPs in developing the Science and Innovation Audit for ‘Innovation South’. This audit explored the region’s key capabilities and noted that the region was ‘a powerhouse of world-class research and innovation in digital enabling technologies’. This provides a strong endorsement of our existing digital capabilities and a further endorsement of our strategic direction in looking to leverage those capabilities, a specific example being the exciting prospect to link the University and region’s strengths in digital technologies with its strengths in space engineering and technology.

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