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3rd – 5th February 2010
External Reviewers:
Professor Richard Bradshaw, University of Liverpool,
Professor Dr. Angelika Brandt, University of Hamburg,
Professor William Davies, Lancaster University,
Professor Victor de Jonge, University of Hull.
Executive Summary
The School of Natural Sciences is a natural flag-bearer for development of an institute within the
topic of transport, energy and environment. The School has a strong research base and dedicated
staff, but would benefit from a new building and stream-lined administrative organisation with
increased decision-making power focused to School level. Administrative layers should be
reduced and discipline-driven planning de-emphasised. There is scope for increased international
impact and funding through development of a strategic vision for the school in collaboration with
college officers. Key areas of existing and developing research expertise should be highlighted to
increase school visibility. Academics’ time needs to be freed up to deliver vision through changes
in the organisation of teaching and administration. The School would benefit from increased
collaboration with research stakeholders and policy makers at national and international levels.
(i) Existing Provisions
(a) Research and Scholarly Activity
(i) Comment on the distribution of research interests, plans and output across School members in
a national/international context;
The distribution of research interests within the School is extremely broad, comprising biological
sciences (e.g. plants, birds, invertebrate animals), physical sciences (e.g. geology, geochemistry,
geography), social sciences (e.g. environmental sciences and geography) and some integration in
environmental sciences. Current contributions come from 38.5 principal investigators (47 if
research fellows and research lecturers are included), 140 graduate students and 23 postdoctoral
fellows. Moreover, 16.5 technical staff and 6 administrative staff work in the school. The
numbers of technical staff are very unevenly distributed between the disciplines because of the
disjunct housing of the former departments and the current ‘moratorium’ on new contracts.
According to TCD’s strategic plan 2009-2014, the research topics Biodiversity and Conservation,
Environmental Sciences, the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, and
an inter-School Transport and Environment Initiative (which all cover a wider range of topics e.g.
evolution, ecology, evolution of fossil ecosystems, biofuels) are research themes and subjects
under the TCD priority theme Transport, Energy and Environment. Not all opportunities for
integration of these research themes have been exploited so they lack clear visibility both within
the College and externally.
Certain research groups have a developed international profile and are among the leaders in their
field e.g. biomass/biofuels, long term environmental and climatic change, stratigraphic
palynology, taxonomy, biodiversity and conservation. Recent high quality recruitments have
consolidated strengths in e.g. Palaeozoic orogeny, pollination biology and opened up promising
new research topics e.g. genetic regulation of embryonic development, globalisation issues.
Forthcoming retirements (e.g. leader of biomass/biofuels group and in Geology) make certain
research areas within the school vulnerable and there is scope to strengthen current research
through links outside the school to e.g. Engineering (biofuels), Genetics (developmental studies),
Law (environmental governance). It is also important for School development to retain good
contact with biological disciplines currently placed in other Schools (e.g. genetics, microbiology
and physiology).
The spread of interests within and between disciplines would benefit from new investment. In
particular a strengthening of links outside the School could allow development of new themes of
global concern within environmental issues (e.g. food security, environmental justice,
safeguarding environmental ‘services’). Current research generally complements activities in
UCD, but the proposed Environmental Institute could pose issues of competitive overlap.
(ii) Give an assessment of the standing of the School in terms of published output relative to that
of other Schools of international repute and in terms of the following:
publications in refereed journals in last five years;
In total the School has published over 500 articles in internationally peer reviewed journals. The
school is very research active and has a large scientific output. Publication is however not always
in the ‘best’ journals with the widest international readership. Many of the School researchers
could increase their international visibility if they chose to ‘trade up’ in their choice of journal.
This can be a rather tedious debate, but international standing is based on quality rather than
quantity of output. Publications in the best journals increases peer approval and drives movement
up the global University list. There are journals in all disciplines with impact factors above 4 and
relatively few of the publications listed here achieve this. Less publication but with increased
aspirations for quality would raise the international standing of the school.
likely publications in such journals in the next two years;
The current pattern of publication is likely to be maintained in the near future with perhaps an
increase in early career publication reflecting the recent increase in PhD students. Increased focus
on less but higher quality publication by senior researchers would benefit the School.
publications in other forms - books, monographs, etc. in the last five years;
similar publications in next two years.
Other forms of publication are sufficient in an international context. Regrettably these
publications can attract less international attention, but they can be justified for strategic purposes
(e.g. policy impact).
(iii) Evaluate the School in terms of its performance in the last five years, and likely success in
the next two years, in raising external funding for research;
The School of Natural Sciences has been very successful in fund raising over recent years.
Principle investigators have received grant money from a diversity of predominantly national
funding sources. Since 2004 the school has brought 26 million euro into TCD. This recent
funding record is very impressive by international standards within this subject area. However the
heavy dependence on national funding will be hard to maintain in the near future given the state
of the economy. It will be a challenge to broaden the portfolio. TCD obtained a high proportion
of EU funding in these disciplines in the past and a strategy for increasing funding from EU and
other international sources could usefully be developed. Links with the business community are
barely mentioned in the self-assessment and there must be good potential for funding there.
Development of a strategic plan, focussing research around issues of concern, will assist with
future funding, but planning and forethought are needed.
The physical infrastructure acts as a constraint for further research funding. The majority of the
buildings and laboratories are old and technically unsuitable for some of the research carried out
at present. If TCD wants to increase the potential and possibilities for external funding, TCD
must establish the infrastructure necessary for improved and expanded research activities.
(iv) Comment on research students in terms of the following:
number of research students; number of research degrees awarded and completion times;
The number of research students significantly increased in all disciplines between 2004 and 2009,
particularly in Botany. This is an impressive achievement but has placed considerable pressure on
space and facilities and some of the working conditions are incompatible with the international
reputation of TCD. The number of PhD awards has matched the growth in student numbers and
the majority are now completed within 4 years.
quality of research output;
The research students are producing good quality output in most disciplines but would perhaps
benefit in many ways from more interdisciplinary contact within School (most high-profile global
issues which should engage School students are interdisciplinary). As with the staff, the research
students could be encouraged to publish in more prestigious journals.
overall supervision/support for these students;
The general level of supervision and support for graduate students is good. The majority of PhD
students are from outside TCD and would benefit from an increased level of school-wide
activities and courses (e.g. Geographic Information System) and pooling of research equipment,
facilities and staff. Some students pointed out that certain supervisors were overcommitted with
teaching and administration and the students would have welcomed more direction. Students are
not uniformly spread amongst the staff and increased joint-supervision could improve the amount
of contact between staff and students. Use of an informal, School-based workload model would
help identify those with high student supervision, teaching and research and allow appropriate
compensation in other areas.
research funding (internal and/or external) for research students.
The vast majority of research students are in receipt of individual studentships or are funded by
research grants of their supervisors. Research student numbers could probably only be increased
by appointment of new staff and reallocation of supervisory, teaching and research activities and
access to more office and laboratory space.
(v) Comment on the adequacy of student-staff liaison (formal and informal) in relation to
research and the means by which students provide feedback about their research experiences in
the School;
Interaction between students and staff is generally good within each discipline, but students
would welcome broader contacts within the School as a whole. Feedback from students at
discipline level generates appropriate responses but responses to student concerns are less
obvious at school level. More technical support would be welcomed for research as technicians
mostly seem to support undergraduate teaching.
(vi) Comment on the balance of published research, research supervision, and other researchrelated activities in the School;
Research supervision appears to function well and there is a strong emphasis on publication
(discussed above). There appears to be less general strategic thinking over research direction and
focus for the school. It could potentially be rewarding to publish less or in higher ranking journals
and spend more time developing school-wide interdisciplinary and urgent research questions that
include the international scientific community.
The present ‘discipline’ structure across the School has not encouraged PhD students and post
docs to meet and exchange views and expertise. The first time that the postdocs from across the
School met was preparatory to the review of the School. They decided to continue meeting each
(vii) Comment on other activities of the School that arise from the research standing of its
members, e.g. membership of government-appointed commissions, officership of
learned/professional societies, editorship of academic publications, other achievements and
standing arising from research work.
National activities and visibility seem appropriate, but actions could be taken to increase
international visibility e.g. participation in more international projects, commissions and
committees, which can in turn lead to international advisory positions and policy impact at EU or
UN level. TCD spokespeople on key environmental issues could come from this school.
Key issues concerning research and scholarly activity
Broad research interests in School and some groups have strong international
Visibility of research could be improved and positioned more clearly within strategic
research themes for TCD.
Investment is needed to develop new research links outside the school on topics of
global concern and to interact positively with the proposed Environmental Institute at
Publication output is very good but increased focus on less, but higher quality
publication by senior researchers would benefit the School.
Recent funding record is very impressive, but new sources (e.g. the business
community) are now needed in the current economic climate.
The poor physical infrastructure might act as a constraint for further research
Research student numbers are very good and their supervision works well. They
would benefit from more school-wide activities.
International visibility and policy-relevant research could be increased.
(b) Teaching and Learning
(i) In relation to other Schools of international standing in this academic discipline, please give
an assessment, commenting in particular on the following inputs of teaching and learning in both
undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes:
The standards of teaching and learning in the School are generally high. Classes are often small
and the staff are satisfied with teaching standards and have stressed the value of the individual
disciplines as home bases for sophister students. Students are also satisfied with their overall
experience, but were largely unaware of the existence of the school. Many sophisters do not
obtain a place in the discipline of their choice, but are ultimately satisfied by the quality of the
teaching in the final years and the close contact with staff. Environmental Science Moderatorship
students suffer from not having an obvious home base. Teaching facilities and space both in
laboratories as well as in lecture rooms are however often unsatisfactorily small and old leading
to repeat practical classes and lectures (e.g. the lecture room in environmental sciences is so small
that parallel lectures have to be provided in order to teach all students in the year).
There is a great variety of degrees and modules offered. Timetabling is complex and seems to be
organised at the level of the discipline and consequently is rather inflexible. It could be
advantageous for the timetables to be organised at School or Faculty level. Many students would
have appreciated the opportunity to take more interdisciplinary modules (e.g. in year 3) but the
timetable does not allow it. Students generally were excited by the new teaching possibilities
arising from the formation of the School, but at UG level these have not yet fully materialised,
despite a modularisation process currently in its first year of implementation. There is some
unevenness in the teaching offered within the school, with some students having tutorials and
practice in essay writing and others not. The new interdisciplinary MSc courses are successful but
staff desperately need increased administrative, technical and financial support at school level for
e.g. admissions, field and project work.
Staff in the school generally seem to have high teaching loads compared with UK and continental
institutions, despite the recent reorganisation. The new MSc courses have imposed extra burdens
and the course leaders are overstretched and find it hard to recruit teachers, particularly for field
and project work. The students also commented on the lack of participation of some staff that had
appropriate interests. In the absence of a work-load model we cannot assess how evenly the load
is distributed among the staff. There does seem to be potential to reassess the teaching, check for
overlapping courses (students reported that this does occur), reduce teaching loads and increase
the flexibility of the courses available for undergraduates.
Content/level of the programmes and number of students;
The content of the programmes is very diverse but possibly lacks a certain flexibility due to
timetable constraints. The senior sophister research projects are of a high standard but make
demands on space that are hard to satisfy in e.g. zoology. There already seem to be too many
students for the available space and resources. There could be value in more training in science
writing at junior sophister level as this was reported as being unevenly covered across the school.
Students in environmental sciences commented that the background knowledge of MSc students
in chemistry, maths and computing was very variable.
Distribution of teaching across staff members;
This was hard to assess from the material supplied but teaching does appear to be unevenly
distributed in a somewhat unplanned manner. Introduction of a workload model covering all
academic activities would be highly beneficial, combined with a policy about some specialisation
of activities. Postdocs expressed an eagerness to obtain teaching experience and are a largely
untapped resource.
Hiring of external lecturers could help to reduce the generally high teaching load of the staff.
External lecturers selected from collaborating organisations, particularly if they were end-users of
research, would help introduce a novel slant to some courses, increase the impact of TCD
research and teaching and raise the profile of TCD in the wider community
Senior management of the College should consider whether all staff should be expected to do all
tasks? Is there scope for research specialists or teaching-only staff? Total loads can be made
effectively equivalent through the use of a workload model.
Constructive alignment of curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment methods, and
rationale for teaching and assessment methodologies used;
The early career scientists could be encouraged to play a leading role in School development
through a new interdisciplinary MSc course. Strong promotion activities for this course are
required. This development should be in line with the Schools’ future research and management
plan for a future teaching program, thematic and disciplinary research program and appointment
of related staff positions.
The introduction of more ‘issue-based teaching’ might help address the relatively low student
numbers associated with some disciplines. It may be that the courses can be made more
attractive/ relevant to global concerns.
Adequacy of staff-student liaison in the School (formal and informal) in relation to teaching
and learning;
Students have an opportunity to provide feedback after each course. Students could initiate
special seminars or a forum in which they meet, even without teaching or research staff. Postdocs
and PhDs within the school have apparently not really met together to discuss issues of general
Supervision and support for students on postgraduate taught programmes;
The taught MSc courses were generally held in high regard by the students. Specific issues raised
by the students were: lack of career guidance, very mixed background and capabilities of
students, too little emphasis on knowledge exchange activities and too little fieldwork for a
subject like biodiversity and conservation.
Arrangements for curriculum review and revision;
The school teaching committee currently meets on a regular basis to oversee teaching
programmes, which are largely driven from within the disciplines. The present curriculum is very
broad. As the school develops, debate could be useful as to how the curriculum could evolve to
include new interdisciplinary opportunities created by research developments (see Appendix).
Methods used to evaluate teaching and learning in the School, and actions taken in response
to student feedback;
There was little discussion about evaluation of teaching and learning during the review, although
appropriate procedures and committees appear to be active. The school might consider the
potential value of external opinion (e.g. industries/business graduate employers) on aspects of the
Professional standing (e.g. accreditation by professional bodies, etc.);
Not considered.
Opportunities for study abroad, student exchanges, relevant outside experience;
Some students pointed out that certain field courses were too expensive and organised with little
consultation. Scholarships may be helpful to broaden access to what are undoubtedly useful
experiences and some are available through the Trinity Trust Field Course Grant scheme.
The visiting group heard little about study abroad programmes, apart from field excursions. Our
view is that it is valuable for students to be offered an international experience of some kind.
Despite some ERASMUS exchange, overseas opportunities do not seem extensive in comparison
with other leading universities. This is also true of links and placements with business/industry.
Are there sufficient visits to relevant industries and teaching contributions from outside the
Funding available to students on postgraduate taught programmes.
There appears to be little/no support in the form of college bursaries. A modest allowance
towards project expenses (250 €) was mentioned.
(ii) In relation to other Schools of international standing in this academic discipline, please give
an assessment, commenting in particular on the following outcomes of teaching and learning in
both undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes:
Student exam results and completion rates;
Impressive statistics which have got better in the last years
Progression paths of students following graduation;
See above, has also increased.
External contributions to teaching and learning in the discipline.
Should be improved, please see comments above.
Key issues concerning teaching and learning
The teaching appears to be of high quality and the students are well satisfied.
There is some duplication in the teaching provision.
In comparison with comparable institutions, the teaching loads appear to be heavy –
there is probably too much teaching and some compensation for this is needed. A
workload model could be used to decide on appropriate loadings and compensation.
Postdocs appear to be interested in contributing more to teaching. It would seem
valuable to take advantage of this resource and free up time for research among
teaching staff.
Timetabling should be co-ordinated centrally (could be done by administrative staff if
one layer of administration (at discipline level) is omitted and tasks for staff are newly
Many students do not get into first choice sophister subjects but good quality attention
in 4th year seems to ameliorate some of the dissatisfaction felt with this situation.
Zoology is over-subscribed as a teaching discipline. Excellent and popular 2nd year
teaching is a contributory factor.
Geology is likely to be oversubscribed due to increased interest in years 1-2. Botany is
undersubscribed but there is much supply teaching elsewhere and emphasis on graduate
teaching. Numbers of PhD students have doubled within the past 5 years.
Students are invariably very supportive of the staff and do see the value of much of
their work at TCD.
(c) Service to College and Society
(i) In relation to other Schools of international standing in this academic discipline, please give
an assessment, commenting in particular on the following service activities:
Service to College (e.g. contributions to governance of the College in terms of membership
of College committees and the holding of positions of responsibility.);
The service to the College is possibly too high. Several new committees and administrative
structures were established at school formation on top of existing commitments. This has led to
some duplication of effort resulting in a certain feeling of frustration. It could be useful to
examine all committees for size and efficiency and aim to simplify procedures and structures
where possible.
Contributions to public debate and formation of public policy;
This School deals with issues of global concern and important contributions are made by staff.
Profiles for these issues should be raised still further in Ireland and beyond.
Use of research results to make a difference to people’s lives;
This area can and should be improved within the School. Staff and students are not well engaged
with the idea of science into business and work with end-users, policy-makers and innovation.
There are more opportunities to engage with the TCD Strategic Plan 2009 – 2014 in the key area
of the environment, e.g. the bridge to College programme.
Local outreach activities of the school;
There is much evidence of constructive local outreach, particularly involving museums and
special collections. Some individuals appear to be very active here. Outreach activities could be
important arguments for sustained investment in the Gardens and other scientific collections.
Activities to commercialise intellectual property;
Is there sufficient knowledge transfer activity to industry?
External relations with the wider community;
Conservation issues, land use and biofuel are all research topics that are important for society.
Relations with the wider community can be further developed once the school has integrated
disciplines to a greater extent.
Key issues concerning service to college and society
Local outreach activities are numerous and generally effective.
• The links to end-users and policy makers are not as fully developed as in institutions
of comparable status.
(d) Resources
(i) Give
of thethrough
of the School
for teaching
and research
relative to
• anService
to college
to other
Schools of international standing in terms of
be stream-lined.
Staff (e.g. academic, administrative, service support staff);
The School has a very small high-quality staff responsible for a wide range of disciplines. There
is therefore a need to focus on strengths and aim to do a few things really well.
The technical staff is currently very unevenly distributed among groups and space! Our view is
that they might benefit from a centralising of the administration and a better integration of
disciplines within the School. The technical staff would also benefit from a new jointly-used
building. There is now clear hesitation to move and reservations by staff are understandable.
There must be clarity about the creation of efficient, effective housing with future capacity needs
for theatres, laboratories, offices, Botanical Garden for future mesocosm work, etc. adequately
satisfied. Consideration is needed about the herbarium, museums and other scientific collections.
There can be some advantage to a pooling of administrative staff in a School team (see below).
Physical infrastructure for teaching, research, and staff (e.g. laboratories, lecture/seminar
rooms, equipment, office spaces, social spaces).
The current physical infrastructure is not very good, and urgently needs to be improved in order
to guarantee future high levels of science and education.
The Botanical Gardens are not fully utilised (or utilisable). In our view it is unreasonable to class
this and some other very low grade space in the school as normal teaching/research space. This
problem occurs in many other universities but seems to be particularly acute at TCD.
Key issues concerning resources
A new school building and improvement to physical infrastructure is a priority.
Centralised administration and increased integration of disciplines in the school
would improve efficiency.
The Botanical Gardens should not be classed as normal teaching/research space.
(e) Organisational Structures and Planning
(i) Give an assessment of the organisational structures and planning of the School relative to
those available to other Schools of international standing in terms of the following:
Management structures within the School;
Administrative structures are rather complex and traditional in comparison with many other
younger institutions. The administrative organisation could be simplified, where possible with
disciplinary administrators moved to a School administrative structure. The financial
administration and time-tabling have been mentioned by many as being potentially more
effective if organised at School level. The school might be more effective if it was more
autonomous with more decision-making powers over e.g. resources and appointments.
School committees and structures;
Committees and structures could be further developed to suit the new interdisciplinary profile of
the school. In practice this means that the number of administrative levels should be reduced
where possible as at present there are elements of four levels: College – Faculty – School –
discipline. It would seem preferable to reduce the influence of the disciplines and perhaps
faculties. Within the school, some committees could be smaller to expedite decision-making, e.g.
remove automatic representation from all disciplines. The executive committee for example
would be smaller and possibly more effective and focussed on the School without the
participation of the heads of discipline.
School budget allocation and planning and decision-making related to budget;
Having the School as a cost centre would increase the capacity for strategic development. A new
home for the School is a priority as most laboratories and lecture rooms are too small and too old
for further internationally-competitive science.
Communication between School and staff, students, Faculty, and College;
There is scope for improving communication particularly with regard to development of strategy
and to capitalise on the positive attitudes encountered among the School PhD students, postdocs
and faculty (particularly the junior faculty). The School ‘away’ day programme should be
encouraged to help with communication, School cohesion and development of future teaching
and research. Occasional meetings/seminars for PhD students and postdocs would be a useful
development. Inclusion of postdocs in School committees would help in recognition of the
contribution of this group to School research. Strategic thinking at both the College and the
School level could be encouraged by occasional visits from senior administrators e.g. the ViceProvost, or the College Dean of Research to discuss issues such as the case for linking this
School with the Engineering School in a new building, about which there is currently some
Better communication within the School could advertise the potential advantages of this type of
organisation e.g. increased visibility at College and national level of individual research groups,
new investment, new teaching and research opportunities.
Student involvement in School decision-making.
At present many undergraduates are not aware of the existence of the School. There could be
more involvement in School activities and planning through more active and informal
communication and encouragement of students and junior School researchers to increase
participation on key committees.
Key issues concerning organisational structures and planning
Concentrate more administrative structures and decision-making at school level.
Encourage the trend of increasing and open participation in school management.
13post-docs and PhD students within the
Support the increasing contacts between
(f) Overall view and recommendations
(i) In the light of what is happening in other universities, comment on the School’s selfassessment and view of the future, and developments since the last School review;
The self-assessment has been thorough and initiated useful discussions within the School at
several levels. The report is characterised by constructive optimism, given the current economic
situation, but also highlights the severe burdens placed on the School by previous financial
deficits that have hindered development and reward for successful new initiatives e.g. MSc
courses. Compared with comparable institutions, there has been relatively little investment in
recent years. Certain reluctance for disciplines to blend into the School both administratively and
in terms of research has restricted the potential benefits of the School formation.
The information about research output could have been better presented in the self-assessment.
Data on citations and h-factors, together with sections of CVs, which are now available on the
School website, would have allowed us to see who are the agenda setters. A section on the
structure of the School for outsiders and a specific section on perceived strengths and weaknesses
should be included. A scientific strategy and work plan for improved integration of the different
disciplines could have been more fully developed.
(ii) Give your own views on the possible future direction of the School and outline any
recommendations that you may have for improvement at School, Faculty and College level.
The School is a natural flag-bearer for development of an institute within the topic of
transport, energy and environment. The School is well-placed to play a dominant role
within the sustainable development theme and could become internationally important.
A vision and direction for the School is needed and its development is finally under way.
The School research committee can act as a forum for strategy development.
Administrative layers should be reduced in order to streamline multidisciplinarity in the
School and de-emphasise discipline-driven planning.
Remove heads of discipline from the School Executive Committee.
An international dimension to the strategy would be important both in terms of profile and
resources. Environmental governance is an example of one promising theme. Target
European Union and international funding agencies.
There is a lack of connection between academic planning at School level and strategic
planning at college level which could be rectified by increased consultation.
The ARAM deficit restricts scope for development. Mechanisms and incentives must be
available for staff to deliver strategic priorities. Rewards are needed for delivering goals
of the School e.g. new joint MSc courses. Rewards are also needed for excellence in
research and teaching.
Academics’ need time to be freed up to deliver vision. We suggest that College/School
policy should be to reduce UG teaching loads and refocus admin to School level e.g. the
successful MSc courses which align with strategic targets in College are in danger of
stalling through a lack of School-based administrative support. Redundancy of modules in
MSc courses could be diminished through joint interdisciplinary planning.
The physical infrastructure is of poor quality from an international perspective and should
be improved as a matter of urgency if TCD wants to allow for a further improvement of
the science profile and international standing of the School.
We propose the introduction of a School work-load model. This can be light-touch but
particularly in a time of transition, can be helpful in reducing stress and engendering a
feeling of fairness.
We were pleased to see that new investment in posts was discussed at the School level
and some interesting and innovative choices for recruitment were made.
The development of a strategic plan for teaching, research and staffing matched to future
societal needs and funding sources is urgent and should be prioritised. This will also help
to increase the visibility of the School of Natural Sciences outside of TCD. An increase of
collaboration with research groups from UCD would also increase visibility in Dublin and
A small group (e.g. the School research committee) could help with development of
future research themes and assist in the active transformation from the present disciplinerelated structure to one which profiles the School as the main entity.
The complete separation of all aspects of microbiology, molecular genetics and
physiology to another School has not helped the development of interdisciplinarity or a
more holistic approach to research questions concerning climate or environmental change,
biodiversity and sustainability. Measures that encourage collaboration between Schools
should be developed.
Improvement of the physical infrastructure (high quality lab space has to be created) in
order to allow the continuation of high research profile and to increase the potential of
hosting more PhD and postdoc students should be a priority. A new building would help
to improve interdisciplinary work and would reduce time needed for meetings (journey
time to meeting place). A joint building would also facilitate the development of a new
MSc course that includes all disciplines as well as the involvement of postdocs in
teaching. This would compensate for work load of researchers who would have more time
available for research. Unevenness of technical staff available for research in general
would be easier to compensate. In general, technical staff balance between teaching and
research support should match the balance of these activities within the School.
‘Pump priming’ funds should be made available to help the development of pilot projects
in new areas. TCD should implement research awards for academic staff which could be
given once a year per School – and maybe one per year at College level.
Postdocs cannot themselves apply for competitive research funds. Special funds, however,
might be made available at TCD level, for example for innovative research.
We argue strongly for a change to the system by which resources are allocated within the
School. More resources should be available for collaborative, joint research initiatives that
can forge new links between different disciplines. A competitive fund could be
established for innovative research at TCD – every scientist (including postdocs) should
be able to send in proposals.
The financial system needs revision since academic staff spend considerable time with
these matters.
The relationship between the TCD research committee and the School is unclear to us.
How are the college research agenda/priorities driven? It seems bizarre that these were
set up without buy-in from staff who are expected to deliver on the aspirations.
Summer Schools or general workshops would help to inform all disciplines about
research going on (low cost, high efficiency, streamline future research activities and
fields) every year for 2-3 days where postdocs, PhD students, staff, etc. could present the
most important work in the different projects. This would make expertise visible as well
help identify gaps (e.g. GIS problem).
The School could benefit from the development of one or two strong, integrating and
internationally competitive themes under the flag of the TCD priority theme Transport,
Energy and Environment. We refer to a realistic example presented as an appendix to the
main review report. In this example all available expertise in the School, including the
Botanical Garden (mesocosm experiments) and zoological museum (demonstration
function), could find a functional place. The integration of all available expertise is of
course optional.
Richard Bradshaw
Angelika Brandt
William Davies
26 February 2010
Victor de Jonge
APPENDIX. A blueprint for creating internationally competitive research under
the flag of the TCD priority theme Transport, Energy and Environment.
A research theme where all the expertise of the School of Natural Sciences can (but not necessarily
‘must’) find a place forms a suitable basis for added value (holistic approach, integration of results) to
the different disciplines. The required input may vary from taxonomy, experimental and field work to
modelling approaches.
A major theme may generate innovative thinking, intensified co-operation and could further strengthen
collegiality. We are of the opinion that ‘thinking big’ and in an integrated manner could be helpful in
setting up a new and major School-integrating research theme. Apart from the research challenges there
are also funding issues, which can be difficult with inter-disciplinary research. ‘Pump priming’ money
from College would be well invested both for increased co-operation within TCD as well as with the
outside world (Figure 1).
A comparable thematic line can also be developed
from the perspective of geology and / or geography
Natural Sciences
School of Microbiology
Engineering School
“You name it”
Figure 1. Visualisation of the position of the different science stakeholders in the field of natural and
environmental sciences.
An example of a future strategy.
Starting from some of the environmental issues, one suggestion may be to develop research covering
the ‘integrated system’ of applied science, policy making and management (Figure 2). This integrated
system consists of the two main building blocks: ecology and socio-economics.
A challenging School-wide theme suggestion could be looking for the balance between ecological
(geological, geographical, botanical and zoological) and socio-economic (including human behaviour,
culture and heritage) aspects. Such an integrated study can be done in terms of carbon, energy or even
monetary units.
Theme: how do humans impact environment
(to be structured by the DPSIR approach)
Light = P1
Channel maintenance dredging = D1
S3 system
process &
Nutrients = P2
DPSIR approach:
D = driver
P = pressure
S = state
I = impact
R = supposed human response
Loads of nutrients & organic matter = D2
Habitat = P3
Fisheries = D3
How do humans impact the
structure and functioning of the environment
Figure 2. Diagram representing the ‘integrated system’ (the combined ecological and human socioeconomic system). The natural system variation (left) is caused by natural factors (meteorological
conditions as temperature and wind, weathering, …) impacting the physical and the physico-chemical
subsystems. Anthropogenic variation (right) is caused by (Drivers and Pressures) also impacting the
physical and physico-chemical subsystems but superimposed on natural variation. A useful practical
approach could be to follow the DPSIR approach (developed by Turner). This approach is also
indicated and illustrates how human impact can be visualised and thus also how it can be modelled.
A central approach could be formed by relating ecological food web or ecological network studies to
the ‘good and services’ provided by these systems and thus involving economics and sociology. There
are several ways of analysing the relationships between the functioning of systems and their
architecture (see for instance recent work of Ulanowicz, Huisman, Scheffer and Bascompte for the
marine and coastal environment). They are designed to research how systems function, investigate
possible relationships between structure and function (Figure 3) and assess the impact of human
activities superimposed upon natural variation. This all forms a suitable basis to study the boundaries
and limits of sustainability.
Microbiology / Botany /
Plant taxonomy + ‘PCR’
Plant – plant
Animal taxonomy
Geology / geochemistry
Food web diagram from Baird et al, 2004. MEPS 279: 45 – 61.
and flux of
P,C,N & energy
Dynamic modelling
Ecological Network Analysis
Figure 3. A coastal ecological network showing the relationships between (groups of) species. The
thickness of the arrows indicates the magnitude of the carbon fluxes between the boxes.
Potential roles of the former disciplines are also indicated. The green text suggests the type of
theoretical, experimental, field and taxonomic knowledge that is required to create a framework before
flux analyses can be carried out to ‘judge’ the systems functioning, condition, organisational
development, redundancy, input- output analysis, turnover etc.
The above mentioned approach could be developed for different systems (e.g. terrestrial, grassland,
rural or urban areas, fresh, brackish and marine coastal and offshore systems). A ‘network analysis’
approach, which in different forms can be applied to both the human as well as the natural/
environmental system can be usefully adopted. Such a main theme gives opportunities for cooperation
within the School (former disciplines) and between Schools (Natural Sciences and Genetics,
Microbiology, Physiology) and also between universities (nationally and internationally).
The above is only one example and is presented from a specific (biological/environmental) perspective.
Comparable themes could be developed from the perspective of a geologist or geographer. The aim of
this example is to fuel the future School-wide discussion about integrative research.
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