Newcastle University backs £1.5m push to support 'fountains of knowledge' who are vital to cutting edge research

Prof Andrew Filby, deputy dean of Newcastle University's Biosciences Institute
Prof Andrew Filby, deputy dean of Newcastle University's Biosciences Institute -Credit:Newcastle University

A share of more than £1.5m has been awarded to Newcastle University as part of a scheme to boost the work done by unsung heroes who play key roles in ground-breaking research.

The idea is to support Research Technical Professionals (RTPs) who do everything from running experiments in laboratories to working behind the scenes in data analysis at a number of stages of their careers. The hope is to attract and retain the most able researchers and invest in people who are experts in their field.

Prof Andrew Filby is an RTP himself and deputy dean of the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University. He is co-leading this project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and told ChronicleLive the difference it would make to a group who are essential to cutting edge research - especially but not only in health and life sciences - and help ensure a "pipeline" of talented staff for the future.

He said: "The idea is to support people that do extremely specialist roles within the research and innovation landscape." Prof Filby added: "They tend to be fountains of knowledge and can be working with technology and equipment that's worth millions of pounds. And if we're going to be investing in that sort of technology, then we want to make sure you have the best people operating it."

He gave examples including flow cytometry - the analysis of cells and particles using complex laser equipment - and microscopy, but said that RTPs can also be people in roles as diverse as data analysis or working in professions such as lighting and sound design.

He added: “They are experts in their fields of enabling technologies and methodologies, underpinning a wide variety of research projects, and driving best practices in their areas of specialty. Traditionally they have been an overlooked and under supported group, so it is refreshing to see that the funding agencies are recognising the need to support RTPs to fund training and knowledge exchange."

Prof Filby said the university would use the funding to "upskill" its staff and give them opportunities to share learning and develop "visibility". He said the cohort of people working as an RTP was "incredibly diverse".

The project is being run in collaboration with other universities around the country, and through the Natural History Museum. The University of Warwick is leading it, and its Dr Ian Hancox said: "It is fantastic to see such large investment from EPSRC in a staff group that is essential in enabling a broad range of research. This funding will provide opportunities for RTPs nationally that would otherwise not be possible, building on the complementary activities of TALENT and the UK Institute for Technical Skills and Strategy (ITSS)."