Marta Aymerich, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research
"The UOC is only 25 years old!", said Marta Aymerich, who has headed the Office of the Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research at the University since 2013. From this Office, she has laid the foundations for the sustained growth in the UOC's research activity – growth that is confirmed by the data released by her Office with the roll-out of the 2014-2021 Strategic Plan. In this interview, Aymerich explains the mission, vision and objectives for the UOC's research over forthcoming years, with the design of the new R&I ecosystem, one of whose essential parts is the research hub at 22@, which will open its doors in 2022.
"We are a young university and we want to continue contributing more and better to the society that has created us and continues to support us," she explained. Aymerich believes that "the hub has come at a time of growth in research at the UOC. We need new ways, environments and incentives, with the ambition to be leaders and have an impact on the areas in which we carry out our research". The UOC is determined to be an engaging, outstanding and meaningful university in R&I in the areas of e-learning, the network society and e-health, "which are inherently transdisciplinary and translational". This research activity "cannot be imagined as being anything other than interdisciplinary, open, collaborative and global".
For Aymerich, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance attributed by society to scientific research, If research is to help us address present and future challenges, "we must put its values into practice and make them an integral part of our daily work, actively seeking the participation of ordinary people". The hub will be the UOC's jumping-off point for progressing toward "more transformative research," she assured, with an "unquestionable commitment" to the United Nations' 2030 Agenda.
With the research hub, the UOC reaffirms its focus on R&I. Where do the UOC's research strengths lie and how will this new hub help develop them?
We have designed an ecosystem that will enable us to plan the UOC's research growth for the next few years. Springing from the interaction between different disciplines, this research must be capable of providing answers to the complex, multifaceted challenges that our society faces. The hub is an essential part, a key tool that offers the possibility of concentrating our research and support staff, laboratories, international partners, doctoral students, and all the other UOC research assets and players under the same roof. Without doubt, this move will facilitate and maximize interactions, both between these players and between the different disciplines.
What are the main goals pursued by the project?
The UOC's research capacity has increased considerably in recent years; among other things, the volume of researchers, projects and external resources has grown. Our aim is to interconnect all these capacities and create an optimal environment for doing more research that is more interdisciplinary and with greater societal impact.
Our challenge at the UOC is to be engaging, outstanding and meaningful in R&I: engaging in attracting talent and good projects, outstanding in publishing and disseminating more and better, and meaningful in carrying out research that has a societal impact. With our focus on the interaction between technology and human and social sciences in general, and on the areas of e-learning, the network society and e-health, in particular. These three areas can be represented as a helix (like DNA but instead of being a double helix, it is a triple helix), in the sense that they are inherently transdisciplinary fields, but also translational, in the sense that the intention is to take them to their potential beneficiaries.
How will the UOC work to become outstanding in research without losing sight of its vocation for public service? How will the UOC's commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) manifest in this project?
Research is a core part of the University. If we boost our research to find answers to the challenges facing society, we are also enhancing the University's vocation for public service. The knowledge generated from our research processes is fed into the academic programmes, and with this new knowledge, we can make our courses more competitive and increase our students' competencies. Briefly, it is one of the ways that we can transfer our research.
The UOC's commitment to the 2030 Agenda is unquestionable. As a university, we are active in implementing several SDGs. Specifically considering research, I would highlight the UOC's contribution in the areas of e-learning (aligned with SDG 4 on quality education), reducing inequalities (SDG 10) and promoting gender equality (SDG 5), innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9), and e-health (SDG 3 on good health and well-being). With respect to the last SDG, the UOC is leading the International Association of Universities (IAU) cluster on SDG 3, precisely because it has the eHealth Center.
As we said at the UOC Research Showcase (the periodic internal meeting among the UOC's research stakeholders) in November 2019, beyond classifying the research under each SDG, the University's capacity for social transformation is to be found precisely in the interconnection between the SDGs and the research milestones, and also between the SDGs and the research groups. The R&I hub, which pursues interconnection above all else, offers us the opportunity to progress toward this transformative research, in which "what" is researched is just as important as "how" the research is done.
The project aims to attract national and international talent. What assets does the UOC have to achieve this goal?
Research, by definition, is international and connected; the challenges are global and the approach to the answers must be multidisciplinary. Through its research groups, the UOC is a member of several international consortia and networks. The hub will enable us to strengthen these connections and accommodate this talent, and future talent, in an environment that is conducive to knowledge sharing and interdisciplinary work. We believe that the greatest benefit from the hub will be gained at the nexus with research and innovation activity. This activity requires going beyond space and time barriers, developing hybrid encounters (face-to-face and online) and combining synchronous and asynchronous interactions.
You have created a big data laboratory. Why? Which centres or groups will it serve?
We have reinforced the research laboratories strategy to cater for the needs of the different research groups and typologies existing in our University. The growing possibility of accessing large quantities of open databases for research offers a huge opportunity. However, it needs certain technological requirements (hardware and software) and experts in data architecture. The Data Science Lab was created by the UOC to facilitate this type of research for those projects that need it.
You are also promoting public engagement through citizen science and participative research projects. Why? Is this part of the intention to foster scientific communication to create a greater awareness in society of the progress in research?
The 22@ hub has been designed to connect physically and conceptually with the society in which we live and work. Our wish is to engage the public in our research projects, and not just as study subjects, but also to detect needs (building a project's objectives, for example) and to co-create solutions. All of this is vital if we are to undertake effective translational research. At the same time, we want to transfer and disseminate the results of the research we carry out; we would expect the groups operating at 22@ to organize open sessions to disseminate the results of their research and how they are applied to the public. It is another way of transferring and sharing knowledge with society.
The UOC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Why are you starting a project like this now?
The UOC is only 25 years old! We are a young university and we want to continue contributing more and better to the society that has created us and continues to support us. The R&I hub has come at a time of growth in research at the UOC. We need new ways, environments and incentives, with the ambition to be leaders and have an impact on the areas in which we carry out our research. This research activity cannot be imagined as being anything other than interdisciplinary, open, collaborative and global.
You have been Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research since 2013. What are the main milestones that the UOC has achieved in R&I since then?
The goal during all these years has been for the UOC to be recognized (as well) as a research university. Today, we are pursuing this goal with a research ecosystem strategy that puts the focus on the interaction between technology and human and social sciences. In this respect, one of the Strategic Plan's five pillars is to pursue excellence in research and innovation. With the roll-out of the Plan, the number of scientific publications has increased, not just overall but also in relative terms (publications/teaching and research staff/year). In addition, the visibility both of the open-access publications and the indexed articles has more than doubled; the funds obtained for R&I has also doubled: in recent years, the UOC has received between 4 and 5 million euros each year.
These results are thanks to the dedication of our teaching and research staff, and also our support staff, combined with the progressive implementation of a research-focused organization. Since 2013 until today, we have achieved the following milestones:
1) Creation of the Doctoral School. Starting with just three programmes, it will have nine next year, three of which are interuniversity programmes.
2) Design and implementation of the R&I organization: each centre and faculty has its own R&I plan. We have also created associate deans for research in the faculties, more professionalized management, with a specific office of the deputy general manager for R&I and scientific managers.
3) Restructuring of the IN3, which now functions as a CERCA centre. Since the restructuring, it has achieved some very significant results (which have almost doubled in some indicators) in terms of attracting talent, projects and external resources, and also in terms of visibility in number of publications.
4) Creation of the eHealth Center which, thanks to the research groups that are affiliated with it (selected by means of an external assessment) and the encouragement of the e-health research community, is unequivocally focused on transformative research.
5) Reorganization of the research on e-learning, first with an associate dean for research within the eLearn Center and subsequently as one of the research ecosystem's three priority areas (or missions).
6) In terms of research communication, apart from organizing regular research showcases, our scientific dissemination is being professionalized.
What research challenges does the UOC have ahead that it must transcend, to use the president's words?
In the more immediate future, strengthen the research ecosystem with the help of the hub in the new 22@ building and the public funding received. With the ecosystem, the aim is to optimize the environment, the conditions and the resources with which our research and innovation activity is undertaken.
Looking further ahead, our challenge is to delve more deeply into interdisciplinarity to facilitate the emergence of transdisciplinarity, while fostering frontier research between technology and the human and social sciences, which is where the UOC wants to build a distinctive identity and generate societal impact. And we will not tire of saying that we are determined to be engaging, outstanding and meaningful in R&I in the areas of e-learning, the network society and e-health, which are inherently transdisciplinary and translational.
And third, without this implying that it is any less important, we want to implement good practices in open science and be recognized for this, with all the dimensions that this implies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance attributed by society to scientific research. Consequently, if research is to help us address present and future challenges, we must put its values into practice and make them an integral part of our daily work. And we must do this in an open science environment, reflecting on what we contribute to society with our publications and how we focus the research groups' growth, also in human quality.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) are helping 21st-century global societies to overcome pressing challenges by studying the interactions between ICT and human activity, with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health. Over 500 researchers and 51 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).
The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu. #UOC25years