The Oxford Martin School: finding new ways to tackle global challenges

11 November 2019

Portrait of Dr Ella Adlen

by Dr Ella Adlen
Research and Programmes Manager

Dr Ella Adlen is responsible for the active management of the School’s research portfolio and for the co-ordination of new funding applications. Ella is involved in the School’s Restatements series, and in other areas of evidence synthesis. Ella joi...

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Dr James Martin had a vision for inspiring the best minds in academia to work together on the world’s major problems. To make this a reality, nearly fifteen years ago he gave what was at the time the largest philanthropic donation in Oxford’s history, to establish the Oxford Martin School: a vehicle, unique to Oxford, which channels, cross-fertilises and catalyses ideas across disciplines, with the ambition of creating real-world solutions.

Since its inception, the School has raised and invested over £70m of research funding across the University, leveraging many tens of millions of further funding through work the School has catalysed. It has founded over 60 programmes, some 30 of which are currently supported by the School. Our research portfolio spans themes of governance, information and evidence; sustainable development; resource scarcity and climate change; equity and new economic thinking; and innovation for healthy societies.

We currently run annual open funding competitions, offering up to £1m per programme. Our most recent funding call is open: it is loosely themed around technological solutions and their barriers. This year, we are looking to support research that seeks either to develop novel or state of the art technologies to address a major contemporary challenge, or to address barriers to the deployment, uptake or adoption of innovative technological solutions.

What do we look for in the research that we fund? We look for excellence in achieving the highest calibre of academic outcomes and impact in delivering practical outputs and outcomes: examples include policy ‘look-books’ for how to understand novel scientific data in epidemics, principles to navigate the complexities of investor engagement on climate change, and changes to international marine protection laws. We look for scale in ideas that can truly shift the dial on a global issue. And we look for additionality: we look for innovative, non-incremental research ideas that other sources of funds are not willing or able to consider. We have an appetite for risk, and look to act as a first-mover for areas of thought or for academic groupings that do not have existing track records.

James Martin was well ahead of his time: he was an original thinker who amongst other things predicted the rise of the internet. In his donation to the University of Oxford, he also foresaw the growing need for interconnected solutions to solve interconnected problems. At that time, there was almost no interdisciplinary work going on in universities; now, many of the aspirational terms framing the mission of the Oxford Martin School are familiar phrases to researchers navigating major funding bodies and philanthropic organisations.

The Oxford Martin School still differs in important ways from other funding sources, partly because of our position as an intramural funder. First, solutions-focused research funding often gets framed in a broadly top-down manner (for instance, as ‘challenges’, which articulate the problem at hand, and often implicitly identify the targeted solution as well). In contrast, we operate bottom-up: we do not create our programmes, but look to harvest the creativity and disciplinary strengths of Oxford in a way that fits the devolved nature of the University itself. We are agnostic about the problem, and we are interested in solutions that are driven by intellectual and scientific rigour. Our four broad criteria (scale, additionality, impact and excellence), have proven to be a consistently useful set of metrics that can work across diverse contexts. Our regular funding themes, which in the past have included ‘Global Commons’, ‘Navigating Progress’, ‘Great Transitions’ and ‘Interactions between the Sustainable Development Goals’ are deliberately broad, and are set only to encourage innovative thinking rather than as a strategic aim to fill a portfolio.

Secondly, we look to provide funding support that is genuinely productive for interdisciplinary thinking. Traditional funding bodies, even as they promote interdisciplinarity in their calls, can often struggle to understand or support such bids. For instance, the proposal review stage is particularly challenging for cross-disciplinary proposals. Another issue is that many of the features that often facilitate the extra needs generated by interdisciplinarity (such as programme manager positions) are the first to be cut in budget thin-downs. We are experienced in these specific challenges of interdisciplinary research, and help our research teams to navigate them from the very beginning, when research plans are being formed.

Thirdly, we aim to provide the right conditions throughout the research cycle so that new ideas can germinate and so that the reach of our research beyond academia is maximised. We work hard to break down the natural academic inclination towards silos, and we encourage public, policy and practitioner engagement throughout the research programme, not solely at its culmination. Our home, the Old Indian Institute at the crossroads of Broad Street and Holywell Street, allows us to act as a convenor of events, workshops and seminars.

Finally, the Oxford Martin School often acts as a ‘coalescer’ for ideas within Oxford and beyond: we frequently fund areas of research that then go onto attract further funding streams, allowing programmes to scale and reach momentum for maximum impact. Over our first 15 years we believe we have leveraged over £100m. Such leverage is facilitated by our being able to act as a pioneer for new ways of thinking about a problem, for new collaborations, or for allowing Oxford research expertise to scale into their own stable and independent institutes or research programmes within Oxford.

We believe in allowing research teams to self-organise; in giving researchers the time and space to generate innovation; and in encouraging debate, dialogue and networking. Our ambition is that we fund research that radically advances knowledge simultaneously in academic and in real world terms. We expect our research to be cutting edge: we want to represent the top echelon of the top University in the world. Ultimately, the Oxford Martin School exists to turn that intellectual capital into a tangible difference for the lives of this and future generations. If you think you have an idea that fits with our mission, and you work in a long-term research position at the University of Oxford, please visit https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/about/funding/.