2007 Ulster - How Biomedical Sciences transfomed a university


 Professor Gerry McKenna FIBMS, CSci

As an innovation powerhouse in teaching and research, biomedical sciences at Ulster has demonstrated the standards and influence that a truly outstanding department can achieve and also the synergies that can exist between its various strands of activity.

Biomedical Sciences developed, as a higher education degree level academic discipline, in the late 1970’s with honours degree programmes being introduced at Bradford, Portsmouth and Cardiff, followed by Ulster in 1980.  This reflected a view in the profession that the subject should be research-led and that degree-level status was necessary to achieve this end.  Most health professions eg nursing, physiotherapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and radiography developed a research base from within other more developed disciplines in their universities, eg biology, physics, physiology and sociology.  In the case of biomedical sciences this has not been apparent.  If one examines the strongest biomedical departments in research terms including Ulster, Bradford and Portsmouth, it is not clear that they developed from a strong research base in related disciplines.  At Ulster the unprecedented double 5* ratings obtained in the 1996 and 2001 Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) cannot be attributed to a previously existing strong biological, bio-chemical or chemical sciences base in the University.


History of Biomedical Sciences at Ulster

The development of an honours degree programme in biomedical sciences (originally titled medical laboratory sciences) began through the efforts of the then Chairman of the Northern Ireland Branch of the Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences (IMLS), Jimmy McGuigan.  He approached the Department of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland and made contact with a senior official, Mr David Edmiston, who happened to be a personal friend of the Registrar of the (then) New University of Ulster (NUU), Mr Willie Ewing.  The move was strongly resisted by the Ulster Polytechnic which already offered a Higher National Diploma and Certificate in Medical Laboratory Sciences as well as the Fellowship Programme of the Institute.  Despite this opposition, the author as a young lecturer in human biology and genetics was tasked by the then Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Biology at NUU, Amyan Macfadyen, with negotiating with the IMLS locally and nationally and with the Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine (CPSM) with a view to introducing an honours degree programme at NUU.  At this time only Bradford, had university status of those institutions offering medical laboratory science/biomedical sciences degrees.  The process of developing a course document was almost unknown in the university sector.  Negotiations proceeded with the then General Secretary of the IMLS, John Fawcett and with Bob Fewell, later a President of the IMLS, but then representing the CPSM.  These were helped by an unnecessarily aggressive approach to the IMLS by the Ulster Polytechnic which did not find favour with Mr Fawcett.

Eventually after various, mostly helpful, proposed amendments, the programme was established and approved in 1980.  This represented an unusual act of determination by NUU which tended previously to capitulate to opposition from both the Ulster Polytechnic and Queen’s University Belfast.  The programme was a success and when, following the Chilver Report in 1982, it was agreed that the New University of Ulster should merge with the Ulster Polytechnic in 1984 to form the University of Ulster (UU), there was a real opportunity to combine the talents at NUU and the Polytechnic to form a strong basis in biomedical sciences.  This led in 1985 to the development of the first Masters programme in the UK in medical laboratory sciences.  The programme was interdisciplinary and was undoubtedly ahead of its time, combining such subjects as cell biology, molecular biology and immunology, then largely ignored in the Fellowship Programme.

Things were also changing in the IMLS.  There was, in my view, an ill-conceived education development, namely that the Fellowship Programme should be replaced by a 2-part Special Examination of 3-years part-time duration.  Since it was possible to obtain Fellowship by an approved higher degree, we in Ulster took the obvious and efficient decision to end the Fellowship Programme and replace it with a Postgraduate Diploma/Masters Programme in Biomedical Sciences which included the specialist subjects of the new 2-part Special Programme.  Thus graduates would emerge with both a Fellowship and a Masters qualification.  This programme was introduced in 1987 and simultaneously Northern Ireland moved to an all-graduate profession for biomedical sciences, the first region in the UK to do so.  This occurred at the same time approximately as the Institute changed its name to the Institute of Biomedical   Science. 

 Further innovations derived from biomedical sciences followed at Ulster including the development of related programmes in human nutrition and dietetics, radiography, clinical sciences and optometry as well as the first professional doctorate in medical sciences in the UK. These were followed by the development of the hugely successful first fully online Master programme in biomedical sciences in the world.


In parallel with the developments in taught programmes in biomedical sciences there was a corresponding view that a credible research base had to be built.  This was from a zero base but it was recognised with what could be described, in hindsight, as vision and foresight, that certain emerging subjects should be nurtured including genetics, molecular biology, cell biology and nutrition.  The overall research base in the fledgling University was negligible with the highest scores in the 1989 RAE being 3 ratings for biomedical sciences, the built environment and social policy and administration.  Already biomedical sciences was punching its weight and in 1992 obtained a 4 rating  which was matched by its successful 3 rated partners from 1989.  The next few years were particularly successful for biomedical sciences research through the nurturing of latent talent in the University and strategic appointments of individuals of the highest calibre.  This culminated in the highest possible 5* rating in 1996, the only such rating obtained by UU.  This rating was repeated in 2001, the only example of successive 5* ratings in the relevant Unit of Assessment.  Further support was provided  in 2002 by the award of £18.5m to establish a new Centre for Molecular Biosciences through funding from the Support Programme for University Research and Invest Northern Ireland.  This is one of the finest centres of its kind in Europe and was the platform for the development of a science research park at the University’s Coleraine campus.

The success of biomedical sciences research at UU can also be exemplified by the statistic that of those who were junior lecturers or students at its inception or subsequently, no fewer than nineteen obtained full chairs in Ulster and elsewhere between 1988 and 2007.  Its success has had a significant impact on other subject areas in the University.  In 2001 it was joined by Celtic Studies in the 5* category and the Built Environment, Art and Design and Law all obtained 5 ratings.  There is little doubt that the achievements of biomedical sciences in research raised confidence, aspirations and performance in many other subject areas at Ulster and the selective model applied became the bedrock of the University’s research policy and practice.  It is difficult to build a research base where none existed before, and it is noteworthy that, in this instance, biomedical science developments charted the future direction of research in a large and successful university.

(Original copy of article published in The Biomedical Scientist, July 2007)



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