Technology Futures | 1 February, 2017
When Professor Sir John McCanny went to Buckingham Palace in February 2016 to receive a Queen’s Anniversary Prize from the Prince of Wales, it was a red letter day in more ways than one
The prize was for the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) and its work in protecting the online activity of billions of internet users around the world. On the day, John, Director of the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT), of which CSIT is a part, was accompanied by the Queen’s Chancellor, Tom Moran, and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston – and with them, at the request of the Palace, they brought three members of CSIT staff and five PhD students.
John says, ‘The award recognised quality research which has a broader societal impact but it also recognised teamwork. Ideally, I would have liked to have brought all 92 people involved but this wasn’t possible. However, later we received a request from Clarence House asking if Prince Charles could visit us during a planned trip to Northern Ireland.
‘This meant everyone in the Institute could share in the CSIT celebration and we also used the occasion to formally launch ECIT as one of the four Global Research Institutes at Queen’s.’
These events were the beginning of a year of landmarks, including an additional Royal seal of approval – the granting of a Regius Professorship to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday – celebrating research that is not only internationally excellent but which has had major impact on wider society and the economy.
John describes this as ‘one of the most significant things that’s ever happened to this University. There have been Regius Professorships since 1497 but they are rare and prestigious awards with only 14 since the reign of Queen Victoria. There’s never been one in Northern Ireland before.’ John also received a Knighthood in the 2017 New Year’s Honours for services to higher education and economic development.
Based at the Northern Ireland Science Park – now branded as Catalyst Inc. – ECIT became the anchor tenant in 2004. Since then, the Science Park has grown to over 160 companies employing over 2,500 people.
The Institute has now established two new Centres to sit alongside CSIT, lifting its numbers from 180 to 250, with the ambition to grow to 320 by 2020. The Centre for Wireless Innovation is integrating the areas of wireless communication and high frequency electronics while the Centre for Data Science and Scalable Analytics Systems will be at the heart of what is known as the information explosion – being able to process and gain meaningful information from increasingly large amounts of data.
‘With CSIT, in the last three years we’ve helped to create around 1,100 new jobs in cyber security in Belfast alone. Not too many universities outside the USA can claim that.
‘My philosophy is – if you’re not going forward, you’re going back. We want to be pioneers pushing the barriers, rather than simply being responsive to pre-defined agendas. We have to be leading, continually driving forward.’
He describes a trip to the USA with representatives of ten UK universities to visit Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard and MIT. ‘Part of the sessions related to their research but the other part was about their innovation structures and processes. What struck me was how similar we are at Queen’s and how we’re aligned with their way of thinking, albeit as yet on a smaller scale.
‘They’re leaders, spotting the big problems before they’re all that visible, producing solutions, bringing in people from different backgrounds and I’m proud that we can be seen as having comparable levels of activity and ambition.’
As ECIT begins this new phase, John reflects on how it all began. ‘When we started, that was a pretty radical thing to do – taking academics away from the main University campus to stick them on a derelict shipyard site and saying – don’t worry guys, it’ll be all right. So far it has been very successful but now we’re pressing the restart button with much bigger and more ambitious plans to increase the depth and breadth of our research and to promote even wider economic and social impact.’
Find out more about the work being doing by our experts in ECIT
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