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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

From the 1980s to Project Unity

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Invoking the city's information-technology heritage: Kilburn House and Williams House, Manchester Science Park

Both the Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST - as the former Tech had been known since 1966 - were dominated by the physical sciences following the war. Caught between these areas and the strong clinical interests of the medical school, the biomedical sciences were relatively weak. They were reorganised from the 1980s by Sir Mark Richmond, a Vice-Chancellor who was himself a medical scientist, aided by a small group of young professors. The School of Biological Sciences has been one of the University's recent success stories. Without its rise, Manchester would have struggled to maintain its national position in an era of formal research assessment and competition.

By the end of the millennium, Manchester science and technology ranked with the other large provincial universities, and with some of the newer universities. The industrial base was much reduced: engineering was largely defence-related; the nuclear industry was shrinking and unpopular; and the computer hardware firms that had merged as ICL were now Japanese-owned, though Britain maintained expertise in software. Of the postwar supports, only pharmaceuticals was really prosperous; and in a country which depended increasingly on services rather than manufacturing, physical sciences were decreasing in popularity amongst university entrants. Those with a mind for business increasingly took management degrees, and many good physics and maths graduates sought their fortunes in the City.

From the 1980s, as national funding slowed, the Victoria University and UMIST learned again to look for local linkages and finance. A Science Park was developed, but with limited success; it was not easy to build a Silicon Valley. The real resource was the steadily increasing demand for university education, which had become a sine qua non for almost all promising careers. Manchester, like other northern cities, came to rely heavily on university students, especially arts and humanities students, as major consumers of the leisure culture on and for which much of the city centre has been rebuilt.

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The Manchester Incubator Building houses start-up biotech businesses alongside the University's intellectual property specialists. Established in 2004, the Faculty of Life Sciences has brought together the former School of Biological Sciences, biomedical units from UMIST - and also CHSTM itself.

In 2002, after a decade when UMIST and the Victoria University had loosened their ties of a century, the two institutions decided to merge. The old arrangement had always been confusing, and especially for foreign applicants; the management and business schools had already merged; and some staff regretted the recent failure of 'rationalisation' between the two sets of engineering programmes. UMIST had slipped in the national research rankings, and life was getting harder for technical institutions with little biomedicine or arts provision. 'Project Unity' quickly gained general support.

The new University of Manchester, established in 2004, has four Faculties - three for the sciences, technologies and medicine, and one for everything else. Physical Sciences and Engineering brought together most of UMIST with much of the former Faculty of Sciences and Engineering in the Victoria University. The Medical School is now joined with Pharmacy and Psychology, as well as Dentistry and Nursing. And the Faculty of Life Sciences, which kept its recent independence, now includes the major new biomedical facility which the Wellcome Trust funded for UMIST, plus our Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, with its own Wellcome Unit.

Many of the new University leaders have been bought in from outside, promising professional management and more Nobel prize-winners. 'Step-changes' are intended, to make Manchester the premier university of the North, to rank with Oxbridge and the best of London. And history may give ground for hope; as we have seen, that was indeed Manchester's position for about a century. Its leaders had drawn skilfully on Scottish, German and American patterns in education and science, adapting them to the city and region. Just how the new university will carry forward the character of this heritage and locality remains to be seen.

So watch this space - for more rich history, one way or another.

John V Pickstone

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