University thinks big to set up brains trust

A "renaissance-style" centre is being set up at a North university in a bid to bring some of the world's top thinkers to the region.

A "renaissance-style" centre is being set up at a North university in a bid to bring some of the world's top thinkers to the region.

Durham University is investing more than £1.5m into the Institute of Advanced Study to bring together Nobel Prize winners, public figures and world-class scholars to debate the big issues of the day.

The hope is that the centre - which is being housed at a refurbished hall in the shadow of Durham Cathedral - will make the university an intellectual powerhouse with a reputation to match the top colleges of America.

It will bring together academics from different subject areas to work on headline-grabbing research in the hope of boosting Durham's reputation on the international stage.

The centre was launched last night with a debate involving Durham chancellor Bill Bryson, journalist and author Peter Watson and the founding chairman of Newcastle's Centre for Life, Dr Matt Ridley.

The first year's programme - which is based around the theme of The Legacy of Charles Darwin - has seen academics from Britain, America, Canada and Germany being appointed.

Dr Bryson said: "I have always been fascinated by ideas and especially with their origins. I believe this new venture is a ripe breeding ground, not just for ideas, but for ideas that could change the world."

The Institute, which is based at Cosin's Hall, on Durham's Palace Green, will appoint 10 fellows from around the world to work for up to three months at a time on related research.

The centre's executive director Prof Ash Amin said: "There are institutes like this in places like Harvard or Princeton and that's what we're aspiring to.

"Their role is to provide resources for the cleverest people in the world and give them time to do work that really brings new knowledge to the world.

"We want people to leave here saying that they had a wonderful time in the North-East and have our name attached to some ground-breaking work.

"Durham already has a good reputation in Britain, but we want to be known internationally and the Institute is an attempt to enhance how we're known around the world."

The Institute - which has directors from Durham's geography, physics and English departments - will be putting on a series of high-profile public lectures to represent its work. Among those lined up to speak in the first year are Booker-prize winning author AS Byatt, Neil Shubin from University of Chicago and former British Academy vice-president Dame Gillian Beer.

The university will invest £250,000 a year in its running costs for the next four years and has also spent £400,000 on refurbishing Cosin's Hall. Another £150,000 per year will have to come from donations and charitable trusts.

Prof Amin said: "Today there are lots of brilliant people who know everything about one specific area, but many do not have time, energy or incentive to put it into the much bigger picture that has the capacity to bring positive change - the one that emerges when science meets art or when psychology encounters musicology for example.

"We believe that the Institute will act as just this kind of `meeting place for thought' that has the capacity to effect real change and develop new thinking on some of the big topics affecting the world today and in the future."

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