Collaboration is crucial in times of crisis

August 4, 2020
Professor Sir Steve Smith

Professor Sir Steve Smith has been the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at the University of Exeter for 18 years and is one of the founding Vice-Chancellors of GW4. As outgoing Chair of GW4 Council, Sir Steve reflects on the significance of our regional Alliance and how collaboration will play a crucial part in helping universities to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and support economic and societal recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic global impact and poses an unparalleled threat to the future of higher education. The implications of the outbreak on the UK’s university sector stretch far beyond the shorter-term impacts on teaching and research. Even with government support, the sector faces serious challenges that could take months, if not years, to overcome. Despite this, universities and their communities are playing a vital role in responding to the crisis. University research is crucial in advancing our understand of the virus and developing interventions to help tackle COVID-19 together. Universities are key anchor institutions in their regions. Through their research, teaching, partnerships, and civic responsibility, universities make an untold contribution to our regional and the national prosperity, and will prove critical to the path of recovery and in supporting government’s levelling up agenda.

I have been fortunate enough to be the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter since 2002. In that time, the creation of the GW4 Alliance is one of the most innovative developments I have had the pleasure to be involved with. The research-intensive universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter already had a strong tradition of working together, particularly around doctoral training. The GW4 Alliance was designed to take our collaborative efforts to the next level and be a voice for research and innovation across the region. The collective strength of GW4 is much more than the sum of its individual parts. Taken together, the breadth and depth of our research expertise and assets is truly impressive, providing the scale and capability to address major global and societal challenges.

collaborative research and innovation

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time. However, COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis. It is one of the greatest threats that we have faced together and as a result, collaborative working will play a crucial role in helping universities and their regional communities recover. Collaboration is at the heart of our GW4 Alliance and I believe one of the most important things we can do right now is continue to advance our collaborative research and innovation, to support our institutions and regional ecosystem, and develop initiatives at scale to drive our economic and social recovery.

I am not alone in this thinking; the new head of the Russell Group and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Nancy Rothwell, said: “We find ourselves in unprecedented times. Not just in the higher education sector, but across all of society and that is why it has never been more important for our universities to work collaboratively.”

Of course, universities are already collaborating to support the fight against COVID-19. I am proud of the way our GW4 universities have responded to the challenge. Through our world-class research and civic engagement, we are committed to leading the response against the coronavirus pandemic and providing support at a regional, national, and international level.

GW4 universities are at the forefront of life changing research. For example, researchers at the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter are part of the national team, co-ordinated by the University of Oxford, who found that a steroid can reduce the risk of dying in patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 – the first major breakthrough to tackle the virus. The University of Exeter, along with Cardiff University are also part of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium. This £20m project brings together experts from across the NHS, public health agencies and academia to map the spread of COVID-19. The aim is to help inform the UK’s response to this crisis and any future pandemics.

I was humbled by the decision made by hundreds of medical students across GW4 to qualify early to help reinforce the NHS. GW4 institutions have also provided thousands of items of personal protective equipment to frontline healthcare workers and local authorities. The University of Bath’s Faculty of Engineering & Design team have made an impressive 100,000 pieces of PPE including face shields for NHS workers. They shared the simple but effective face shield design with colleagues at the University of Exeter, who assembled over 2,000 face shields for the local healthcare community. It is great to see this collaborative and open approach benefiting our communities across the region.

As well as strengthening national and regional health efforts, GW4 Universities are also supporting local communities across our region and investigating the impact of the pandemic on different groups. For example, lifestyle behaviours of adults during lockdown, the mental health impacts of isolation on children and the elderly, and how changes in policy and social care provision are impacting family carers’ wellbeing and responsibilities.

These are just a few of countless examples I could share with you. It has been inspiring to see so many staff and students work together, not only across GW4 but with our partners and other organisations to develop world-class research, provide vital supplies to front line workers, and share ideas and techniques. Our universities have harnessed their research capacity and world-leading expertise to play a vital role in understanding more about the disease and how we can reduce its impact on our society.

Building a better future

I am one of three vice-chancellors, among sector body leaders, sitting on the government’s University Research and Knowledge Exchange Sustainability Taskforce,  co-chaired by Universities Minister Michelle Donelan and Science Minister Amanda Solloway. The aim of the group is to sustain universities research base and their capability to contribute effectively to UK society and economy in the recovery to COVID-19. Securing financial support for the UK’s world-leading research institutions impacted by the pandemic was a priority for the Taskforce so I welcomed the government’s University Support Package. The package offers considerable support for the UK’s research base. In addition to £280m of grant extensions funded through UKRI, the package’s main strand underwrites lost international student fee income (based on 18/19 numbers) up to 80% of the lost income or the amount of industry, charity, and crucially institution’s own funding of research. The total figure of support (offered as 75% loan, repayable over 10 years, and 25% grant) is around £2.4 billion, focused on research intensive institutions by the use of the threshold figure of industry/charity/own-funded research income. This is without question a significant level of support for the research base and will help GW4 institutions smooth any international fee shortfalls over the coming decade. It will help universities retain research talent and protect innovative, ground-breaking projects across the country. This crisis has reemphasised the importance of research and expertise. Universities have an important role to play in society not only during a crisis or for national recovery but in building a better future. This funding will help universities continue their vital work to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing our society today, like tackling climate change, unlocking medical discovery and unleashing new technologies. I am sure the ways in which the sector has responded to this current crisis will further embed universities into their communities. However, despite the support package and the immense work universities are undertaking to adapt, universities face serious challenges now and in the years ahead, including student recruitment, financial stability, ensuring student and staff wellbeing and safety, and continuing to develop world-class research under different working conditions. I hope universities can overcome these challenges to remain anchor institutions in their regions and global beacons of research excellence.

Importance of place

In his first budget Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, committed to increasing research and development (R&D) investment to £22 billion a year by 2024-25. A lot has changed since that announcement in March but the government has doubled down on its commitment, publishing its UK Research and Development Roadmap.

The government has spoken a great deal about ‘levelling up’ the UK to raise productivity and growth in all nations and regions. The government’s R&D roadmap goes some way to addressing the regional imbalances examined in Nesta’s report, ‘The Missing £4 Billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK’. The report’s analysis is striking, calculating that large parts of the UK, including the GW4 region of South West of England and South East Wales, have been missing out on R&D funding to the tune of £4 billion a year. This does not include the additional private sector funding that public funding also generates. The sums needed to rebalance R&D spending across the nation are substantial. To level up per capita public spending on R&D across the GW4 region, an additional £420 million would need to go to Wales and £580 million to South West England. This regional imbalance matters because R&D leads to innovation, and innovation creates productive industries and attracts world-leading talent and expertise.

Despite disparities in funding, GW4 is home to world-leading research and innovation clusters. The world’s first Compound Semiconductor Cluster was launched in Wales and a Cardiff University-led consortium recently received over £40 million to develop a Compound Semiconductor powerhouse in South Wales. Building on a history of creative collaboration our region’s creative industries are going from strength to strength, receiving two Creative Clusters awards for Cardiff and Bath/Bristol plus the Audiences of the Future programme led by the University of Exeter. The University of Bristol, along with the University of Bath and other partners, are also leading on a £46 million-pound initiative to launch a creative media powerhouse and set the South West on track to become an international trailblazer in screen-based media.

At a time when even higher expectations are being placed on our research base as a driver of economic and societal recovery, I was pleased to see the R&R roadmap outline a vision to redress this regional imbalance and rebuild a greener, fairer and more resilient UK with innovation at its centre. Universities will be critically important in achieving this, driving innovation and acting as a catalyst for promoting more inclusive regional growth.

Place is one of the central themes of the R&D roadmap and there will also be a new UK R&D Place Strategy. This will set out how the government can embed their levelling up agenda into their R&D decision-making processes and ensure a place-based approach to board issues such as talent, innovation and infrastructure. One suggestion is to build on UKRI’s flagship Strength in Places Fund – a funding scheme GW4 universities have been successful in capitalising on. However more place-based initiatives will be required if the government is to truly unlock the R&D capacity across the UK.

ADDRESSING Global challenges

This pandemic has highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration to address global challenges. Beyond the immediate imperative to overcome COVID-19, the greatest challenge facing the UK and the world are the impacts of climate change. GW4 researchers have already been instrumental in identifying climate change tipping points and as an alliance we have identified climate resilience as one of our priority research areas. With globally recognised research strengths and more climate expertise than any other area worldwide (including the Met Office and our GW4 Water Security Alliance – one of the largest water consortiums worldwide), GW4 is well placed to address this global challenge and contribute to a green recovery. COVID-19 has been a powerful reminder of the world’s vulnerability to systemic risks. GW4 is already home to several world-leading research centres aiming to build resilience to these risks by developing the potential of technologies as well as nature-based solutions and behavioural changes. For example, The Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems (IAAPS) at the University of Bath is supporting the road to net zero by developing ultra-low and zero emission vehicles. The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), based at Cardiff University, was established with the central aim of understanding how we can live differently – and better – in ways that meet the need for systemic, deep and rapid emission reductions. In the same way that society transformed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, responding to climate change will also require transformation. In collaboration with our colleagues across the alliance and external partners, I believe GW4 is ideally placed to identify and develop innovative and transformative solutions to climate change. I hope the government’s R&D roadmap will only serve to boost our efforts.

Our universities are important drivers of regional economic growth and innovation in the Great West region. I know they will rise to the challenge to be even more creative and innovative in order to adapt, recover and ultimately help build a better future.

The strength and scale of our network is such that we can mobilise businesses, industry, government and third sector organisations, acting as a regional connector to deliver sustained investment via a coordinated response to governmental strategy.

The GW4 Alliance is a great mechanism for promoting our distinctive regional strengths.  By working together, at scale it gives us the opportunity to compete with the very best in the world, deliver greater impact and seize bigger opportunities.

As I hand over the baton of Chair for GW4 Council and retire as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, I know GW4 will continue its success as a world-leading research and innovation hub; develop its brand and offerings on a global, national and regional stage; and play a vital contribution to the national recovery, putting innovation centre stage.