Northern Lights: Ambitious plans for a hub to foster connection through social sciences

Artist's impression of new Social Sciences building
Artist's impression of new Social Sciences building

A few years ago, a journalist asked local artist Joe Scarborough what went on in the University of Sheffield’s landmark Arts Tower. He didn’t miss a beat. He said, I’ll tell you what they are doing in there. They are designing the future.

It was a startling answer, but one of the most exciting things about a university is that it not only thinks about change, it can also make it happen.

A flagship venture in social sciences will allow us to partner with global organisations in ways which will also benefit our city, creating opportunities for the next generation

If you thought universities were only full of shy boffins who never leave a lab, think again. The news that Boeing and McLaren were to make major investments in production facilities in South Yorkshire stemming from their partnership with the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre was one of the highlights in what has in many ways been a grim year. But for those of us who have followed the development of the AMRC, it wasn’t a surprise.

But is the AMRC a one off? Certainly not.

We have to be honest. For all I am proud of a place and the communities I have come to respect and love, we have a very long way to go.

The latest survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the Sheffield City Region is still in the bottom quartile for prosperity and inclusion.

Just think what this means in people’s lives. If we want to change our position, and we do, we have to work together.

The City Growth Commission led by Lord O’Neil (also a proud Sheffield graduate) made clear that the success of regions across the UK was directly connected to the success of their universities, places which attract talent from around the world. So what might drive the next areas of opportunity for us here in Sheffield?

The answer might surprise you.

Joe Scarborough was right that universities are places where designers of all kinds grapple with problems and seek solutions. And the great challenges of our own region, shared by other cities across the world, are not only how to increase the productivity of our companies or how to treat a specific disease, they also span architecture and development, planning, education and policy.

As a scientist all my career, I have been astonished at how much of my energy as a leader has in fact fallen into the area of Social Science, engaging with government, understanding an economy and how we live together.

For our work as medics, engineers and scientists to really bite, we need social sciences to be the gear that connects us to the way the world works.

Fortunately, this is an area where the University of Sheffield has a huge amount to offer. Eighty per cent of our academics in this area are ranked as world leading or internationally excellent. Our researchers offer advice which is sought around the world in everything from housing to early years education, but they also want to make a difference to the city and region they have made their home.

How can this happen? Only by taking what we already do well and connecting it more directly to others, just as we connected our engineers to companies at the AMRC.

This is why your University has submitted a planning application for a truly exciting venture – a social sciences hub at the western edge of the campus. This will not only give a wonderful base for students, it will create an Advanced Social Science Research Centre.

We know this works because we have seen how the Diamond building is attracting engineering firms like Siemens to set up demonstrator facilities in Sheffield. A flagship venture in Social Sciences will allow us to partner with global organisations in ways which will also benefit our city, creating opportunities for the next generation along the way.

Our ambitions are not limited, and they shouldn’t be. After all, we have a track record for thinking big.

Our University was founded by industrialists and local people who believed a University could and should exist ‘for the people’ and that it could improve not only the economy, but health and education. They had a dream and worked to make it happen. A century later, their faith is still being repaid.

To transform Orgreave into a world-leading research campus which would attract Boeing and McLaren took determination and vision. An idea grew into a globally-respected Industrial Campus.

We are not resting on our laurels. These are tough times for our country and for universities, but we are determined to build on our strengths. It is not enough to have a dream, we have to make them a reality, and we are determined to work with our city and region as we do.