How universities like Sheffield are helping the country bounce back from Covid-19

I think we can all agree that the last year has been without precedent. Covid-19 has had an impact on all of our lives and our world has seen monumental change.

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 12:00 am

Like many, I hope that the rollout of new vaccines against the virus and the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions mean we are beginning to emerge from this pandemic. However, our next challenge will be the recovery from the social, economic and cultural shocks that Covid has caused.

Universities like Sheffield have an important role to play in that. Throughout the last year, universities have demonstrated just how well placed we are to transform the work we do at great pace in the national and global interest. Of course, the rapid development of the Oxford vaccine exemplifies this, but there are countless stories of universities across the country conducting critical medical research, providing much-needed resources to support the NHS, and supporting their local communities.

The achievements of the past year have been quite remarkable. In Sheffield, staff at our Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and Nuclear AMRC were part of the Ventilator Challenge UK consortium which produced ten years’ worth of medical ventilators in just 10 weeks. Researchers from our University have studied and advised on almost every aspect of the pandemic, including researching the long-term health impacts of Covid, sharing their expertise to inform public health strategies and supporting the cultural sector in our region. It is extraordinary to think that, in the last three weeks, academics from our University published a study into the efficacy of a vaccine against a disease we knew so little about just 12 months ago.

Universities have shown that they can provide the innovative, flexible and translational research and development that the UK needs to be able to recover, create jobs and address the most pressing challenges facing society. We also have great experience in delivering innovation-led economic regeneration and can drive real, transformational change for communities.

In Sheffield, that is demonstrated by our AMRC, which has been delivering what is now termed ‘levelling up’ for the last 20 years. It has turned a scene of industrial decline into a high-value manufacturing hub, attracting inward investment from global companies like Boeing and McLaren and empowering the region’s homegrown manufacturing leaders and SMEs. Since it was established in 2014, our AMRC Training Centre has trained 1,500 manufacturing apprentices with the engineering skills businesses need, helping put more than £20 million a year in wages into the homes of the most disadvantaged areas.

We also have ambitious plans for the future. Chapter Two of the AMRC will build on its success to transform UK manufacturing towards a sustainable and resilient future. We want to transform the North into the beating heart of innovation and the new industrial revolution.

We also recently announced the opening of a new Gene Therapy Innovation and Manufacturing Centre at our University of Sheffield Innovation District. This facility will pioneer new treatments for patients with devastating genetic disorders. Not only will it drive innovation and world-class research, it will provide opportunities to catalyse the creation of new start-up companies.

Later this year, our Translational Energy Research Centre - one of the largest and best-equipped zero-carbon energy, bioenergy, carbon capture utilisation and storage and combustion research and development facilities in Europe - will officially open next to Factory 2050.

This month, I was delighted that the first-ever Knowledge Exchange Framework, published by Research England, placed the University of Sheffield in the top 10 percent of universities in England for working with businesses to find solutions to problems in industry and society as well as for working with the public and third sectors, commercialising research and intellectual property, and for public and community engagement.

A little over a year ago, I wrote an open letter to the people of South Yorkshire. In it, I made a commitment that the University of Sheffield would do all it can to help our region’s communities, economy and businesses respond to, and eventually build back from, the impacts of the pandemic. That pledge remains true.

Our innovation is supporting many areas, including sustainability, better health treatments and the arts and cultural sectors - and will be an important part of our recovery.