How universities can improve the UK

Universities create jobs, bring in investment, support businesses and educate over 2.5 million people each year in the UK. Academic institutions are the cornerstone of any serious regional upgrading policy.

Their global research excellence creates local jobs in supply chains and innovation. Whether designing advanced materials, developing digital technologies or fighting infectious diseases, universities build regional specificity through their work. This is essential to creating a more robust and diversified economy. Universities are also key in the move to net zero.

How can universities and local governments work together to address these national and global challenges?

Professor Ronan McGrath

Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research Partnerships at the University of Liverpool, on driving scientific and technical innovation to net zero

Our global climate crisis is the accumulation of local emergencies. The solutions we develop through scientific and technical research – whether they are new forms of energy use and storage or new recyclable and sustainable products – will have a direct impact on the capacity of the whole world to achieve net zero emissions. How we design and build infrastructure, train and educate future generations, and plan and manage our cities is vitally important to reducing our regional carbon footprint. How universities inspire their graduates to act will ultimately determine the urgency with which we address the climate crisis.

Tackling this pressing issue goes hand in hand with building a greener and more balanced economy. At the University of Liverpool, we work with our regional partners and bodies to make this a reality. Partnerships between the university and the Liverpool City region put climate resilience at the heart of the region’s spatial development strategy. For example, over the past decade, our Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory and our Center for Global Eco-Innovatory have worked with over 700 SMEs, created over 300 jobs, contributed to a gross value added (GVA) of 45 million pounds and saved over 40,000t of carbon – building a prosperous, greener economy in the North West

From creating zero-carbon prefab housing to developing new solar cells to harnessing tidal power, a green industrial revolution depends on location and partnerships fueled by academic research. A stronger focus on sustainability through research funding and tax incentives for industry co-investment would strengthen the anchoring role of universities in tackling inequality and the climate crisis. Saving our planet requires drastic action. This can and should start locally with the necessary investments in research and innovation, which in turn will lead to new businesses, jobs and greater prosperity.

Steve Rotheram

Mayor of Liverpool City Area Metro, on regional net zero challenges and opportunities

Climate change is the most serious threat facing our planet – and the decisions we make now will have a permanent and irreversible impact. The Liverpool City area is home to a group of passionate and committed young people. They understand the danger climate change poses to our world – and their future – better than any generation before them. Like me, they know that urgent action is the only option.

It’s a climate crisis, but it’s also a broader imaginative crisis in the funding, powers and support available to help build a greener and more innovative economy. Across the region, we are working tirelessly on projects that will accelerate our transition to net zero carbon by 2040 at the latest – at least a full decade ahead of national government targets. We do this by claiming our position as the UK’s renewable energy coast and leader of the green industrial revolution. And we are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the myriad of jobs and investment opportunities this will bring.

Not only do we have natural strengths in wind, hydrogen and solar power, but we also have an ace card in the River Mersey. Our Mersey Tidal Power program is pioneering, with the ability to provide enough clean, predictable energy to power one million local homes. The foundations are also being laid for a much greener state-controlled transportation system. I want a London-style network, which makes travel faster, cheaper and cleaner to offer a real alternative to the car.

James Coe

Head of Sustainability, Policy and Civic Engagement at the University of Liverpool, on the power of R&D

Public funding for research and development (R&D) is extremely imbalanced in the UK. Nesta, a foundation for innovation, estimated that many parts of the UK are missing around £4billion in R&D funding each year. This, in turn, would leverage an additional £8 billion from the private sector. This is not only a tragedy of lost research potential, but also a missed opportunity to improve lives and livelihoods through research spending.

Public R&D spending attracts private investment. This is why the government’s commitment to dramatically increase public investment in research is so important. Assets such as the Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) at the University of Liverpool, worth £81 million, have grown out of investments and partnerships between government, academia and the private sector. The MIF not only generates cutting-edge research, it also provides innovation facilities for private partners, new doctoral study opportunities and job creation through spin-outs.

Similarly, our Digital Innovation Facility (DIF) opens in May 2022, following a £12.7 million co-investment from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Local Growth Fund. Located in Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter, DIF will bring together complementary areas of expertise in computing, robotics and engineering to help local and national businesses fully harness the power of digital technologies and expertise.

National and local government investment in research often spills over unexpectedly. Innovation assets such as MIF and DIF will enable Liverpool to be a leader in advanced materials and emerging digital technologies. This will create highly skilled jobs in the future. It will enhance Liverpool’s – and therefore the UK’s – global partnerships, fuel research collaborations we haven’t yet conceived and inspire the next generation of graduates. The need to rebalance research funding is not just an academic question of funding, it is a pressing question of how innovation can improve the UK. ●

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