Comment: Now is the time for Sheffield drive forward conversations about the North

Professor Dave Petley, Vice-President for Innovation at the University of Sheffield, writes for the Sheffield Telegraph about how it is the right time to drive forward conversations about the North.

Now is the time for Sheffield drive forward conversations about the North

By Professor Dave Petley, Vice-President for Innovation at the University of Sheffield, published in the Sheffield Telegraph

It was in the mid 1960s that Harold Wilson famously observed that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. In recent years this phrase has seemed more relevant than ever, and it certainly was a couple of weeks ago when we saw the first cabinet reshuffle since the general election. While some areas saw few changes in political leadership, those of us concerned with the use of innovation to rebalance regional economies saw some dramatic changes. We have a new Chancellor, a different approach to the Northern Powerhouse agenda and two new ministers representing universities and science. All of this with the budget due imminently on 11 March.

So what could all this change mean for the North of England and, more specifically, for Sheffield? Well, we have a Chancellor with a Yorkshire constituency and a government that knows it needs to change its approach to investment in the North. The Prime Minister has pledged that his government will lead a 'levelling up' of prosperity across the UK. With all this in mind, the time has never been better for Sheffield to tell its story of innovation - and we have a truly remarkable story to tell.

Now, more than ever, policymakers are recognising that research and development can help to solve the UK’s most pressing challenges, boost businesses and transform local economies. As they look for answers, it’s not surprising that Westminster and Whitehall look to the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) as the model for achieving this.

At the AMRC - part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult - we have created an innovation ecosystem that has established the Sheffield City Region as the go-to place for manufacturing companies. Businesses, from global giants to SMEs, partner with academics to increase productivity and solve the manufacturing challenges they face - through developing new materials, processes, products, technology and skills.

They know we can help manufacturing become greener, more efficient and safer. In universities we call this research ‘translational’, meaning that it can take the fundamental research of our academics and their research teams, and quickly translate it into learning that helps organisations in both the private and public sectors. This approach has had an undeniably profound effect on our region - attracting new investment from the likes of Boeing and McLaren, as well as boosting Sheffield’s excellent homegrown manufacturers.

A Centre for Cities report last year recognised the AMRC as a ‘nationally significant innovation asset’ whose impact extends well beyond the Sheffield City Region. Our model of innovation is helping to level up the North, the Midlands and Wales, not just Sheffield. Last year AMRC we opened the new AMRC Cymru in Broughton, Wales in a project supported by the Welsh Government, and we established AMRC North West. In the next month we will start construction of a new translational research facility in the Samlesbury Aerospace Enterprise Zone in Preston, Lancashire to provide a permanent home to AMRC North West. The Nuclear AMRC also has sites in Birkenhead and Derby.

We couldn’t be more proud of everything that the AMRC has achieved so far, including the success of the AMRC Training Centre, which has 800 students studying on apprenticeships. We are extremely excited about its opportunities for the future. In many ways the AMRC is our University’s greatest civic endeavour and we are keen to share its unique approach to innovation with other areas and sectors. The AMRC is going from strength to strength under its new Executive Director, Steve Foxley, and we have ambitious plans for the next stage of its development.

Of course the AMRC is not our only area of activity in translational research. At the University of Sheffield, our research and development is supporting the net-zero emissions target, finding new ways to grow sustainable food and identifying better treatments for MND, cancers and other chronic illnesses, for example.

And Sheffield Hallam University has developed a suite of excellent research and development facilities aimed at responding to local needs. Its new Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre has the opportunity to innovate in a way that can tangibly prevent and treat some chronic illnesses, and is another jewel in Sheffield’s expanding innovation crown.

As our opportunity for regional devolution becomes stronger, the key for Sheffield is to meaningfully harness its research and innovation assets to make a real impact. It is vital that the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse is accelerated and we hope the government’s agenda recognises how the Sheffield City Region and the North are driving improvements in productivity, shifting research and development spend closer to the ambitious goal of 2.4% of GDP, as well as helping to rebalance our economy.

Sheffield will host the Great Northern Conference next month, which will bring together key politicians, business leaders and other influencers to discuss how we can grow the economy and build a greener, fairer, equal future for the North.

In his paper ‘Resurgence of the Regions’, our excellent academic Professor Richard Jones wrote about how investment in research and development needs to focus on the big societal goals around decarbonising our energy supply and developing better health and social care. His paper has been praised by many, including the government advisor Dominic Cummings.

As we wait for the budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review, we can only hope that these aspirations start to become reality. Through the AMRC, Sheffield is leading the way in delivering the changes that are so badly needed.