Vice-Chancellor’s Update to Staff, Monday 20 July, 2015

The Minister visits 

Vice-Chancellor and the Minister 350x250

Last week the new Minister for Science and Universities, Jo Johnson, came to our University to give his first speech on the future of science and innovation policy for the new government.

It was a chance for him to speak to an audience of invited guests from across the UK and to University colleagues. But it was also a chance for us to speak to him. I’d like to explain to each of you what he said to us, and what we showed him.

As I welcomed the Minister to the AMRC in Rotherham, I introduced him first to our Quantum Technology (QT) team from Physics. QT is an area of science close to my heart, and I hoped he would be wowed by the exhibition that my colleagues in Physics had put together for the annual science exhibition at the Royal Society.

He first looked at the part of the exhibition that explained quantum inference for identical bosonic particles – photons. He then used a quantum speed-up App to learn how fast a computer built on quantum technology would be – truly wonderful stuff.

As he looked at a piece of quantum optical communication gear, he asked where the real material for QT was being made. Professor Mark Fox told him about the EPSRC National Centre for III-V Semiconductor Technologies. Even before he entered the Factory of the Future shop floor, the Minister was learning that we can lead the UK in manufacturing at the quantum scale too.

Next in line was a display by our academic colleagues in Geography who are studying changes in glaciers in the Himalayas. To make direct measurements of the glaciers, as satellite images cannot capture the important changes that are taking place, these researchers make the long and sometimes dangerous eleven-day journey to the Himalayas. The 3D glasses we both wore for part of the exhibition provided a classic photo opportunity.

As the Minister walked to the Composite Research Centre, he visited a stand where colleagues from Rolls-Royce showed him some of the extraordinary advances made in manufacturing gas-turbine components. He was seeing a snapshot of the range of exceptional pure and translational research with which our University is involved.

In my introduction to the Minister’s speech, I reminded guests drawn from across the UK why it mattered to the UK that a major ministerial address on science and innovation should be delivered here. The hall was full of representatives from business partners, local government, and national funding agencies. There was quite a buzz as they gathered to hear the government's view of a crucial area for our country's future.

What followed were the first hints of the government's plans for what is being termed One Nation Science. This term signals a balancing of evidence-based funding of excellence and a careful review of what all the regions of the UK have to offer. Whilst there must be rigorous systems put in place to ensure that such decisions are not arbitrary, there is an equal sense that it is not good for the country to have anything other than a science and innovation policy which develops the whole nation's abilities to make us more prosperous and secure.

The Minister could barely have said this anywhere more appropriate than a centre of innovation which combines internationalism and world-class research with the strengths of a region and its SMEs, delivering that success back into the economy of our own communities. I was proud to show him all we have achieved at an event which was in itself impressive in its organisation and professionalism.

On the seats in the packed hall, copies of China Daily featured a cover article on the collaboration between our Nuclear AMRC and China, including a full page interview with Mike Tynan, the consummate professional CEO of the Nuclear AMRC held in the highest regard across government and industry in the UK and internationally. Such increasingly high-profile coverage is a testament to how important our growing links with China have become, with our Confucius Institute driving important parts of our relationship.

In the Design and Prototyping Centre, the Minister saw our links to healthcare innovation close up. We are planning a major new initiative with our NHS colleagues (Care 2050) to combine our skills across engineering, computer simulation, diagnostics, and manufacturing to build a place where we can transform the quality of patient experience in the NHS.

This endeavour will be shaped in large part by Professor Keith Ridgway, working with the Faculty of Medicine and Sir Andrew Cash in the Sheffield Teaching Hospital Trust. We already know that the visionary academic who founded our AMRC is driven by a determination to transform productivity. I was thrilled to show what this might mean to patients to a clearly deeply impressed Minister.

If One Nation Science means wonderful research mingled with the historic strengths of a region and the dynamism of its leaders for social good, then the taxpayer has nothing to fear, and nor does the academy. And perhaps more importantly, the children of Sheffield and Rotherham will have the future prosperity and improved health which led their forebears to found our University.

And so we come back to the needs of our young people. The Minister rightly cares about more than research; he is also committed to teaching – as are we.

We finished the trip with a visit to the AMRC Training Centre where some of our advanced apprentices showed him around the centre. The Minister has made alternative routes to higher education a priority for the government and also used his speech to announce the HEFCE catalyst award to fully develop a new route for apprentices to progress all the way through to professional qualifications – opportunities which his guides are about to take up. Sheffield leads the UK in this venture and I am now being approached by the vice-chancellors of other institutions, including the most ancient and prestigious globally, to see how we can help them get into the game.

And this is why I believe it matters that we all understand what the Minister saw in Sheffield. Time and again your University is leading in areas which matter not only to the UK government, but to our economy, to the health of communities, to talented young men and women of all backgrounds. It is a message I am increasingly taking to government and other potential partners through public debates and the print and broadcast media, as we ensure that our light is not hidden and our ability to drive important changes is understood.

How have we done all this? My answer is simple, through people.

We have achieved it because of the sheer brilliance and commitment of individuals who are leading the way in the UK. We have also achieved it because we are looking beyond our boundaries, and we have added to our talent and effort the determination to do what is right for people and communities beyond our University.

We have much more to do. But we are not taking up this challenge alone. This week a new cohort of students will graduate from our University, and amongst them will be those who will in their turn shape the world through what they have learned.

For all we treasure knowledge, it is through human beings that we bring scholarship to life. Each of us who has helped in this endeavour can be proud of what we have made possible. As we approach the summer, despite the challenges we know await, I want to pay tribute to these wonderful achievements.

Professor Sir Keith Burnett CBE FRS FLSW