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How universities can level up the UK

Higher education is key for economic development and reaching net zero

By Spotlight

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

Their global research excellence creates local jobs in supply chains and innovation. Whether it’s designing advanced materials, developing digital technologies or combatting infectious diseases, universities build regional distinctiveness through their work. This is core to creating a more robust and diverse economy. Universities are also vital in the move to net zero.

How can academia and local government work together to tackle these national and global challenges?

Professor Ronan McGrath

Associate pro-vice chancellor for research partnerships at the University of Liverpool, on driving net-zero science and engineering innovation

Our global climate crisis is the cumulation of local emergencies. The solutions we develop through scientific and engineering research – whether that is new forms of energy use and storage, or novel recyclable and sustainable products – will have a direct impact on the whole world’s ability to reach net zero. How we design and build infrastructure, train and educate future generations, and plan and manage our cities is vitally important for reducing our regional carbon footprints. The way in which universities inspire their graduates to action will ultimately dictate the urgency with which we address the climate crisis.

Tackling this urgent problem goes hand in hand with building a greener and more balanced economy. At the University of Liverpool, we are working with our partners and regional bodies to make this a reality. Partnerships between the university and the Liverpool City Region are putting climate resilience at the heart of the area’s Spatial Development Strategy. For example, over the past decade our Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory and our Centre for Global Eco-Innovation have collaborated with over 700 SMEs, created over 300 jobs, contributed £45m gross value added (GVA) locally, and saved over 40,000t of carbon – building a prosperous and greener north-west economy

Whether it is creating zero-carbon prefabricated housing, developing novel solar cells or harnessing tidal power, a green industrial revolution depends on place and partnerships powered by academic research. A greater emphasis on sustainability through research funding and tax incentives for industry co-investment would enhance the anchor role of universities in addressing inequality and the climate crisis. Saving our planet requires drastic action. This can and should start locally with the required investment in research and innovation, which in turn will lead to new businesses, jobs and greater prosperity

Steve Rotheram

Metro mayor of the Liverpool City Region, on regional net-zero challenges and opportunities

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

This is a climate crisis, but it is also a wider crisis of imagination in the funding, powers and support available to help build a greener, more innovative economy. Across the region we are working non-stop on projects that will accelerate our transition to be net carbon zero by 2040 at the latest – at least a whole decade before national government targets. To do that, we’re staking our claim as the UK’s renewable energy coast and a leader of the green industrial revolution. And we are perfectly placed to take advantage of the myriad jobs and investment opportunities this will bring.

Not only do we boast natural assets in wind, hydrogen and solar energy, we also have an ace card in the River Mersey. Our Mersey Tidal Power scheme is pioneering, with the capacity to provide enough clean, predictable energy to power one million local homes. The foundations are also being laid for a much greener publicly controlled transport system. I want a London-style network, which makes getting around faster, cheaper and cleaner to offer a genuine 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 research and development (R&D) funding is hugely imbalanced in the UK. Nesta, an innovation foundation, has estimated that many parts of the UK miss out on around £4bn of R&D funding each year. In turn, this would leverage a further £8bn from the private sector. This is a tragedy not only of lost research potential but a missed opportunity to level up lives and livelihoods through research spending.

Public R&D spending attracts private investment. This is why the government’s commitment to significantly uplifting public investment in research is so important. Assets like the University of Liverpool’s £81m Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) were born from investment and partnerships across government, academia and the private sector. The MIF not only generates cutting-edge research, it also provides innovation facilities for private partners, new opportunities for PhD study, and job creation through spin-outs.

Likewise, our Digital Innovation Facility (DIF) opens its doors for business in May 2022, following a £12.7m co-investment from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority’s Local Growth Fund. Located in Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter, the DIF will bring together complementary areas of expertise in computer science, robotics and engineering to support local and national businesses to fully exploit the power of digital technologies and expertise.

National and local government investment in research often spills over in unexpected ways. Innovation assets such as the 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 improve Liverpool’s – and therefore the UK’s – global partnerships, fuel research collaborations we have yet to conceive of, and inspire the next generation of graduates. The need to rebalance research funding is not merely an academic question of funding, it is an urgent question of how innovation can level up the UK. ●

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