The Net Zero Innovation Institute: an exceptional environment for Early Career Researchers’ growth18 September 2023
The need to reduce human-made greenhouse gases and achieve net zero is arguably the greatest and most urgent challenge our world has faced since the industrial revolution. Dr Andrea Folli explains why ECRs interested in this challenge should be looking to Cardiff University’s Net Zero Innovation Institute as a place to start their research career.
Our society is becoming increasingly familiar with the concept of net zero carbon emissions, often referred to as simply ‘net zero’. This term is used to describe a condition in which the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is equal to the amount removed from it. This is achieved by balancing the emissions generated from human activities, such as transportation, manufacturing, and energy production, with measures that capture and remove these emissions, such as reforestation, carbon capture/storage, as well as greenhouse gas conversion.
Achieving net zero by 2050 is crucial for limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It is a daunting and formidable task, but it also provides the stimulus for unprecedented innovation and positive change. In this context, the activities and operations of interdisciplinary centres and institutes like our Net Zero Innovation Institute at Cardiff University will be crucial to shape how our sustainable future will look.
This level of responsibility is only matched by the level of opportunities that our innovation institute is generating, particularly for Early Career Researchers (ECRs). In this blog I’ll address why I believe this is the case.
An exceptional, fertile ground for ECRs to develop and grow
At the Net Zero Innovation Institute, our mission is to provide the innovation and technology we don’t yet have; whilst enabling unavoidable societal adaptation as a result of climate change, in a manner that is positive, fair, and just for all. At the institute, we promote an openness towards exploring new areas and visions, a strong drive for curiosity, flexibility in pursuing research interests, and encourage disruptive approaches. After all, these are (or at least should be) the ethos of all ECRs; especially those academics at the start of their independent positions who are trying to establish themselves as future research leaders. The notable similarity between (what should be) ECRs’ attitudes, and our institutional trademarks, makes our institute an ideal place for them to flourish.
Besides the research environment, the institute also provides a unique platform for ECRs to develop their professional and leadership profile. I have experienced these benefits first hand, having started my association with the institute via a University Research Fellowship in August 2022. Being a member of the institute facilitated the gathering of internal and industrial support for the submission of a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships application in December 2022, plus EPSRC Industrial Case proposals currently under development. I’ve also enjoyed success as a principal investigator in two recent internal Research Infrastructure Funds bids for a total of £376k, secured two Learning and Teaching Academy studentships, and invaluable interactions with Welsh Government, Welsh stakeholders, and the Welsh Innovation Network, with whom I am contributing to increase the competitiveness of Welsh research, development and innovation, and strengthen our national research infrastructure.
A true interdisciplinary environment
The institute provides a truly interdisciplinary environment for ECRs to establish a portfolio of successful collaborations and deliver impact. Delivering the innovation necessary to transition towards net zero requires a continuous engagement with society, non-governmental organisations, industry, and government. Crossing disciplinary boundaries happens daily at the institute, as we build and capitalise on our individual research strengths to maximise innovation across the physical sciences, engineering, built environment, social sciences, arts, humanities, biosciences, and geosciences and planning. Here, ECRs discuss, work, collaborate with, and are mentored by a wide range of experts across multiple disciplines. This provides ECRs with unparalleled opportunities to succeed in securing external funding and delivering long-lasting and transformative impact.
Understanding the implications of fundamental research
My experience as a researcher who started his career in industry, and then moved to the private research sector, before joining academia, has taught me that within a university it is possible to become detached from how fundamental research translates into real-world solutions. This is particularly true for young researchers and ECRs who either never left academia, or have yet to collaborate with industry, commercial entities, or government bodies. Due to the involvement of society, industry and government in our activities and operations, the institute offer ECRs with the great advantage of designing their research in a way that has real-world implications. Feasibility, impact, and consequences are considered from the onset, and are an integral part of the research questions being addressed.
Capitalising on recent major investments
Contributing to the mission of the institute offers ECRs the opportunity of benefitting from Cardiff University’s recent major investments in state-of-the-art infrastructure and research facilities. A great deal of the STEM activities associated with the institute, for example, are being undertaken within the newly opened, high-tech, Translational Research Hub (TRH), which is designed with net zero at its heart, and is part of Cardiff University’s £600m investment in the university’s future. The TRH brings in industrial partners alongside academic researchers to develop and test new cleaner, greener products, processes, and technologies for a sustainable future. The TRH houses the Cardiff Catalysis Institute and the Institute for Compound Semiconductors, with both institutes having key roles and impact on the Net Zero Innovation Institute. As far as social sciences are concerned, our activities are powered by the Cardiff University Social Science Research Park as well as Cardiff Innovations in sbarc|spark, a facility built with the purpose of connecting entrepreneurs and public sector leaders with our world class researchers in social sciences and professional advisers.
If you are interested in learning more about the work of the Net Zero Innovation Institute, our strategic areas and vision, as well as how you can contribute to Net Zero research at Cardiff University, visit our website at https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/net-zero-innovation-institute and follow us on Twitter – @CUNetZero.