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Vice-Chancellor news

Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff

30 June 2020

Dear colleague,

Universities exist to create and disseminate knowledge for the benefit of all. That is at once a clear statement of our purpose and an excessively simplified description of our activity. I hesitate to explore the philosophical ramifications; one could consider at length what we mean by knowledge, whether and how it is created, what are the implications of disseminate when we know that the majority of people will be unaware of what we do, how to define benefit, and whether any benefits really are for all. But I was reminded of the essence of our purpose as a university when I heard the news of the latest extraordinary discovery from the thousand-strong international Ligo-Virgo Scientific Collaboration, the team researching gravitational waves in which the Cardiff group now led by Professor Stephen Fairhurst has played a leading role since its foundation in 1997. The evidence from the analysis of the gravitational waves detected by the Ligo instrumentation appears to indicate the previous existence of a body somewhere between a black hole and a neutron star in mass, which is a hugely significant development in our understanding of the way the universe developed and functions. This is an outstanding example of new knowledge coming into being, but doubtless some would ask what the benefit is to all. The answer to that is that we need to wait and see, but in the meantime, surely understanding how the fundamentals of the universe operate must be important to humankind. The as yet unknown spin-off advantages from the enormous intellectual and technological effort required will doubtless come later.

In parentheses, we have had some excellent recent research successes where the benefits are more clearly direct, such as a new award to Professor Katharine Brain of the School of Medicine, who works on the behavioural aspects of cancer control, for a project funded by Cancer Research Wales investigating the feasibility of a symptom awareness campaign in a socioeconomically deprived area to help reduce health inequalities. Dr Kate Moles of the School of Social Sciences is leading a research team funded by the British Academy partnering with the universities of Bristol, Exeter and Gulu University, Uganda, in a project aiming to empower young people in Uganda to engage critically with their past in relation to conflict and its legacies in their everyday lives. This project directly supports youth futures, rather in the spirit of our own Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, though in a very different context, and its benefits are clearly apparent. We can be proud of our record in these areas, but as a university, we must be free to pursue the creation of knowledge in all contexts, even when the benefits to society are less immediately obvious.

Back to gravitational waves, and three things struck me about this story. One is that the prominent role played by one of our many outstanding PhD students, Charlie Hoy, has been recognised internationally, as you can see from this New York Times coverage. This is testament to the excellent work the group is undertaking to ensure the flow of talent and to bring on the next generation of researchers. It’s wonderful to see our students confidently placed at the heart of such a transformational scientific discovery, and his own excitement at the experience is palpable.

The second is that the decision to expand our activity in this field by establishing our own instrumentation lab to complement our existing analytical and theoretical work is showing its value. Professor Hartmut Grote’s leadership in this area is making us perhaps the most comprehensive and well-rounded gravitational waves group in the country, and opens up a huge range of opportunities to engage with sources of funding that would previously have been inaccessible to us.

The third was something said by Prof Nils Andersson of Southampton University in this BBC story: ‘Nuclear physics is not a precise science where we know everything’. In one sense that is a truism; in another, many people would think the precise opposite. This is a topical question, because the extent to which one can rely on ‘the science’ has been much debated recently. This leads me to our work on re-opening the campus over the next couple of months. Our efforts in that respect have been very much informed by our in-house expertise, but it is certainly true to say that even the best, most up to date scientific and clinical advice cannot make the decisions for us, nor can it answer all the questions that remain about the as yet still mysterious disease of COVID-19, nor unravel all the mechanisms by which the virus itself, SARS-CoV-2, operates.

And yet, despite the lack of hard information, we nevertheless have to make decisions and I want to outline where we have got to at this point.

As you may know, I have been chairing our Coronavirus Taskforce for some weeks now, and we have made a lot of progress. I’m extremely grateful to everybody who has contributed to this work, which has enabled us to develop extensive and increasingly detailed plans for how we will provide services, educate students, undertake research and generally carry out the business of the University by creating and disseminating knowledge for the benefit of all under COVID-19 conditions.

The approach is taking place in three phases. Phase 1 is already complete, and it entailed the cautious re-opening of research facilities by expanding the definition of essential research to take account of the reducing prevalence of coronavirus and the reduced level of community transmission. Phase 2 is a wider opening of research facilities, allowing as many researchers who require access to facilities on campus as possible to return during July and part of August. This has the added advantage of allowing us to pilot the measures we are taking. Phase 3 will involve, from late September, welcoming all students back to the campus whilst making provision for those who, for covid-related reasons, may need to continue to study remotely for a period. In those cases we will be making reasonable adjustments to accommodate their needs, as we would in other circumstances where students have particular needs. As now, all those who can work remotely should continue to do so, because the more people we have on campus the more complex the problem becomes. The aim of this approach is to reduce risk to an acceptable level, and while you can review the detailed work of the Taskforce on the intranet, I would like to explain the overall strategy.

Reducing risk to an acceptable level has two aspects to it. One is for the organisation to take measures to protect the community, such as ensuring that buildings and rooms remain within a safe capacity and do not become overcrowded, creating one-way systems and ensuring there are sufficient toilet facilities and hand sanitizing stations, and installing screening where necessary. The second concerns how we work together to protect each other by adopting behaviours that make it less likely that the virus will spread in the event of an infection or outbreak.  The strategy can be broken down into the four overlapping areas of social interactions, hygiene, protective measures and testing. Underlying all this is a covid-aware culture.

Social interactions refers to the behaviours required as we interact with one another in person, especially indoors. We do not as yet know what the physical distancing guidelines will be in September, when we expect large numbers of people on the campus again. But whether the distancing guideline is 1m, 1.5m or 2m, the key is for everybody to protect each other by using common sense in keeping apart as much as is practicable according to the guideline. Given the practicalities, it makes sense to consider not just the distancing guideline but also to take other key factors, including orientation (not facing others directly if possible when talking in proximity), duration (how long is one in proximity) and the wearing of face coverings. We will be expecting anybody who enters our buildings to wear a face-covering and will be issuing guidance on this. Taken together, these measures are not just about personal protection but about protecting everybody. If everybody acts within the spirit of the approach it will make it less likely that we will suffer outbreaks or that any outbreak would run out of control.

Hygiene is an essential part of this of course. Frequent hand washing remains one of the most important measures we can take, as is avoiding touching one’s face with unwashed hands when out and about in public areas. We will be ensuring that frequently touched surfaces are cleaned regularly, and will be providing sanitizing materials for building occupants to use, much as one now finds in other public places such as supermarkets. Indeed many of the measures will be quite familiar from shopping trips and the like.

Apart from face-coverings (and the wearing of visors and gloves in some settings) we will be installing perspex screens where it makes sense to do so. Physical barriers can be effective in preventing transmission and we are surveying all our buildings to see where they could and should be installed.

On testing, we are working to establish our own facilities with the intention of being able to test everybody who is returning to campus for COVID-19 in September. We also hope to carry out periodic sampling thereafter so that we have an early warning system of any outbreak. Let’s be clear: this will not be an infallible system for detecting the virus in our community, but it should give us an idea of initial prevalence and may allow us to identify an unsuspected outbreak amongst asymptomatic groups of students and/or staff. This is a major project which may include antibody testing (to see if people have had previously had the infection) and may allow us to pursue research in the area. Any positive tests (and the incidence is likely to be low, given what we know at the moment) would be referred to the NHS for contact tracing. The individuals concerned plus their contacts would of course be asked to self-isolate, and we will offer any necessary support in that eventuality.

Testing, then, will offer us some advantages but will not address the problem on its own. None of the above measures would, but taken together, and consistently observed, we believe that they will help us to reduce risk to an acceptable level and give us the opportunity to identify and limit any instances of transmission in good time to prevent a wider outbreak. All the normal guidelines will apply too; anybody who suffers symptoms should report them and self-isolate accordingly. This is what I meant earlier by a covid-aware culture: attempting to operate by strict rules is unlikely to succeed, whereas if we all recognise the importance of protecting each other by observing the procedures as far as practicable, we stand every chance of functioning well as a university in a low-risk environment. In the run-up to September we will be providing detailed and comprehensive guidance.

Finally, as the epidemic in the UK is brought under control and infections fall, the lockdown restrictions are being gradually relaxed. In recognition of that, Fridays will no longer have a special designation, but we will be asking line managers, and everybody indeed, not to schedule video meetings on a Friday and to keep email traffic to a necessary minimum. It’s important that we retain the best of the learning points from lockdown, especially since our working practices will continue to be influenced by the public health requirements of the virus for the foreseeable future.

With best wishes, Colin Riordan