Vice-Chancellor news

Alert level 0, catalysis research, research applications

Dear colleague

My email this month coincides with the announcement that as of 28 January, Wales will be moving back to ‘alert level 0’. In practice, this means that there are no legal limits on the numbers of people who can meet, the self-isolation requirements are slightly less onerous and no requirement for social distancing although it is encouraged if appropriate. Working from home is encouraged when possible but not required, while face coverings are still required for indoor settings and on public transport. This means that staff and students should continue to wear a face covering in all indoor public spaces in the University, including of course all teaching rooms. We also expect face coverings to be worn in circulation spaces not accessible to the public and all other spaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

It’s also worth noting that the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board are running walk-in vaccine and booster sessions in Cardiff pharmacies, so it may be helpful to continue drawing this to the attention of students. In general the upshot is that we are largely back in the position we were before the omicron wave arrived. Although infection rates remain high, they have fallen dramatically from the height of the wave. Most importantly, the consequences in terms of hospitalisation, severe illness and mortality are far less serious than in previous waves. Our planned timetable for teaching this semester can continue as anticipated, and indeed I know that in some areas teaching has been underway since the beginning of the month.

In other news, the Cardiff Catalysis Institute has achieved an important breakthrough that may at first sight appear esoteric, but in fact is hugely promising in terms of how to approach the problem of climate change and achieving net zero. Technological solutions are by no means a panacea, but they have an important role to play. This is why the Cardiff Catalysis Institute — which forms a major part of the new Translational Research Hub due to open on our Innovation Campus on Maindy Road this year — is focusing especially on the net zero problem in its programme of research. Catalysis is a method of facilitating chemical reactions that otherwise would not be possible or hitherto have only been possible through more complex processes involving higher temperatures and pressures. The advantages in cost and carbon emission reduction are evident, and there are too many other benefits of catalysis to go into here, but it is worth noting that catalysts are needed for the manufacture of an estimated 80% of materials required in modern life. This means that up to 35% of the world’s GDP relies on catalysis, and so  reaching net zero requires the development of new sustainable catalysts and processes.

In this particular case, our scientists have collaborated with researchers in the US and China to solve one of the grand challenges of catalysis by showing that methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide — can be turned into methanol (the simplest form of alcohol, but not the imbibable sort) and acetic acid (the principal component of vinegar). The process relies on gold catalysis, which is a Cardiff speciality, and allows natural gas (the main constituent of which is methane) to be transformed into the two useful liquids in a manner that significantly reduces carbon emissions compared with burning methane or processing it by existing methods. Both of the products of this reaction are commonly deployed in a wide range of industrial processes, and this work is a great exemplar of the strategy of supporting fundamental scientific research which is rapidly translatable to real-world benefit. Whilst curiosity-driven research — the discovery of new knowledge for its own sake — will always form the bedrock of our research activity, Cardiff University excels at translational research, examples of which we find right across the campus in almost every discipline, from law to physics, languages to psychology, engineering to healthcare and everything in between.

I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the newly refurbished Bute Building, home to the Welsh School of Architecture, and in particular I was reminded that the very same ethos applies to teaching and learning as much as to research. The renovation has created glorious spaces filled with natural light, spaces that are conceived entirely with the needs of existing and future students in mind. The whole building now exudes the impression that learning and teaching, research, practice and real-world benefit are part of a seamless whole. Indeed, as with the Centre for Student Life, support for students and the curriculum itself are being re-engineered in tandem with the physical re-engineering of the space.

The present focus on the student experience is welcome and important, but we should remember that it is part of a much longer-standing project that already covers many areas of our activity and many individual Schools that have already been through a process of re-thinking their teaching. This has already happened in the School of Medicine, the School of Earth  and Environmental Sciences and a range of other Schools, and is presently underway in the School of History, Archaelogy and Religion and the School of Engineering, to name only two. I know the pressure on academic and professional staff has been enormous throughout the pandemic, and remains at a high pitch, so it is doubly heartening to see the care and effort that is being devoted to the needs of our students across the campus.

COVID-19 is by no means behind us yet of course, and one unfortunate byproduct has been that it has made it more difficult for colleagues to devote the level of attention to applying for research grants that would previously have been possible. Pre-pandemic work is still feeding through strongly in terms of income and awards, but we can now see a distinct tailing-off in new applications. While there are very understandable reasons for this, we are undertaking some work to understand in more granular detail how we can better support people to make applications, and to see where we stand within the sector. If we do not do this we can expect a significant shrinkage in our research activity in the coming years, which I am sure would not be welcome anywhere in the University. Clearly, the continuing stalemate over access to Horizon Europe is a barrier, but please do continue to make applications because they still stand a chance either of success as planned or of being funded under a different scheme that would open up new opportunities in the absence of Horizon Europe. I would certainly encourage anybody who has been wondering whether and how to proceed with a research application to seek advice; it is quite understandable that the covid crisis has been disruptive and that it may be slightly more difficult than previously to pick up the threads. My sincere hope is that we are now genuinely on the road to recovery from COVID-19 disruption and that as we move through the rest of this academic year and into the next, despite the inevitable setbacks, we will be able to resume the strong research grant trajectory that we were on in 2019-20.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan