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Vice-Chancellor news

Horizon Europe, industrial dispute, research successes

30 March 2023

Dear colleague

It was a pleasure earlier this month to welcome the ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Herr Miguel Berger, to the official launch of our Max Planck Centre, and subsequently the Ambassador of the European Union HE Pedro Serrano along with his counterparts from Slovakia, Slovenia and Cyprus. This was an especial pleasure because of the important symbolism of the much improved relations between the UK and the EU. Clearly, our attention is focussed on the possibility of the UK’s associating to Horizon Europe, which the President of the European Commission, Frau Ursula von der Leyen, singled out in the press conference announcing the Windsor Framework at the end of last month. There has been some consternation that the British government did not immediately respond with warm words of agreement, but negotiations are taking place behind the scenes to take account of the fact that the original financial deal is now two years out of date and needs to be revised to take account of that. The Prime Minister, as a former chancellor and finance professional himself, is (perhaps in contrast to his two immediate predecessors) cautious by nature but personally competent to assess the merits of the financial agreement, which is helpful in many respects and allows a measure of optimism that a positive conclusion will be reached if not immediately, then before too long. We must be patient, but in the meantime please do take advantage of the UK government guarantee and continue to make applications as you have been doing so successfully over the years. The better working relationship in itself will surely enable greater academic co-operation once more, and if all goes well, allow the UK to resume its important role in the collective endeavour that Horizon Europe facilitates.

Moving to domestic issues, while three days of strikes did go ahead in the last week of term, there is reason to be hopeful about the prospects for the industrial dispute. It seems that there is a genuine desire on both sides to work towards a constructive solution that will benefit staff and students, and take account of the needs of institutions too. It was very heartening to see a joint statement on USS which is concrete evidence of this approach, as is the ground-breaking agreement to discuss terms and conditions at a national level once the threat of industrial action has been lifted. Even though it would not be possible for UCEA to obtain a formal mandate on measures that must necessarily be locally agreed, it can confidently be expected that universities would want to take full account of any guidance or frameworks that are recommended. As you know, negotiations on pay have reached an impasse and employers have implemented an uplift to help people cope with the continuing rise in the cost of living. A further uplift is due from 1 August, and during the course of the next academic year there will be the next set of negotiations on pay for 2024-25. In addition, once talks can resume there will be negotiations on the pay spine. Given the significantly improved position of the pension scheme, I am cautiously optimistic that with a jointly constructive approach, much can be achieved in the coming months.

We at Cardiff University can be exceptionally proud of our female professors. Historically, in 1910 Professor Millicent Mackenzie was the first female professor in Wales, and only narrowly pipped to the post as the first British female professor by Professor Edith Morley at Reading in 1908. If I have got this wrong please let me know; I do believe we can say that Professor Mackenzie was the first female professor at a fully chartered university in the UK. Be that as it may, she was an inspiring and pioneering figure who is about to be commemorated and celebrated by the inauguration of Mackenzie Park, which is nearing completion next to Main Building as you may have seen. Last time I mentioned that Professor Haley Gomez had told her inspiring story on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, and this month I can report that Professor Julie Williams, Director of the Dementia Research Institute has appeared on the same programme. Julie also grew up near Cardiff and has built a distinguished career in Alzheimer’s disease research whilst spending a successful stint as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Welsh Government. The programme is available on BBC Sounds if you missed it and is well worth a listen. Haley, Julie and indeed Millicent Mackenzie are fantastic role models and testament to the opportunities that our education system here in Wales, and Cardiff University in particular, can and do provide.

Dementia and cognitive decline are particular areas of interest at Cardiff, and I am delighted to report that our Medicines Discovery Institute (MDI), headed by Professors John Atack and Simon Ward, has developed a new drug that is now undergoing clinical trials in humans for the treatment of cognitive decline, which is a core element of schizophrenia. The MDI is a hugely important element in Cardiff University’s vision to take fundamental scientific research right through to applications that benefit people and society, and this latest success puts us in pole position. No other university-based drug discovery unit can claim to approach this level of success, and the fundamentals are now in place to create a platform of global leadership in translational neuroscience here in South Wales. In a pleasant coincidence, the trial is taking place at an MHRA-accredited unit in Merthyr Tydfil, where Julie Williams originally hails from. John and Simon are developing an impressive range of potentially game-changing medicines, including looking at non-opioid drugs for the treatment of chronic pain. I can assure you that the approach could not be more different from that which led to the tragic and disastrous opioid scandal in the United States (and please be assured that we have never sought or accepted any funding from the companies behind oxycontin). Our own MDI is an original and exceptional unit with a bright future, and I am pleased to have played a part in bringing the team here and supporting them as they continue to build their research and development platform.

Clearly, our socially positive work spans the breadth of the campus, and I was particularly interested to see that Dr April-Louise Pennant of the School of Social Sciences has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out research into the history of enslaved Africans whose exploitation funded the Penrhyn Castle and estate in North Wales. As anybody who has visited Penrhyn will be aware, very little is known about the people who created the wealth that gave rise to this spectacular place, and the results of Dr Pennant’s research will help to fill a significant gap in our knowledge and understanding of our own history. This may well be a personal journey for Dr Pennant too, whose grandparents were part of the Windrush generation that came to this country from Jamaica, while it was the Pennant family that owned Penrhyn until it was donated to the National Trust in the 1950s. Filling the gaps in the history of this country is critical to our understanding of our own collective identity and is further evidence of the positive contribution our academics are making to society. The outputs will include educational resources that can be used by museums and heritage organisations like the National Trust so that succeeding generations will have a greatly improved understanding of the world we live in today.

Earlier in the month we had an excellent launch event at the Royal Institution in London for our University Research Institute in Systems Immunity and our four University Innovation Institutes in Digital Transformation, Net Zero, Neuroscience and Mental Health, and Security, Crime and Intelligence. In each case a senior academic and an early career researcher gave a brief, inspiring and informative talk and I am very grateful to our own Professor Sir Richard Catlow, President of the Royal Institution, for hosting us and providing such a magnificent setting. The event was very well attended, which was the main reason for holding it in London, and it allowed us to showcase the excellence of our research and innovation to an informed and influential audience. When I arrived in Cardiff over a decade ago, I was told that we don’t shout enough about the amazing work we do and that we hide our light under a bushel, although nobody has quite been able to tell me what a bushel is. At any rate I hope it is clear that these days we are in the habit of getting our message out to the right people in the right way, and we see the benefits flowing from that.

Finally, I have been hearing some excellent informal reports from Heads of School about the work of our newly appointed Student Engagement Officers. I am aware that not all Schools have these, but I intend to find out more about how this student experience initiative is going and will report back in a future email.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan