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Vice-Chancellor news

Impact on local communities, 10 years of GW4, data science and AI, Translational Research Hub

26 May 2023

Dear colleague

May has been a month of conferences. Earlier this month I spoke at one staged in Birmingham by the Universities and Regions Forum on civic accountability, a theme which encompasses the beneficial impact that universities can have on their local communities and how they can be accountable for that. I spoke about our Community Gateway project in Grangetown, and the hugely positive outcomes I have personally witnessed there and that we can evidence. I referenced the CAER Heritage project in Caerau and Ely, which has also engaged local people and schools, and facilitated the building of a community centre with National Lottery money as happened in Grangetown. The sad events at the end of this month which resulted in a night of rioting in Ely will unfortunately dominate the headlines, but these communities are close-knit and places of great creativity and aspiration, as the partnerships through our projects show, and we will need to redouble our efforts to get that message out. Sustainable engagement with local communities implies not just equal partnership and co-creation — both principles that underlie our community engagement — but also mutuality: there needs to be mutual agreement and sharing of accountability amongst a range of organisations and agencies. One speaker (Mike Boxall of PA Consulting) referred to a ‘framework of mutual responsibilities’ as a way of ensuring accountability for the work that universities do in their place. Other speakers rightly stressed the fundamental importance of finding ways to create opportunities to reduce the inequalities that underlie much of the tension that jeopardizes social cohesion. Over the last ten years we at Cardiff have engaged in active place-making as part of our civic mission, and the results have been impressive. This cannot work effectively though unless government and businesses work together with universities and communities in the so-called quadruple helix. The eruption of tensions in Ely shows that there is still much to be done, but also that our engagement matters very much as a countervailing force.

I also spoke at the GW4 ten-year celebration event we held in Newport, along with my counterparts at Bath, Bristol and Exeter. It was great to see the four universities coming together to reaffirm our commitment to collaboration on a regional basis. This is a different kind of place-making but equally important, allowing us to attract funding and maximise opportunities in the four strategic areas of cyber and digital, sustainable net zero, creative communities and health and wellbeing. Our Chair of Council, Mr Pat Younge, spoke persuasively about the interface of technology and storytelling, and the way in which traditional content producers have been massively outmaneuvered in terms of audience by young people on more democratic platforms with a much bigger reach than the traditional broadcasters. One of the strengths of GW4 is our eclecticism coupled with strategic focus, and the ability to make the most of the facilities and researchers across the four institutions to focus on areas where we can make a real difference. We are well placed in a range of areas including AI, quantum technology and brain research, and by working together not only are we at Cardiff able to stay closely engaged with the English system and UK government, but all four universities benefit from improved visibility and ability to share resources in areas like doctoral training and support for early career researchers.

I also attended the Universia meeting of vice-chancellors across the globe, part of a conference series organised every three or four years by Santander, who have had a far-sighted programme of supporting student mobility and careers for the last twenty-five years or so. Cardiff has been a member of the network since its introduction in the UK, and at this year’s conference we heard from the inventor (sometimes called ‘father’) of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was interviewed by Professor Jim Al-Khalili, the physicist whom you may know as the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific, which I frequently reference in these emails. Sir Tim spoke about the tension between the original open access and democratic governance ethos of the World Wide Web, and the challenges of ensuring that it is possible to provide an open, trustworthy data system, which will allow everybody who needs data to support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals access to it. Matters digital and technological were a theme running through the conference, which was considering the role of universities as a driving force for more sustainable social and economic development in a rapidly changing society. One of the big drivers of change of course is AI, which in turn, over time, will be driven by quantum technology which will result in an almost unimaginable increase in computing power. These kinds of developments are why we have established the University Innovation Institutes that I talked about in my March email, including the Digital Transformation Innovation Institute. As well as leading on the Wales Data Nation Accelerator, we have also joined the UK wide Turing University Network, which brings together expertise in data science and AI under the aegis of the Alan Turing Institute, whose director and CEO is Professor Sir Adrian Smith. All this ensures that Cardiff is positioned at the leading edge of tackling the grand challenges facing humanity in the future, which has been a major focus of our research and innovation strategy over the last decade.

A key element of that strategy has been the Translational Research Hub (TRH), which was launched towards the end of the month by Nobel Prize Winner Professor Donald Wuebbles and the aforementioned Professor Sir Adrian Smith, who is the President of the Royal Society. The idea of the Translational Research Hub is to focus on areas where fundamental scientific research, which universities are best placed to deliver, can be rapidly translated into new products and processes that benefit society, create high-quality, graduate level jobs and boost economic growth in our region. It was great to hear from Professor Wuebbles on the challenge of net zero, our Net Zero Innovation Institute being one of the areas directly supported by the TRH, which is now fully operational. Professor Wuebbles was President Obama’s advisor on climate science, and his insights into what is required to avert climate disaster were both fascinating and deeply sobering. Professor Smith was absolutely clear that our approach is exactly the right one. The new clean room not only offers an end-to-end service from university research to small-scale manufacturing facilities for compound semiconductor wafers, but is open access for the whole of the UK. Our impact is going to be all the greater, and there can be no doubt that compound semiconductors — second generation chips that are integral to future computing, energy and transport links — are an area where we can and do excel. We have every chance of success in helping to create the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster, and were delighted to be able to make this point to the interim Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Chloe Smith, who visited the University the day after the TRH launch as part of the UK Government’s launch of its semiconductor strategy.

Finally, this month we received the very sad news that my predecessor but one, Professor Sir Brian Smith, has died at the age of 89. I was fortunate enough to meet Brian on several occasions and to learn about the matters that were big issues when he was Vice-Chancellor from 1993 to 2001. When I arrived more than ten years after his term finished people still spoke of Brian’s achievements, especially in what was then the Research Assessment Exercise, and of his personal warmth, to which I too can testify. On behalf of the whole University I want to extend our deep condolences to Brian’s wife Regina and their family.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan