Inside Track – Professor Nick Plant: Helping shape a better future

Professor Nick Plant, Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, reveals how our incredible research during these exceptional circumstances offers real hope and optimism for the future.

Inside Track – Professor Nick Plant: Helping shape a better future. August 2020

Higher education has arguably never faced a bigger challenge to its core aims and objectives than from the shockwaves being felt across the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.

One area where the impacts of covid-19 have been acutely felt is within the research community, as lockdown measures denied access to essential facilities. In particular, the pause in activity had a significant effect on the ability of many of our early career researchers to conduct their work.

Equally, however, this global health crisis has also served to bring the undeniable importance of impactful, interdisciplinary research into even sharper focus.

And Leeds, as one of the foremost institutions within the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, is proving to be a driving force of excellence and innovation, pushing the frontiers of knowledge and discovery to shape a better future.

Once again, our world-class researchers are standing up to make a positive difference by tackling the devastating effects of the pandemic. This involves creating, nurturing and promoting an environment in which people work together across disciplines and with partners to solve complex problems… often in complex circumstances.

Examples of this exceptional effort include:

  • converting and creating essential equipment for the treatment of coronavirus patients
  • developing robots to join the frontline fight against covid-19
  • predicting crime patterns as the UK emerges from lockdown
  • launching a vital study into covid-19 transmission; and
  • identifying key research areas for coronavirus recovery.

These and many more potentially life-saving projects are highlighted on the Research and Innovation website. Several of our researchers have also been assisting the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) and its working groups, providing expert advice at the heart of government.

It’s incredibly inspiring to see innovative and collaborative research being generated to tackle the immediate crisis the world is facing. We recognise the outstanding endeavours of our researchers during these testing times and are extremely proud of their incredible efforts.

Current challenges

Given the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in, it’s easy to understand why colleagues might be concerned about the future.

For our research community, current challenges include:

  • restricted access to campus-based research facilities
  • global travel restrictions and the impact on fieldwork
  • uncertainty surrounding research funding; and
  • a changing external landscape – not least the Brexit transition period and the implications this could have on European research funding and collaboration.

With the departure of former Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Lisa Roberts, to become the new Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter, we’ve also lost a true champion of research at Leeds.

As Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, I want to stress just how crucially important research continues to be for the University, and also offer some real hope and optimism for the future.

Since arriving at Leeds in 2017, my role has focussed on supporting and developing our great researchers, helping them generate a consistent stream of impactful research and then telling the world about it. Everything I’ve seen in those three years – and particularly during these past few months – tell me we are in a great position to meet our current challenges and emerge in the best shape possible.

We recognise all colleagues have an important role to play in steering the University through these uncertain times. But while we need to be aware of the challenging landscape, we shouldn’t let this dominate everything we do. We need to focus on the things we can control, such as the incredible research we do.

Strong position

We are finally starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel, with the phased reopening of research facilities on campus now well underway.

And the fog surrounding the availability of external engagement and funding opportunities is gradually starting to clear, with the Research and Innovation Service (RIS) team providing regular and invaluable updates and guidance.

In addition, the passion and quality of colleagues across a wide range of disciplines not only makes the University a great place to work, it also puts us in an incredibly strong position to take full advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Examples of the many opportunities where robust research will have a pivotal role to play in helping shape people’s lives include:

Shared vision

The unprecedented scale and complexity of the challenges we face today mean we all need to embrace this spirit of collaboration and openness to innovation.

I want colleagues to realise we have tremendous faith in them to undertake truly transformational, fundamental and challenge-led research that advances knowledge and creates solutions to local, national and global problems.

I operate an open-door policy. If there are issues still causing concern among our research community, or if you just want to share some great news, please come and chat to me. Together we can achieve this shared vision.

Professor Nick Plant

Interim Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation

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