Inside Track | Professor Nick Plant: Helping shape our post-pandemic world

In this Inside Track feature, I will be exploring how universities provided expertise to drive the global response to covid-19, and will help create a more sustainable, equitable world in the future.

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

Universities are a force for good. This is a sentiment often espoused by those within the sector, and just as frequently challenged by certain outside parties, who see us as ancient monoliths that don’t represent the whole nation.

However, the covid-19 global pandemic has demonstrated unequivocally that this statement is true. Without the army of university-trained clinical staff of all disciplines, without our selfless staff and student volunteers, and without the disruptive research and innovation undertaken by these institutions, we would have been in a much worse place to meet this global challenge.

In this article, I want to celebrate how Leeds has taken its place in the global community fighting covid-19. Through excellence in research and innovation, student education and knowledge exchange, we’ve helped shape both the response to the current crisis and our future world as we emerge from the pandemic.

Within the short space of this article, it’s impossible to mention every single action the University has undertaken to meet the challenge of covid-19. A quick read of our covid-19 news story archive provides an idea of the great achievements of our staff and students; but even this is only the tip of the iceberg. I will try and bring to life the University’s response through a small number of examples, showcasing our thought leaders and technology disruptors across a range of disciplines.

Life-saving innovation

At the start of the pandemic, the country – and indeed the world – was desperately short of ventilators, the life-saving medical devices critical to supporting those most severely affected by covid-19. Researchers from the Faculty of Engineering, working with clinical colleagues from Medicine & Health and the NHS, developed novel ventilator technologies that were simple to adapt or produce, including 3D printing.

Alongside ventilators, another phrase that entered the public lexicon was personal protective equipment (PPE). One side effect of the use of PPE, such as masks, visors and gloves, is that even simple everyday tasks can become more difficult, and this challenge was addressed by researchers from the School of Design. Developing a computer-based checklist that can be accessed from a phone meant that surgeons no longer needed to write notes: instead, they could tick boxes and make voice recordings. Such simple, but disruptive solutions are at the heart of what the University does best – thinking creatively to solve problems.

As the pandemic progressed, the need for large-scale testing became evident. The Alderley Park Lighthouse Laboratory in Cheshire was set up as a ‘super-lab’ at the heart of the largest diagnostics network in UK history. Staff and postgraduate researchers from the Faculties of Biological Science and Medicine & Health volunteered to help get this vital facility up and running. In addition, the University housed a covid-19 testing centre on site; clinical staff worked on the NHS frontline; other staff and students worked tirelessly to support the local community, as well as ensuring staff and students were as safe as possible while working or living on campus. These selfless acts exemplify the ‘Leeds heroes’ who helped meet this global challenge.

Positive impact

Our Nexus innovation community has also been fundamental in the nation’s response. For example, Keracol transformed its production pipeline to produce sanitising gels at the start of the outbreak when these were in short supply. And Slingshot Simulations, working with Leeds City Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, is using digital twin technology to help city councils develop resilience to the influx of traffic and people returning to work, and help find sustainable methods of positively impacting those working and living in cities.

Expert advice

I’m extremely proud the thought leadership of researchers across the University has sat at the heart of Government during the pandemic, through membership of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) and its expert groups. Professor Cath Noakes is a member of SAGE and the hospital onset covid-19, environmental and children's working groups. Her expert knowledge of fluid dynamics has provided important insights into how covid-19 spreads and how to reduce this threat through more effective ventilation, air-filtration and disinfection systems in hospitals and other public buildings. Professor Mark Wilcox, an expert on infection prevention and control, advises the NHS and Public Health England through the hospital onset covid-19 and environmental working groups. Professor Iyiola Solanke sits on the SPI-B expert group, which provides advice to help people adhere to interventions. Her expert knowledge in equality, justice and integration provides vital thought leadership about how people from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are being differentially impacted by covid-19 and the policies to control it.

National lockdown measures and the development of effective vaccines against covid-19 etc. provide a clear roadmap out of the current global pandemic. We will not permanently eradicate covid-19, but a future where it’s a seasonal, endemic pathogen in a similar manner to seasonal ‘flu is now on the horizon. As we emerge from the pandemic phase, we won’t return to the same life as we knew pre-covid. We will need to respond to aftershocks, such as global financial turbulence and greater inequalities, and to build on emergent benefits, such as new ways of working and positive impacts on climate and pollution.

Rising to the challenge

Universities will play a critical role in preparing the world for this emergent ‘new normal’, and researchers across the University have already risen to this challenge, as can be seen from these four examples.

First, Leeds University Business School researchers highlighted that investment in small, innovative companies reduced by one-third during the pandemic, making it harder for these firms – vital to the local economy – to grow. Through initiatives ranging from our leadership of Leeds City Region’s involvement in MIT REAP to the recently launched Michael Beverley Innovation Fellowships, we’re supporting entrepreneurship and innovation across the University and local region.

Second, as our ways of working changed through the pandemic, it became clear that we must support people to make the most of these new opportunities and ensure we reduce both covid-induced and pre-existing inequalities. Work led by the University, in collaboration with the Department for Education, FutureLearn, Accenture and the Institute of Coding, have provided free digital skills courses to support furloughed employees to improve their knowledge, build their confidence and support their mental health.

Third, a partnership between the University, Metropolitan Police, Durham and Lancashire constabularies is investigating the levels and types of crimes during the pandemic, hoping to increase the chances of maintaining any gains in reduced offending and trying to avoid offenders ‘making up for lost crime’.

Fourth, researchers from the Priestley International Centre for Climate have been key in understanding how global lockdowns have impacted on climate change, and how we can make positive changes to deliver a climate-smart, post-pandemic recovery.

Shining light

To finish, I would reiterate my earlier comment that I cannot hope to namecheck all the great work emerging from the University around covid-19 during the past year in a short article. I’m immensely proud of all members of the University family in the way they’ve come together to meet the challenge of covid-19. We’ve been a shining light demonstrating how universities make a difference to the world, through producing the leaders of tomorrow, as well as making a material difference to the pandemic response and in shaping our post-pandemic world.

Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation

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