Crisis recovery ‘will break UK’s discipline boundaries’

UK research will become more interdisciplinary and community-focused in wake of pandemic, academic leaders tell THE event

May 20, 2020
THE UK Academic Salon Zoom event

Interdisciplinary research projects designed to help industry recover from the Covid-19 crisis will allow UK universities to strengthen their links to their local communities, academic leaders have predicted.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s UK Academic Salon, which was held online on 19 May, Tim Softley, pro vice-chancellor (research and knowledge transfer) at the University of Birmingham, predicted a larger amount of research after the pandemic would involve working closely with nearby companies, community groups and cultural associations. It may also require collaboration between researchers from different subjects, added Professor Softley.

“In the recovery from Covid, I would expect these collaborations [to be] coming into their own,” said Professor Softley at the half-day event, which was supported by the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

“Birmingham, as a city, is recovering from what has been a major shock and we will want to engage not just scientists and social scientists [in research projects focused on economic recovery] but academics to examine the cultural and creative industries; historians on how economies have recovered from past traumas; and physical scientists to help stimulate local businesses,” said Professor Softley.

“As we think about recovery, disciplinary boundaries will be broken down,” he added.

Geraint Rees, pro vice-provost (AI) and dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences at UCL, also believed that post-pandemic research would become more cross-disciplinary.

“There is a very powerful role for AI and technology [in post-pandemic research] but not on their own,” said Professor Rees in a separate session.

“We need people studying animal and wildlife health to come together in these larger consortia and work with industry to tackle these great challenges,” added Professor Rees on the emerging threat of viruses that transfer from animals to humans.

“We need to work across disciplines not just with engineering and AI, but work on equity [issues] and the humanities to address these challenges,” he said.

Annette Bramley, director of the N8 Research Partnership, a coalition of the eight most research-intensive universities in the north of England, said some of the technological innovations that had come to the fore in the coronavirus lockdown, such as video conferencing, would require the input of humanities and social science research to realise their potential.

"When you think about how you use them at a mass scale, you begin to think about legal questions and can it be used for the arts and culture," said Dr Bramley.

The curtailing of some research as a result of the pandemic may also present unexpected opportunities for universities to work with local businesses, commented David Price, vice-provost (research) at UCL, which has invited high-tech companies in London to utilise unused laboratory space.

“We cannot afford to keep up the same research volume, so there will be some lab space available,” said Professor Price on the plan to reallocate spare capacity.

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