Three universities unite for new bid to scale up Sheffield’s AMRC

Plan seems to unite various factions after acrimony, but could hinge on Whitehall’s post-Cummings appetite for research ‘levelling up’

November 25, 2020
Man at machinery at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.
Source: Alamy

Three universities are understood to have joined forces in a fresh bid for government funding to scale up the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), but the plan could hinge on the UK government’s appetite for using research funding as part of regional “levelling up” efforts.

The AMRC, which conducts research and development on advanced machining, manufacturing and materials for a range of firms, is widely admired for its success in attracting Boeing and McLaren to open new factories at its site on the Sheffield-Rotherham boundary. The operation also includes a training centre for engineering apprentices.

Times Higher Education reported in March that a £750 million bid – titled “Powering the North – Manufacturing Institute of Technology (MIT)” – had been submitted to government, aiming to create 10 to 15 more AMRC-like facilities and drive forward the government’s agenda to boost the economies of towns.

Under that plan, the universities of Manchester and Strathclyde would have held the assets of the MIT, but it would have been independent of the ownership of any one university. Sheffield submitted its own separate plans to expand the AMRC to government.

THE understands that the three universities have now joined forces to submit a single bid.

While the AMRC has been a huge success, there has been acrimony over who controls the organisation and who could expand it.

Keith Ridgway, a founder of the AMRC, made a surprise exit from his post as its executive dean in October 2019, reportedly after plans to tighten Sheffield’s control over it were initiated under new vice-chancellor Koen Lamberts.

Professor Ridgway, now executive chair of the Advanced Forming Manufacturing Centre at Strathclyde, called after his exit for the AMRC to be made independent of Sheffield.

However, it appears that the new bid unites the various factions. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which will evaluate the proposal, is understood to have made clear it is not interested in rival bids and urged the parties to work together.

It was unclear whether the government spending review, scheduled for 25 November, would grant the project any funding, given it is only a one-year exercise.

Dominic Cummings’ exit from government as the prime minister’s most senior adviser could also have an impact on the proposal’s future, given he was an enthusiast for expanding the AMRC model.

Richard Jones, chair in materials physics and innovation policy at Manchester, whose paper calling for new translational research institutes to drive local and regional innovation systems was admired by Mr Cummings, has held up the AMRC as an exemplar.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at Manchester, said the AMRC model was important because advanced manufacturing “is still a more important sector in the North and Midlands” and because its “mix of applied research and skills plus big private sector employers is a good model”.

But he said the success of the proposal could depend “on how much of the rebalancing [and] levelling up through doubling of R&D funds remains intact post-Cummings”.

There was “always a bit of a stand-off” between Mr Cummings and the Treasury over the planned increase in research spending, continued Professor Westwood.

However, he added that increases in energy and defence spending recently announced by the government could work in favour of an AMRC-type model, as these increases will “filter through to high R&D firms like BAE Systems, Siemens, Rolls-Royce and their investment in things like skills as well as research activities with and in universities”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Universities unite for bid to scale up AMRC

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