Earth from space

After what was another challenging year Professor Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor for Swansea University, explores how the experience of 2021 has highlighted the significant, and often lifesaving, impact of research.

The onset of Covid-19 demanded innovation at speed, from vaccine development and delivery to data modelling, and here at Swansea University we have been proud to play our part in national and international response efforts. From pioneering the world’s first smart vaccine device to investigating the interactions between Covid-19 and other medical conditions, our researchers have demonstrated their agility and their commitment to addressing the greatest challenges facing our world. 

This commitment is shared by researchers across Wales, with a recent report highlighting the particular strength of Welsh research and its significant contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs). This report demonstrates that a remarkably high proportion of Welsh research contributes directly to tackling the global issues highlighted within the UNSDGs, and that this research is of unusually high quality. Moving forward, the establishment of the Wales Innovation Network, an initiative involving all universities in Wales, will further embed our collaborative approach to undertaking research and innovation which meets the demands of our nation and the world. 

Despite the challenges of the past twelve months, we are delighted to report that 2021 was a record-breaking year for new grant capture at Swansea University. We secured new funding awards totalling £74.8 million – our highest ever annual total – with our current research portfolio now standing at c.£384 million. We experienced growth in grant capture from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), industry and the third sector, demonstrating the increasing diversity of our research income across all disciplines. Every research award and grant, regardless of size, represents another opportunity for our researchers to generate positive impact for our world. 

In a year in which the UK hosted the COP 26, the urgency of the Climate Crisis has received particular focus and at Swansea University, we are proud of the impact of our environmental research. Our AMBER project, for example, has supported the development of tools to restore river connectivity, and has helped to shape the new European Biodiversity Strategy; particularly its target to achieve 25000 km of free-flowing rivers by 2030. Our researchers are also cultivating microalgae to generate new products such as animal feed and agricultural bio-stimulants, making intensive aquaculture more sustainable in the face of climate change.   

Closer to home, our engineering expertise has led to our University becoming a key partner in a new £20 million facility to support the development of the green economy in Wales. Led by Neath Port Talbot Council, the new facility (SWITCH: South Wales Industrial Transition from Carbon Hub) will enable academic researchers, government and industry to collaborate to deliver practical and innovative solutions to decarbonise the steel and metals sector and supply chain. 

Despite shifting restrictions on gatherings and movement throughout 2021, we were delighted to share the positive impact of our research with people across the world, through a series of online and in-person events. For the seventh consecutive year, our University was one of only four UK hubs to host the Being Human Festival this year, and we were proud to celebrate and demonstrate the ways in which the humanities inspire and enrich our everyday lives. Our Swansea Science Festival also made a welcome return in October, with attendees visiting the city’s Waterfront Museum and our new, city centre Oriel Science venue. The popularity of this annual event, both with schools and our local community, demonstrates the enduring public fascination with science, and provides a fantastic opportunity for our academics to engage with the next generation of researchers, thinkers and changemakers.   

Finally, it was a particular privilege to open our inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton Global Challenges Summit, sponsored by the Welsh Government, in November this year. This wide-ranging virtual Summit (featured on page 4) was attended by 3000 attendees globally, and brought together our academics, world-leading experts and inspirational thinkers to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our society, from climate change to equality. 

Looking forward, our mission is clear; we must secure a more just and sustainable future for our planet and its people. While the challenges facing us may appear insurmountable, our experience over the past eighteen months has demonstrated what can be achieved, at pace, when governments, universities, industries and individuals come together in common cause. At Swansea University, we will continue to harness that same spirit of urgency, ingenuity and partnership to meet the demands of today, and to secure a brighter tomorrow. 

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