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Research behind BRF

Brunel has been contributing in many ways to the national effort to address the immediate and unprecedented challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes development of a new, portable Covid-19 testing kit, producing 3D printed face shields for use by Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, developing and rolling out to NHS hospitals a training programme to teach hundreds of medical staff new life-saving critical care skills, loaning lab equipment to the National Testing Programme, providing access to the campus for health workers from Hillingdon Hospital and supporting London hospitals with data analysis and decision making using mathematical simulation techniques.

The global pandemic has impacted different sectors of the economy in very different ways. According to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme Official Statistics published on 11 June 2020, 9.3 million jobs from 1.1 million different employers have been furloughed as part of the Government’s job retention scheme at a cost of almost £21 billion. Analysed by sector, the most severe impact has been on the retail sector which has furloughed 1.6m jobs. Impacts on other sectors include:

  • 1.4m jobs in the accommodation and food services sector
  • 831,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector
  • 680,000 jobs in construction
  • 332, 000 in the health sector
  • 357,000 in arts and entertainment

Regionally, over 1m jobs have been furloughed in London, the highest number in any region in the UK, and over a million further jobs have been furloughed in the South East of England.

As the health and medical impacts of the pandemic gradually begin to come under control (though with a threat of a second spike looming), more consideration is being focused on the longer-term needs of the economy and society as we transition from: Survival; to Recovery; to Business as usual in the post-Covid19 world.

Key findings

  • The UK Government is committed to innovation and access to funding as the way out of the recession caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic. In its recently published R&D Roadmap (July 2020), it set out its objectives for the UK to be a ‘science superpower’ and to invest in the research that will ‘deliver economic growth and societal benefits across the UK for decades to come’. It also articulates the role of R&D as ‘critical to a swift economic and social recovery from the impacts of COVID-19, for a greener, healthier and more resilient UK’.
  • The immediate profitability and capacity of industry has been impacted. Industry will need access to grant funding to undertake innovation and the fast distribution of cash will be essential.
  • Universities will have a crucial role to play in supporting innovation and collaborating with businesses and other organisations to access funding for collaborative research projects. Given the urgency and the short deadlines attached to many Covid-19 funding calls, the ability to act and respond quickly will be a key differentiator for Universities when positioning as a partner of choice for industry.
  • Brunel is already actively researching many of the priority areas identified.
  • There is an opportunity to undertake a targeted marketing/engagement campaign with key industry players to develop projects that will stimulate economic growth in these sectors. For example, leveraging newly developed and existing relationships in support of the Circular Metals centre could help influence policy and areas of future funding, particularly in circular economies.
  • Use of internal funding schemes could be deployed to assist local businesses, NHS Trusts, local authorities and third sector organisations and act as a stimulus to longer term relationships post-Covid-19. Funders of University knowledge exchange activities, including EPSRC and Research England, have encouraged the repurposing of funds towards Covid-19 recovery support.
  • Development of bespoke training programmes for organisations and open short courses could offer routes to innovation and upskilling in some impacted sectors.

Specific impacts on key sectors

    • The health sector has been radically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic; in particular, NHS Trusts have had to re-design their services on a large scale to release capacity for treating Covid patients. This has directly impacted other patient groups, has led to the introduction of new remote care and virtual appointments to substitute face to face consultations and has also led to the realisation of the increased need for improved IT infrastructure, data sharing and tools to support these models of care. The pandemic also exposed the weakness of the medical supply chain systems, with basic Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to advanced medical technology (e.g. ventilators) coming from non-European economies.
    • Covid-19 has accelerated the opening-up of the creative industries sector, particularly creative digital, to new products and services outside of the traditional screen and entertainment sectors. Immersive technologies in the health sector, digitisation of cultural heritage, online and virtual gallery and museum experiences, online teaching and learning and Digital Twinning are examples of how creative digital is becoming more widely understood and appreciated. This refocus of expertise will likely continue as the screen and entertainment sectors continue to be impacted by Covid-19 for several years.
    • In the energy and cleantech sector, green technology is being promoted as an opportunity for economic recovery from Covid-19.  The UK Government is committed to net zero targets through a green recovery plan. Priority areas for innovation that have been identified are renewable electricity, hydrogen storage, alternative fuels, transport infrastructure, electric vehicles, batteries, sustainable heat networks, retrofitting buildings, behaviour change and circular economies.
    • A priority for the manufacturing sector is to develop more resilient supply chains that are able to respond with greater speed and flexibility to future emergencies, including potentially through onshoring. Linked to this, a further priority is to develop more advanced digital manufacturing capabilities or industry 4.0. across the manufacturing supply chains.
    • Key challenges for the construction sector are to address the productivity gap and sustain economic growth by better integration of new technologies and programmes, adoption of digital and manufacturing technologies, greater use of off-site, modular manufacturing and retrofitting of existing buildings.
    • In the automotive sector, the impact on R&D budgets could lead to a lower priority on electric vehicle technology.  New models of working within the automotive and industrial manufacturing sectors will be a priority, including greater production agility, a need for more automation to address social distancing requirements in the manufacturing environment. and more agile supply chains. Changing travel habits could lead to greater interest in mobility-as-a-service.
    • The digital sector provides enabling technology across all of the sectors mentioned above as well as telecoms, logistics, utilities and high tech. Covid-19 has brought on an acceleration in ever-faster access to data and automation that 5G will help enable. In the logistics aspects of many businesses, new AI tools will help businesses build operations resilience. Successful companies will redesign their operations and supply chains to protect against a wider and more acute range of potential shocks. Digital technologies will also underpin the drive for more automation across many sectors brought on by the crisis.
    • A Government priority will be to mitigate the regional impacts of Covid-19 alongside variations in economic performance.

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