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Delivering the Future: How universities can leverage technical expertise to fuel innovation

  • 26 October 2022
  • By Trevor McMillan

Midlands Innovation is a strategic research partnership of eight research intensive universities in the Midlands. Funding was awarded by Research England in 2020 for ‘TALENT’ – a transformation programme to advance status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers. The TALENT Commission report was published in 2022. 

HEPI is running a series of blogs with Midlands Innovation championing the role of technicians in higher education and research. In this post, Professor Trevor McMillan OBE, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University, explores how technicians help to innovate and drive forward sustainable ideas. 

Universities up and down the country are working on solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. At Keele, our passion for sustainability and vision for a healthier, more environmentally conscious world drives us forward. These values permeate everything we do on our campus. 

This drive and our ambition have enabled us to take part in pioneering projects that are helping to push the country’s sustainable credentials forward, by demonstrating not only the viability of projects like hydrogen blending and smart energy, but also the benefits of them, and the necessity for innovations like these to be rolled out more widely. 

Large, complex projects like these require not only vision and academic excellence, but also the practical, technical expertise of our technicians and support staff. Without these outstanding individuals and teams, innovation simply would not be possible, and ambitious ideas to move towards a low carbon future would run the risk of remaining abstract concepts, rather than the working examples we need them to be. 

At Keele we know only too well that our flagship sustainability projects would not be possible without the hard work and expertise of our technical staff. The HyDeploy project took place on our campus throughout 2020 and 2021. It saw hydrogen blended with our natural gas network to reduce carbon emissions and it was a complex process that presented a huge number of challenges which could only be overcome thanks to the expertise of our technical teams.

Establishing the partnerships and securing the necessary approvals to allow the trial to proceed was half the battle, but without the tireless work of our technical staff the project would not have been the resounding success that it was, demonstrating for the first time that hydrogen blending is a viable and promising option for reducing carbon emissions.

From gathering evidence for the initial plans and securing permissions, to drawing on knowledge of construction and the gas network, our technical staff – and their counterparts in our industry partners’ organisations – is what made HyDeploy a success. 

By recognising the different roles of our staff, we can ensure that their technical expertise is something that can be harnessed when planning similar major projects in future. As reiterated in the TALENT Commission report published earlier this year, it is important that technical staff have the support and the resources they need to grow, develop and thrive. We must focus both on staff working in our laboratories workshops and studios to facilitate research and development, as well as the teams working tirelessly to maintain and grow our infrastructure that allows these innovations to happen. 

We’re proud to have been signatories of the Technician’s Commitment since 2017 when we, as members of Midlands Innovation, pledged our commitment to supporting our technical staff in the key areas that can affect their careers, visibility, career development, recognition and sustainability.

Employers, funding bodies, policymakers and technicians all have roles to play in ensuring that we make the most of technical expertise, knowledge and experience. This is a key part of the ecosystem that will allow universities to continue to innovate and drive forward their ideas and developments to deliver a healthier and more sustainable future for our communities.

HyDeploy, the first project in the UK to blend hydrogen into a natural gas network. Credit: Keele University.

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