About the Author: John Whittlesey serves as Environment, Science, Technology and Health Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in London.
Late last month I visited the University of Sheffield and York University, both in England, in order to learn more about their science-related programs and partnerships.
Multidisciplinary research is a major theme, as traditional academic specialties now have to work together laterally to make progress on the issues of the day such as pollution, climate change, and regenerative medicine. The classic lone scientist, even a brilliant one, working alone in his/her lab is seen as less valuable than an interactive team. They call it translational research, using academic tools to solve practical problems. High-resolution imaging and computer modeling are cross-cutting themes, as are the need for public outreach and for networking with other institutions and businesses. The importance of basic research was clearly shown when my host told me that Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto (from Sheffield) said he had “no idea” of the ultimate results from his original research on carbon chemistry when he started. It took decades for the value to become apparent.
Sheffield, a former rust belt town heavily dependent on coal mining and steel mills, has emerged with a modern economy and average unemployment after a painful restructuring. A Boeing-supported Center for Advanced Manufacturing has re-oriented the steel industry around high-end alloys, specialty parts, and cutting. The economic contribution of the steel industry hasn’t changed much but the number of people in the industry has dropped significantly. Nearly 20 percent of Sheffield’s students and staff come from outside the U.K., mostly because U.K. budget rules make foreign students a very attractive source of tuition income for the university. While in Sheffield I visited a tissue generation lab (for helping victims of burns), an environmental science lab looking at pollution remediation and soil formation using Genetically Modified Organisms, and several very cool electron microscopes that can scan down to the atomic level.
Later during my visit to York University, I found it has an interesting specialty: using micro-organisms to break down explosives (think firing ranges and mine fields). They are also doing some great work on how climate change affects the range of species. The fabulous data sets dating back to Victorian times created by generations of British bird-watchers, butterfly fans and other naturalists is a huge resource in this endeavor. The Chemistry Department is doing some cool work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA on measuring international transport (dispersal) of pollutants in the atmosphere. York University prides itself on being a forum for collaborations between university and business. After my visit to York University, I also did an interview on BBC Radio York. My visits to both universities proved quite fascinating and it was great to see their scientists and students utilizing new tools and strategies in their research. Their willingness to partner with others truly sets an example and will hopefully lead to the long-term solutions to such pressing issues as climate change.