Omar Saeed, Project and Centre Manager for MANIFEST, at the Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage, University of Birmingham, discusses his recent trip to Sao Paulo, to explore the development of new collaborative research alliances between the UK and Brazil.
On Monday 13 March 2017, academics and professional services staff from the University of Birmingham travelled to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for a workshop focussed on developing new research alliances with Brazilian partners.
It was supposed to be a quick dash from Sao Paulo airport to Sao Paulo State University (UNESP), based in the ‘downtown’ part of the City. It very rapidly came to our attention that Monday morning traffic in Sao Paulo is equally as horrific as that of any major UK city.
On our arrival, our supportive UK colleagues let those of us who had travelled overnight to Brazil know just how “fresh” we looked, which was a great surprise after a 12 hour flight. That is, of course, unless they were being sarcastic.
The purpose of the workshop was to expose delegates to research across energy and sustainable cities, with current examples from the UK (University of Birmingham) and Brazil (UNESP universities). Delegates were challenged to identify gaps in understanding in these areas, and work together to scope new research projects to address them in preparation for forthcoming research funding calls including the £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
The GCRF, loosely aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, is a new UK initiative focused on current challenges in developing countries. Its priorities are to deliver impact through research to alleviate poverty, to improve levels of welfare and economic development, and to strengthen research and innovation capabilities. From the perspective of the UK Government, the GCRF is an important delivery mechanism for the UK Aid Strategy. As demand for accountability of the use of public funds has increased the UK has begun to focus its efforts on providing Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), rather than sending cash directly to foreign governments.
From a research perspective, the GCRF presents a sizeable opportunity. For one, the scale of the fund is huge – £1.5bn to be exact. Currently set to run until 2021, the fund hits an annual peak at approximately £350m during 2020/21 which is, without question, a vast sum. Geographically, the spread of the opportunity is enormous. There is a very long list of countries that are ODA eligible, which in turn, means that UK researchers are eligible to collaborate with any one of them on their specific development problems.
However, the GCRF does present hurdles, which must be overcome if serious value is to be extracted from it. Not all academics are currently involved with the international development agenda. With that in mind, the re-allocation of RCUK (soon to be UK Research and Innovation) funds to this stream of activity may initially prove challenging to members of those universities that are not well-versed in international engagement. Equally, those universities that do have strategic international partners might feel that opportunities outside of the international development space become less frequent as we move into the next financial year – meaning that forward planning is key to avoid missing the boat here.
It is, therefore, critical that there is consistent support from UK Universities. Not only to demonstrate the importance of the GCRF to research income, but also to facilitate new international research partnerships. Activity such as the University of Birmingham’s recent visit to Brazil should be actively encouraged in order for research and professional services staff to develop the necessary relationships with developing country partners early on. This type of coordinated visit provides the platform required to enable an agile response to new GCRF funding opportunities as they arise over the next four years. And with these impending opportunities in the backs of our minds on arrival to the workshop, the pressure was on.
Professor Carlos Graeff, UNESP Vice President for Research, and Professor Robin Mason, University of Birmingham Pro-Vice Chancellor (International) kicked off proceedings, with both delivering strong messages on their hopes for the day, the longstanding relationship between Birmingham and UNESP and the importance of research collaboration at the international level to address global challenges. Throughout the morning, academic and professional services staff from the University of Birmingham and Brazilian institutions delivered short presentations that would set up the discussions planned for later in the day.
Dr Jonathan Radcliffe, Senior Research Fellow and Policy Director at the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) provided an overview of energy storage in the UK, highlighting the research currently underway at BEI, specifically within the Birmingham Centre for Energy Storage, the Energy Research Accelerator and the Energy Superstore. Dr Radcliffe then gave an overview of the energy challenges in the UK, citing the current issues surrounding the growing demand for both heating and cooling. Dr Radcliffe also noted that Brazil’s demand for energy is increasing rapidly and that the challenge will be to meet the increasing requirement for power in a sustainable way.
Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography at the Department for Business and International Strategy, delivered a fascinating presentation focussed on urban sustainability. Professor Bryson discussed the importance of the integration of different factors at the city level in order to produce a greater impact on policy.
I spoke to Brazilian colleagues about the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), and provided information on the scale of the opportunity, the UK Government’s position on the fund and the likely themes that will underpin it once the strategy has been signed off in the UK. Brazilian colleagues were encouraged to consider specific funding opportunities in energy and sustainable cities including those from GCRF, Innovate-UK and the tri-lateral fund from the University of Birmingham, University of Nottingham and the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
After further presentations from our British and Brazilian counterparts on energy, healthy cities, smart social housing and smart grid integration, so began a challenging afternoon of discussions between delegates. It was clear that despite long journeys for all involved, there was a real energy amongst participants to draw as much as possible from this rare opportunity. Over the hours that followed, intense discussion between the attendees helped to clearly identify knowledge gaps in Brazilian energy and cities research that could be addressed by the University of Birmingham’s expertise.
Although it was a long day, the workshop was excellent preparation for future GCRF opportunities. Now back in the UK after narrowly avoiding being struck by pieces of flying luggage (it genuinely was that turbulent) on my return, I am one of many who will be following up with a number of new Brazilian colleagues on the project outlines that we discussed in Sao Paulo. Hopefully, these will be the first of many projects developed in a continued relationship between both the universities.
In addition to my colleagues from the University of Birmingham and UNESP, I would like to deliver a special thanks to the team at the University of Birmingham’s International Office. Both Erica Arthur and Richard Brunt helped to deliver a very well executed and valuable trip to Brazil.