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Blog: The challenges and opportunities of collaborating through the Covid-19 lock-down period

Blog by Dr Helen Turner, Director, Midlands Innovation

In this blog I would like to reflect on some of the ways in which Covid-19 has seen Midlands Innovation partners collaborating and supporting each other and changed how we will collaborate in the future.

Over the past 10 or more years I have worked to support and lead strategic, research-focused collaborations in the Midlands.  My work as Director of Midlands Innovation brings together eight universities who naturally both collaborate and compete.   Prior to the Covid-19 lockdown it had felt as though Midlands Innovation was really getting into its stride.  We had hosted the first visit made by the new Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway MP, who had during her visit announced our new collaborative initiative TALENT – A nationally-leading programme to develop the career advancement of HE and research technicians. - We were planning to launch a climate change research campaign highlighting the partnership’s research in this important agenda at a major event due to take place in the House of Lords to celebrate the successes of our Energy Research Accelerator -the UK’s largest green energy research partnership. 

As with everyone in the university sector (and beyond) Covid-19 has challenged the ways in which I and my team work.  But it has also provided opportunities for the partnership to innovate in how it approaches collaboration.  During the initial lock-down period when universities were rushing to close their campuses and move teaching online, it was hard to see what the role for Midlands Innovation was, but once this initial period was overcome, I and my team have been busier than ever.  We continue with the projects we were already running, adapting to remote working, but we have also found a new role providing a space for institutions to share, compare notes and for colleagues to support each other, as well as acting as a conduit for research councils and Government Departments who are needing to rapidly reach high numbers of universities more quickly and easily. 

A problem shared

Over the past four months Midlands Innovation has created forums for staff from technical, academic and professional services to compare approaches to adapting to working in a Covid-19 world.

For example, our technical managers’ strategy group has met monthly.  Their conversations initially focused on closing down laboratories, donating PPE and supporting staff who were at home.  After a while the group were sharing health and safety guidelines for socially distanced working in the laboratory. At the most recent meetings they have supported each other through the challenges of safely opening up labs and welcoming researchers onto campus.  As well as ensuring that institutions are not reinventing procedures and documentation, this group has provided a space for dedicated staff to support each other emotionally through what has been a difficult time.

We have brought together our graduate colleges for the first time, again meeting monthly, they have compared approaches to student extensions and supervisor support.  Staff have taken comfort from the knowledge that the approaches and discussions they are having within their institution are echoed across others. These conversations have also led to the idea of a new collaborative proposal which we are now working on.

All the universities in Midlands Innovation are keen to welcome students safely back onto campus, and to offer as much face-to-face contact time as possible.  To support them with this aim, we have established a group looking at how to safely deliver socially distanced laboratory teaching.  Although not traditionally an area where we work together as a partnership, this is a topic that all eight institutions are wrestling with and so I am pleased we can in some small way help.  The forum has been used to compare approaches to issues such as: the safety of face masks in the laboratory; how to best manage student access into laboratories; how to manage poorly ventilated rooms; approaches for live recording of laboratories; IT guidance for students so they can do lab work remotely.  The conversations have been supportive and positive and surprisingly to me described by one participant as “the most useful 45 minutes of his week”.

It’s easier to talk

Historically Midlands Innovation meetings have all been run face-to-face, involving significant time commitments for partners travelling across the region.  Whilst I miss the informal conversations that such meetings enabled, the move online has removed the burden of travel enabling better participation and more regular conversations.  We have benefitted from well-established relationships with partners that we could build upon to make the virtual meetings a success.  This in turn has enabled the Midlands Innovation partnership to move forwards more quickly with some projects.  Our Energy Research Accelerator has, for example, held a series of webinars and workshops delivering them rapidly over the past four months; they have found they have attracted larger numbers of participants from across the UK using the webinar format than they had previously with physical events.

In contrast to what I would have expected in the circumstances, we have expanded the number of people involved in Midlands Innovation activities over the past few months.  I no longer feel the need to wait until I am on a particular campus to meet someone and talk to them about the partnership.  The fact that we are all in the same virtual boat has brought everyone together.

Where do we go from here?

Although we all miss face-to-face meetings I am certain that for Midlands Innovation online meetings are here to stay.  It will no longer seem sensible to commit four hours travel time for a two hour meeting.  We will try new approaches mixing regular online meetings with occasional away-days to bring that face-to-face contact. 

Whilst not all the groups and committees we have convened during this Covid-19 period will continue meeting in the long term or meeting at the same frequency, I am certain Midlands Innovation will come out of this period stronger.  We will benefit from:

  • The new relationships formed both between our team and institutional colleagues and those formed between institutions.
  • A greater awareness of the Midlands Innovation partnership.
  • New ways of working and collaborative tools.
  • An appreciation that even when times are difficult, our partners value the time spent working with each other and that the appetite to collaborate remains as strong and perhaps even more so now.
  • New collaborative avenues to explore.

I would like to finish by thanking everyone who has contributed time to join discussions over the past few months.  We really appreciate that you have made time to collaborate when your working environment and the pace that we have all needed to rapidly move at has been so challenging, and we look forward to continuing to collaborate as times, hopefully, become a little easier.

What COVID-19 has shown me is that the MI partnership is more than just a research partnership of eight universities in the Midlands. The spirit of collaboration in our partnership and collaborative ethos of those who work within our partner institutions runs deep.

The mantra of our partnership is stronger together, and never has that belief been demonstrated more vividly than in the last few months.

….And as for the climate change campaign launch I mentioned at the start of this blog? -well all the fantastic research which our partnership and our partners undertake on this important agenda remains ongoing and as for the for the campaign launch - all I can say for now is watch this space. Whilst it has had to take a bit of a backburner at present, we are continuing to work on this and many other exciting new projects which have sprung out of the opportunity that the current challenges have presented us with, and we’ll bring you more news on these soon.