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Members of the UK’s first policy commission focused on vital technical community named

Leading experts across the higher education and research sector are named as commissioners on the country’s first policy commission focused on the advancement of the sector’s 30,000 strong technical community.

Technicians play an integral role in academic research, including supporting the UK’s scientific response to COVID-19, and in the longer term, enabling pioneering research and development to support the recovery of the UK economy and underpinning the country’s investment aspirations of reaching 2.4% of GDP in R&D.

The TALENT Policy Commission will investigate the sector’s future need for technical talent, exploring government policy implications and the impact of increasing focus on collaboration with industry, before compiling a range of recommendations for the sector which it will publish in a national report that will provide new understanding on the UK’s technical skills needs of the future. 

The commission will gather evidence from a range of stakeholders including technicians, academics, university management, funders, students and policymakers.

Joining the Chair of the commission, Professor Sir John Holman, are two University Vice-Chancellors - Professor Debra Humphris, Chair of University Alliance and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton, and Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester and Board member of Midlands Innovation – the university partnership which is nationally championing the critical role of technicians in academia, and which has established this policy commission - the country’s first focused on the sector’s technical community through their recently announced TALENT programme.

Professor Humphris said: “I am delighted to be joining the TALENT Policy Commission, representing both the University of Brighton and the University Alliance. Alliance universities are focused on professional and technical education and research, we know our Technicians are crucial to the success of higher education across the range of discipline. This Commission has a clear focus to advance understanding, opportunity and the sustainability of their vital skills and contributions.”

Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, said: “I am delighted to be representing the Midlands Innovation Board on the Talent Policy Commission.  Technicians play a vital role at the University of Leicester and across the Midlands Innovation partnership more broadly which was very evident in our response to COVID-19. I look forward to working with my fellow commissioners to shape the role of future technicians in higher education and research”.

Also joining the commission is Professor Helen Atkinson, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Aerospace, Transport, Manufacturing at Cranfield University, and Professor Paul Lewis, Professor of Political Economy at King's College London, who commented: “Technicians play a critical role in universities: they make an indispensable contribution to research. Their contribution is, however, all too often under-appreciated by administrators and policy-makers. I very much hope that this Commission will illuminate the essential work carried out by technicians and help to ensure that they receive the training and other forms of support they need to continue to make their vital contribution to research and development.”

Representatives from the technical community are joining the Board of Commissioners to ensure technical voice and representation. Mat Beardsley, Science & Technology Facilities Council, Jiteen Ahmed, Aston University, Tim Savage, University for the Creative Arts and Dr Nicola Atkinson, British Geological Survey bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the commission. Speaking of her appointment, Nicola said “I am really happy to represent the technical community and be involved in this important and exciting programme”.

Dr Helen Pain, Chair of the Science Council, Acting Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry and Chair of the Technician Commitment Steering Board is also joining the commission. Speaking about her appointment, Dr Pain said: “Technicians are vital to UK higher education and research. I am delighted to be joining the TALENT Policy Commission and I am looking forward to working with John Holman and the team to advance this important agenda.”

Already named on the commission are UKRI’s Director for Talent and Skills, Professor Rory Duncan and Dr Steven Hill, Director of Research at Research England. Professor Duncan said: “I am delighted to be part of the TALENT Policy Commission and I look forward to working with Sir John Holman.

“I have been clear on many occasions that I think recognising and promoting work of technicians is central to the developing UKRI strategy for Talent and Skills, and for the future health and growth of the UK economy. I really admire the thoughtful work embodied in the Technician Commitment and the TALENT project and I genuinely believe this can make important cultural changes for us all to benefit from.”

Dr Steven Hill said: "Technicians play a central role in the research system, and this work to understand and develop that role further is vitally important. Research England is pleased to be able to support the project, through the Research England Development Fund, and I am looking forward to working with the team in the coming months."

The Board of Commissioners also includes Dr Jennifer Allen of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Dr James Hetherington, Director of e-Infrastructure at UKRI, Ray Chung, Head of IT Support at Loughborough University, Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of Research Landscape at Wellcome and Nigel Towers of project partner Thales Alenia Space.

The policy commission is part of the £4.99M TALENT programme, a project led by Midlands Innovation to advance recognition and opportunity for the technical community in higher education and research. TALENT is underpinned by a grant of more than £3M from the Research England Development Fund. The remainder of the funding is being provided by the Midlands Innovation consortium university members as well as key partners including; the Science Council, Technician Commitment, Wellcome Trust, British Geological Survey, Rolls Royce plc, Unilever and Midlands Engine.

As well as the national policy commission, the programme will develop innovative ways to deliver culture change to strengthen technical career opportunities, and a technical training programme which will include funding for technicians across the MI partnership to access staff development and training to address specific skills gaps.

TALENT’s lead, Kelly Vere, said: “We’re delighted to have assembled such a strong and engaged team with diverse knowledge and expertise to take the TALENT Policy Commission forward. We look forward to working to with the Commissioners to advance understanding of the sector’s technical community and to providing strategic insight into the sector’s technical skills requirements of the future”.

Chair of Midlands Innovation and Vice-Chancellor of Aston University, Professor Alec Cameron, said: “There is a national shortage of technicians who are often highly skilled specialists, and this shortage could dampen the country’s ability to help economic recovery through undertaking world-leading R&D, and in the longer term threaten to derail the Government’s Industrial Strategy aim to raise UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP.

“The commission will thoroughly analyse the sector’s future need for technical talent, government policy implications and the impact of increasing focus on collaboration with business and other researchers.”

Speaking at the time of his appointment as Chair of the TALENT commission, Professor Sir John Holman of the University of York, said: “This is an exceptional time for higher education, and indeed for the UK as a whole. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of academic research for making and implementing policy, and the critical role of technicians both in research and teaching.

“Now more than ever we need to understand the technician workforce in higher education, so we can better support them and enable technicians to give their best. I salute Midlands Innovation for taking this imaginative initiative, and I salute Research England for supporting it. I am looking forward to getting down to work with some of the leading experts in the country.”

TALENT builds on the considerable work already undertaken by Midland Innovation to advance the technician agenda nationally, including the establishment in 2015 of the UK Higher Education Technicians Summit; a national conference which sees the country’s largest gathering of technical staff working in higher education and research, and the Papin Prizes, a series of prestigious awards which are only awarded biennially to the country’s finest technicians to publicly recognise excellence in the academic technical community.

Speaking at the time she announced the £4.99M TALENT programme in February 2020, Minister for Sceince, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway MP, said: “Technicians play a crucial role across our universities, research institutes and industry. They have specialist knowledge and expertise and underpin our universities primary activities by providing the technical excellence essential to enable research, teaching, knowledge transfer and innovation.”