The past year has seen unprecedented disruption to our economies and communities. It has also highlighted many inspiring examples of universities, companies, government agencies, NGOs and others finding ways of working together at pace to develop solutions at scale to the many challenges caused by the COVID pandemic.

While we have yet to emerge from the health crisis, many governments, universities and companies are starting to plan for the economic recovery and a brighter future, with some taking bold steps to shape new ways of working. We need to maintain sight of the lessons learned from the past two years and apply that to new ways of working to tackle further global and societal challenges. Sharing that insight across industries, governments and geographies is critical to learning, enhancing and strengthening our innovation system.

With this aim, Oxford University, the Universities Commercialisation and Innovation Policy Evidence Unit (UCI), the University Industry Demonstration Project (UIDP) and NCUB brought together senior industry, university and government leaders from around the world to reflect on lessons learned over the past year and how industry, government and universities need to work together to tackle further global and economic challenges, acknowledging that these challenges need multilateral agency and government solutions.

The second annual Oxford Summit was a three-day online event focused around three key themes. Specifically, it explored how we can continue to mobilise new and existing partnerships, develop solutions at pace and scale, drive an innovation-led economic recovery and tackle other critical global societal challenges such as climate change.

Catalysts for Innovation at Pace

The first day of the conference, entitled “Catalysts for Innovation at Pace”, focused on the tremendous  pace of innovation during the pandemic, developing policy, legislation, products and entirely new research programmes at great speed.  This has meant diverting people, resources and capacity to new projects, requiring quick and decisive leadership.

Companies in particular have responded very quickly to these needs, often working together with universities.  A presentation by Oxford University’s Chaz Bountra, Pro Vice Chancellor for Innovation focused on the lessons learned from a partnership with AstraZenica to develop the life-saving vaccine while Dr Nick Scott-Ram MBE, Managing Director of Life Sciences at Sensyne Health and Dr Bryan Haynes, Senior Technical Director, Kimberly-Clark Corporation helped participants to understand what drove changes they made to their own processes, the difficult choices that had to be made, and what was possible in a crisis that would have been more difficult before.

Participants raised UKRI’s role in the ecosystem, thinking about how the UK’s agency can be more radical and how they can, in turn, help UK PLC to catalyse change more quickly. There was also discussion about the changes happening in universities and the difficult questions being asked about the value of a campus university.

A Return to Multilateralism

Day two of the event was chaired by NCUB’s Dr Joe Marshall and focused on a “A Return to Multilateralism”. With delegates from across the UK, US and Europe, keynote speakers Otteline Leyser, Chief Executive of the UKRI and Mojdeh Bahar, Associate Director for Innovation and Industry Services at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) discussed the practicalities of international partnerships in the new era of Post-Trump and Post-Brexit.

Both Leyser and Bahar set out how each nation intends to work with its partners and how they will tackle international challenges such as climate change and rapid technological change with a clear commitment to multilateral ways of working.

Participants further discussed practical ideas and suggestions that UKRI and NIST (and others) can consider to develop more international partnerships in the future, such as involving scientists at the ‘top table’, the role of open access and the extent of government involvement in creating an entrepreneurial environment which can often mean R&D becomes political collateral.

Transitioning to a sustainable future

Finally, participants discussed what it means to be “Transitioning to a Sustainable Future: Mobilising the University-Industry-Government Partnership to drive innovative solutions at pace and scale”.

During this session, participants heard from Prof Rob Miller, Chair in Aerothermal Technology and Whittle Laboratory Director at the University of Cambridge and Prof Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, Associate Dean for Research, College of Engineering at Ohio State University.

Both keynote speakers spoke of identifying ways in which their university-industry-government-society partnership has been mobilised to more effectively tackle the complexities associated with climate change and accelerate the transition to a sustainable future. For example, through rapid demonstration and application of novel technologies as well as through repurposing existing ones, and through more effectively integrating social sciences and policy elements into the process. While participants acknowledged the complexities around tackling climate change, there was consensus throughout the conference that the problem was too big to tackle without international partnership working and collaboration. The technology and the talent is there, it just needs the right economic framework and political machinery to help develop it.