Rachael Rothman who gave evidence about plastic waste to EFRA

South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre: Interview with Rachael Rothman

Our director Professor Rachael Rothman is the director of the new South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre.

We talk to Rachael about this groundbreaking sustainability centre, which will work across South Yorkshire with a huge team from all the major groups in the region.

What is the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre?

Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Rotherham local authorities will all be part of the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre.
Both universities in Sheffield will be part of the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre.

As a region we have targets to be more sustainable and reach net zero. And that will involve a lot of change.

But at the moment nobody really knows how we’ll do it, except that we need to put innovative things in place within the region.

So what this centre aims to do is to join up research from the universities in Sheffield and deploy it in the region to make a difference.

Why is South Yorkshire the choice for this centre? What makes the region special?

South Yorkshire is very diverse as a region.

For instance, around Barnsley there’s a lot of old mines. And one of our projects looks at how you might be able to use those mines for energy storage and heating going forward.

And we’ve a lot of industry in South Yorkshire, like brick works and steel works. An example of our work with industry is one of the projects I’m involved with, from a research perspective, with Michelmersh Bricks. For that project we will look at how we can decarbonise their kilns.

Over to the east of the region, there’s a lot of agricultural land. One of our themes will be looking at agriculture. And we’ve got urban agriculture projects as well. We’re working with Regather Farm and Our Cow Molly, who we’ve worked with before.

Overall, South Yorkshire is a good place to try out a whole variety of solutions. Because we have a diversity of land use, industry and business that not every region has.

What areas will the centre be focusing on?

We have 3 themes. Residential and Transport Decarbonisation, Agri-Food Decarbonisation and Environmental Restoration and Industrial and Commercial Decarbonisation.

So it’s not just about net zero, though of course those are important. But there’s no point in hitting net zero if other things aren’t in place.

Think of it this way, the easiest way to get to net zero is to not do anything. If no one went anywhere, or did anything, and we all lived in poverty, then we’d have really low carbon emissions. But that’s obviously not the answer.

What we need is to look at a sustainable future that lets us have food and do what we want to do – and also allows us to decrease carbon emissions. And that’s why interdisciplinarity is so important.

What we’ll do through the centre is look across all the SDGs and map the potential impacts of projects across all of the Goals. So thinking not just about carbon reduction but things like biodiversity, how it impacts animals and wildlife and people and everything else.

Are there other centres like this?

Our Cow Molly iocn
Our Cow Molly are one of the local farms involved in the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre.

This is the first of its kind to take this real cross-cutting interdisciplinary approach to sustainability.

So this will be a blueprint for other regions?

A big part of the centre will be to show other regions what we’re able to do and what works – and even what doesn’t work.

Our hope is to make the whole country – and even the world – more sustainable by showing solutions that work on the ground.

Why is a regional centre like this needed for sustainable development?

At the moment what often happens is that a specific department in a specific region will make a decision based on the knowledge that’s within that department. And that’s not a wrong decision: it’s correct based on the knowledge they have.

But they often don’t take enough of an interdisciplinary approach and look at different angles. And it’s only when you look at all the angles that you make truly sustainable decisions.

So the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre aims to pull together information through the cross-cutting areas. This will provide the evidence that shows what would be the best thing to do, or a few options that would work.

Additionally, we will identify projects we’d want to do ideally but can’t afford now. So that when future funding is available we’re ready with the kind of project that can make a difference.

What was your role in starting SYSC?

About 2 years ago Partnerships and Regional Engagement at TUoS approached me to see whether I’d be interested in developing and leading a bid for a South Yorkshire sustainability centre.

So I pulled the relevant people and partners together and developed our cross-cutting structure. Our aim was to create a novel collaborative knowledge exchange, where we can co-develop solutions. Because it’s important that this is a 2 way interaction. We want the region to come to us and ask if we have research that can help with specific problems. Equally, we want the universities to be able to go to the region and see if their knowledge can be deployed.

So we’ve had a lot of discussions and co-development to make sure that what we’re providing fits with the strengths of the universities and the region. And that’s why it took 2 years to pull it together.

Were lessons learned from the Grantham Centre when creating the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre?

Overall, SYSC has taken the need for interdisciplinary that we recognise and utilise at the Grantham Centre. Only we’re applying them on a much bigger scale.

And it’s based on some of the ideas we have in Plastics Redefining Single-Use, which was run through the Grantham Centre. Specifically, cross-cutting expertise applied to specific projects. Again, we’ve applied that way of working on a much larger scale, on a wider range of topics, and in an entire region.

What are the links between Grantham Centre people and SYSC?

Myself of course. And Martin Mayfield, Duncan Cameron and Sol Brown – who all work within the GCSF and now at SYSC.

We’re hoping that Grantham Scholars will join us as post doctoral researchers.

We also have at least 5 PhD studentships and all of those will be Grantham Scholars: to provide them with cross-cutting training and background.

South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre will be recruiting from the Grantham Scholars, pictured here at the University of Sheffield.
Grantham Scholars at the University of Sheffield. All the PhD studentships at the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre will be Grantham Scholars. And Rachael hopes that the post docs employed at the new centre will be found from graduated Grantham Scholars.

Why is interdisciplinarity so important to sustainability?

Because it’s not just about the environment. It has to be useful socially and people have to be willing to engage with it. And that’s why you need the social sciences involved.

If you create a good environmental solution but nobody wants it, and so they don’t engage with it, then there’s no point in having that solution.

Who is involved from the region?

The University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam. Plus the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority. And we’ve got the 4 local authorities: Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham.

Also there’s a whole host of industrial, business, voluntary sector, and third sector partners. Because for SYSC to be successful we need to bring everyone together to co-develop solutions.

We need this to be both top down and bottom up; we need everybody to be engaged.

Who from the University of Sheffield is involved?

From TUoS we have the Faculties of Social Science, Engineering and Science involved thus far.

Plus we will employ post doctoral researchers and PhD studentships to conduct research relevant for the region.

Another key thing we have is a strategic project in capital fund. So whilst small projects are defined within the first 1 to 3 years, this strategic fund is for other projects to bid into. And we hope that this will increase the reach of the centre to other disciplines.

And there will be public engagement too?

Yes. We’ll be putting on events to get the public involved in ideas as we develop them. Because there’s no point coming up with a solution if no one will get involved.

We need our solutions to be better for the environment, acceptable by the public and socially just and also economically viable.

Where is your funding from?

We have £5 million from Research England. If you include match funding then we have over £13 over 4 years.

What will the short term aims be?

First of all to get our people appointed and on the ground! Then we’ll get to planning with our teams and the local authorities.

In the medium term, we’ll be delivering on projects we’ve put in place. And we’ll be horizon scanning to make sure we include anything that’s needed that we may have missed.