Director of New University Campus Calls to Accelerate Funding Process
Geoff Morris, Director of Eden Campus at the University of St Andrews, has addressed concern over the government funding process, which threatens to stunt innovation and the race to carbon neutrality. Eden Campus is leading the Universi- ty’s aim to be carbon net-zero by 2035. However, funding from the government requires a rigorous process of reporting and monitoring throughout the application, where decisions are often made after several years. In an interview with The Saint, Geoff tells us that the government is right to scrutinise business cases, but it can make innovation difficult. He says, “In an ideal world, I wish governments would turn the whole thing on its head. We’re supposed to be innovative here. If you have to wait four years to get a decision, innovation has moved on.” Eden Campus is situated on the way to Leuchars Station, four miles west of St Andrews, in the village of Guardbridge. It occupies a 36-acre site containing a for- mer paper mill, which began operation in 1872 and closed down in 2008. Bought by the University of St Andrews, and named after the river in Fife, it is a vast site made up of new and restored, original buildings, which provide space for research and development. Geoff, who became its Director in 2017, told us that part of his role is about the opportunity to shape a sustainable future, whilst also rebuilding a community decimated by the closure of the paper mill – which took 400 jobs. Today, Eden Campus is home to a fully operating biomass energy centre. Accord- ing to the campus website, the centre provides heat to 43 buildings, as well as over 2,500 student rooms in St Andrews, functioning for North Haugh and up as far as the sports facilities. The University’s website for sustainability states, “Since open- ing in 2018, Eden Campus has reduced 20% of the University’s carbon footprint through solar energy and biomass heat.” Currently, the University emits just under 75,000 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide through its operations, according to the Environmental Sustainability Strategy, published in January 2021. Scotland has set its own target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045 and the UK government by 2050. In addition to the biomass energy centre, there is a new office space in Walter Bower House with a library, gym and café. The Entrepreneurship Centre, within the house, focuses on the development of entrepreneurs – students or academics – who are at any stage, from an idea, all the way up to a sustainable, successful business. Furthermore, in the coming months a prototyping facility, which will bring en- gineering skills to the campus, will become ready to aid the development of projects. The University of St Andrews is currently ranked 19 for research quality by the Complete University Guide with the top positions dominated by London uni- versities and Oxbridge. When asked about whether we may expect to see an increase in our ranking, Geoff replies, “If we are creating additional facilities here, to encourage that next stage of the research journey, then it can only be for the good.” It is tempting to compare Eden Campus to a model Silicon Fen, the large cluster of high-tech firms in Cambridge driven by the presence of the university, Geoff suggests that “we are not at that scale by any means but that’s not to say we shouldn’t have the ambition to do that.” He adds that Silicon Valley in California and its UK counterpart “are beacons of how these things can work. They’re spaces for like-minded people to do great things.” Over the last decade Geoff tells us that £70 million has been spent on Eden Campus. This figure includes buying the land and safety measures such as £10 million on the removal of asbestos and a £1.5 million sea wall to protect the campus from the Eden estuary it sits beside. Geoff adds, “70 [million] is realistic when you look at the cost of the biomass plant and Walter Bower House. The cost of the pipework between here and St Andrews is roughly equivalent to the actual technology in the building.” The £70 million has been covered by a combination investment including by the University and Fife Council, as well as grants from both governments. The bulk of government funding has been from the significant Tay Cities Deal which re- leased £26.5 million on 3 September 2020. Donations have also been welcomed. For example, Rolls Royce has donated equip- ment to be used in one of the buildings which has been valued at £1 million. Geoff estimates that £100 million more will be needed at the Eden Campus. Regarding the figure and whether it is a concern, Geoff says, “It’s not a concern it’s a challenge. I love that kind of challenge.” He explains, “A lot of the funding that we’ve had so far has been to do with the necessary infrastructure in the ground. This stage is the grunt work, we need to finish the building.” In the line-up for construction there are still facilities such as a carbon capture system turning Car- bon Dioxide into Hydrogen, as well as a dry lab, where computers are used in data analysis. This is in addition to amenities for businesses to operate comfortably. Setbacks were inevitable in the early stages of the new campus. In 2019, con- tractors discovered bat roosts in the former paper mill. Safety zones around the roosts were created, to ensure that the bats were protected during hibernation. A variety of bat boxes and large roosting boxes have been installed at Eden Campus. While Geoff recalls it was a “huge irritation,” he says, “looking back on it, it was the responsible thing to do.” A less resolvable setback has been Covid. Geoff explains that “We couldn’t have people working here much of last summer. We’re playing catch up. We’ve got that tension of trying to get the buildings ready and having tenants that are waiting that want to come in.” For institutions such as the 608-year-old University which has no intention of going anywhere, Geoff wishes governments would have more trust. Currently, institutions must compete for funding, often spending time and resources without a guarantee of securing the fund before verdicts are made. He explains that funding up front combined with rigorous reporting, so that the government can get the assurance they need, “Would be a revolution in the way in which funding works. A lot of people would chuckle if they were to read that but for me, that would be a better way of doing it. Because we can have an impact now.” He adds, “The pace of change is faster today that it’s ever been in history and that’s brilliant. What I would love to see is governments to turn around and say, we trust you. You’ve been around for 600 years.” The next round of government fund- ing involves a new scheme which will replace some of the EU funding. Geoff hopes the next round will be at a faster pace. He says, “As we approach COP26 everything is too late. If we cannot do it yesterday, we need to do things now.” Across the river is the Guardbridge Inn, from here the quiet chimney of the former mill and the Campus is distinct. Claire, the owner of the inn says, “It’s really exciting. It’s breathing life back into town.” Eden Campus quietly churns away, breathing back cleaner air too.