Close collaboration between universities, government and businesses is more important now than ever, as we seek to find rapid solutions to challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Acting on the pressing need to maintain the critical knowledge transfer links that universities have with industry and public sector bodies, a group of mathematical sciences organisations set up a virtual forum for knowledge exchange shortly after the UK lockdown.

The Virtual Forum for Knowledge Exchange in the Mathematical Sciences (V-KEMS) was established by the IMI, the Isaac Newton Institute (INI), the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences (ICMS), the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), University of Oxford, University of Southampton, Bristol University and the University of Sussex.

The new forum has already hosted two national study group events. Each study group brings together a group of academic experts to work on particular challenges brought by industry and government partners, and use their collective experience to work through potential solutions.

The first virtual study group took place from 20 – 23 April and was set up as proof of concept for virtual knowledge exchange collaborations. It gathered around 30 mathematicians, PhD students and industrialists from across the UK to work on challenges presented by Zenotech and Scott Bader.

Investigating robust and quick methods for mesh morphing around changing geometries for Zenotech, the group was able to make the existing method used by the company more efficient. The mathematicians also showed other ways of addressing the problem, which may be more effective when developed further.

For Scott Bader, the group looked at the separation of additives in composite resins to develop a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the filler can pack hard and make it impossible to stir the composite material.

Deemed to be a huge success, the first virtual study group was quickly followed by a second one with 50 participants, which in just two days modelled different ways of easing the lockdown restrictions in areas such as education, retail, transport and office spaces. The results were written up in a 50 page report for the government and will be discussed with end-users at a follow-up meeting on 18 May.

Green shoots for new long-term industry collaborations

The experience of running study groups in a virtual environment has been hugely positive, and both the government body and the businesses that took part wish to continue collaborations.

Professor Chris Budd OBE, Deputy Director of the IMI, said: “Virtual study groups have proven to be a very productive and quick way of bringing a diverse group of experts together to tackle urgent issues in government and industry.

“It is remarkable how much we have achieved in a short period. Our new virtual way of collaborating not only delivers great results. It is also an inclusive and flexible way of working, which benefits the environment.

“Having successfully run two virtual study groups, we now plan to run many more in the future, including one looking at the climate benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic and how we maintain this post lockdown.”

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The IMI is a leading UK research institute which specialises in applied mathematics. Drawing on the vast expertise at the University, we partner with industry collaborators to find solutions to business challenges. We optimise processes, analyse complex data and model system behaviour.

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