Solving big problems like coronavirus requires big ideas, according to Mark Hitchcock, managing director of UEA Health and Social Care Partners. He explains why making a major impact in the world of science and research takes more than just scientific acumen.

Eastern Daily Press: Mark manages Hethersett Athletic F.C. Under 13 in his spare time Pictures: TBCMark manages Hethersett Athletic F.C. Under 13 in his spare time Pictures: TBC (Image: Archant)

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What does your job involve?

My job is to deliver the strategic objectives of UEA Health and Social Care Partners – a collaboration of 12 organisations specialising in health and social care research.

I bring people together and support them to work successfully so that we can collectively achieve more ambitious aims for the benefit of the local population in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. It is a civic partnership – we are trying to do more for our region and our people.

Can you explain the objectives of the partnership?

The engine rooms of the partnership are research groups composed of academics, clinicians, sector experts and patients who meet regularly to make a difference on subjects that matter. Our three main areas of focus are young people’s mental health, healthy ageing, and living with lifelong conditions – with the aim of increasing the amount of research funding necessary to develop these areas, effecting a reduction in rates of issues associated with them while influencing government policy.

Some of the things we are working on include reducing opioid prescription, addressing childhood obesity rates, improving nutrition in care homes and developing better palliative care. Workforce sustainability is another priority: helping our health and social care professionals do their jobs safely and productively, which requires particular attention now thanks to coronavirus.

How has Covid-19 impacted your work?

I spent two days getting very nervous and counting the tins of baked beans in my cupboard, but soon realised I needed to do something. Together with HSCP colleagues, I worked with organisations across the region to facilitate a number of projects across Norwich Research Park including the production and distribution of hand sanitiser, the creation of a childcare centre at UEA Sportspark and quality testing personal protective equipment (PPE).

The most ambitious Covid related project I’m involved with entails bringing together UEA, Earlham Institute, Quadram Institute, the John Innes Centre and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) to set up a lab that will support a city-wide test of Norwich in the event of a second wave.

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

There’s a fantastic collection of people with a lot of expertise across the Park. I love new projects and the opportunity to work with incredible people on exciting projects across Norwich Research Park never ends.

The proposed city-wide coronavirus testing project is the perfect example of that – our team connects science excellence with public health, operations management and communications professionals seamlessly so we can do very ambitious things.

It is a big idea – and if we execute it, we want to make it transferable so we can give it to the rest of the country. Very few cities across the world could create it because they haven’t got a Norwich Research Park. Whether we will need to do it remains to be seen, but having that range of expertise on the Park to deliver world-class science is so important.

How did you get to where you are today?

I spent 10 years working in international language education, teaching English abroad in the United States, Russia, Italy, Slovenia and Poland, before working in London as school principal for a large language chain. In 2008, I moved to Norfolk to manage the Norwich Business School at UEA, then managed the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences before developing the partnership which I now lead.

What do you get up to when you’re not working?

I love football and I’m a big Liverpool F.C. fan, so I’m very happy at the moment! On a normal weekend I have duties as governor at NNUH and as trustee at Voluntary Norfolk, but mostly I spend my weekends coaching Hethersett Athletic F.C. Under 13s. My son plays and I get to see him grow up and live vicariously through him, which is the best part.

What advice do you have for young people considering a career in the world of science and research?

Bear in mind the complementary skills you’ll need. We have this idea of scientists being very specialised, knowledgeable and technical, but actually the best scientists are those that also have interpersonal and communication skills – perhaps even an MBA.

And just as with team sports, you’re only as strong as the team on which you’re playing. I couldn’t do anything without my team and my partners. Strong collaboration and building trust are essential.

Finally, say ‘Yes’ to everything. I wouldn’t have been in Moscow – not knowing a word of Russian – unless I had said: ‘Yes, that sounds interesting.’ Because of that decision all these different opportunities have opened up and led me to where I am today. Sometimes you overstretch yourself, but you can’t make creative change happen unless you are open-minded.

Mark Hitchcock is managing director at UEA Health and Social Care Partners. You can follow him on Twitter @pmhitchcock