How the Maxwell Centre is bringing together the full spectrum of science and engineering in west Cambridge

How the Maxwell Centre is bringing together the full spectrum of science and engineering in west Cambridge

6 July 2018


The Maxwell Centre is playing a central role in the very exciting journey that lies ahead for west Cambridge. It embodies the special spirit of the Cavendish Laboratory, where whole new fields of science and later, technology, have been created. But the Maxwell Centre is designed to bring together the full spectrum of science and engineering in west Cambridge, and we now have activities in place from across the university, including Physics, Materials Science, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry and Engineering.

The bulk of the funding for the building, the bricks and mortar, of £21m, has come from the former Higher Education Funding Council for England through the capital funding programme, the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, now run by Research England. The rules for this competitive scheme required us to double match this with support from our partners for the science programmes that will be enabled, and mention many of the partners that contributed to this. We are delighted that David Harding opened the Maxwell Centre in April 2016. His gift of £20m, which provided much of this matching funding, has established the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability within the Cavendish Laboratory and this is now based in the Maxwell Centre. The Winton Programme is directed to ‘blue-skies’ research that has the capacity to bring revolutionary changes to the technologies we need for a prosperous and sustainable future. The guidelines are that the research should not be ‘more of the same’, but truly original and innovative. The programme can take risks which are beyond the normal scope of research grants. The Winton Programme is bringing the brightest and best to Cambridge at the start of their careers. But it has also given us the time, space and resource to think and set strategy, drawing on the experience of our international advisors, and detached from externally-imposed agendas.

We have a proud tradition of working very closely with industry, both large and small. The best industrial collaborations work both ways. Within the university we want to see our blue skies research make an impact for the good, and we want industry to pick up what we have started. But we also learn from industry where there are important new science questions and we learn to spot what may be capable of being scaled to make impact. The Maxwell Centre is allowing these links to develop further. We have office space for long-term and short-term industrial collaborators and our laboratories provide the state-of-the art facilities that industry needs access to. 

The building is designed to bring a lot of people together, and we have a good number of meeting rooms and communal spaces to encourage interactions. We hope this is the ecosystem where chance conversations on the stairs lead to great things. These may be between people in different university departments or between university and industry.  Several of our industrial partners are up and running in the centre, starting with industrial partner, ARM. The National Physical Laboratory’s East Anglian hub in the Maxwell Centre continues to grow, and most recently Magna has taken an office. We are also filling up the space we have set aside for industrial ‘hot-desking’ presence.

Cambridge is one of the partners in the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, HRI, and this has brought £10m for capital equipment. The HRI is centred at Manchester, and its role is to provide a ‘national’ set of resources to support academic and industrial research. At Cambridge the HRI is based around the Maxwell Centre and we have been able to locate some substantial new research facilities here. We are pleased that some of these resources will play a big role in supporting the Cambridge part of the national Faraday Institution for Energy Storage Research. Facilities for fabrication of new battery structures, for X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, X-ray tomography, and electrochemical characterisation are all based here. 

The Maxwell Centre is now substantially occupied, by industrial partners, by the HRI for Advanced Materials, by the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability, the Laboratory for Scientific Computing, two EPSRC Centres of Doctoral Training, activities from the Cavendish Bio-Nano-Fluidics research and the Quantum Matter group, the Impulse for tech innovators entrepreneurial training programme, and the headquarters for three of the university’s Strategic Research Initiatives/Interdisciplinary Research Centres. The offices for Energy@Cambridge, Cambridge Big Data, and Global Challenges Initiative, and the Centre for Digital Build Britain, bring strong links to research across the whole university, and provide routes to develop larger scale research programmes that naturally span across disciplines. This mix of activity, together with the open access we offer to all on the west Cambridge site and beyond, has brought a real buzz to the building.

Though the building now feels busy, it is not ‘full’ and we are very keen to bring in new partners from both academia and industry. Our model for ‘shared facilities’ allows companies to take offices and laboratories or, at a smaller scale, ‘hot desks’, and we find this provides the flexibility that our partners want. We are now looking to support external users of the Royce and other experimental facilities.