Key trends for 2021 to look out for

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Perspectives on some of the key trends and patterns to look out for during the next few months.”

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As 2021 starts – our academics and researchers give their perspectives on some of the key trends and patterns to look out for during the next few months.

1. UK Economy – Professor John Bryson

The global economy experienced its deepest recession since 1946. COVID-19 disrupted everyday living with impacts rippling across the society and economy. Consumer expenditure altered and businesses relying on face-to-face consumer encounters suffered. There was a significant acceleration in the shift to online consumption. 

By mid-2021, vaccines combined with developments in treatment and diagnostics will mean that the UK economy will enter a period of post-pandemic recovery. This will not be a return to the economy, or everyday living, as it was. The first quarter of 2021 will be associated with more of the same or an extension of the 2020 economy. The end of the second quarter will see a rapid uplift in consumer expenditure focusing initially on hospitality services and travel. A key constraint will be COVID related public and private sector debt. 2021 will see an increase in business failures and unemployment related to debt and cash flow difficulties.  

During most of 2020, Brexit disappeared from political discussions only resurfacing in the last quarter. The post-Brexit impacts will see a gradual shift in the orientation of the UK economy away from Europe. This is part of a much longer-term trend that commenced long before the 2016 referendum. The EU/UK trade deal focused predominantly on manufacturing goods, agricultural products and fish and ignored services. Discussions between the UK and EU will occur throughout 2021 regarding financial services. With Brexit, UK financial services will experience another ‘Big Bang’ that will be associated with transformational change. The Brexit political and media debate has tended to ignore the relationship between disruption and innovation. Thus, the UK post-Brexit economy will be very different as entrepreneurs and businesses innovate to create alternative pathways to wealth creation. 

A key trend for businesses, governments and individual consumers will be a focus on more responsible business behaviour combined with responsible consumption. This includes a focus on more sustainable clothing, or slow fashion, and the ongoing decarbonisation of production and consumption.  

2. Research into Major Trauma could save lives – Professor Janet lord

Major trauma survivors have a 5-year increased risk of death compared to the general population. These patients are also at increased risk of developing age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis and dementia much earlier than non-injured counterparts.

Ageing has been defined as the “increased frailty of an organism with time that reduces the ability to deal with stress resulting increased risk of disease and death”. This project will test the hypothesis that major trauma accelerates the ageing process and in this was increases risk of age-related disease and shortened lifespan. Until recently there has been no single biomarker for a person’s biological versus their chronological age, but Horvath in 2013 reported an epigenetic signal - a DNA methylation profile on 350 CpG sites, termed the epigenetic clock - that showed a very strong association with chronological age, with deviations from this association indicative of the degree of biological ageing. Since this ground-breaking paper other biomarkers have been identified including one based on proteins in the blood.

This study will use samples from military veterans from the Afghanistan conflict who are members of a cohort, ADVANCE. This cohort will be followed up regularly to determine the impact of trauma on long term health outcomes. Professor Lord will assess DNA methylation on 100 injured veterans and 50 uninjured to determine how quickly they are ageing. She will also carry out a proteomics analysis to give two measures of biological age.

The long-term aim is that if ageing is shown to be accelerated then a clinical trial will be carried out to try and reverse this, using existing drugs that have been shown in mice to target the ageing process and in so doing extend lifespan and prevent age-related disease.

3. Clean Air will be at the top of the Climate Agenda – Professor William Bloss & Dr Suzanne Bartington

Clean Air research in 2021 will be a story of regional, national and global policy drivers, including the air quality – climate dimension with the COP26 discussion, with an overlay from the COVID-lockdown derived insights so tragically bought.

The lockdown of spring 2020 demonstrated the changes in air quality that could be achieved through changed behaviour – but also the challenges of unpicking effects of lockdown from ongoing emissions shifts and changes driven by the weather. Probably the key research question remains the extent to which poor air quality may increase susceptibility to COVID – incidence of the two are clearly geographically correlated, but how much stronger is the link - and what is the impact upon health inequalities? 

2021 will bring a number of key policy moments. Regionally, the Birmingham Clean Air Zone is scheduled to go live in summer, with significant change to transport patterns across the city. In the wider arena, 2021 will bring the first updates in 15 years to the World Health Organisation’s guideline levels (targets) for key air pollutants - and in the UK, governments will set new air quality targets, through the Environment Bill and legislation in the devolved administrations.

Reflecting even the current WHO target for fine particles PM2.5 (a level of 10 mg m-3) in new legislation (current target 25 mg m-3) is a key opportunity to show ambition in reducing the 4 - 6 month life expectancy penalty due to poor air quality in the UK – one brought into sharp relief with the December 2020 inquest finding that air pollution was a factor in the death of 9-year old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in London. Will the form of the new targets aim to bring cleaner air for everyone (“population exposure reduction”) – or just those in locations where pollution levels are highest?

The UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, will focus global attention on carbon – there are many win-wins for air quality and for climate policy. Research will evidence how the air quality side of these win-wins brings cleaner air, and improved health, locally as well as globally. Finally, Covid has emphasised indoor environments and brought new awareness of the importance of ventilation - and understanding indoor air quality will be a key focus of the coming year.

At Birmingham, the IGI-IAS Clean Air initiative is bringing together experts from across the University to tackle these priorities for improving air quality and our health in 2021.

4. Post Brexit and COVID fallout will impact political events – Dr Matt Cole

Three ‘knowns’ of politics take us to the horizon of May; beyond that lies uncertainty as great as ever.

Firstly, Brexit is over but its implementation has just begun. Ministers warn of ‘bumps in the road’ at the start of the new arrangements. The jubilation at completing Brexit will melt away sooner than these problems are resolved, and any long-term substantial benefits of Brexit are unlikely to be visible before spring.

The management of the pandemic remains the key challenge. Public confidence in government collapsed with the Cummings episode, confusion and perceived incompetence, and recovered only modestly with vaccine approval. Whether the roll-out of these, tests in schools, lockdown, and the end of Furlough in April, are regarded by the public as matching government optimism remains to be seen.

In May’s elections the government might pay for this loss of confidence but for the Opposition’s failure to grasp the initiative. Starmer is less unpopular than Corbyn, but has yet to win Labour a sustained poll lead. The contest between the two main parties still looks evenly balanced.

The ‘unknowns’ start there. What if the SNP wins Scottish elections demanding a second independence referendum? Will the economy allow the government to fulfil its ‘levelling up’ agenda? And how long can, or will, the Prime Minister, frustrated by the demands of his job and his reduced income, stay in office? Macmillan compared power to a delicious but hollow fruit. Now the government has eaten the husk of Brexit, it needs to find new sustenance.

5. UK’s growing battery and recycling industries – Dr Gavin Harper

With an increasing acknowledgement of the worlds growing appetite for critical materials and technology metals there is a global focus on how to recover these valuable products at the end of their lives.

Whilst Britain has withdrawn from the European Union, the EU is still a major market on our doorstep and decisions in Europe will undeniably affect decisions made by UK manufacturers.

The new Batteries Directive sets out a range of new criteria for batteries going forward, including target recycled materials content, and designing products with the end-of-life in mind, giving due consideration to recyclability.

Our ReLiB project has been analysing the impact of this legislation on the electric vehicle industry and the UK’s growing battery and recycling industries.

Expect to see in the coming year, more focus on not just electric vehicles, but other technology products. At the moment, many are challenging to recycle, yet they contain valuable technology metals on which our society is increasingly reliant.

Ensuring that we can retain that these materials stay within a circular economy is a key priority, especially for countries like the UK that do not have indigenous supplies of these materials.

Our Birmingham Policy Commission, chaired by Sir John Beddington is about to release policy recommendations for the UK around technology metals strategy. The Critical Elements and Materials Network run by the University has been facilitating dialogue between industry and academia on this issue and our collaboration as part of the UKRI Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centre for Technology Metals (TechMetCE), will provide a platform for the University to developing leading solutions in partnership with others in the year ahead.

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