GW4 doctoral student hopes to make space ambition a reality in BBC’s Astronauts

A NERC GW4 + Doctoral Student based at the University of Bristol has been revealed as one of the hopefuls in the new BBC series, Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?, which airs on BBC Two on Sunday 20 August at 9pm. 

Tim Gregory, who is doing a PhD in Cosmochemistry, beat thousands of applicants from across the UK to take his place as one of 12 exceptional finalists. Other would-be astronauts in the series include a military pilot, a surgeon, a dentist and a professional ballerina.

Taking a giant leap

Tim is one of the finalists in BBC’s Astronauts series

Tim spent his early days dreaming of a career in space and in adulthood has channelled this passion into his doctoral study, which focuses on meteorites in the early solar system. He also inspires the next generation of space enthusiasts by giving regular science talks at schools in Bristol.

Tim spotted the advert for the BBC show on Twitter, and was encouraged by his girlfriend to apply. He then underwent a gruelling application process including multiple interviews, teamwork assessments and health and fitness checks before he was selected as a finalist.

The show follows the high-flyers over six intense weeks as they train at the world’s leading space facilities. The winner will receive the ultimate reference from former Commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, who will help to launch their intergalactic career when the space agencies next take on recruits.

Academics in space?

Following in the footsteps (or moon boots) of Chris Hadfield may seem an unlikely route for a doctoral scientist more used to lab work. So how do astronaut trials relate to Tim’s PhD in cosmochemisty?

Tim explains: “At first only very skilled people could be trusted to fly on aeroplanes, and now we all do it as part of our daily lives. The same will be true of space travel.”

“At the moment only the most exceptionally skilled people are able to go into space, but in the future more and more of us will make that journey. Soon scientists will be able to make sample missions to the Moon, Mars and the Asteroid belt.”

“Meteorites are just rocks, and we use the same scientific techniques to analyse them! So we will need to ensure that geologists and cosmochemists have the skills needed to travel into space and make these discoveries.”

Understanding the way science is done differently

Before Astronauts, Tim’s doctoral study with NERC GW4 + included stints with partners including the Natural History Museum and British Geological Survey.

Tim says: “As part of my NERC GW4 + study, I have been able to meet and network with researchers across GW4 and beyond. This has provided me with a much better understanding of the way science is done differently in different institutions and outside academia.”

Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? will be broadcast on BBC Two on Sunday 20 August at 9pm.  You can watch the trailer or see Tim discussing the programme on BBC Breakfast (from 2:57:42).

The NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP) is designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental sciences and brings together GW4 universities with partners including Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Met Office, British Antarctic Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, British Geological Survey and the Natural History Museum. 

How is colonial history represented in our regional heritage?

Recently the decision to change the name of Colston Hall provoked widespread debate. GW4’s Bridging the Gap project has now held a workshop at Dyrham Park, near Bath, to bring together researchers, participants from the heritage sector, community history groups and creative practitioners to consider how colonial history is represented in our regional heritage narratives. We hear from Research Associate Liz Haines about how history continues to shape today’s arts, cultural and heritage institutions across South West England and South East Wales.

The Great West region (South West England and South East Wales) has historically benefitted from the processes of violence, displacement, disfranchisement and unequal exchange that colonialism produced. Across the region there have been sustained efforts to reframe how those historical processes are presented, with historians and activists demanding that the public recognise a broader range of perspectives on Britain’s colonial past. This requires giving a platform to narratives that substantially address the brutality and tragedy that European colonialism left in its wake.

These demands are being met more often in public institutions such as universities and museums, and in black history community projects. Widely reported discussion around the naming of Colston Hall has brought Bristol’s slaving history more firmly into public consciousness. However, the work of generating public histories of colonialism that are more accurate, visible and inclusive is an ongoing and challenging project.

The group that met on 4th July were particularly interested in how collaborations could contribute to generating engaging and radical public histories of colonialism. Drawing together the expertise of academic researchers, museum and heritage practitioners, community historians and creative practitioners represented a starting point for such collaborations. We asked: what can each of these groups bring to the table to ensure that the region’s colonial heritage is narrated in ways that are accurate, challenging, moving, and meaningful?

Colonial networks of influence

The focus of the day’s discussion was the work of the National Trust at Dyrham Park, South Gloucestershire where the Trust is investing in new displays and strategies to present the history of Dyrham Park. Participants in the Bridging the Gap workshop were invited to ‘think along’ with the National Trust and consider what some of the challenges and opportunities will be in that process.

The group came to the workshop equipped with some reading about Dyrham’s history. The most important era for the house and gardens at Dyrham Park, was the 17th century, when they were owned by William Blathwayt (1649-1717). As Surveyor and Auditor General of the Colonies, Blathwayt oversaw a massive expansion of the colonial system, and an increase in revenues for the British government from plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean. The splendour and luxury of Dyrham Park demonstrate the importance of this governmental post and its financial reward. More particularly, however, it reflects Blathwayt’s central position in colonial networks of influence.

Blathwayt’s position at the hub of British colonialism meant that he was able to accrue plants, materials, objects and works of art from the boundaries of European trade- across the Americas and Asia. In decorating the house and planting of the gardens, Blathwayt could use the rarity and novelty of these items to dazzle his guests. Yet the mechanisms underpinning the arrival of these luxury goods included the transatlantic slave trade, and the genocide of indigenous Americans. To date, the National Trust has struggled to address the history and legacies of colonialism head on, but it is now seeking to do so.

In the first part of the day the group began with a discussion of what they saw the challenges and opportunities of this project to be. In a collective brainstorming process it became clear that the group’s experience could be far more than the sum of its parts. From an academic perspective, the group identified key areas for more detailed research.

Specialist expertise was able to address specific questions and challenges… yet moving people into different environments generated new types of conversation

Bridging the gap between rural estates and urban communities

In order for the National Trust to clearly articulate the relationship of Dyrham Park to the history of the slave trade more historical research would be necessary. Current scholarship doesn’t adequately explain the role of governmental administrators in producing and maintaining the plantation system. From a curatorial perspective, discussion began about the levels of knowledge of colonialism in today’s communities and audiences, the difficulties of speaking with and working with new groups, and the processes of dealing with contentious competition between different interpretations of the past. Workshop participants who brought experience in working in education emphasised the importance of bridging the geographical ‘gap’ between Dyrham Park’s rural location and urban communities.

After outlining these possibilities and directions, the workshop broke into groups to explore the house and gardens. Equipped with a sketchbook, the groups took their own paths through the property. Through sketches, notes, diagrams and fragments of writing, they recorded what caught their attention. Reconvening as a group, we presented these fragments, and gradually some key themes emerged. Particular objects, materials and spaces had caught the attention of the group as focal points that could connect the remnants of William Blathwayt’s house and story to other lives and sites that were caught up in his colonial networks.

Some objects demonstrate that history directly and viscerally, such as a pair of carved slave-figure stands. Other objects might allow for creative or metaphorical narration from the perspective of the victims of colonial violence. Both birds and water played important symbolic roles for enslaved Africans, connecting them imaginatively to their homelands, their lost communities and to lost freedom. The workshop group pointed out moments where these motifs appeared in the house, and could be used to voice the loss, absence and disenfranchisement of colonial relationships.

Engaged collaboration

This led to further discussion about how a re-interpretation of Dyrham could be historically specific. What was it important to articulate about colonialism in general? What, on the other hand, was inherent to this site, and its particular history that couldn’t be told anywhere but at Dyrham? How should future presentations of Dyrham Park reflect popular understandings of colonial history. Where and how should they challenge audiences with new detail or perspectives?

In a final phase of reflection the group produced postcards from the future, and sketched out what they hoped a reinterpretation of Dyrham would achieve.These postcards sketched out scenarios in which reinterpretation could benefit a wide range of groups, making Dyrham an important site for both existing visitor groups and new communities to experience and understand history. These visions of future possibilities at Dyrham coincided with enthusiasm amongst participants to continue discussions, and possibly to begin an informal network.

For us at Bridging the Gap the workshop provided another fantastic opportunity to explore engaged, interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. We were able to observe moments when specialist expertise was able to address specific questions and challenges. Yet moving people into different environments generated new types of conversation, and there was a great deal of commitment amongst all parties to learn from each others’ experience.

Dr Liz Haines is a Research Associate for GW4 Bridging the Gap.

GW4 announces new research communities and latest funding call

Latest funding call builds on £2.3 million investment in collaboration

The GW4 Alliance has announced its latest funding opportunity for collaborative research communities across its four universities. Applicants have until 31 October to submit their applications for the Initiator Fund (for new projects) and Accelerator Fund (for existing research communities).

The programme continues to build on the substantial success of GW4’s 68 research communities, which have produced pioneering findings to date, including producing biofuels from algaeaddressing schools intervention in self-harm and exploring the age of promises in British politics.

GW4 particularly welcomes Accelerator applications which aim to scale up existing communities to large scale bids in any area of research. Applications with a focus on the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) or Industrial Challenge Strategy Fund (ISCF) are also encouraged.

This call is open now and will close on 31 October 2017. It is anticipated that decisions will be made early in December 2017, with projects expected to commence in early-2018.

Applicants can download application forms and access guidance.

If you have any further queries at this stage, please do make contact with the GW4 Building Communities team by emailing gw4initiator@exeter.ac.uk or gw4accelerator@exeter.ac.uk respectively.

New GW4 research communities will explore low carbon energy, health inequality and more

The GW4 Alliance has announced awards for six new research communities tackling a range of global challenges.

GW4’s new projects will focus on the following topics:

These latest awards bring the GW4 Alliance’s total investment in collaborative research communities to £2.3 million.

Professor Nick Talbot, Chair of the GW4 Board and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter (Research and Impact), said: “Our latest round of successful research communities demonstrate that GW4 is taking a proactive role in tackling vital challenges affecting developing countries, from social care to new energy.

They build on our existing investment and research communities to date, which are providing pioneering solutions to issues such as Alzheimer’s diagnosis and cyber security. Our collaborative communities continue to demonstrate the power of working together to develop world-leading research at a scale that would be impossible for a single institution.”

Civic data collaboration in Bath – a model for the UK?

Empowering the wider community to use and understand civic data is fast becoming one of the major challenges for local government today. Could a collaboration between the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research, Bath and North East Somerset Council and Bath and North East Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group prove to be an innovative model for other parts of the UK to adopt?

In 2012, the Harvard Business Review, seemingly without irony, declared the Data Scientist the “sexiest job of the 21st century”. This showed that complex data analysis had truly arrived as a tool of the future. That there is more data than ever before is surely the most self-evident truth facing anyone working in any field, let alone one in which data is an important currency.  This creates opportunities, possibilities and a popular narrative that something should be done about it all. Analysts are asked to anticipate this demand and help decision makers understand the opportunities, challenges and risks in all this data.

In local government, every service (from abandoned shopping trolleys to zoos) adds realms of transactional data to the corpus of local knowledge on a daily, if not instantaneous, basis. Cities are already using algorithms to predict crimere-route traffic and think about social care risk. It can sometimes feel as if any lamppost which isn’t wi-fi enabled is a waste. This execution has not been consistent, and the ability of city managers and local governments to realise the analytical opportunities inherent in this data is incredibly varied, with a number of different models emerging.

Analysing data in local civic spaces

Traditionally local government has run in-house analysis, often employing qualified specialists in fields such as demography, market research or public health. Teams are normally federated across an organisation or run through centralised units, and the relationship with IT services (the facilitators of access to data) is often unstructured. In-house analysis is currently characterised, alongside much of the sector, by increasing demand in the face of reductions in resources.

Some cities have already been thinking about the opportunities inherent in this more applied form of data for some time. Most famously, the New York model of an ‘Office of Data Analytics’ created a central space, outside of normal service delivery, to apply data science to public problems. The successes of this programme are widely documented. It is notable how similar in branding and involvement, how similar the look and feel of these narratives is, to those adopted by larger consultancy firms. Within the UK, NESTA have notably adopted the model and are rolling it out amongst a number of local authorities.

The use of consultancies is nothing new in the sector, and although expensive, is often preferable to employing rare skills in an organisation. Many of the larger consultancy firms are well established in the field of data analytics, often in association with an emerging ‘smart city’ agenda. These activities are often typified by a ‘black box’ approach to methodologies, accessed on a proprietary and paid-for basis. In some cases academic organisations themselves are incentivised to replicate this model, developing intellectual property and new methodologies with an eye to relicensing.

Finally, there are those areas adopting a more open model; the Data Mill North, originally in Leeds, but expanding fast; the Trafford Innovation Lab; and closer to home, Bath:Hacked have all provided a space localities can release data to empower the wider community to use local data. These models focus on an open data infrastructure, with Bath:Hacked being notable as having a local datastore owned entirely by the local community, rather than government itself.

It’s clear when looking at the exemplars in this area; that these innovations are often the preserve of larger or well-off cities. Innovation scales well, and those who have the money can develop, brand and sell their concepts and ultimately sustain the work through ongoing external investment. Those who can’t, won’t. Data ‘haves and have-nots’ may inevitably develop.

As public sector austerity remains one of the overriding forces of contemporary urban governance, there is a question about how it is possible to realise these benefits in places which might not have the advantages of scale or funding. It is too easy to finish any summary such as this with a passionate plea for government or some undefined higher power to provide funding for good data works, but in practice that is likely to be little more than an optimistic hope; instead we must continue to question if there may be another way.

An alternative way – towards partnerships of data and analytics?

In Bath and North East Somerset we think we have an interesting local approach, one which could perhaps scale without relying on ‘black boxes’ or extensive investment.

In 2013 a collaboration was established between the Council, Bath and North East Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group and the Institute for Policy Research. The aim of this collaboration was to try to help the Council access academic skills and knowledge and realise actual policy impacts. Simultaneously the Council supported the development of Bath:Hacked.

This collaboration is based open principles of open data and open source and makes a virtue of the varied skills held across our civic space. No one organisation has the ownership of the entire process, nor are the benefits realised by one partner alone.

The collaboration has been successful in attracting external funding for projects as wide-ranging as school’s energy efficiency through to uses of new technology in Social Prescribing services. This approach has helped all partners use their analytical resources differently without requiring significant additional investment.

Such endeavours also come with some degree of risk. Our work is reliant on the passion and dedication of individuals, within organisations and in the community at large and is vulnerable to people changing jobs, leaving the area or finding themselves with less spare time to commit to this work. In addition, as the collaboration emerged from fixed term funding, the work itself was constrained by time. In addition we have faced various issues of timeliness, access and relevance in ensuring that analytical outputs reach their desired audience.

The future of collaboration

For 2017 the collaboration will look to move onto a more formal partnership footing and examine options to do this. They seem to range from increasing the number and range of informal networks to a structured ‘front door’ model.

Focussing more on an informal footing means we increase the sustainability of the collaboration and its reach, but increases the reliance on goodwill and personal commitment from individuals involved.

As we progress, the main question remains whether this model can scale, not just in terms of engaging beyond the traditionally active data community, but also whether it might provide a model for other areas, potentially those without the scale or resource to attract high-cost innovation.

Jon Poole is Research and Intelligence Manager at Bath and North East Somerset Council, and works with the IPR on the project Connecting data across public services in Bath & North East Somerset

The original version of this article can be found at the IPR Blog.

SETsquared: Focussed on Growth

SETsquared is the world’s number 1 university business incubator. Simon Bond, Innovation Director of SETsquared, discusses the secret to their long-standing success, and what they plan to do next. 

Over the last 15 years, the SETsquared Partnership of the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey has established a successful track-record based on unlocking economic growth from the commercialisation of research, incubation and collaboration with businesses. During this period and in order to ‘feed’ these initiatives, the Partnership has also launched programmes to develop the business skills of its most talented entrepreneurial students and researchers.

From our base in the South of England, the impact of SETsquared has been measurable and it has helped to unlock over £1bn of private sector investment through its support of 1,000 science, engineering and technology companies. Many of these companies have continued to achieve great success as our alumni and gone on to have an economic impact that has been independently assessed to be worth over £3.8bn, and to have created 9,000 new jobs.

As pioneers, and because of the success of our member companies, SETsquared has been regularly acknowledged for its thought leadership and practices. Most recently it was commended for its work in the Dowling Review and also cited in the Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper. Since 2015, SETsquared has been ranked as the world’s No.1 university business incubator.

So far so good. But where do we go from here? Undoubtedly, these are extraordinary times and ‘business as usual’ and incremental growth is not enough. SETsquared does have the advantage of the long view, and survived and thrived through previous seismic shifts, with the 2008 financial crisis and the bonfire of the quangos and the reorganisation of our regional system that followed, being just two examples among many. In this context, Brexit and the likelihood of new trade flows in a new global economy is set to be ‘similarly extraordinary’. No one has come up with the winning formula yet, but I’d bet that our best chance of making a success of the present situation will come from an entrepreneurial and creative response from the kind people and companies that SETsquared has a track record of working with.

The good news is that we have a head start with this community. One of the benefits of pioneering is that many of the start-ups that SETsquared has worked with over the last 15 years have now matured to become substantial scale-up companies led by entrepreneurs with whom we have a long-term, trusted relationships. Earlier this year we celebrated the achievements of many of these good friends at SETsquared’s House of Commons Reception for our top 50 Entrepreneurs from the last 15 years. In the weeks that followed we carried out research based on detailed interviews with this cohort of scale up alumni and members and were delighted that they were very clear on how SETsquared should continue to add value to their ambitious growth plans – specifically our scale-up alumni and members told us that they are looking to SETsquared to support them via mentoring and critical business review, along with access to international customers and access finance for growth and innovation.

Alongside this endorsement of the SETsquared model, a further benefit of our track record in business incubation is that, through the activities of our member companies, we have built a presence and reputation in several key innovation-intensive sectors, specifically in: digital, data and communications; advanced engineering and manufacturing; health and wellbeing; and a spectrum of environmental and sustainable related technologies. The deal flow provided by our member companies in these sectors has caught the attention of large corporates including from the likes of Apple, Schlumberger, Huawei, Magna and Sony along with many more, especially since we launched the SETsquared Open Innovation Programme four years ago. Not surprisingly, the presence of consistently high-quality deal flow and corporate interest, has also caught the eye of specialist investors, from the City of London of course, but also from the East and West coast of the USA, and lately, from tech hot spots in China, who look to SETsquared as an access point to world-class new technology, innovation and talent.

Encouragingly, the nexus between scale-ups and these innovation-intensive sectors has also been picked-up as an opportunity for economic growth by the recent Science and Innovation Audits, in which GW4 was instrumental in South West England and South East Wales.

This has helped SETsquared to shape its own ‘extraordinary response’ to these extraordinary times and develop plans to power-up its proven ability to unlock GVA from private companies. We will of course maintain and continue to invest in our presence as the ‘go-to’ place for start-ups through our incubators. However, SETsquared will also launch programmes that will help the many ambitious scale-up companies in our networks and from across our region, particularly from the innovation-intensive sectors that are the distinct strengths of the South of England, to access innovation and R&D collaborations with our universities, access international customers and access investment in order to grow and build their businesses as an integrated part of the UK knowledge base.

Simon Bond is Innovation Director at SETsquared Partnership.

GW4 scientists shed new light on the complex processes that help the body combat stress

Scientists have developed a pioneering new approach to reveal how the body releases hormones in order to combat stress. The research has emerged from a GW4 community exploring neuroscience and mental health.

A team of researchers has uncovered the regulatory processes which govern how glucocorticoids – steroid hormones with powerful anti-inflammatory effects – are released into the body.

Using predictions from a mathematical model, the team showed for the first time how individual regulatory processes act holistically to govern changes in hormone secretion when the body is in a healthy state, compared to when it is exposed to stress-induced inflammation.

The researchers, including mathematicians from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute and physiologists from the University of Bristol’s Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology, validated these predictions through experimental physiology studies.

The study is published in the leading scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Monday, 17 July 2017.

Dr Francesca Spiga, one of the lead authors of the study from the University of Bristol, said: “This is the first study to show just how dynamically complex the adrenal gland response to stress is, and how sensitive is to clinically important perturbations, such as pro-inflammatory cytokines. Our hope is that a better understanding of this system will improve treatment of patients with inflammatory conditions, such as those undergoing major surgery.”

The body’s ability to react to stress relies on a dynamic process of hormone secretion. When stress is detected, the adrenal glands send a surge of glucocorticoid hormones, including cortisol, to mount an efficient, rapid response.

Cortisol, known as “the stress hormone”, helps our bodies optimise use of energy sources such as glucose. It achieves this by regulating key bodily functions such as the immune response, digestion, wound-healing, and even cognition and mood.

Dr Eder Zavala, a recently appointed MRC Research Fellow from the University of Exeter and one of the lead authors of the study said: “Glucocorticoid hormones, such as cortisol, are made in the adrenal glands, which effectively work in a similar manner to shock absorbers on a vehicle.

They buffer the body against stress so you can carry on without feeling the impact too severely. During disease however, these natural shock absorbers lose their efficiency, and you start to notice the impact more.

This research allows us to understand the network that controls the synthesis of these hormones, so we not only see how it works in healthy scenarios, but predict what goes wrong during stress-related illnesses.”

Stress hormone secretion is regulated by a complex neuroendocrine network involving the hypothalamus in the brain, and the pituitary and adrenal glands in the periphery. Although the many key factors involved in this axis have been well studied, the way in which they interact as a network to regulate the glucocorticoid secretion has not been investigated.

Professor John Terry, from the University of Exeter’s Living Systems Institute and one of the senior authors of the study said: “It has long been a mystery whether the adrenal glands secreted glucocorticoids purely under instruction from the brain or whether the gland itself played a role in governing the level of hormones.

Our latest findings add to a growing body of evidence that stress, and the body’s response to stress, is not all in the head, but that the adrenal gland is playing an important role in regulating our stress response.”

‘Dynamic responses of the adrenal steroidogenic regulatory network’ is published in PNAS.

Exploring nanofabrication facility collaboration across the GW4 Alliance

The first GW4 Nanofabrication Workshop was hosted by the University of Bath this month to raise awareness of the Nanofabrication facilities at the GW4 universities and explore new cooperative activities between them.

Over 50 academics, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers from the universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter attended the workshop which was funded by an EPSRC grant.

Nanofab_Workshop_July_2017The event started with a keynote lecture by Dr Andy Sellars, Chief Business Development Officer for the new Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult in Cardiff. This was followed by presentations from the Managers of the four institutional nanofabrication facilities, describing their equipment infrastructure and capabilities.

In addition to short talks and posters about nanofabrication-enabled research from PhD students, research staff and academics, there were also discussions on ways to enable the sharing of equipment and expertise between facilities, and joint equipment bids were explored.

Nanofab_Workshop_July_2017_2Better cooperation between the four facilities would help cover equipment failures and allow access to unique pieces of equipment that are only available on one of the other sites. Future joint equipment bids will focus on large value specialised pieces of equipment that will be accessible to researchers from all four universities. Other forms of cooperative activity could involve multi-site service and maintenance contracts for key pieces of equipment as well as joint training for research staff.

Professor Simon Bending, academic head of the nanofabrication facility at the University of Bath said: “The Workshop was very successful in raising awareness of the capabilities of the Nanofabrication Facilities in the four GW4 Universities as well as the challenges they face. We have committed ourselves to streamlining processes for equipment sharing and will be exploring future cooperative training activities and joint equipment bids.”

The Facility Managers will continue to meet on a regular basis and joint training and awareness-raising activities are planned for the coming year. Over the next three years, there will also be opportunities to bid to calls for new University partners of the Institute for Compound Semiconductors in Cardiff.

We are recruiting

The GW4 Alliance is recruiting for the following role:

GW4 Research Development Manager

This is an exciting opportunity to join GW4 to implement our new ambitious vision. Guided by a dynamic and committed senior leadership team across the universities, you will interact with academic and management teams across the Alliance, external regional stakeholders, and funders of research. Working closely with the newly appointed Director of GW4 and GW4 Programme Managers embedded within the universities, you will drive strategic initiatives across the partnership. This career opportunity will suit a dynamic individual with ambition and a keen, broad interest research management within higher education.

You should have experience in research, and in research administration and/or strategic management, ideally obtained in a higher education institution and/or funding agency. Informal enquiries are welcome and should be addressed to Sarah Perkins (s.perkins@gw4.ac.uk).

The role will be based in Bristol but we welcome applications from all GW4 member institutions and external candidates.

The University of Bristol is committed to creating and sustaining a fully inclusive culture. They welcome applicants from all backgrounds and communities.

Further information

Cultural investment and collaboration in the South West

Arts Council England has just concluded its National Portfolio investment for the period 2018-22. In the South West of England, this means a commitment of £112 million across four years to 102 cultural organisations, from Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to Cornwall’s Leach Pottery, Bristol’s Watershed to Bridport Arts Centre.

In the South West, we have sought to invest at scale in places such as Plymouth  and Southampton, levered by sustained investment from local authorities and robust higher education partnerships. We have also sought to invest in places of lower engagement, with National Portfolio Organisations for the first time in Torbay, Weston-super-Mare and Gloucester.

I can say with some confidence that the number of artists and organisations making work here is greater than it’s ever been. The inter-relationships within cultural and creative industries are more fluid and dynamic than ever before. Cities such as Bristol are net importers of cultural talent. And towns and cities across the region are hastening to acknowledge that arts and culture is the “rocket fuel” that drives place and identity.

…and yet – the medium-to-long term prognosis for cultural development in South West England is complex. Much of the art is fantastic. The reach and engagement of audiences is broader than ever. But levering investment into cultural activity remains sporadic.

The investment landscape for local government is incredibly challenging. Higher education has an offer to make to the sector, but it won’t be – and shouldn’t be – to provide an alternate grant funding system. Philanthropy is emerging as an important dimension, but is necessarily a long-burn game. The business community recognises cultural development as a driver for growth, but from a Local Enterprise Partnership perspective, it isn’t a sector that provides easy metrics around jobs growth and economic impact.

So that’s a notable feature of our investment for 2018-22 – the development of a “best practice” portfolio which features new and entrepreneurial business models, mergers, social investment and independent museums with sound commercial acumen.

Examples of this include:

These organisations are the outriders of the resilience revolution that the arts and cultural sector will need to embrace over the next few years, not just in South West England, but nationwide.

So the big challenge I’d like to throw down is to ask what relationship higher education in the Great West imagines itself having with arts and cultural organisations over the next decade.

There’s some fabulous best practice out there already, such as the co-investment of the two Bristol universities in Watershed’s Pervasive Media Lab. In similar vein, the REACT hub propelled higher education and cultural entrepreneurs towards each other and catalysed 53 new digital products and experiences.

It’s not all about product. Just as often, partnerships between higher education and cultural organisations can result in an enhanced sense of place. Since the its triumphant hosting of British Art Show 7, Plymouth University has played a central role in that city’s cultural revival, as a core member of the city’s culture board and partner in the iconic Plymouth History Centre project. Meanwhile, in Southampton, the two universities are actively reinventing the city’s identity through their financial and intellectual investment in the new cultural quarter, and the outreach which will arise from it.

But there is much more to be done, and in a spirit of provocation, I’d like to pose a few questions which might be useful in helping frame future ambition:

  • Should higher education consider a more philanthropic approach to investing in the west’s cultural organisations? (I’d suggest “Yes”) What benefits accrue from “soft” investment relative to “hard transactions”? (I’d suggest “stronger HE brands and higher student numbers”).
  • Do cultural organisations need to better understand the financial, social and institutional return on investment that higher education might be seeking from engaging with them? (I’d suggest “Yes, definitely”)
  • What do STEM-focused universities stand to gain from engagement with arts and culture? (I’d suggest “research value, brand firepower and a crucial lever for widening participation)
  • We live in a world where “content” is more fluid than ever before. Are traditionally structured artforms and degrees a vital underpinning to arts and culture, or an unnecessary confinement? (I’d suggest “increasingly the latter rather than the former”).

…all of which is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the deeper and broader conversation this territory merits. But the benefits are potentially huge – both for the undercapitalised cultural sector and the fiercely competitive higher education marketplace. From an Arts Council England perspective, we’re more than happy to join that conversation.

Phil Gibby is Area Director, South West for the Arts Council England. 

Image from The Rooms, a festival celebrating the work produced by REACT. REACT was a collaboration led by UWE Bristol and Watershed, with the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter. Photograph by Max McClure

Frontier thinking: exploring the West’s tech success

The ‘Silicon Gorge’ has long been hailed as a hive of creative and technological disruption – but what’s the secret to the growth of the UK’s largest digital cluster outside of London? We hear from Oracle’s Phil Bates on how start-ups, global businesses and universities are driving the South West’s digital economy through collaboration

Back in the 1990s, Oracle established an office in the South West city of Bristol – a time when ‘ubiquitous computing’ was the buzzword of the day, and organisations were just beginning to wake up to the potential of the region as a hub of technological expertise. Fast forward nearly 25 years, and that reputation is assured.

As a recent Tech Nation report indicated, the broader region is a powerhouse in terms of digital jobs (over 67,000 at last count) and digital revenue (£2.2 billion GVA). The explanation behind this success is complex: a perfect storm of target industries, supportive businesses, innovative start-ups and research-intensive universities.

A highly-skilled workforce full of ‘serial founders’

In Bristol, the intersection of high performance computing, cloud computing and digital media industries has led to an unusually high concentration of people with expertise in developing applications. When, in 2014, Oracle decided to establish our Strategic Cloud Development Centre here, one of the first questions we asked was: is there the talent we need to build our team?

So we did our research: we undertook an analysis of LinkedIn profiles and tracked Meetups in the area. We found serial founders on their second or even third start-ups who wanted to build in the city they lived in. It was evident that there was a rich seam of talent and enthusiasm, borne out by consistently high registration for developer events; indeed, Bristol and Bath has the greatest number of Meetups outside of London.

We aren’t the only global company to have noticed the potential of the South West’s highly skilled workforce – our bedfellows in Bristol include Amazon, IBM, Cray and HPE (Hewlett Packard) each with well established product development teams in the city.

Creative case studies

Oracle is always looking for innovative use cases to test our latest services and products. Bristol has a distinct advantage in that it is home to a large number of animation and digital media companies, from the world-famous Aardman to agile start-ups. Animated films can take up to one to ten hours to render each frame – at at least 21 frames a second. For companies producing animated films, computing performance is critical – as is the need for super fast networking and the ability to securely store huge volumes of media. These requirements provide a rich vein for collaboration between high tech companies like Oracle, and fast moving, creative and innovative Bristol film production companies.

We met local start-up Yellow Dog through reaching out to the Bristol developer community. They had found that rendering animation was an extremely time-consuming process, and involved delivering huge amounts of data onto a separate cloud service. Working together, we took only a couple of days to deliver a proof-of-concept solution using Oracle’s Bare Metal Cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), with ground-breaking performance, networking and file storage capabilities.

Collaboration has to be based on  a foundation of mutual benefit, and in this case, Yellow Dog were able to access cutting-edge technology before it had been made available to the market, and we were able to improve Bare Metal Cloud’s performance through a real-life user challenge.

The results were phenomenal – Yellow Dog reported back that they were able to increase the speed of rendering by up to 10 x faster for every single use case, making our service much more effective than major competitors such as Amazon and Rackspace. We wanted to share the credit for the success of this collaboration, so we ensured that Yellow Dog shared platforms with us at conferences and took part in joint interviews in the media.

Another great example of the collision between creative and digital economies includes an earlier collaboration between HP Labs and the University of Bristol, which combined on-demand computing with high speed networking and applied this to digital media. The technology developed through this partnership was later used by Dreamworks to produce Shrek, ushering in the next generation of animated films.

Alongside the creative industries, the region is also home to the UK’s largest aerospace sector and a growing expertise in new energy systems – providing companies like Oracle with hugely valuable user case studies, from fluid modelling and dynamics to virtual reality.

The next generation of innovators

Another important component of Bristol and the South West’s success as a digital technology cluster lies in its access to research-intensive and entrepreneurial universities. We have long worked fruitfully with academics and students across the region through a number of ways: we develop collaborative research, offer internships and hire local graduates. We liaised directly with higher education institutions, businesses, LEPs and the Welsh Government on the South West England and South East Wales Science and Innovation Audit and continue to champion science and innovation for the region together as the Great West Taskforce.

Our relationships with Universities in the region have evolved from informal collaboration on an individual level to a formal, organisation-wide partnerships. At University of Bristol, for example, we deliver guest lectures, consult on their curriculum to provide a commercial perspective and offer mentoring for student computing projects, from architectural advice to ensuring methodology meets the industry standard. Together with the University of Bristol and UWE we are pushing back the frontiers of technological achievement, from breaking the land speed record, to providing new applications for protein modelling and gravitational waves.

Supporting the local tech ecosystem

The potential of the South West as a powerful technology cluster has been well-documented. But there is no room for complacency – we must continue to nurture and grow our local tech ecosystem. With this in mind, Oracle has chosen Bristol, alongside Paris, Delhi, Sao Paolo and others, to launch Oracle’s Start-Up Cloud Accelerator.

The programme, which will welcome its first cohort this year, provides a distinctive approach to helping startups scale – technically and commercially. Startups in the accelerator programme, based at Bristol’s Engine Shed, gain access to state of the art cloud technology, technical mentoring and the ability to work closely with Oracle’s product development teams worldwide. In addition, Oracle provides training and support to companies to reach and sell to enterprise scale customers – including many of the largest companies and public sector organisations in Oracle’s impressive 400,000+ customer base. 

Our mantra: start small, grow fast

The South West has many of the elements needed to make a world-leading technology cluster: highly skilled, motivated developers, innovative start-ups, major computing businesses and target industries such as creative media and aerospace. The final piece of the puzzle is how these elements come together: the way we all collaborate.

We believe in rapid collaboration and in getting to success – or failure – as early as possible in a collaboration. Whether we’re working with students or start-ups, our mantra is ‘start small, grow fast’ and the success of our collaborations is a testament to this. Imagination, generosity and a willingness to experiment are values shared by many organisations around the South West, and they look set to sustain our digital economy for many years to come.

Phil Bates is an architect in Oracle’s public cloud development group, based in Bristol.

*These statistics collate Bristol & Bath, Exeter and Cardiff & Swansea tech clusters.

Image reproduced through Creative Commons: LukeAndrew94