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Friday, 31 October 2014

Frontiers of Science: Stimulating conversations between scientists

It’s been a fantastic start to the UK-India Frontiers of Science meeting in Khandala, India. The Royal Society organises Frontiers of Science meetings to stimulate conversations between scientists of different disciplines, and between scientists from different countries.
Bringing together people who don’t normally talk to each other is key: you have no idea until to you talk to them that there are other scientists out there who, for example, have developed a method that does exactly what you want to do, but in a different context. Or, equally, would benefit from your analytical method or computational model.
It’s also just plain refreshing to hear about subjects that you don’t study, and how different people tackle problems.

Networks while networking, and motoring on the microscopic level!

Today, there were two sessions: one on statistical models and one on cellular motors. We heard about how to use networks to figure out flavour combinations in cookery (bring on Heston Blumenthal…), and how extraordinary molecules “walk” through cells, carrying cargo around that is essential for our bodies to function. And all the time, my mind was buzzing with ideas and inspiration.
We then had a policy session, based on the use of biotechnology in agriculture, which was a lively discussion with lots of excellent ideas about how we, as scientists, can contribute to the subject and (probably most importantly) to the communication of the relevant science to society.

Waves in water

Jal Tarang bowls
Jal Tarang bowls
All of this is going on in the magical surroundings of Khandala, in a hill top retreat just over an hour away from the bustle of Mumbai. After the excitement of the science, we had an opportunity to relax with some traditional Indian music, a form called Jal Tarang meaning “waves in water”, which consists of carefully tuned ceramic bowls of water (tuned according to the amount of water in each bowl), struck with drumsticks to produce a clear, ringing tone, accompanied by Indian drums such as the tabla.

And finally…

Other than having the opportunity to take part in such a wonderful meeting, my other piece of good news this week was that I received a Royal Society research grant to fund a new piece of laboratory equipment, which will mean I can measure a lot more samples than previously.
All-in-all, not a bad few days!
This blog has been reproduced with kind permission by the Royal Society.  You can view the original blog on their website.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Kate Hendry, School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol.
Kate Hendry

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Fostering interdisciplinarity in sustainable development

On 15 October 2014, we had a fascinating talk from Prof. Wendy Gibson from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences launching the University’s ‘Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction: Capacity Building in the face of Environmental Uncertainty’ network.

The Cabot Institute is supporting a number of ventures to foster an interdisciplinary network of academics across the University, whose work can be included under the broad 'development studies'/'international development' umbrella, due to its direct or indirect impact on sustainable development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

Uniquely, at Bristol, this includes academics working in the social sciences, but also in Physical Geography, Earth Sciences, Public Health, Engineering, Biological and Veterinary Sciences, to name but a few.  This 'International Development Discussion Forum' will have a regular monthly slot and it is therefore hoped that participants will come regularly, not because they may be specialists in the topic of that month's presentation, but in order to hear the kinds of questions that parasitologists, or engineers, or lawyers, for example, raise for development research; questions that they can, in turn, contribute to from their own discipline.

Coping with parasitic diseases in Africa

Trypanosomes in human blood.
Credit: University of Bristol
The topic of Wendy's talk was the extensive research she has undertaken as a parasitologist on the tsetse fly as a vector for trypanosomes, parasites which cause African sleeping sickness, or HAT - Human African Trypanosomiasis.  In light of the global media coverage of the Ebola outbreak, Wendy's measured reminder about the ongoing impact of a lower profile disease such as HAT, on people and animals in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, was sobering.  Not only does the disease have a devastating impact on affected communities, but diagnosis and the treatment of the disease are extremely unpleasant and involve protracted intervention.  In situations in which people are coping with a range of daily hardships that impact upon their livelihoods, including drought, poor forage and a range of different diseases affecting human and animal populations, disease-focused approaches often fail to recognise this reality.

Interdisciplinary challenges in rural healthcare

After the talk, participants were asked to focus on three specific challenges identified by Wendy:

  1. How to maintain momentum in control programs as we move towards disease eradication.
  2. How to prioritise disease risks with a finite health budget.
  3. How to get different government departments to co-operate on shared goals.

Given that the subject clearly raised so many issues relating to the challenges of public health care in sub-Saharan Africa – including issues relating to rural (as opposed to urban) poverty, governance and the state, aid and non-governmental organisations – discussions were wide-ranging.  Rather than proffering standard academic critique of the material presented, participants were asked to focus on what they, positioned as they are within their own discipline, could bring to the table.  Consequently, it was fascinating how different tables touched upon similar issues but nevertheless raised specific insights depending on the differing make-up of the tables and the expertise included on them.

Specific challenges identified included:

  •  ongoing problems with top-down interventions, 
  • the forging of rural (and regional) networks, 
  • the difficulties in specifying the costs of such a disease, 
  • raising the profile of a such a low-profile disease when its symptoms may take some years to become manifest, and 
  • the difficulties of co-ordinating NGOs, aid, and governments in relation to healthcare priorities, particularly when healthcare demands are seen to ‘compete’ with each other.  
And discussions continued into the networking drinks as participants identified a number of practical and funding obstacles in undertaking the kind of real interdisciplinary research that could be of such value in responding to some of the challenges relating to a disease such as African sleeping sickness.

Quotes from participants

"I knew that some of my research might be usefully applied in developing countries, but the complex challenges and the feeling that I lack a track record in 'development research' put me off. Through the forum I am learning about that world, and it has been a real eye-opener. I had no idea that so much was going on across the University in this area, nor that my naivety would be treated so generously in the friendly and open discussions that we've had so far." 
Dr. Eric Morgan, Veterinary Parasitology and Ecology

"As a scientist I want my work to be "useful". However, translating knowledge into effective and successful, practical outcomes takes more than just generation of that scientific knowledge. This is being increasingly recognised by funders, many of whom now have a focus on interdisciplinarity, particularly for delivering outcomes that can make a difference to people living in developing countries (e.g. the Newton Fund, but also some Research Council funding calls).  While the topic of this workshop was not within my scientific field, it was fascinating, and gave me insight into the realities and difficulties of implementing change that really does require the bringing together of many different aspects of knowledge.  I met some colleagues that would be great to collaborate with in the future in order to better deliver effective outcomes."
Dr. Jo House, Geographical Sciences

Future discussion

On 11 November 2014, the Cabot Institute will be supporting the next discussion forum in this series in which Prof. Thorsten Wagener will be giving a talk on his ongoing work in the field of sustainable water management.  His research focuses on a systems approach, which he argues is needed to adequately understand this dynamic physical and socio-economic system with the goal to provide water security for people and nature.

This blog has been written by Dr Elizabeth Fortin, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol Law School.
Dr Elizabeth Fortin

Kyoto and Bristol: Working together on plant science

Last month Bristol’s plant scientists were pleased to welcome visiting researchers from Kyoto University, one of Japan’s leading universities.

The two universities have a strong partnership, which led to large cross-disciplinary symposia in 2013 and 2014. As Dr. Antony Dodd explains, the popularity of the 2014 plant science session led to the emergence of the latest workshop: “The second symposium included a large plant science session that attracted around 50 scientists. Following this, it was decided to expand upon this success and hold a focused three-day plant sciences workshop in the University of Bristol’s new Life Sciences Building”. Bristol’s Dr. Dodd and Professor Simon Hiscock and Kyoto’s Professors Minoru Tamura and Hiroshi Kudoh organised the event, which took place on 23-25 September 2014.

From left, organisers Minoru Tamura, Antony Dodd, Simon Hiscock
and Hiroshi Kudoh

Academics, post-docs and (I was pleased to see) several PhD students from Kyoto’s Department of Botany and Center for Ecological Research made the long trip to Bristol. During the talks and poster presentations given by researchers from both Kyoto and Bristol, I was amazed by how similar our research interests were, for example in the areas of circadian rhythms (nature’s body clock), plant shade avoidance and the environmental regulation of the growing plant.
Botanic garden partnership

Plant science at both universities is enhanced by their botanic gardens. During the workshop, visitors from Kyoto had the opportunity for a guided tour of Bristol’s Botanic Garden by its director, Professor Hiscock. Many of us think of the Botanic Garden as somewhere pleasant to spend an afternoon, but it is an important resource for researchers at Bristol and further afield and as Dr. Dodd explains, “Both Kyoto and Bristol have long-standing interests in plant evolution and taxonomy”. At the end of the visit, Professors Hiscock and Tamura, the Director of the Kyoto Botanic Garden, signed a formal partnership between the two botanic gardens. Dr. Dodd expands on the importance of this agreement: “The new partnership between our two Botanic Gardens is very exciting because it will allow us to share good ideas and good practice in curation, cultivation, science and education”.
Professors Tamura and Hiscock sign the botanic
gardens partnership. Image credit: Botanic Gardens

Benefiting from international collaboration

The main aim of the workshop was to form collaborations between Kyoto and Bristol scientists. “The portfolio of techniques, ideas and approaches to academic research varies considerably between countries. International collaboration forms a brilliant way to accomplish science that would not otherwise be possible, by providing access to new techniques, facilities, and ideas”, says Dr. Dodd. The end of the meeting gave researchers a chance to meet with others with similar interests and discuss new ways to work together. Dr. Dodd and Professor Kudoh also announced that they had just won a funding grant to investigate circadian rhythms in the field in Kyoto, which sounded like a fascinating project. One of the aims of the project is a short-term graduate exchange programme, which will give the students a unique chance to learn new techniques and experience international research, forming new collaborations of their own.

I really enjoyed the workshop. It was fantastic to hear about the research underway in Kyoto University and to discuss my own work with people in related fields. It was also interesting to hear about the similarities and differences in academia half the world away. Thanks to the organisers, and I look forward to hearing about the international collaborations that come out of this event soon!
Image credit: Botanic Garden
This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Sarah Jose

Guest blog: Let’s reach the Size of England

The Size of England is an amazing new charity working to raise £13 million to safeguard 13 million hectares of rainforest, which is the size of England, and coincidentally the area of rainforest that is cut down every year globally.

To us, safeguarding is not about owning land - it’s about encouraging those who need the land to use it sustainably and to empower local people and indigenous communities. It’s about establishing local rights to the land and providing alternatives for fuel and initiating tree planting programs to restore habitats.

We know that Size of England can be successful. Last year, the Size of Wales team reached their target of raising £2 million to safeguard 2 million hectares of rainforest. But as you know, we want to raise the game. However in order to do this we need help.

At the moment we are raising money for a start-up fund via a crowdfunding webpage. This is so we can register as a charity and start doing amazing things for the rainforest and the local community. We already have support from brilliant organisations such as Cool Earth, the Prince's Rainforest Project, WWF and the Crees Foundation, but we can never have enough! We hope, through communication that we can raise the sum whilst also spreading the word of what we want to do, and getting people to 'like', 'follow' and 'friend' the project as it develops.

There are currently three of us, all volunteers with big ideas and ambitions. What we’re asking is can you help the Size of England campaign in other ways? Are you a great fundraiser? Could you improve our website? Have you got legal experience? We'd love to crowd-source skills as well as cash.

Check out our Facebook and Twitter pages. Also take a look at our crowdfunding site if you fancy and pass it on to anyone else who may find it interesting!

Feel free to message me if you have any questions or email me at
This guest blog is written by Olivia Reddy of Size of England.
Olivia Reddy

Friday, 17 October 2014

Bristol 2015 - European Green Capital from an academic perspective

Two weeks ago marked the start of a 100 day countdown until Bristol becomes the European Green Capital 2015.  Associated with that, the University of Bristol announced its support for the city, describing how it would contribute to the Green Capital events, build on its existing foundation of green activity and make a step change in our partnership with Bristol.  These contributions span the entirety of the University, from its educational and research missions to its role as one of the largest businesses and employers in the city – and both of the University’s Research Institutes will be major participants.

As such, I wanted to offer the Cabot Institute’s perspectives on the Green Capital and the wider University’s engagement with it.  And how you can become more involved.

We have been involved in Bristol Green Capital from the very beginning, dating back to Philippa Bayley’s (Cabot Institute Manager) role in the Bristol Green Capital Partnership, first in helping with the bid and then serving as co-Director.  Amanda Woodman-Hardy (Cabot Institute Coordinator) serves on the Partnership’s Communications Action Group, Mike Harris (Cabot Institute Knowledge Exchange Manager) serves on the Industry Action Group, and Cabot academics populate many of the other Action Groups: Kath Baldock (Biological Sciences) on Nature, Wildlife and Green Spaces, Jonty Rougier (Mathematics) on Research and Evaluation, Chris Preist (Computer Science) and Caroline Bird (Law) on Energy, Trevor Thompson (Social and Community Medicine) on Health and Wellbeing and Sue Porter (Policy Studies) on Inclusion and Communities*.

We are deeply involved in this exciting event!  And we are committed to making it a success.  We have already committed over 5000 hours of service to the Bristol Green Capital effort and plan to increase that significantly over the coming months.  We want to work, learn and innovate with people from every part of this fantastic city. And we want 2015 to only be the next step in a growing partnership.

University of Bristol, credit UoB
One of our main commitments must be and will be educational.  Nearly 20,000 students attend this University and they go on to important careers all over the globe. The University has signed up to the UNESCO Global Action Programme commitment, in advance of the launch of the next UNESCO strategy for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and I applaud Chris Willmore’s and Judith Squires’ vision and drive to secure this commitment.   This education is already underway in many areas, including student engagement projects such as the University of Bristol’s Students’ Union Get Green, which has so far inspired over 800 students to take part in environmental projects.  And even though we are a Research Institute, we will use this framework to expand our engagement with the undergraduate experience over the coming years.  We have put on several events aimed at our student population but we want to do more; in particular, I hope that we can work with aspiring student leaders to make a difference both in Bristol but also across the country and the world, during their studies and throughout their lives.

A particular commitment from the Cabot Institute is to work with the Centre for Public Engagement and the wider University to host or co-host a wide range of events during 2015.  From Julia Slingo’s Cabot Fellowship acceptance talk in February to a major lecture during alumni weekend to a workshop and public debate on the Uncertain World, we will continue to invite inspiring intellectuals from across the globe and engage with local innovators.  But we will also use the numerous opportunities and the thriving creative energy in Bristol to showcase our own academics.

We have been approached by artists (such as the amazing team behind In Between Time), private organisations, businesses and clubs asking for academic perspectives on our changing world, our changing cities and thriving in them.  We are also looking forward to working with the Bristol Festival of Ideas which is taking the lead in organising much of the formal 2015 schedule, including a series of debates focussed on Youth, Business, Faith and Future Leaders. I hope that many of you will be keen to engage with these opportunities – opportunities to share what we have learned but also to initiate new collaborations.  Please contact us if you are interested in partnering or if you have your own ideas!

Finally, it is on this deeper level of collaboration that 2015 has the potential to make a real difference to the city and this University. The Green Capital Year must transcend the lectures, exhibits, debates and other events and serve as a launching point for innovative ideas and new models of working together. The sustainable and smart transformation of the World’s cities is essential to addressing many if not all of the environmental, food, energy and water security challenges we face. Much of the 2015 activity will reflect on the climate change negotiations culminating in Paris at the end of the year; this is also our chance to show that regardless of the outcomes of those negotiations, innovative cities and educational institutions can and will take the lead in transforming our world.

In 2015, the Cabot Institute and its Future Cities initiative will launch a new framework that will allow research to be conducted in partnership with groups from across the city and the world.  This will promote innovations in education, sustainability, creative technology and low carbon energy. Moreover, it will put many of our best students at the heart of the City-University relationship. Cabot and the Centre for Public Engagement are connecting community organisations to academics in order to craft novel masters and final-year undergraduate research projects. This is just one exciting way in which we can work together – our researchers, our students and our city partners – to co-produce new knowledge.

On a final note, I am particularly proud, as an employee of the University, that we have made our own pledges.  Our commitment cannot solely be research and education; we are too large a part of the city, too embedded into its fabric and infrastructure.  The University has already received national recognition for its sustainability work with a Green Gown Award in 2013 for Continual Improvement: Institutional Change and a Times Higher Award for Education for Sustainable Development. But these new pledges will take us further.  They include aiming to become a net carbon neutral campus by 2030; decreasing the University’s transport footprint; and ensuring that every single one of our students has the opportunity to undertake education for sustainable development.  Some of these will be hard to achieve. Others are only a start.  But our commitment is genuine.

Prof Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice Chancellor
at the University of Bristol.
As Professor Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol said in our press release:
“Bristol European Green Capital 2015 is a great opportunity for the city and the University of Bristol. We are centrally involved as a University, and as part of the city more widely, to show the world what can be done, and what we can do, to make cities happier and healthier places to live and work, throughout 2015 and far beyond.”  
Cabot is excited to be part of this and we hope many of you are also keen to participate.

*In addition to those mentioned above, many Cabot academics and partners of the Cabot Institute have played major roles in winning the Green Capital Award and shaping the current programme. For example, Karen Bell of SPS helped shape the the Inclusion and Communities Action Group.
This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost

Michael E Mann: The climate wars

Michael E Mann at the Cabot Institute, 23 September 2014.
Image credit: Amanda Patterson.
As Professor Michael E Mann said at his Cabot Institute Lecture on Tuesday 23 September, you won’t find scientists at conferences or in peer-reviewed publications debating whether or not global warming is happening. Professor John Cook’s recent talk highlighted the scientific consensus; 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is mostly man made. Despite this, Mann’s talk focussed on his experiences in the centre of “the climate wars”.

Mann is well-known in climate science for producing the “hockey stick” graph, depicting the mean annual temperatures over the past 1000 years. The graph is pretty flat until 1900, followed by a very sharp increase in global temperatures to a peak in the late 1990s when the report was published. The recent IPCC findings suggest that if we carry on as we are, we’re looking at a ~4°C increase in global temperature, which could have devastating effects all over the world. As Mann said, that describes a very different planet to the one we know today.

We need to act now, but what Mann calls the “scientisation of politics” is holding back policymakers around the world. He has personally been the target of a few politicians and other groups hoping to discredit the science by casting doubt on his work. In the 2009 ‘Climategate’ scandal, over 1000 e-mails from the University of East Anglia climate scientists were hacked and published online, just before the important UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Words and specific quotes were taken out of context and spread through the media, which Mann believes was timed to distract delegates in Copenhagen from the major issue of mitigating global warming. In total, 17 climate scientists were caught up in Climategate, but several investigations found that their science was sound and none of the scientists had been fudging their data or misleading anyone about their findings.

Mann has been under attack for many years, which scares me as a scientist. Calls from politicians and other groups have led to him being investigated several times, however he has always been found innocent and his science is sound. Several scientific groups have criticised this intimidation tactic of climate researchers. I cannot imagine spending several years having my name dragged through the mud for no reason just to further someone else’s political agenda, but I am grateful to Professor Mann for standing up to the climate bullies and continuing to push the important findings of his work. The planet is warming and a big part of it is our fault. The sooner the public comes to a climate consensus, the sooner we can move forward, and if we want to keep the temperature increase to below 2°C, we’d better act now.

Please watch the recording of the lecture to learn more about the Climate Wars.

This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Sarah Jose

Why climate 'uncertainty' is no excuse for doing nothing

By Richard Pancost, University of Bristol and Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol

Former environment minister Owen Paterson has called for the UK to scrap its climate change targets. In a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, he cited “considerable uncertainty” over the impact of carbon emissions on global warming, a line that was displayed prominently in coverage by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

Paterson is far from alone: climate change debate has been suffused with appeals to “uncertainty” to delay policy action. Who hasn’t heard politicians or media personalities use uncertainty associated with some aspects of climate change to claim that the science is “not settled”?

Over in the US, this sort of thinking pops up quite often in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal. Its most recent article, by Professor Judith Curry, concludes that the ostensibly slowed rate of recent warming gives us “more time to find ways to decarbonise the economy affordably.”

At first glance, avoiding interference with the global economy may seem advisable when there is uncertainty about the future rate of warming or the severity of its consequences.

So let’s do nothing. WSJ

But delaying action because the facts are presumed to be unreliable reflects a misunderstanding of the science of uncertainty. Simply because a crucial parameter such as the climate system’s sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions is expressed as a range – for example, that under some emissions scenarios we will experience 2.6°C to 4.8ºC of global warming or 0.3 to 1.7 m of sea level rise by 2100 – does not mean that the underlying science is poorly understood. We are very confident that temperatures and sea levels will rise by a considerable amount.

Perhaps more importantly, just because some aspects of climate change are difficult to predict (will your county experience more intense floods in a warmer world, or will the floods occur down the road?) does not negate our wider understanding of the climate. We can’t yet predict the floods of the future but we do know that precipitation will be more intense because more water will be stored in the atmosphere on a warmer planet.

This idea of uncertainty might be embedded deeply within science but is no one’s friend and it should be minimised to the greatest extent possible. It is an impetus to mitigative action rather than a reason for complacency.

Uncertainty means greater risk

There are three key aspects of scientific uncertainty surrounding climate change projections that exacerbate rather than ameliorate the risks to our future.

First, uncertainty has an asymmetrical effect on many climatic quantities. For example, a quantity known as Earth system sensitivity, which tells us how much the planet warms for each doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, has been estimated to be between 1.5°C to 4.5ºC. However, it is highly unlikely, given the well-established understanding of how carbon dioxide absorbs long-wave radiation, that this value can be below 1ºC. There is a possibility, however, that sensitivity could be higher than 4.5ºC. For fundamental mathematical reasons, the uncertainty favours greater, rather than smaller, climate impacts than a simple range suggests.

Second, the uncertainty in our projections makes adaptation to climate change more expensive and challenging. Suppose we need to build flood defences for a coastal English town. If we could forecast a 1m sea level rise by 2100 without any uncertainty, the town could confidently build flood barriers 1m higher than they are today. However, although sea levels are most likely to rise by about 1m, we’re really looking at a range between 0.3m and 1.7m. Therefore, flood defences must be at least 1.7m higher than today – 70cm higher than they could be in the absence of uncertainty. And as uncertainty increases, so does the required height of flood defences for non-negotiable mathematical reasons.

And the problem doesn’t end there, as there is further uncertainty in forecasts of rainfall occurrence, intensity and storm surges. This could ultimately mandate a 2 to 3m-high flood defence to stay on the safe side, even if the most likely prediction is for only a 1m sea-level rise. Even then, as most uncertainty ranges are for 95% confidence, there is a 5% chance that those walls would still be too low. Maybe a town is willing to accept a 5% chance of a breach, but a nuclear power station cannot to take such risks.

Finally, some global warming consequences are associated with deep, so-called systemic uncertainty. For example, the combined impact on coral reefs of warmer oceans, more acidic waters and coastal run-off that becomes more silt-choked from more intense rainfalls is very difficult to predict. But we do know, from decades of study of complex systems, that those deep uncertainties may camouflage particularly grave risks. This is particularly concerning given that more than 2.6 billion people depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

Similarly, warming of Arctic permafrost could promote the growth of CO2-sequestering plants, the release of warming-accelerating methane, or both. Warm worlds with very high levels of carbon dioxide did exist in the very distant past and these earlier worlds provide some insight into the response of the Earth system; however, we are accelerating into this new world at a rate that is unprecedented in Earth history, creating additional layers of complexity and uncertainty.

Uncertainty does not imply ignorance

Increasingly, arguments against climate mitigation are phrased as “I accept that humans are increasing CO2 levels and that this will cause some warming but climate is so complicated we cannot understand what the impacts of that warming will be.”

Well if we can’t be certain… Telegraph

This argument is incorrect – uncertainty does not imply ignorance. Indeed, whatever we don’t know mandates caution. No parent would argue “I accept that if my child kicks lions, this will irritate them, but a range of factors will dictate how the lions respond; therefore I will not stop my child from kicking lions.”

The deeper the uncertainty, the more greenhouse gas emissions should be perceived as a wild and poorly understood gamble. By extension, the only unequivocal tool for minimising climate change uncertainty is to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions.

The Conversation

Richard Pancost receives funding from the NERC, the EU and the Leverhulme Trust.

Stephan Lewandowsky receives funding from the Australian Research Council, the World University Network, and the Royal Society.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Sir David Attenborough declares new Life Sciences Building open

David Attenborough at the opening of the University of
Bristol Life Sciences Building.
Image by Nick Smith/University of Bristol
Research came to a standstill on Monday 6 October in Bristol’s new £56 million Life Sciences building as Sir David Attenborough, hero of biologists and nature lovers everywhere, took to the microphone at the opening ceremony. His speech was, frankly, inspirational. He talked about the problems that humanity has caused, but insisted that they won’t be solved unless we can better understand how the world works. He reminded us that knowledge of life sciences isn’t just vital for our future, but that understanding natural processes enhances them and brings joy to our lives.
“There can be no more important area of knowledge for humanity at the moment than the life sciences. It has never been more important, ever, that human beings should understand the workings of the world”.  Sir David Attenborough.
The Life Sciences building is set up to do just that. The meeting areas and large research offices and laboratories mean that scientists are already communicating with colleagues with other research interests far more often than they did in the long corridors of the old Biological Sciences building. I think this will prove essential for developing a deeper understanding of how the world works, which should help us to solve some of the problems we face. Of course, undergraduate students are an important part of the University and as such their new teaching lab is amazing. It can hold 200 students, either as one large class or broken down into separate areas. Screens connected to cameras allow the demonstration of fiddly techniques or show what sort of result the students can expect to see from their experiments. Also, each group has a tablet computer in their work area to augment their learning. Almost makes me wish I were an undergraduate again, until I remember the exams!
As a plant scientist, I can’t talk about the new building without getting excited about the GroDome, the hi-tech glasshouse on the top of the Life Sciences building. It can recreate the perfect conditions for plants or experiments, with automated temperature controls and lighting to give researchers much more control. Each of the six chambers can be regulated separately, and negative pressure systems on the doors to each chamber prevent plant material or diseases from accidentally being spread to other parts of the building.
We were pleased to learn that the building has been rated Excellent in the BREEAM sustainable buildings assessment. Rainwater collected from the roof is used to flush the toilets, heat from the laboratory ventilation systems is reused and the building is air conditioned using chilled beams, with cold air passively sinking from the beam to cool the rooms below.
One of my favourite features of the building is the green wall. Eleven species of plants are included in the four storey high vertical garden, apparently arranged to depict a cell dividing when they flower. The green wall houses bird and bat boxes to promote biodiversity, while also providing an attractive front to the building from St. Michael’s Hill. As Sir David said, it’s important for us to engage with the public, and I think that a building that outwardly tells the world that we are keen to encourage biodiversity is a great starting point.
“It’s places like this which will spread the understanding to the community at large, the world at large, of how important it is for us to do something”.  Sir David Attenborough.
The new facilities of the Life Sciences building are world-class, so I believe we’ll be able to help to fulfill Sir David’s dream of using a deeper understanding of biology to solve the big problems we face today. The building promotes collaboration and public engagement, making it a fantastic place to work and conduct research. Check out the #BristolLifeSciences TagBoard for many more photos of the opening ceremony and the Life Sciences building.
This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Sarah Jose

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Towards the all-age friendly city

The All-Age-Friendly City project, carried out in Spring-Summer 2014, emerged from a desire to imagine the future city from the perspectives of those people – children and older adults – who are too often overlooked in the design and planning of cities today.

Today, reports on ‘the Smart City’ tend to make little or no mention of the wide variety of different age groups living in cities, or of the different and sometimes shared needs of a multi-generational city. This is not just an inevitable oversight that arises when working age adults design infrastructure. It is also a serious flaw in the design imagination shaping the future city: significant amounts of public expenditure go precisely to these age groups and to those institutions and services responsible for addressing the interests of children and older adults. If we want a future city that is adequate
to the people living in it, therefore, designers, policy makers, developers and planners need to think carefully about all ages and stages of life.

To begin to address this issue, the All-Age-Friendly City project brought together researchers working in childhood and aging, members of local government, artists, community groups, computer scientists, developers, planners and practitioners working with children and older adults, to develop
ideas about how cities might better meet the needs and interests of our oldest and youngest generations.

This first working paper builds on desk research and workshops conducted by the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, in collaboration with the Future Cities Catapult in Spring/Summer 2014. It outlines why designing the All-Age-Friendly city is an urgent contemporary concern, the resources that are available to us to do this, and identifies four key areas for future

  • building intergenerational trust; 
  • encouraging encounters across generations;
  • re-imagining housing; and 
  • creating all-age-friendly transport systems. 

We are grateful to the TSB/Future Cities Catapult for funding the workshops, and to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for enabling Keri’s involvement as part of her Connected Communities Leadership Fellowship.  We are also grateful to the contributors to the workshops who contributed
their ideas and experience so generously.

This is the start, we hope, of a longer conversation about how we can create cities that are not just livable in terms of the technologies and infrastructure that underpin them, but that harness such infrastructure to generate experiments in humane, caring and empowered ways of life for all

We look forward to continuing the discussions with others who are interested in this aspiration.

This blog has been reproduced by kind permission from the abstract of the report Towards the all-age friendly city.

It has been written by Cabot Institute members Keri Facer, Lindsey Horner, and Helen Manchester, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.

Read the press release Lego housing, automatic ambulances and car-free streets

Keri Facer
Helen Manchester

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Biodiversity in Bedminster

Students undertaking community based learning projects are coming to the end of their dissertation process and are beginning to disseminate their results to the community.  Last night student Julia Kole shared her findings with the Bedminster community.  Julia discussed the benefits and limitations of wildlife corridors and stepping stones in Bedminster.  Attendees asked lots of questions about the project and discussed how the local community can take forward findings from Julia's dissertation.

Julia also conducted an interview earlier in the week with B@se radio about the project.  She discusses her background growing up in Canada and her interested in the environment from a young age enjoying watching nature documentaries.  This led on to studying in the US and working with children in national parks and Julia discusses the impact this had on children involved.

She explains that she picked the Environmental Policy and Management MSc due to the institution being world renowned and how she loved the city. She talks of how the course is a great mix of different subjects from climate change modelling and impact to statistical analysis as well as a mix of students from all over the world sharing their knowledge.  She also shares her findings on how biodiversity in Bedminster can be improved. 

Listen to Julia's interview:
This blog is written by Hannah Tweddle, Community Based Learning Intern at the Cabot Institute.
Hannah Tweddle

John Cook in Bristol: The consensus gap

As a biologist, the fact that anthropogenic climate change is occurring has been explained to me throughout my education. We are interested in how crops might respond to global warming or what might happen to bees or coral reefs, not the basic question of whether or not it is happening at all.  So that is why I was keen to attend John Cook’s talk at the Cabot Institute and learn a bit more about climate science and how it is perceived both within and outside the climate change science community

John Cook is the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia. He runs the popular Skeptical Science blog, with the aim of explaining the scientific consensus on global warming. As he pointed out, his website has received a lot of criticism from people who do not agree that climate change is significantly driven by human effects.

The climate consensus

97% of climate scientists agree that humans are responsible
 for climate change. Image credit: Skeptical Science 
Several studies, including John’s own (Cook et al., 2013), have shown that 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are significantly contributing to global warming. Doran and Zimmermann (2009) asked earth and climate scientists whether they thought that humans are significantly impacting global climate change and found that 97.4% agreed we are, while Anderegg and colleagues (2010) found that 97-98% of climate scientists agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finding that anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for most of the Earth’s global warming.

Public perception of consensus

John described how the public does not seem to realise the extent of scientific agreement. When asked to estimate “how many climate experts agree that the global warming we are witnessing is a direct consequence of the burning of fossil fuels by humans”, the average response was 55%, a marked underestimate of the 97% consensus.

John is working to improve public understanding of
the scientific consensus around global climate change.
Image credit: Skeptical Science 
John showed a video from comedian John Oliver, who insisted that the only reason there was still an ongoing debate about climate change is because it is always portrayed with an “inherently misleading” 50:50 divide in representation. He goes on to hold a “mathematically fair” debate with three sceptics and 97 climate scientists, which ends with the immortal line, “I can’t hear you over the weight of scientific evidence”.

John Cook tried to bridge the consensus gap with a more balanced approach in his latest project, entitled “97 hours of consensus”. A total of 97 experts were asked to address the topic of humans causing global warming. Cabot’s own director, Professor Rich Pancost, was one of the scientists included.
Cabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost was a featured
climate expert in the 97 Hours of Consensus project.
Image credit: Skeptical Science 
John said that there is a lot of misinformation out there, causing confusion for the public who put their trust in scientific experts. He highlighted one particular website, the Global Warming Petition Project, which as of today [10 February 2014] had been signed by 31,487 American scientists urging their government to reject any limits on greenhouse gas emissions. As John pointed out, only 39 of these people are actually climatologists, therefore 99.9% of them are simply people with science degrees. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a biologist, but that doesn’t give me the expertise needed to decide whether anthropogenic climate change is occurring or what the causes are. I leave that to the experts. Instead, I focus my intellectual energy on ecosystems and how global warming (and other factors) will affect them.

Dr. Tamsin Edwards is a climate scientist who actively engages with people who differ in their opinions on what the science shows. In her blog, she states, “We can’t avoid scientific uncertainty, because we can’t perfectly measure or understand the universe. So we need to be very clear about what we know, what we don’t know, and the surprises we might face”. It can be tempting to avoid discussing difficult topics, but Tamsin inspires me (and hopefully her fellow climate scientists) to explain the science behind the conclusions and hopefully enable the public to make informed decisions too.

Do we need to close the consensus gap?

John said that he fears that if people don’t realise there is 97% scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change, they won’t accept that it is happening and/or care enough to do anything about it. In the video abstract for his 2013 paper, John states that, “This misperception has real world consequences. When people correctly understand that the scientists agree, they are more likely to support policy that mitigates climate change”.

In the UK, several polls over the past five years have looked at what people consider the main cause of global climate change. Where two options (humans versus natural causes) were given, 43-71% of respondents chose humans as the main driver of global warming. These results were diluted when a third option (both human and natural causes) was given, however it is encouraging to note that only around 10-15% blamed natural processes alone.

Carbon Brief compared UK participants’ opinions on what
causes climate change. Image credit: Carbon Brief
The weekend following John’s talk was a perfect example of a possible change in public opinion of climate change globally. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in cities across the world in the People’s Climate March, including a couple thousand locally in Bristol.  This was the largest climate march in history. The biggest turnout was in New York, where over 300,000 people called for action from the UN climate summit, which convened in the city on Tuesday 23 September 2014. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon marched with the crowd, an unusual move highlighting the importance of the event. He said, “Action on climate change is urgent. The more we delay, the more we will pay in lives and in money”.

I think Joel Pett’s cartoon sums up my thoughts pretty well on the subject of climate change... 

This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
Sarah Jose