Cabot Institute blog

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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Why partnerships are so vital to the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute (part 2)

Launching VENTURE during Bristol 2015 

VENTURE is a new collaborative partnership with some of our major corporate partners.  It is the latest in a series of announcements (including Bristol is Open, the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities, and the launch of a new project on Re-Distributed Manufacturing and the Resilient, Sustainable City) that represent a step change in how we are engaging with the city and region during 2015.  In my previous article, I discussed the ethos that underpins our drive to build partnerships – across the city, the region, national and globally.  In this follow-up, I want to share some of the very exciting activities that are currently happening, many of them catalysed by the efforts to win the European Green Capital award.

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For the Cabot Institute, one of the great opportunities of Bristol 2015 has been a stronger relationship with organisations across the city. Many of our 2015 activities are the culmination of our past partnership ambitions, but it is also the opportunity to make a step change towards broader and deeper collaboration.

The nature of our University and the Cabot Institute and the scope of global environmental challenges has always dictated diverse partnerships with national and international agencies – we study melting ice sheets with the British Antarctic Survey, develop climate models with the Met Office, predict floods with the Environment Agency and advise the Government Office of Science on the ash cloud crisis.  We work with DFID and the United Nations, with the Somalian government to develop grassroots security and with small island developing nations to help them adapt to climate change – and to learn from their experiences.
Cabot Institute scientist Isabel Nias working with the British Antarctic Survey in Antarctica. 
Dame Pearlette Louisy at the Small Island States: Living at the sharp end of
uncertainty conference in Bristol, July 2014.
  Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Working globally never stopped Cabot Institute researchers from also working locally; we have collaboratively studied housing and education in our city, partnered on new innovations such as Bristol Green Doors, worked with Voscur on equality issues and with the Knowle West Media Centre on numerous digital engagement projects.

And yet we could have been doing so much more….  


Our commitment to the Green Capital arose from a recognition that we could do more and that we had to do more if we wanted to learn from the vibrant experimentation occurring in our own backyard. To that end, the Cabot Institute Manager, Philippa Bayley was an early member of the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and was elected with Liz Zeidler to be the first co-director after the award.

The Wills Memorial Building, which
will be lit green in the evening throughout 2015
Since then, we have put on numerous events, worked with the 2015 Company on the launch and with the Festival of Ideas on the Coleridge Lectures and the Summits, and contributed to the Arts Programme.  Moving ahead, we are keen to include all of the city, with events planned at Hamilton House and with local schools.  That engagement has mirrored the University’s pledges and contributions.  We are aiming to become a net carbon neutral campus by 2030; bringing in a series of working practice incentives to decrease our transport footprint; including social and environmental considerations into our procurement process; and ensuring that all students have the opportunity to encounter Education for Sustainable Development at the University. We are doing far more than just turning Wills Memorial Tower green for the year!

So this year is a culmination of ever-growing engagement over the past decade…. Not just for the researchers of the Cabot Institute but for the whole city.  But more importantly, it is the platform for newer and much deeper partnership.

Implicitly, the University’s fifth and most important pledge is to be the best possible partner with our city.  That includes our students who have committed 100,000 volunteer hours to the City and who are driving new initiatives such as BrisBikes.  It includes our commitment to spend £60,000 pounds to plant trees across Bristol.  It includes working with BCC and the NHS to create a new district energy supply, key to realizing our carbon neutral ambitions.  And it includes a commitment from the Cabot Institute to do more coordinated research – with everyone in the city.

To empower that, we have launched VENTURE and we have worked very closely with the Partnership.  We have also aggressively appointed new people: Andy Gouldson, who studies urban resiliency and sustainability; Clive Sabel, who uses big data to study health and well-being; Sean Fox, who investigates urban governance; a whole swathe of experts on flooding and water quality in both urban and rural environments; Justin Dillon, the new head of our School of Education and who is passionate about ‘learning outside the classroom’; and many, many more.  These people have been hired because they are brilliant and because they are keen to work with people in the city and region.

Wildflower meadow in Bedminster.
Image credit: Julia Kole
We are also funding our research students and colleagues to work with our City.  Caroline Bird has been supported to work with the Bristol Energy Network and is now coordinating our community to better engage with the Green Capital legacy. We have asked many of you across the city to propose projects for our brilliant Masters Students, yielding great projects conducted by students like Julia Kole who studied how to improve biodiversity in Bedminster; seeds soil and social change. Dr Kath Baldock and Professor Jane Memmott and many others have been studying pollinators in Bristol and the surrounding countryside – which has led to the Urban Pollinators Project and Get Bristol Buzzing.  Dr Trevor Thompson and his team are working with local GPs, to help their practices become more efficient and sustainable.

These are all part of an ongoing and continuous buzz of activity and we will work hard to ensure that these are not just one-off successes but instead a step change in how we work with Bristol.

Big new initiatives


On the 27th of January, we launched Bristol is Open with the Bristol City Council.  This is the first joint venture between the city council and the University of Bristol and it combines University research and advanced technology (our investment in high performance computing, computational innovations by Professor Dimitra Simeonidou and wireless technology developed by Professor Andy Nix and industry collaborators) with council-owned infrastructure.  The company will develop an innovative high-performance, high-speed network in Bristol, that will be open for all to use and put Bristol at the forefront in the UK.  It is a bold experiment not just in technology but hopefully in democracy, insofar that it empowers the citizens of the city to communicate with one another and explore the urban landscape. (And if you want to know more, visit the refurbished and re-opened Planetarium!)

Shaking table in action at the Earthquake
Lab at the University of Bristol.
More recently, the government announced funding for the UK Collaboration for Research and Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC), and a partnership between the University, Bristol industry and the City Council is at the heart of that.  UKCRIC will apply globally important research to ensure that the UK’s infrastructure is resilient and responsive to environmental and economic impacts. In doing so, according to Prof Colin Taylor, the Bristol UKCRIC lead, ‘It will ensure that our infrastructure is resilient to future change while also avoiding conservative over-engineering thereby saving hundreds of billions of pounds.’  At the heart of the Cabot Institute’s contribution to the bid is the University’s Earthquake Engineering and Simulation Laboratory in the Faculty of Engineering.  Via enhanced world-leading experimental capabilities, the Laboratory will develop unique techniques to improve the performance and reduce the costs of foundations of buildings, bridges, ports and nuclear facilities. UKCRIC will also ensure that our innovative City Operating System is funded and fully capable of supporting Bristol is Open.

On 22 April we launched a new collaborative research project to determine how highly adaptable manufacturing processes, capable of operating at small scales (re-distributed manufacturing), can contribute to a sustainable and resilient future for the City of Bristol and its hinterland. I am particularly excited about this project as it is so fundamentally…. Bristol.  Our city is a champion of the power of localism, whether it be food production, launching our own energy company or the Bristol Pound. And we have a strong upcycling and maker culture. Why not extend these brilliant initiatives to how we manufacture the goods on which we depend.  New technology now allows manufacturing to be downscaled, redistributed and decentralised, making it more sustainable and also more resilient.  This new project, led by Prof Chris McMahon, will explore exactly how to do that.

These are exciting times and we are proud of our Cabot Institute colleagues working on these projects.  But we do recognised that there remain challenges.  As a climate change scientist, I have always argued that many of the sustainability and resilience challenges that Bristol wants to address are issues of fairness and equality. Those who profit from our current fossil fuel, water, nutrient, and wildlife consumption are least vulnerable to climate change and diminishing resources.  As such, racial, ethnic, gender and class diversity is also high on our agenda and our partners must reflect that diversity.  Fortunately, we are based in a city with an outstanding variety of leaders.  The City and University recognise that we have a long way to go, but there is no lack of energy and wisdom.

We are not even halfway through 2015, but I think that Bristol is in the midst of building something from its historic strengths to create something new and position it as a model of global leadership.  For me, personally, the year has been exhilarating.  I love Bristol and have done so since arriving 15 years ago and attending my first Ashton Court Festival; and I have always known of the innovative creatives and social enterprises that thrive here.  But I have not had the opportunity to partner with them – my own research tends to take me to distant lands and eons into the past, as far away from Bristol you can go and still be on our planet!   But this year, I have finally engaged with them – with you – in a professional context and the ideas and wisdom have exceeded all of my expectations. The Cabot Institute would strive to build partnerships no matter what City it called home; fortunately, we are in Bristol and the partnerships are opening up opportunities that you could not find anywhere else in the world.

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This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost
Read part one of this blog.

For further information on VENTURE please email cabot-business@bristol.ac.uk

Monday, 15 June 2015

Festival of Nature 2015: Roots and soil erosion

Seed lucky dips, 3D-printer pens, and Bill Oddie with a puffin. All in a day’s volunteering for the Festival of Nature 2015!


Bristol’s Festival of Nature is the UK’s largest celebration of the natural world, and has recently spread over into Bath too. This year, I helped Kevin Smyth and Tom Denbigh from the School of Biological Sciences. Their work in Prof Claire Grierson's lab group looks at plant roots, especially how important they are at preventing soil erosion. This work is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media. The bean on the left
has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much
thinner roots but more side shoots.
The stall really helped reveal what’s going under our feet in any park, garden or green space. Like the well-known tip of the iceberg, there’s often a lot going on below the surface! For the sunflowers in this rhizotron, the roots were taller than many of the kids we saw!

We also had some smaller plants growing in transparent media (see image above). The bean on the left has thicker roots and very few side shoots, whereas the tomato on the right has much thinner roots but more side shoots.


If you want evidence that plants do help combat soil erosion, just look at the pictures! Soil without plants (right) can be really crumbly and doesn't hold itself together well. A slight slope and some rainfall would wash it away easily, leading to soil erosion. Soil and plants is a far more effective solution, holding itself together with ease – even without a supporting pot. One of so many reasons why we need more plants around!


Seed lucky dip at the Festival of Nature.
Are you inspired to lend a hand with increasing the plant numbers in your area? Perhaps you are curious about the medical-looking pots are behind the bowl of soil in the image above. We can help with both – it’s a seed lucky dip!

In the lab, Kevin’s group studies roots to try and understand why plants are so effective at preventing soil erosion. To do this, they can make mutations in some plants and see if it changes the roots. The mutant plants of choice are Arabadopsis, weedy relatives of the mustard plant and perhaps the most studied plant in the world.

Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant was the “bald” mutant (below left) and which was the “werewolf” (below right) compared to the normal roots in the middle. If we understand how the plant’s genetics affects their roots, perhaps in the future we could grow plants that are better at holding the soil together.
Looking down the microscope at the samples, you could work out which plant
was the “bald” mutant (left) and which was the “werewolf” (right) compared
 to the normal roots in the middle. 
A 3D printing pen was used to create root structures at the Festival of Nature.
There was art as well as science! You could draw your own root structure on a plant template, then one of us lucky volunteers got to use this amazing 3D-printing pen to made a “real” version of it. You could either take it home or donate it to our ever-growing wall…

As a bonus, my lunch break timed nicely with Bill Oddie’s talk so I got to hear him tell a bunch of amusing anecdotes about his young life and how that led to a passion for wildlife. One of these apparently required a stuffed puffin!

Bill Oddie at the Festival of Nature.
There was plenty to do at the stall, in the tent and throughout the festival. I was genuinely impressed at the range of activities and how interesting they were, something for all ages and experiences. I had a great time helping out and look forward to next year’s Festival of Nature already! It also fit in as a pretty wild indeed #30dayswild.
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This blog is written by Emily Coyte, and has been reproduced from her blog Memetic Drift.  Emily is an Assistant Teacher in the School of Biochemistry at the University of Bristol.
Emily Coyte

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The great climate communication clash

Cultural cognition vs. consensus messaging: 

Challenges of climate communication in a polarized world


L-R: Dan Kahan and Steve
Lewandowsky. Image taken from
Climate Desk (Maggie Severns).
If anyone attending the Cabot Institute debate between science communication researchers Dan Kahan and Stephan Lewandowsky last Wednesday was hoping for a relaxing, passive glance into the word of climate communication then they were in for a shock.

Attending the event, which was moderated by Climate Outreach director Dr Adam Corner, was like being thrown into a politically-fuelled hurricane of communication and miscommunication. The mildly terrifying, albeit engaging, debating style of Dan Kahan meant there was never a dull moment as the two world-leading cognitive scientists locked horns over their opinions on how science should communicate climate change to the public. 

The evening was kicked off by Kahan, whose invasive debating style saw him thundering into the audience to deliver his messages, a style which certainly drew attention if not support. The greatest focus of his message seemed to be in addressing the motivations of climate sceptics. Kahan claimed that the climate change consensus delivered by the scientific community is polarising opinion; those who are sceptics are not misinformed, their scepticism is fuelled by how they identify themselves. To put simply, the side of the climate change war they fight is supported more by culture than learning. 

If this is the case, then increasing the budget powering the scientific consensus won’t help. Indeed, as Kahan expressed, the expensive climate change communication campaign in the U.S. hasn’t made any difference to the opinions of the public. His message? Stop trying to change who we are and do something proactive with the budget instead.

Next Lewandowsky stepped up to the floor. His argument is pro-consensus, defining the consensus as a few simple facts; that climate change is happening, is caused by humans and is problematic.  His theory is that people respond to education and change their opinions based on the information available to them. This, he claims, is based on testing trials performed in Australia where participants found themselves more concerned about climate change after being exposed to the general consensus. In Lewandowsky’s words “consensus is the gateway to belief’.

Underpinning his argument is the relationship between the layman and the expert. Lewandosky claims that in times of uncertainty, people defer to the expert; “If 97% of engineers delivered a consensus that the bridge was unsafe to cross, would you cross the bridge?”. 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is an issue, so we submit to the opinion of the expert. The idea works in theory but, according to Kahan we aren’t submitting to the expert, in fact, public opinion is unchanged.

So where does the answer lie? Despite lengthy discussions on the climate consensus, no communication consensus was reached. After the discussion was opened up to the audience, the complexities of the task at hand became apparent: while the ‘yes’ versus ‘no’ controversy is clearly polarised, audience members suggested there are degrees of ‘yes’. Is climate change part man made and part natural? Should we be spending more money on adaption rather than mitigation as Kahan suggested? To what extent is politics contributing to the miscommunication; how can we disentangle the issue of left-wing environmentalism as an opponent of capitalism? The list goes on. 

My opinion of the outcome was that the path forwards was a hybrid of the opinions present. Yes, we shouldn’t focus on ‘converting’ the minority of sceptics. The consensus should focus on revaluating the options and behaviour of the supporters. How can we make reducing climate change an economic option for free market capitalism, rather than just trying to close it down. Maybe, as Kahan suggests, instead of aggressive PR campaigns that polarise opinion, we should be working on strengthening the knowledge of the ‘believers’. Indeed making the outcome of the consensus more attractive to those who are in support of climate change, to me, seems like a more progressive step forward. 
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara

Further reading

Dan Kahan's blog from this event: Against consensus messaging

Read about Steve Lewandowsky's paper on how climate science denial affects the scientific community.