University of BristolGetting to the hub of the matter

Getting to the hub of the matter

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The University of Bristol is a civic-minded institution with strong connections to its city. So how does this relate to universities solving global challenges? 

For Hugh Brady, vice-chancellor and president of the University of Bristol, there’s a feeling that things have come full circle. “Our university was founded by citizens of the city to harness the changes that technology was bringing to society, and we’re fortunate to have an institution today that is research-intensive and deeply embedded in a city with a strong industrial base and civil society foundations,” he says. He believes that the 21st century has brought about a renewed appreciation of the value of the civic and societal role of universities, and this is something that is in Bristol’s DNA. 

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the university’s civic role, in particular through it forming a Covid Emergency Research (UNCOVER) group to pool resources and research efforts.

“I have been inspired by the way that colleagues are pulling together and been moved by the breadth of contributions to the regional, national and international fight against Covid-19,” says Professor Brady. “These efforts draw on some of the core strengths of our university: world-class research, collegiality and civic responsibility.”

Paddy Ireland, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, believes that the research excellence framework has played an important part in highlighting universities’ sense of purpose. “When we began to look at research impact as a criterion, it led to the reorientation of some research to make it more externally focused, which is no bad thing,” he says. “The other change we’ve seen in the past decade is a recognition that societal challenges are multifaceted and need expertise from many disciplines.” Bristol is well placed to respond to this shift, he says, having developed a number of interdisciplinary research institutes. 

Its latest, the Bristol Digital Futures Institute, will be based on a new campus in urban regeneration area Temple Quarter, near Bristol Temple Meads station. The fact that it is jointly led by a social scientist and an engineer reflects how it will consider the “interface of the human and the technical”, says Professor Ireland. The new institute has attracted interest from both global and international companies, as well as social enterprises and the third sector, and the principle of co-creation is at its heart. “There will be education for and by employers, and corporate and civic partners who will be involved early in shaping technology developments and considering their impact rather than bolting on the behavioural and social sciences at the end,” he adds.

Professor Brady notes that: “When we go out to corporates, they frequently tell us they are already working with scientists and engineers on the technology itself, and want to know more about how their customers use it, how this might change in the future, how it alters their behaviour, and how they can better anticipate these behavioural and social factors.” This fits in well with the wider aim of the Bristol Digital Futures Institute, which is to better understand how technologies and people are shaping the future together. 

Bristol already has a strong reputation for tackling important societal issues. “When students consider coming to Bristol, they tend to cite [not only] our research reputation but also the fact we’re located in a buzzing creative city,” Professor Brady says. “So many of our top research programmes involve partnerships with citizens and the city.”

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, for example, is a world-leading birth cohort study that began in 1991, looking at the environmental and genetic factors that affect a person’s health and development. Its key findings include that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are at greater risk of obesity and heart disease, and the benefits of just 15 minutes of exercise a day on weight and well-being. The SPHERE project, meanwhile, brings together researchers, health professionals and clinicians to look at how sensor technology can support independent living in care homes. Another research centre, the National Composite Centre in the Bristol and Bath Science Park, which works with a host of corporate partners in engineering and aerospace, also does extensive schools and community outreach to attract more women and black and ethnic minority pupils interested in STEM careers. 

Environmental and sustainability issues are naturally high on the agenda, reflecting the city’s campaigning reputation (it was awarded the title of European Green Capital in 2015 and recently played host to teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg). The university was the first in the UK to move away from investments in fossil fuels, and sustainability is a core component of a number of its degree programmes. Last year, it was also the first university to declare a climate emergency, forming a University Sustainability Council made up of staff and students from across the institution to shape the university’s far-reaching sustainability strategy. On the academic side, the Cabot Institute for the Environment, based at Bristol, brings together more than 600 experts from numerous disciplines to look at the impacts of global warming, such as water shortages and extreme weather events.

Sustainability is not just about climate change, however – the university also has a role to play in how it supports the city’s citizens to thrive at work in the years ahead. “The university is critically important to local employers for guaranteeing a talent pipeline for the future,” says Professor Brady. “Bristol’s regional economy is projected to grow by tens of thousands of jobs over the next five to 10 years, so we need to work even more closely with employers, students and parents to anticipate what those talent needs might be.” 

One of the ways the university supports that pipeline is through its groundbreaking Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. During the early stages of their four-year undergraduate course, students spend about two-thirds of their time on their core discipline (such as history or computer science) and the rest focusing on innovation. That balance reverses towards the end of their degree. “What’s attractive is that they work within their academic department on their subject-specific work but then work in truly multidisciplinary teams on the innovation component,” Professor Brady says. Guest lecturers and mentors have included entrepreneurs such as Nick Wheeler, founder of the Charles Tyrwhitt brand, and Sahar Hashemi, who set up Coffee Republic – both Bristol graduates. 

Recent developments that locate universities’ education and research portfolios in different government departments will not deter Bristol from continuing to have an impact on its own region and beyond.

“It’s very encouraging that the prime minister has repeatedly stressed the importance of talent, research and innovation to the future of the UK economy,” says Professor Brady. “Our city-region has a strong track record in creative industries, advanced manufacturing, security and the digital economy, as well as a culture of cross-sector collaboration that spawn the industries of the future. Our university sits at the heart of this ecosystem, which carries with it a sense of excitement, opportunity and responsibility. Our appeal to government is to invest in success and we will deliver.”

Find out more about the University of Bristol. 

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