UoB Goes Mad for CoCo

Our second Research at the Heart of Brum event took place on Saturday (6th July, 2019) as part of the amazing CoCoMAD Festival (Cotteridge Community Music Arts and Dance). If you’ve not heard of CoCoMad before, you might be surprised to find out that it’s now in it’s 23rd year and attracts more than 6,000 people to hang out, party and learn in the beautiful setting of Cotteridge Park.

Although lots of University of Birmingham researchers have gotten involved in bringing a bit of science to proceedings over the years, this year was the first time we’ve organised an institution-wide delegation, but it won’t be the last! More than 30 researchers came along to deliver activities and talks under our Research at the Heart of Brum banner, and engaged around 2,000 people.

We’ll update this page soon with some more quotes and feedback from the public once we’ve had time to crunch the data, but in the meantime, why not get a feel for how things went by checking out the photos below and taking a look at our #HeartofBrum Twitter feed.

For any researchers feeling inspired, our next Heart of Brum outing will be in Welcome Week on 26th September, so why not drop us a line and get involved?

The Tjörnes Story: Fire and Ice

Guest blog post by Jonathan Hall (@jhgeol), Doctoral Researcher in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who received a large grant from the UoB PER Fund to support his Fire & Ice project. Featured image (above): Jonathan Hall delivering leaflets to local entrepreneur Martin Varga at Tungulending .

Earth Science PhD student Jonathan Hall and MSci Geology student Matthew Allison travelled to northern Iceland in late March to deliver their University of Birmingham PER funded project, titled The Tjörnes Story: Fire and Ice, which involved engaging with local community members and tourist facilities to promote and increase the profile of the world-class geology of the Tjörnes peninsula.

Jonathan and Matthew undertook a fieldwork season in summer 2018 mapping the geology of the Tjörnes peninsula and collecting rock samples for geochemical analysis, as part of their research projects. During this fieldwork period, they initiated discussions with local community members about their research and the significance of the Tjörnes peninsula as an unparalleled geological archive into past climatic events in the North Atlantic region.

Front page of the Tjörnes geology leaflet

Martin Varga, a local entrepreneur who owns a guest lodge, café and community hub called Tungulending, which is located centrally on the peninsula and is a popular destination for outdoor adventure and educational tours, expressed his interest in collaborating to produce accessible resources outlining the importance of the geology, geological history and its present-day utility for scientific research aimed at visitors and the local community. Martin described how over 5000 visitors explore the peninsula each year to solely experience the geology and to investigate the unique fossil layers exposed in the low-lying cliffs. He described his frustration at a lack of information or resources for these visitors and supported the need for accessible and educational literature focused on the geology and the fossil-rich strata. Martin believed printed leaflets would be the most suitable form of media and an appropriate first step to help inform tourists and the local community to promote the Tjörnes geology.

Back page of the Tjörnes geology leaflet

Upon returning to Birmingham, Jonathan submitted a UoB PER grant application which successfully secured funding to produce and deliver leaflets which included vital information on the location, rock types, fossils, past environments and geological history of the Tjörnes peninsula. A map was also included highlighting sites where visitors could observe significant geological features, such as ancient lava flows and petrified tree remains. Importantly, the leaflets incorporated his research findings and included diagrams and up-to-date information derived from his current paper (In Prep.). Jonathan collaborated with an Icelandic graphic designer, Elena Schneider, who is based in the nearby fishing town of Húsavík, to co-design the leaflet; Elena formatted the typography, layout and colours to give the leaflet a distinctive and appealing Nordic theme.

Jonathan and Matthew returned to Tjörnes in March to deliver the printed leaflets to Tungulending and other community, educational and tourism outlets. Whilst in Iceland, they presented and discussed their research and leaflets with a community committee, including representatives from local businesses, government and the University of Iceland’s Research Centre in Húsavík, in order to highlight the international scientific interest in Tjörnes geology, the relevant research undertaken at the University of Birmingham and to discuss opportunities for further public engagement. The Tjörnes Story: Fire and Ice has been a great project to develop important public engagement and science communication skills for an international audience. Collaborating with Martin, Elena and other local community stakeholders proved an exciting prospect, providing inspiration and support, and cumulated in a successful project which benefited all participants. Discussions are currently ongoing to seek support and secure additional funding from the Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture to develop additional resources, including visitor notice boards, in order to continue this project to highlight the significance of the Tjörnes geology.

Fossil-rich strata exposed on the Tjörnes peninsula in northern Iceland

Light of Understanding Award 2019 – and the winners are….

As well as being a chance to look to the future of engagement and learn new skills, PER Day is also a great opportunity to celebrate and reflect on some of the amazing PER projects already underway. For PER Day 2019 not only were we celebrating the Institutional achievement of being awarded a Silver Engage Watermark, but we also presented our Light of Understanding and Alice Roberts PGR Awards for Excellence in Public Engagement.

The Alice Roberts PGR Award for Excellence in Public Engagement

For 2019 the Alice Roberts PGR Award was presented to Sophie Louth (Formulation Engineering), a participant on the Research Communication and Public Engagement PGCARMS Advanced Skills PGR module who developed a brilliant project called “Hands Up”. Hands Up was a school workshop on medical engineering getting young people to build and test their own limb prosthetics

The judges noted Sophie’s extremely thoughtful and diligent approach; carefully considering the safety requirements of using power tools in a young person’s event whilst ensuring that the workshop would be fun and give participants a really meaningful opportunity to get hands on with her research. The PGCARMs assessment panel were also really impressed with her application of public engagement theory and logic modelling and her use of evaluation.

The Light of Understanding Award for Excellence in Public Engagement

The Light of Understanding is our new Institutional Award to recognise individuals and groups who are carrying out amazing public engagement work. The Award is named after a quote by Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel Laureate and Alumnus of University of Birmingham, who was also a pioneer of research communication and storytelling.

We wanted to create an Award that not only rewards brilliant work, but catalyses more activity and acts as a beacon to be passed to other researchers. Therefore, winners of the Light of Understanding are rewarded with a grant of £2,000 to spend on further public engagement activity that helps spread their good practice to other researchers.

The award was judged by an expert panel consisting of
Public Engagement Committee Chairs, Prof Alice Roberts and Prof Ian Grosvenor, Prof Tim Softley, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Helen Featherstone who is a leading national public engagement expert. The panel were so impressed with the number and quality of applications to the scheme, that they decided to award a special commendation to PhD student Liam Crowley (Biosciences) for his portfolio of work promoting the work of our forestry institute, BiFOR, and in particular his work on the successful insect podcast, Entocast. Liam received £250 to spend on further PER activity.

The 2019 Light of Understanding was awarded to the Applied Memory lab who’ve developed a brilliant project call ‘Are You a Good Eyewitness’. The project includes a tourable exhibition which has been used to engage with over 2,000 children at the ThinkTank science museum in Birmingham and a website featuring lots of great images and videos that really bring their research to life. The judges were particularly impressed by their attitude towards involving researchers at different career stages including a team of 24 undergraduates. They also designed their activity so that they can use the data collected directly in their research and the experience has also affected aspects of how they plan to carry out future research. The activity involved a large number of researchers and students, but was led by Prof Heather Flowe, Dr Melissa Colloff and PhD student Danielle Hett and Melissa and some of the students collected their award and told us a little more about their plans to us the £2,000 prize grant to further the reach of this project to children from areas of multiple deprivation.

Congratulations to all our winners! We can’t wait to see where you take your engagement next!

Research at the Green Heart of Brum

It’s still cold and frosty outside, but PER Team are focusing on Summer. And not just because our office heating is rubbish. We’re thrilled to announce that we’ve booked in our Summer festival tour with four dates around Birmingham:

8th June – Green Heart Festival, on campus

15th June – Selly Oak Festival, Selly Oak Park

6th July – CoCoMad, Cotteridge Park

17th August – Bullring Markets, Birmingham City Centre

We’d love to bring as much of our research activity as possible to the public through these events so please get involved. Even super simple activities work brilliantly and we can help with logistics and support so get in touch to register your interest today. We need to have a clear idea of numbers groups by mid April at the latest so don’t miss out!

We’ve chosen these locations and dates to make the most of British Summer (!!), but more importantly to engage key audiences like local communities and to maximise our exposure. For example, tens of thousands of people pass through the Bullring Markets each Saturday and CoCoMad is expected to attract over 6,000 people from communities close the campus, like Strichley and Cotteridge, but who rarely attend events on campus. In the Autumn we’ll be looking for new venues/locations so let us know if you have an idea for where we should pop up.

More information about Research at the Heart of Brum:

The University of Birmingham has been doing research that matters to Birmingham for over 100 years, but it’s not always easy to know about the amazing work that’s happening. If fact, you probably don’t know that we currently have around 2,500 researchers and thousands of other staff supporting them who are working on developing new solutions to all sorts of problems.

Some of our key research areas include:

  • Improving cancer diagnosis and treatment
  • Transforming the way services treat mental health
  • Developing sustainable cities with minimal environmental impact
  • Exploring the mysteries of the universe through gravitational waves
  • Creating safer and more efficient transport
  • Unravelling myths around migration and supporting integration
  • Making the invisible visible with quantum technology
  • Challenging the misconceptions of pregnancy loss

And much, much more.

Research in the Heart of Brum is about bringing our research to life so you can get hands-on with the pioneers behind it and tell us what you think about the work we’re doing. So get involved and be curious!

88 pianists and counting – get involved!

piano-1522855_1920Researchers at the University of Birmingham are looking for volunteers with an engineering background to support an exciting STEM outreach project for local primary school students. This is a national project to create the opening ceremony of an international manufacturing conference at the ICC on 18th Aug 2019. As part of the ceremony the organisers want to break the world record for the number of people playing a piano at the same time, currently 88. The Birmingham Conservatoire are partnering on the project and have composed a piece to be premiered as part of the record breaking attempt. Fitting this many people around a piano is a significant challenge, which it is hoped the children will help to solve by creating a device to allow people to press the keys remotely.

Volunteers will go into local schools to help children design and develop their devices during the autumn and spring terms this academic year using kits and resources developed by the organisers. All volunteers will also be offered full training, which will take place at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on the 21st October.

Find out more on the project website, and contact Richard Hood to register your interest in taking part, R.hood@bham.ac.uk

What’s Your PER-REF-erence?


It’s mid-2018, which means that REF 2021 is looming large. If you’re a stranger to REF, or the Research Excellence Framework (lucky you!), then let me explain. There are around 162 Higher Education establishments in the UK in receipt of Government funding. Those establishments employ around 500,000 staff, including about 200,000 researchers and serve a population of around 2.3 million students, based on recent data. Different Institutions can be vastly different in all sorts of ways so central funding is allocated according to ‘excellence’, but how on earth is that possible to quantify? For one research area ‘excellent’ might be one paper every decade, but leading to a fundamental change to the way we live or understand the world many years hence. For others ‘excellent’ might be small, iterative changes to process that incrementally improve peoples lives, but whose ripples are (intentionally) almost imperceptible. Well REF tries to do just that. It takes into account the obvious things, like publications, normalises data as far as possible, like splitting subjects into defined groups, adjusting for staff numbers etc and then tries to divvy up who the most and least excellent are.

But REF also tries to take into consideration the wider research culture and effect of research on society, by assessing ‘impact’. Put simply, this is a measure of how big an effect the research has had outside of academia. Be it through engaging with the public and impacting behaviour, perceptions and attitudes or through commercialising research to make business more efficient or effective or in influencing policy to ensure that legislation is in line with the most up-to-date evidence. Now, whilst trying to fairly assess and compare over 150 fundamentally different institutions according to their publication records is very difficult, trying to also take into account and quantify all of the myriad possible effects on anyone and everyone outside of the walls of academia is nigh-on impossible. All of this means that the guidelines and process for REF are revised each time to try and make sure they’re fair and reflect current best practice. The Draft Guidelines for REF 2021 were published in July and are open for consultation until October.

So what does this mean for public engagement? Obviously public engagement is a key way in which research can have an impact on society it’s also a very broad church. This means PER can be difficult to define and in some instances can be tricky to evidence and evaluate in the same way as other impacts like, for example, business agreements. So it’s important that the REF Guidance around Public Engagement works well and positively reinforces PER as an intrinsic part of research excellence. The risk is, if the guidance makes it difficult for assessors to understand or recognise all of the types of brilliant public engagement and their importance, Universities who include more innovative types of high-quality engagement will do worse than those who minimise the inclusion of PER. That in turn could discourage institutional support for PER and diminish its perceived value. So on 14th September the NCCPE arranged a meeting for around 100 Public Engagement and REF heads from across the UK to get together and thrash out the new guidance.

So what happened? Well, we talked, and ruminated and discussed and confabulated and got passionate (yes, really, about REF Guidelines!) because this really is a tough thing to get right. But in short there were a few key take-homes:

  1. Public Engagement is conspicuously absent. Whilst the few explicit mentions of PER are positive and seemingly intentionally vague, which leaves plenty of room for the inclusion of different types of engagement, this could also leave a lot of room for variation in how engagement is recognised and assessed.
  2. Annex A could try harder. Whilst the inclusion of Annex A (essentially a great, big list of different types of indicators or evidence to support impact types, including engagement) was widely praised, the NCCPE suggested that separating these indicators into three categories and then re-jigging the table accordingly, could make the assessment of impacts, especially those arising from PER, more fair and consistent.
  3. Not all engagement is created equal. Just like research, some PER is easier than others, and it doesn’t always correlate that reaching the most people, or getting those most feedback means bigger impact. Working intensively with a few local people might be more impactful than going on the radio to millions, but not always perceived as such. Some audiences might take much more work than others and sometimes engagement is about getting lucky or a sudden change in what’s newsworthy. The NCCPE suggest that equality and diversity issues and the rigour taken in the approach (as well as the robustness of the evidence) should be explicitly included in the guidelines. Though the response in the room was quite mixed, it was predominantly negative and it was instead thought that the focus should be on all claims being supported by detailed and robust evidence.

The REF 2021 Guidance Consultation is open until noon on 15th October and the final guidance will be published in early 2019.



Putting Research at the Heart of Brum

Res Ht BlueThe University of Birmingham has been doing research that matters to Birmingham for over 100 years, but it’s not always easy for those outside of the institution to find out about the amazing work that’s happening. Unless you work here or know someone that does, you probably don’t know that we currently have around 2,500 researchers and thousands of other staff supporting them who are working on developing new solutions to all sorts of problems. ‘Research at the Heart of Brum’ is a new initiative to connect members of public with our research through pop-up events where people can get hands-on with the work we do and meet the brilliant people who do the research. Our firs event will be on the 6th October 2018 and will take place on the main concourse of Birmingham New Street Station* between 11am and 3pm, and we’ll be holding a research market where we’ll be showcasing everything from mental health research to particle physics. So get involved and be curious!

Here’s snapshot of what to expect on the day:

Physics – did you know that researchers in Birmingham are world-leaders in work to understand how the Universe works? We’ll have a real working particle detector, you’ll be able to see live data from a Nasa mission and you’ll even be able to create your own black hole with one of the teams that helped with Nobel Prize winning research in gravitational waves.

Youth mobility – what’s the best way to support young people to make the  best decisions in life? Help trial a new area of research and give your input with Dr Sarah Brookes-Wilson who will be bringing her prototype Youth Journey Cards.

Dentistry – we spend a lot of time cleaning our teeth, but not much time thinking about what that cleaning is taking away and what it might leave behind. Join our dentistry researchers to build your own bacterial biofilm, find out how to blast dental bugs away and learn how fillings are being made simpler.

Maths – what if everything around us was interactive through touch? Feel the force of our haptics research that is set to change how we interact with the world in the Birmingham of the future.

Mental health – we think being an adult is just about being over 18, but our brains continue to develop right up to the age of 25. Join our researchers to find out how we all interpret risk differently and how this can affect every decision we make.

Linguistics – what happens when words are not enough to describe a situation? Join researchers to experience the power of language and how finding the right words can help people to come to terms with experiences grief and loss.

Cancer Treatments – meet our Cancer Research UK researchers who’ll have all sorts of hands-on demonstrations to show how Birmingham research is helping to develop new personalised therapies and get them to those who need them most through clinical trials.

Psychology – the human brain can store some information for decades. So why does memory cause so many problems in the justice system? Eye-witness statements can be massively inaccurate even when the witness is certain about what they saw. Test your memory and find out why our brains play tricks.

Tell us what you think: #HeartofBrum @uobengage

Find out more: Birmingham.ac.uk/research

*Many thanks to Network Rail for allowing us to use their space!

Biomedical Services Unit – FAQ

The UOBengage account has received a few inquiries today regarding an article published in the Birmingham Mail. Our Press Office have provided this response:

We publish the species and numbers of animals that are used for research at the University on our website.

We are involved in research to develop drugs and medical technologies that will help in the fight against life threatening and debilitating diseases and improve health care for patients, and indeed animals too. Some diseases and health problems involve processes that can only be studied in a living organism. For example, treatments for heart disease , diabetes, Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancer have all been developed by involving animals in testing and research.

A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham said: “We adhere to strict guidelines from the Home Office and are regulated by the Operational Guidance to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which requires that experimentation on animals should only occur when there is no alternative research technique. As part of that regulatory framework we have periodic visits from a Home Office inspector who checks the welfare of the animals used in research and the facilities that they are kept in. During these visits the inspector is looking for evidence of a caring culture, which ensures responsible behaviour and respect for the use and care of animals.

“All research that requires the use of animals is scrutinised by the Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body to ensure that there are no possible alternatives to the use of animals and that studies are carried out to the highest standards of welfare and care, following the 3R’s principles of replacement, reduction and refinement. The 3Rs are a widely accepted ethical framework for conducting scientific experiments using animals humanely.”

In 2015, 47,657 animals were humanely euthanized. A significant number (around 70%) were part of a breeding programme and were not involved in experimental procedures.

Engaging with government programme

The Arts and Humanities Research Council, in partnership with the Institute for Government, invites applications for its engaging with the government programme. This enables early-career researchers to attend a three-day course, to be held from 6 to 8 March 2018 in London. The course is designed to provide insight into the policy-making process and to enable academics to apply this to their own research. The aim is to build links between policy makers and the new research in the arts and humanities. The programme will:

  • encourage participants to think about the ways in which their own research could make a valuable contribution to public policy;
  • challenge participants to think in more depth about the policy process, and the role of research within it;
  • increase the influencing and communication skills that participants need to achieve this.

Early-career researchers working in any area of arts and humanities, including social sciences, may apply. Applicants must be either within eight years of the award of their PhD or equivalent professional training, or within six years of their first academic appointment. They must be employed in a full- or part-time postdoctoral or equivalent position at a UK HEI, independent research organisation or research council institute.

Funding covers course, accommodation, travel and subsistence costs for up to 20 attendees.

Application form is here.

The closing date is 25 Sep 17 and if you have further questions, please email the AHRC here.

AHRC Research in Film Awards

The Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is delighted to be able to let you know that the 2017 Research in Film Awards is now live.

Now in its third year, the awards are designed to showcase, reward and recognise high quality short films which are directly linked, or inspired, by arts and humanities research.

There are two new awards for 2017, including the International Development Award and the Doctoral Student or Best Early Career Film, with the latter celebrating the best films made by arts and humanities researchers at the start of their careers. The Inspiration Award, which is open to members of the public, is also back by popular demand.

The full list of categories can be seen below:

  • Best Research Film of the Year
  • Best Doctoral or Early Career Film
  • International Development Award: Mobilising Global Voices
  • Innovation Award
  • Inspiration Award (public category)

You can read the full announcement about RIFA 2017 on the AHRC website along with further information such as the Call Guidance.

Entries will be accepted up until the closing date of Thursday 6th July (4pm) with the shortlist announced in September.

For further information about this competition, please contact Julie Venis.