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21st Century Body: Birmingham Heroes Autumn Events

Join the faces behind the University of Birmingham #birminghamheroes #21stcenturybody campaign this Autumn for a series of high-profile festival events.

L-R: Dr Victoria Goodyear, Professor Heather Widdows, Professor Alice Roberts & Professor Muireann Quigley.

Heather Widdows is the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham and the Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor Research (Impact). She is currently working on the increasing demands of beauty. Her latest book is Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal (Princeton University Press) and she co-runs the Beauty Demands blog.

Muireann Quigley is Professor of Law, Medicine, & Technology. Her research focuses on the philosophical analysis of law and policy in medicine and the biosciences. Her most recent book is Self-ownership, Property Rights, & the Human Body: A Legal and Philosophical Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Alice Roberts is an anatomist, author and TV broadcaster. She is also the Professor of Public Engagement with Science at University of Birmingham. Her research interests focus on evolutionary anatomy, osteoarchaeology and palaeopathology. She has presented several landmark series on the BBC and written seven popular science books.

Victoria Goodyear is a Lecturer in Pedagogy in Sport, Physical Activity and Health. Her research focuses on digital technologies and social media in young people’s health and wellbeing, teacher professional development and curriculum innovation, as well as digital methods and ethics.

EVENT ONE, Warwick

British Science Festival 2019: “Perfect Bodies”, panel discussion

12th September, 2019 at 1-2pm (University of Warwick, Zeeman Building: MS02)


With the rise of social media, a culture that normalises plastic surgery and an era where the value of having the ‘perfect body’ is demonstrated constantly through the pay cheques of the world’s most influential celebrities, what are the moral, ethical and cultural consequences for society? Join University of Birmingham #BirminghamHeroes Alice RobertsHeather WiddowsMuireann Quigley and Victoria Goodyear as they debate the impact of this impossible pursuit of perfection, drawing on learning from law, philosophy, psychology, health and wellbeing. Book your place now through the British Science Festival: HERE.

Image taken from Heather Widdow’s book Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.

Joining us at British Science Festival? We look forward to seeing you there! Help us spread the word using this tweet:

Looking forward to joining in the #21stcenturybody discussion with @theAliceRoberts & fellow #BirminghamHeroes @profmq @ProfWiddows @VGoodyear this Sept 12th as part of the ‘Perfect Bodies’ event @BritishSciFest #BSF19! Tickets here:


EVENT TWO, Birmingham

Being Human Festival 2019: “21st Century Body”– an in-depth panel discussion with extended audience Q&A


21st November 2019, 6-9pm (event starts at 6.30pm) in the Elgar Concert Hall, Bramall Music Building at the University of Birmingham.

Join broadcaster Alice Roberts (Professor of Public Engagement) at  Being Human Festival 2019, as she debates evolving beauty demands and body property rights with an interdisciplinary panel of fellow researchers Professor Heather Widdows, Professor Muireann Quigley & Dr Victoria Goodyear – all part of the current #BirminghamHeroes campaign. ‘21st Century Body’ offers a thought-provoking ride through contemporary ethical and moral questions relevant to us all. Join in the discussion, tickets (free) available HERE.

Joining us at Being Human Festival? We look forward to seeing you there! Help us spread the word using this tweet:

Looking forward to joining in the #21stcenturybody discussion with @theAliceRoberts & fellow #BirminghamHeroes @profmq @ProfWiddows @VGoodyear this Nov 21st as part of @BeingHumanFest #BeingHuman19! Tickets now available:

If you have any questions about either of these events, please get in touch with Caroline Gillett:



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!

Let Loose in Auld Reekie with the New Family Silver

combined watermark award

It’s November; the time for underwhelming Christmas markets and for Public Engagement professionals UK-wide to get together and party share best practice at the annual Engage Conference, which for 2018 has moved from Bristol to Edinburgh. And delegates from the UoB PER Team were in the mood for a large glass of ‘best practice’ last night as Professor Tim Softley (PVC, Research) and Dr Eliot Marston (Head of Strategic Projects and Partnerships in MDS, and long-time champion of UoB Public Engagement), accepted a Silver Engage Watermark Award on behalf of the Institution (if you’re interested in our acceptance video, see herethe UoB press release is here and NCCPE blog post is here). The Watermark Award, sometimes likened to an ‘Athena Swann for PER’ recognises the commitment to Public Engagement at UoB and also challenges us to further embed it throughout the fabric of our research environment.

The NCCPE (National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement), which is the national body that assesses and grants Watermark Awards, praised our commitment to PER, recognising the incredible hard work of Research Engagement Officer, Caroline Gillett, and excellent support schemes, such as Leading to Engage (L2E) (which will be relaunching in the new year). But we know there’s more to do. We’ve created a Watermark Action Plan in which we have outlined a range of commitments to improve and expand our support for high quality engagement, such as a new Award (watch this space for details), more training opportunities, like our Creative Engagement which starts with Graphic Engagement on 6th December, plus much more that you’ll be hearing about in the coming weeks and months. So now we’re off to raise a glass or two to every single one of you who has been involved with doing or supporting engagement at UoB, the Watermark is for all your hard work in bringing amazing research to the public. Cheers!

But that’s not all we’ve got to celebrate – read on to hear about the 2018 winner of the Medical and Dental Sciences Early Career (PERCAT) Excellence in Public Engagement Award, plus of course our usual plethora of opportunities and events to take you into an engaging 2019.


IGI Public Engagement Workshop: Hearts and Minds

Join the PER Team on 5th December from 11:30am-1:30pm in WG5 Aston Webb – to consider the difficult questions in engagement and impact.

How do we change and then evidence a change in public perception? Whose minds should we be changing ? Does the future lie in immersive digital experiences or will mass media always win the day?

The session will include some practical tools you can use so it would be useful to come with a relevant research project in mind.

Register here – with the added bonus of lunch included.


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,

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.