Cambridge University research and the East of England

Cambridge University research and the East of England

October 18, 2019 1 By Stanley Isaacs


The University wants to bring its global research
expertise to the service of the local region. In fulfilling our mission to contribute to
society through the pursuit of education, learning and research, we are fundamentally
committed to engaging with communities and partners close to home. We do this with agriculture,
working with farmers and industry to increase productivity sustainably right here in Fenland. In the East of England we have very flat well-trained
fertile soil that accounts for half of the food production for England. So agriculture is really important for the
eastern region because of the amount of jobs and employment that we can provide to local
people here and the contribution that we can make to the economy with the healthy produce
that we’re making on our fertile soils. Well there are lots of factors coming together
that are going to affect global food production. Climate change, recruiting workers for farms
and factories and an aging population all have an effect on ensuring we have food for
the future. Technology is where we can find solutions to do this without damaging the
environment. The links between the University and G’s
go back many years with many successful projects being run. The work that we’ve done together
is focussed on areas of expertise that we don’t have internally in-house which means
it’s great for us to be able to work with University colleagues. We’ve worked in areas like supply chain management,
computer vision to detect the maturity of crops and also most recently in robotic harvesting. So we’re really excited about the links and
the projects that we’re running with the University as we believe we’re tackling a crucial problem
in agriculture which is a skills shortage in robotics, autonomous systems, AI, machine
learning, areas that we believe will be really fundamental in improving the productivity
of agriculture in the future. We know as farmers that it’s very important that we are managing
our environmental stewardship so that we can farm safely and productively in the future. The region has many assets. Innovative and
entrepreneurial people, clusters of knowledge-intensive industries, high-quality agricultural land,
but it also faces multiple challenges including economic inequalities. One project with a
Cambridge-based housing association CHS Group is helping people furthest away from the job
market. Alongside the economic prosperity that we
see in the East of England region, there are also significant levels of deprivation. In
fact some of the wards in the Fenland area are not just some of the most deprived in
the UK, but some of the most deprived in Europe. Now the University produces world-leading
research but it’s really important that we also work with the communities that are right
on our doorstep. So a lot of people when they first come to
us are in financial crisis. They’re not managing to cover all of their expenses. So each of
our delivery partners employs a coach who work with people for up to 20 hours. Within those 20 hours, they’ll focus on what
that person needs. They’ll be looking at making sense of their money, at helping them get
online, at helping them get closer to the job market. The Department of Land Economy has been involved
in the New Horizons program as an evaluation partner. So what we’ve been doing is carrying
out a programme of action research. So right at the beginning of the programme we work
with CHS to set up the evaluation tools to do work with them to decide what data do you
need to collect in order to measure the impact of the New Horizons program. The people who are on it, we’re seeing huge
changes for them so it’s great that we’re able to continue to deliver. The funding has
just been extended for another three years so that will be another around 300 people
who get to have this one-to-one coaching. For individuals who have gone through the
coaching program, they have not just learned new skills but they’ve gained confidence.
They gain self-esteem. And one of the impacts of this has really been on proving their mental
health. So many of the people when they began the program were under severe stress and suffering
mental health impacts particularly as a result of high levels of debt. And one of the impacts
of the program has been to give them self-confidence, self-belief not just to tackle those problems
but also to believe that they can put themselves onto a pathway to a better future. We have researchers working with organisations
across the region on environmental issues including how coastal erosion can be managed
for the future by working with nature rather than against it. With much of its flat and marshy lands, the
East Anglian coast is very vulnerable to sea level rise and to flooding. It’s also home
to nationally important infrastructure, to some of the richest farmland around the country,
to important tourist areas and many homes and people of course. In order to protect
all these assets, we need to look at managing the coast sustainably into the future. Here
at Cambridge University, we are looking at a creative way of doing this by taking into
account the natural coastal protection that environments like dunes, marshes, estuaries
provide to the hinterland. To test this we excavate and transport soil cores into large
wave flumes and then expose them to waves to see how much energy these landforms can
withstand. By working with the National Trust and the Environment Agency for example we
can then develop sustainable management programs for the East Anglian shores. So we can get
away from hard coastal engineering structures and look at alternatives like natural landforms
and working with nature to allow the coast to adapt to a changed future. We’re working with communities, doctors and
hospitals across the region on public health, the National Health Service and how people
can stay healthy and active in their later years, including whether portable monitors
can be used to screen for a heart condition called AF. AF is atrial fibrillation which is essentially
your heart rather than beating regularly it beats irregularly-irregularly and around 7
percent of people over 65 have it and it increases the risk of stroke fivefold. The cost of that
in Europe is around 10 billion Euros per year. So if screening could find people with atrial
fibrillation and they could be offered anticoagulants it might reduce their risk of stroke and that
might improve their quality of life, their length of life and reduce the cost to the
health system. There are a number of different ways that you might want to test for atrial
fibrillation. So screening for pulse when people come into
the surgery is quick and simple and relatively cheap but we know that misses people, that’s
the thing. One of the approaches we’re using is a screening
tool that’s a bit like a mobile phone. Patients can take it away for a couple of weeks and
they can test themselves just by putting their thumbs on the device and it measures their
heart trace. We’re in the pilot phase at the moment or the feasibility phase and we’re
working with practices in the eastern region to test the feasibility of the screening program
and the feasibility of the study to evaluate it. And so this gives us an extra dimension to
check and this is about clinical effectiveness and cost effectiveness of using this type
of device, and that’s the answer that will be of use around the world. In the region as elsewhere there is always
more to do but the breadth and longevity of our mutually beneficial partnerships show
the importance that these relationships have for us. Our academic community remains open
to new and creative forms of working with partners in the East of England.