From ground-breaking research in Nigeria to using novel tools to transform conservation

Cambridge researchers are awarded the Vice-Chancellor's Awards for Research Impact and Engagement for 2023 

Each year, the Vice Chancellor’s Awards for Research Impact and Engagement recognise outstanding achievement, innovation and creativity in devising and implementing ambitious engagement and impact plans that have the potential to create significant economic, social and cultural impact from, and engagement with and for, research. 

This year's recipients have been recognised for: addressing the experiences and needs of children and families with social work involvement; the design and implementation of the UK's first Citizens' Jury on Human Embryo Editing; transforming change in conservation by ensuring policy and practice are more efficient and effective; and ground-breaking research on the spatial impact of extreme conflict and violence in northern Nigeria. 

The awards, now in their eighth year, are run by the University of Cambridge Public Engagement team and Research Strategy Office and, in 2023, are awarded in three categories: Early Career Researcher, Established Academic and the Collaboration Award. 

The Collaboration Award

UK Citizens' Jury on Human Embryo Editing

The project led by Professor Anna Middleton, Director Kavli Centre for Ethics, Science, and the Public, connected patients with inherited diseases to experts in embryo research, genomic medicine, ethics, and reproductive medicine. 

Potential permanent alteration of the human genome has sparked global calls for urgent societal debate and, in 2023, the UK government initiated a public consultation on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. In anticipation of this, the first UK Citizens Jury on Human Embryo Editing was delivered and resulted in policy recommendations, shaping the future of embryo research for curing severe inherited diseases. 

This work has been captured in a filmed documentary, showcased at international film festivals, and shared with policymakers worldwide. 

Working in collaboration with Genetic Alliance UK, Department for Health and Social Care and Genomics England (until April 2022) and Wellcome Connecting Science (amongst others), this research highlights the pressing need for comprehensive public engagement in genomics, a concern recognised by the UK government. 

Through global research involving 37,000 individuals from 22 countries and 16 languages, the team uncovered a widespread unfamiliarity with DNA, genetics, and genomics, coupled with a mistrust in genetics research. 

The team collaborated with genetics clinician societies worldwide to create recommendations for public engagement about human embryo DNA editing, advocating for transparent public and patient input into global policies.  

The Established Academic

Transforming Conservation using co-production of evidence synthesis and novel tools for practitioners 

This year's Established Academic Award is awarded to Professor William Sutherland, Director of Research and formerly Miriam Rothschild Chair of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, School of Biological Sciences and his research team at Conservation Evidence. 

Conservation Evidence is a free, authoritative information resource designed to support decisions about how to maintain and restore global biodiversity which resulted from a meeting in 2004 with practitioners and government to discuss improving conservation practices. The vision was to ensure evidence was accessible to decision-makers. 

Alongside this information resource, the group set up the ‘Evidence in Conservation Practice Working Group’ in collaboration with numerous practitioners, policymakers, funders and researchers. Conservation Evidence we have worked with over 1,100 practitioners, policy makers, funders and others to support fundamental strategic and cultural shifts towards more effective conservation action. 

The database has to date has over 1.1 million users and the associated What Works in Conversation book has been read/download 86,000 times. The team have we have co-produced over 20 papers detailing evidence-based practice, experiments in conservation, global conservation costs, cost-reporting frameworks for projects, principles for business mitigation using evidence, principles for evidence-based guidance and more as well as co-producing an award-winning film with David Attenborough and BBC presenter Iolo Williams and a Highly Commended book: Transforming Conservation. 

Working with global organisations has resulted in over 100 committed to using and generating evidence to improve outcomes for nature and society.     

"Conservation Evidence has revolutionised how the environmental conservation sector thinks about, accesses and uses evidence to support its work. They have democratised access to evidence, meaning that charities such as ours, which usually have limited or no access to scientific literature, can access and understand the research we need to make decisions on conservation interventions. It is a fantastic, innovative initiative, which has contributed to a step change in how we use evidence." 
Pete Tomlin MCIEEM, Evidence Manager, Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust

The Early Career Researcher

This year’s Early Career Researcher is jointly award to Dr Barry Coughlan, British Academy Fellow in the Department of Clinical Medicine and Stephen Ajadi, a PhD Researcher in the Department of Land Economy. 

The experiences and mental health needs of children and families with social work involvement 

Dr Barry Coughlan’s research addresses the experiences and mental health needs of a profoundly underserved and excluded population: children and families with social work involvement.  

People with lived experience of children’s social care have shaped the research and enabled Dr Coughlan to attend to critical issues, including suicide and self-harm following abuse or neglect.  

A close collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau has been decisive in facilitating dialogue with policy-makers, including the Department for Education and Ministry for Justice. The research is already shaping national policy, for instance the proposal for a unique identifier to help coordinate children’s health, social care and education. 

The Early Career Researcher

Conflict, Violence, and the Vulnerability of Open Spaces: a spatial analysis of impact 

Stephen Ajadi, an award-winning architect and development economist, conducted ground-breaking research on the spatial impact of extreme conflict and violence in northern Nigeria. Over four years, he led the largest ethnographic study ever attempted in a volatile African city of the region garnering over 7000 physical interviews.  

His awarding-winning study uncovered critical spatial and policy gaps, offering practical strategies for engagement. Implementation of his findings has begun at a small scale in Nigeria, with recommendations for broader impact. By enhancing urban spatial awareness and promoting social resilience, Stephen's work aims to reduce vulnerability to conflict and violence.  

He founded the Penumbra Space Foundation and the Cambridge Initiative for African Urbanism. Through these organizations, he raised £150k in funding and real estate value for infrastructure addressing conflict-related issues across communities 

To find out more about each winner and their projects, please visit our Vice Chancellor’s Awards for Research Impact and Engagement homepage. 

2023 Runners Up

Collaboration Award 

Social Robots for Assessing and Promoting Mental Wellbeing (SORO4Wellbeing). Project led by Professor Hatice Gunes, Professor of Affective Intelligence and Robotics (AFAR), Head of the AFAR Lab, Department of Computer Science and Technology, School of Technology  

Bringing the natural world into the primary mathematics classroom. Project led by Dr Ems Lord, Director of NRICH, Faculty of Mathematics, School of Physical Sciences 

Established Academic 

Cityzens for Clean Air - precision (running) advocacy for healthy cities. Professor Tolullah Oni, Clinical Professor, MRC Epidemiology Unit, School of Clinical Medicine. Individual submission 

Their Future, Our Action: Cambridge Small States Policy Simulation Labs. Dr Nazia Habib, Founder and Director, Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development, Department of Land Economy, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Submitted on behalf of the research team