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New fields of interest for UEA vice chancellor

PUBLISHED: 13:22 03 May 2016 | UPDATED: 13:22 03 May 2016

UEA vice chancellor David Richardson, who is the new Royal Norfolk Show president.
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

UEA vice chancellor David Richardson, who is the new Royal Norfolk Show president. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

ARCHANT NORFOLK

David Richardson, vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia and this year’s president of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association combines academia and agriculture, writes Rowan Mantell

In a university laboratory, bacteria are multiplying in bioreactors, and the observations of the scientists monitoring them could one day help farmers grow more food, cut climate change gases and generate electricity.

It’s just one of many hundreds of experiments going on at the University of East Anglia – but the man in charge of these particular bacteria is also in charge of the entire university.

Professor David Richardson, vice chancellor of UEA, has not let his role as chief executive of the university extinguish his love of science. This year he is also president of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association – an honour offered to him as vice chancellor, which turns out to be a remarkable fit for a scientist at the forefront of soil research.

David does not plan to be a figurehead president, but to combine agriculture and science across the county to spark new initiatives. “I think I’m in a unique position at this moment of history to bring the agricultural community together with the science community and light the blue touch paper and begin to do things,” he says. “We’re in one of the most important agricultural regions in the country and we have a rich heritage of agricultural innovation. People like Coke of Holkham and Townshend of Raynham were genius researchers. They didn’t know their innovations were going to work, but they researched and experimented and made an impact on agriculture that is still felt all around the world.

“I think this could be a new era of pushing back the boundaries of agricultural innovation.”

His specialism is bacterial biochemistry, studying the micro bacteria which live in soil. Wearing his official Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association tie dotted with cartoon pictures of happy roosters, pigs and cows, he explains the research which could lead to better soil fertility, a reduction in climate change gases and a new source of electricity.

He is eloquent and persuasive on the subjects of photosynthesis, photosynthetic bacteria and the way soil bacteria consume nitrates to produce potent greenhouse gases. In a nearby laboratory his bioreactors of bacteria are revealing how to disrupt this process. And there are breakaway experiments too, where bacteria are transforming plant and animal waste into electricity. Electrode-consuming bacteria are already making enough electricity to power a calculator. One day it could be a home.

He is now head of the world-class university he arrived at 25 years ago for his first job. Rising through the ranks of management and scientific research he is enthused by the possibilities almost literally within sight.

“On Norwich Research Park, which we are part of, there is crop science, genome analysis, food research . . . And it’s all here in Norfolk, which was itself the driving force for agricultural innovation 200 years ago. How exciting is all of this? And how exciting to have the chance to be vice chancellor and president of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association at just this moment!”

David believes the Royal Norfolk Show, run by the RNAA on June 29 and 30 this year, could be the ideal place to win over today’s teenagers. “We see thousands of young Norfolk children, very excited, at the Norfolk Show. Now we need to capture the enthusiasm of 13 and 14-year-olds. We need a new generation of innovators, in farming, agricultural engineering, understanding soil, plant breeding, computer science, agricultural economics, engineering, biology.”

He grew up near Newcastle and studied at Keele, Birmingham and Oxford universities before moving to UEA, adding a love of Norwich and Norfolk to his passion for science. He and his wife, who also works at UEA, have two children in their twenties, particularly love the north Norfolk coast, and collect pictures by local artists. “I have always liked art and one of the most wonderful things about being vice chancellor of this university is the fact that UEA has one of the best art collections of any university in the world, in the Sainsbury Centre. I was there when they were unpacking priceless paintings from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. You don’t think you are going to do that in your life!”

And the vice chancellor also admits to joining students (and other members of staff) at UEA gigs. “It’s not unusual for me to go to see a band,” he says. “My favourites here have been Joe Strummer, Stiff Little Fingers, The Damned, Elvis Costello . . .”

A keen football fan, he is torn between his boyhood and adopted cities when the Magpies play the Canaries. But there are no divided loyalties between his roles in management and academia, UEA and RNAA. As agriculture and science combine, he believes Norfolk could be a crucible of innovation, with our scientists and farmers both rooted in the region and reaching out around the globe.

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