Meet the man on a science mission
PUBLISHED: 14:34 07 June 2019 | UPDATED: 11:21 10 February 2020
David Parfrey is a man on a mission. As executive chair of the Anglia Innovation Partnership – the body that runs Norwich Research Park – he wants to put Norwich on the map for its world-leading research. Sophie Stainthorpe finds out more, including how Norwich scientists are saving the banana.
Norwich Research Park is an exciting hub of innovation, world-leading research and collaboration. In this new series of features, we profile some of the leading figures at the park, starting with executive chair David Parfrey.
One of your aims is for Norfolk to be recognised as a centre of excellence for science. Why is that important?
When people from outside the county think of Norfolk, they probably think of tourism - I want it to be recognised for science too.
Our strapline is "Changing lives and rethinking society". We aim to make society think differently because of the world-leading science that's done in Norwich and because of the way we do it.
Our research goes from the science of soil, through to plants growing in the soil, plants being used in food, food being taken into nutrition, nutrition into health, health into healthy aging. Also, plants into medicine, medicine into health, health into healthy aging.
Let's get people from Norfolk saying: Norwich is a city of stories, and there's a fantastic story about science. That story belongs to them.
Tell us about some of the exciting research going on at the park.
We have high confidence that, in my lifetime, diseases like polio and the Zika virus will disappear because of the work being done on plant-based vaccines, using science out of the John Innes Centre. How good is that?
Bananas and coffee are under threat. They have limited years because of diseases attacking the plants, but scientists here at Norwich Research Park have found the genes that are being attacked and have understood how to control those genes and are working on ways to safeguard their futures.
The new Quadram Institute now houses the most advanced diagnostic endoscopy unit in the world. Consultants from the hospital will get everything they need from the procedures carried out there, but the knowledge that's gained will also go straight upstairs into research. It's ground-breaking stuff and will push forward the advancement in gut research no end.
What we're doing at the park is world leading - all we need to do is tell people about it, and then do more of it.
So is it just scientists who work there?
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The park is home to 115 companies, sitting around four leading research institutes, the university hospital and the UEA. It might sound like everything's about science, but of the 12,000 people that are employed here, 3,000 are scientists; that means 9,000 are doing other careers - and I'm one of those.
We don't have deep sea fishermen and we don't have astronauts; I'm struggling to think what else we don't have.
Have you always been interested in science?
There were moments at school when I quite fancied being a scientist but, I'll be absolutely honest, me and school didn't get on very well.
I was never going to be a scientist, so the next best thing was to enable science.
Everything you have seen today, everything you've touched, everything you've eaten or drunk, has science embedded in it.
If we are going to sustain the world for future generations, it's science which will deliver that for us. The population of the world is growing rapidly, at the same time as the land available to grow food is shrinking. There is an inevitability that there will not be enough food to feed the mouths on the planet and, at best, that's 25 years away.
We've got to find new ways of making plants cope with the world we live in today and deliver greater yield, and those are things being worked on here in Norwich.
What do you do when you're not spreading the word about science in Norfolk?
My daughters are grown up and don't really need me, but I still like to see them and spend time with my family.
I'm a bit of a foodie and I absolutely adore gin, Norfolk has some of the best gins in the world, so I'm loving working my way through them.
I've sung my whole life and have been a member of a number of choirs over the last 35 years. I'm also a campanologist. My parents met through bell ringing, so I never had a chance really. I learned when I was six and I've been doing that now for 50 years.
Great local fact about bell ringing: the first ever peal (a series of at least 5,000 changes, or distinct sequences, of the bells, which usually takes around three hours) was completed at St Peter Mancroft.
If there was one thing I could go back and do more of, it would be rugby - no question. It would be great to see rugby become a bigger sport in Norfolk.
For more information on Norwich Research Park visit www.norwichresearchpark.com
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