Witchcraft and conflict: Exploring alternative discourses of insecurity

Jonathan Fisher

Jonathan Fisher is a senior lecturer at the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. His research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), is focused on the place and agency of African states in the international system, particularly in the realm of security and conflict. Within this he is interested in the role played by African governments in shaping how they are perceived and engaged with by Western actors. He has a particular interest in eastern Africa and the influence of guerrilla heritage on contemporary patterns of governance, conflict and cooperation across the region. He is also interested in how ‘knowledge’ on African security and conflict is negotiated and constructed in a range of settings.

In October 2016, according to Uganda’s main independent newspaper the Daily Monitor, residents of Bukoova village in Luuka District, eastern Uganda, passed a resolution banishing one of their number – Charles Magumba. The “impromptu security meeting”, called by the Sub-County Vice Chairman and attended by the Area Police Officer, saw Magumba accused of – and admitting to – using witchcraft to kill two men whose wives he had allegedly eloped with. Magumba needed to leave Bukoova by mid-January 2017 “or risk being lynched”.

A year earlier, a UN report on “the situation on human rights in the Central African Republic (2014-2015)” recorded 32 cases of “torture or inhumane and degrading treatment against persons [mainly the elderly, widowed or those with disabilities] accused of practicing witchcraft” by groups linked to the rebel Anti-Balaka militia, in the midst of that country’s civil war. The report noted that when alerted to these acts by the UN’s Human Rights Division, state authorities “failed to take action to…bring the perpetrators to justice…in the vast majority of cases”. Witchcraft itself, though, is a criminal offence in Central African Republic – formerly punishable by execution – and in some localities 40-50% of court cases have focused around witchcraft accusations in recent years. Both the fear of witchcraft and the threat of witch-hunts can play a very real part in people’s experiences and definitions of in/security.

At the same time, magical, spiritual and supernatural forms of protection represent a source of security to communities in the African continent. There is, therefore, a deeply complex and ambiguous relationship between witchcraft and in/security across Africa, as there is, of course, in many other continents and regions. These ambiguities raise critical questions not only about the role of civilian, state and international actors in negotiating and responding to in/security but about the nature of “security” itself – both in terms of what it “is” (as a concept) and what it “does” (the processes, practices and policies which seek to promote, deliver or maintain it.

These are not, however, questions which international agencies and national policy-makers in Africa have sought to engage with in an official sense – Western donor agencies, international non-governmental organisations and national governments have tended to frame security-related policies and interventions around tackling threats which relate to empirical and “observable” phenomena including terrorism, war, disease, unemployment, lack of education or food etc. This is not to say that these actors do not encounter or willingly engage with discourses on witchcraft in their everyday interactions with civilians for a variety of reasons, but rather that there is a disjuncture between this reality and the manner in which security is theorised and enacted by these groups.

Scholars are also yet to consider the relationship between witchcrafts and security – and what this tells us about the concept of security, at least in these terms. Though an emerging body of research in political science has begun to invert analysis and interpretation of in/security knowledge through exploring “vernacular security/ies”, much of this nascent field has focused on the UK and government policing and counter-terrorism practices, and their discursive reception and resistance in a range of communities.

An exploratory GCRF project lead by Dr Jonathan Fisher (International Development Department, University of Birmingham) and Dr Cherry Leonardi (Department of History, Durham University) takes the questions, contradictions and ambiguities highlighted above as its point of departure and as a means to both address some of the gaps in existing scholarship and to open up new conceptual space for exploring the nature of in/security as theory and practice.

The project, funded by the AHRC brings together a political scientist (Fisher) and an historian (Leonardi) around three core questions:

  1. How do African communities understand and articulate security threats and in what ways does ‘witchcraft’ feature in these articulations?
  2. How do African and Western policy-makers, in turn, understand and articulate the major security threats faced by these communities and how far do they consider ‘witchcraft’ within this?
  3. Finally, how should Western researchers and Western/African policy-makers engage with these unfamiliar (in) security discourses, and what challenges does attempting to do so pose?

The project will run until the end of April 2018 and take as its empirical focus borderland communities in north-western Uganda. This region was the site of a brutal insurgency (the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army) and sometimes equally brutal government counter-insurgency between c.1987-2006. During the same period it was also home to large numbers of South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan returnees fleeing the Sudanese civil war, and this cross-border movement is now being repeated as South Sudan is once again being ravaged by conflict since 2013. This sometimes tension-inducing mixing of boundaries, identities, mobilities and conflict/post-conflict experiences renders the border region a fascinating setting in which to explore the dynamic interactions between in/security and witchcraft – both of which, to some degree, draw from constructions of trust and suspicion related to ideas of “insiders”, “outsiders”, “internal” and “external”.

At its heart, the project represents an exercise in cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration – not only between the two project leaders but also across a broad network of academics, practitioners and policy-makers.

For more information, please contact Dr Jonathan Fisher (j.fisher@bham.ac.uk) or Dr Cherry Leonardi (d.c.leonardi@durham.ac.uk)

Better understanding the relationship between justice and development in conflict-affected countries

Kirsten Ainley

Kirsten Ainley is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Studies at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on the history and development of international criminal law, international political theory, human rights and humanitarian intervention.
She is currently the Principal Investigator of the ESRC Strategic Network on Justice, Conflict and Development, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Here, below, is a Q&A on the work of the Network, following the publishing of the Global Challenges Research Fund Protracted Conflict conference summary report.

Why is this research particularly necessary?

One of the most pressing challenges for many less-developed countries is how to achieve and maintain peace. Conflict makes development in any form (be that economic growth, poverty reduction or increased human rights protection) extremely difficult to achieve. This has been recognised by international organisations and aid donors, and much development assistance is now directed towards conflict resolution in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. This network focuses on one of the main ways in which states and the international community now approach conflict resolution: the promotion of justice initiatives. The use of ‘transitional justice’ (TJ) – judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress legacies of human rights abuses – including trials, commissions of inquiry, reparations and amnesties, has increased markedly since the 1990s, with justice seen as a way to end conflict and achieve societal reconciliation. Academic research has attempted to assess the impact of TJ on peace and development, but has produced inconclusive, even contradictory results. This leaves a significant research gap to find out what the real effects of TJ are upon peace and development – it is this gap that we are starting to fill.

What is the research looking to achieve?

The Justice, Conflict and Development network is motivated by a desire to better understand the relationship between justice and development by focusing on four conflict-affected countries (Colombia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Uganda). Each of these states (or opposition groups, in the case of Syria) is currently making decisions on what kinds of TJ institutions to build, often under pressure from the international community, but without robust evidence about the likely impacts of their policy options. By bringing together academic and practitioner experts, plus civil society project partners, we aim to develop interdisciplinary research agendas to understand the interactions between TJ institutions and development in Fragile and Conflict Affected States. To achieve this aim, the network objectives are 1) Develop ambitious and impactful comparative research agendas on justice and development in Fragile and Conflict Affected States; 2) Synthesise, map and disseminate existing research and identify knowledge gaps, including by engaging alternative sources of knowledge; 3) Foster interdisciplinary engagement by capacity and relationship building; 4) Engage policy makers, advocacy groups and publics in case sites and elsewhere.

What patterns have emerged in the research to-date?

We have met in Colombia and Uganda so far, and have picked up a number of interesting themes. The first is the way that the identity of ‘victim’ of conflict can be powerful if used in creative ways. We didn’t expect this as the victim status post conflict is often seen and experienced to be dis-empowering, yet groups in Colombia in particular have organised around the victim identity and gained power by doing so. We have also noticed the key role that land ownership plays post-conflict – in both Colombia and Uganda, land ownership, restitution and allocation are a key part of post-conflict politics and development, yet they are rarely considered as part of transitional justice programmes. And finally, our visits to Montes de Maria and Cartagena in Colombia and to Gulu and Kitgum in Uganda have underscored the necessity to get out of capital cities while conducting overseas research. The NGOs and policy makers in capital cities often have very different experiences of conflict than those who live outside, and sometimes very different ideas of which post-conflict justice and development policies should be pursued.

What has been the highlight of the project so far?

The highlight of the project so far has been being part of a new team with people who are incredibly smart, highly committed to their work, and keen to contribute to improved justice and development policies. We have faced some small challenges together – aggressive elephants in Uganda being the most memorable – and through spending two weeks together, in Colombia and Uganda, we have developed strong friendships and professional connections which have already led to co-publications and to a further major research grant application. There has, tragically, been a low point: we lost one of our network members, Vijay Nagaraj, in a car accident this summer. Vijay was an extraordinary man who left an indelible impression on anyone who knew him even for a short time. He was kind, clever, humane and politically engaged, and our project is diminished by his loss. His work in this field is tremendous, and listed here, alongside tributes to him from the network members.

What is it like ‘on-the-ground’ in the countries you are working with?

As a network, we are committed to speaking to people who are affected by conflict, and by the justice and development policies intended to alleviate the harms brought by conflict, with a view to generating detailed comparative knowledge.
This means visiting the countries we study: Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka, or getting as close as we can in the case of Syria. The main activities of the network are four workshops, all in the case sites (or nearby), in which all network members meet with each other and with key actors in the justice and development fields. So far, we have visited Colombia and Uganda, and in January 2018 we will meet in Sri Lanka.
The workshops are largely organised by those network members who work in the country locations, and we have therefore had an excellent level of access to a wide range of actors. At each workshop, we meet academics, civil society actors and politicians in the capital cities and in areas more severely affected by conflict.
Conflicts are no longer active in Colombia, Uganda and Sri Lanka in a conventional sense, but people are still under threat – particularly human rights activists. In Colombia for instance, we met with human rights activists who have body guards to protect them from the high incidence of attacks on rights defenders in the country. We also drove through areas which until only recently had been controlled by armed groups, which meant that the populations there were prevented from getting to market or travelling for work. In Sri Lanka, human rights activists are also under threat (though not murdered with the same frequency as in Colombia at the moment), meaning we are careful not to publicise the speakers at our events too widely and try to hold closed-door sessions with people who would rather their participation in our events stayed private. Fortunately, in Uganda, we did not hear about threats to those trying to build peace and some level of subsistence in the north, but the impact the conflict still has in the region is clear. Thousands of children are still missing, and the lack of young people is both a tragedy for families, but also an additional economic hardship in an area which is already extremely poor, as the loss of children means no one to tend land or earn for the family as parent’s age.

What does success look like in ten years’ time?

We are primarily concerned with the ways in which the impact of post-conflict justice and development policies is evaluated. There is a high level of disagreement in the literature about what the impacts are of transitional justice mechanisms (trials, truth commissions, reparations schemes and so on) and various kinds of development policies. We intend, through comparative work, to understand in more depth the impacts of different policies in the four cases we focus on, with a view to researching a greater number of cases if we are successful in obtaining further funding. In the next decade, it should be possible for researchers in the field to map out the impacts and interactions of justice and development policies in specific cases and to draw comparisons with relevantly similar cases. This should enable countries emerging from current and future conflicts to take informed decisions on which approaches to dealing with past conflict and confronting development challenges are most likely to lead to stable peace.



What can we learn from how art has been used in reconciliation?


Dr Rachel Kerr

Dr Rachel Kerr is a Reader in International Relations and Contemporary War in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research is in the area of law and war, in particular war crimes and transitional/post-conflict justice, and she co-directs the War Crimes Research Group at King’s. Dr Kerr is currently leading a major new AHRC-funded GCRF project investigating Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community (www.artreconciliation.org), of which she explores in this blog.

What can we learn from how art has been used in reconciliation?

How do we contend with the legacy of violence in the aftermath of conflict?

Is there a way for people to come back together in the wake of inter-communal and inter-ethnic violence and atrocity crimes?

Scholarship and practice in this field has grappled with this issue, employing a range of mechanisms and approaches to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses, with varying degrees of accountability, reparation, truth-seeking and exclusion.  In vogue now is the search for so-called ‘guarantees of non-recurrence’, which suggests a transformative approach and a broader conception of justice, beyond accountability to foster structural change, sustainable peace and reconciliation.

Our project

Art and Reconciliation: Conflict, Culture and Community’ seeks to interrogate the concept and practice of reconciliation, and to investigate more effective ways of evaluating reconciliation activities, focussing on the potential role of the arts and artistic practices.

The project focuses largely on the Western Balkans, where reconciliation – however it is conceptualised – may seem a distant goal still at the political/state level, but there are nevertheless plenty of everyday practices that might be characterised as reconciliation.

The immediate impetus was that large amounts of money have been spent funding ‘reconciliation’ projects in the Western Balkans (and elsewhere), with very little evidence of positive outcomes.  Indeed, in some cases, such activities seem only to have reinforced animosities among different groups.  There is therefore both a gap in knowledge about what has been done and an even larger gap in terms of what might be possible.

Mina Jahić from the Rescuers Project PCRC, Credit – Dr Paul Lowe

We are starting from an agnostic position regarding reconciliation.  Rather than impose our own definition, we are interested in finding out how the term ‘reconciliation’ is understood and practiced in different settings and with diverse constituent groups.

Broadly, the project seeks to integrate interdisciplinary work spanning the arts, humanities and social sciences in three strands:

  1. Histories – How has reconciliation been conceptualised and practised over space and time? What can we learn from ‘episodes’ of reconciliation/anti-reconciliation not normally featured in discussions about Transitional Justice, drawing on examples from the Ancient World to more contemporary histories.
  2. Discourses – How is reconciliation talked about? What are the common narratives/understandings of reconciliation?  What are the expectations of those involved in reconciliation ‘practices’?
  3. Activities – What is the extent of reconciliation activity? What kinds of activities have been funded?  What are the aims and objectives, as understood by donors, deliverers and so-called beneficiaries?  What is the actual and potential role of arts and artistic practices in reconciliation activities?

What have we found?

We are still in the early stages, but our initial research has provided the following insights:

  • Reconciliation is a contested concept, not only in terms of its meaning, but more strikingly evident in resistance to using the term. There is a great deal of resistance to the so-called ‘reconciliation industry’ and a sense in which it has grown to accommodate donor priorities and wish-lists rather than in response to, or really tailored to, any grass-roots support for such activities.
  • Art and reconciliation are not necessarily mutually reinforcing. Whilst there is evidence of the potential role of the arts to help people come to terms with trauma, and the power of visual media to relate traumatic experience – where everyday language fails us, we cannot assume that all artistic interventions are aimed at peace and reconciliation – they can also be divisive, resisting narratives of inclusion and cohesion.  The use of the arts also raises significant ethical challenges around issues of appropriation – who has the right to reproduce testimony for artistic purposes? – and carries a risk of creating secondary trauma?
  • On a more positive note, as well as opening up new pathways or ‘sites’ of reconciliation, we’ve found art can help us reconceptualise reconciliation as ‘dialogue’. Rather than look for end-state outcomes, we can think of it as a process through which people can come together in ‘mutual respect’ to hear and acknowledge others’ stories and narratives.
  • Art and culture are important sites of reconstruction and resilience, as well as reconciliation. There is a great deal of activity on the arts front that might be characterised ‘reconciliation activity’ but is not conceived of in those terms.  In this context, artistic practices can help reclaim identity and culture where destruction has been the aim of one or more party to the conflict.
  • There is a serious evidence gap in terms of evaluation of reconciliation activities and evaluation of arts interventions. Both are challenging on their own, let alone together. Translating what is commonly understood to be an intrinsic ‘good’ of fostering arts and cultural activities into measurable outcomes is immensely difficult.  We are grappling with the question of how we might demonstrate evidence of the impact of these activities on peace and/or reconciliation, whilst also taking seriously resistance to the ‘instrumentalisation’ of the arts?  We can observe how people experience such interventions and how they interact with and shape them, but can we measure the impact of this on how they might interact with politics and political discourse?  Is the art of making histories and telling stories in and of itself enough impact?  Is the art that results authoritative as a source of evidence of impact? Can we make a strong enough theoretical argument for the inherent value of arts and culture supporting social cohesion and resilience?  Or, do we need to find ways of substantiating this empirically?

You can follow the progress of the research and access our publications, event and outputs on our website: https://artreconciliation.org/.


Together against AMR

Associate Professor Naomi SykesNaomi Sykes is Associate Prof in Zooarchaeology at the University of Nottingham (from Jan 2018 will hold the Lawrence Chair in Archaeology at the University of Exeter).
Her research focusses on human-animal-environment interactions and how they inform on the structure, ideology, impact and well-being of societies, past and present. Her approach is to integrate archaeological data with wider scientific evidence (especially DNA and stable isotope analysis) and discussions from anthropology, cultural geography, (art) history and linguistics.

Every year the World Health Organisations runs a week-long antimicrobial resistance (AMR) awareness campaign1, highlighting the major risk to global health represented by AMR. This week, social media has been flooded with reminders about the scale and complexity of the problem we are facing, with stats predicting the cost – in terms of human life, food security and to the global economy – that AMR will bring. Infographics abound on twitter concerning the many and varied causes of AMR and how we, as individuals, can make a difference through behavioural changes. Indeed, this year’s theme for AMR awareness week is ‘Seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional before taking antibiotics’, a theme designed to tackle the widespread misuse of antibiotics, such as taking them for viral infections – like colds and flu – on which they have no impact.

The need to consult with trained healthcare professionals is certainly important. But what happens in situations where people have limited access to qualified healthcare professionals? Or if those healthcare professionals are the very individuals responsible for over-prescribing antibiotics? These are two issues, amongst many others, that have been raised in the recently published Scoping Report on Antimicrobial Resistance in India2 document. The report was launched on the 2nd November in Delhi at an India-UK meeting3, which took place one year after the countries agreed to work collaboratively to fight AMR, committing £13 million of funding for a joint research programme.

The mapping document represents the first step in the collaborative process. It reviews the state AMR research in India, outlines current understandings, knowledge gaps and highlights future research priorities. The second step, is to act upon the document’s findings…Easier said than done! The scoping report sets out, with great clarity, the factors driving AMR resistance: they are the forces of evolution, they are environmental, they are economic, they are cultural, they are interconnected and they are multi-scalar. And none of them can be countered by a single discipline, or by a single country alone. ‘Wicked’ problems such as AMR require imaginative, collaborative solutions.

Sandpit delegates, mentors and funders.To find such solutions in the light of the scoping document was, essentially, the brief for the UK-India sandpit event held 7-10th November at Lake Damdama, an hour to the south of Delhi (or sometimes three hours, depending on traffic). The sandpit was attended by 40 researchers, 20 each from the UK and India, who were selected through a competitive process. The delegates were drawn deliberately from across the disciplinary spectrum with representatives from medicine, veterinary science and microbiology through to engineering, economics and anthropology, and more besides. The idea was to bring as many insights and perspectives as possible to bear on the intractable problem of AMR. But how to get such a diverse group of people to work together, understand each other’s thinking, share expertise, co-produce new strategies for addressing AMR in India and then write convincing funding pitches – all within 3.5 days? A task almost as daunting as AMR itself. Cue involvement from Christine and Lucy from the Centre for Facilitation, who with support from 8 academic mentors (3 UK, 5 India – including Dr Sumanth Gandra, co-author of the scoping document) helped the participants perform together like a well-oiled machine.

Inexplicably, over an intensive 3.5-day process of non-stop activity, the group was transformed from 40 individuals with an equally large number of approaches, to nine high-quality interdisciplinary UK-India teams. Each team had developed an innovative research vision that took a ‘systems approach’ to AMR, giving consideration to multiple drivers and their inter-connections.

On the final day of the sandpit, all nine teams were interviewed as part of the funding shortlisting process. The quality of all the proposals was astonishingly high – a testament to what can be achieved when people unite to tackle a common problem. It is my hope that, by AMR awareness week 2018, this ethos of research collaboration and the teams that are ultimately funded through the UK-India scheme, will have begun to generate new results that will move us forward, together, against AMR.

1 http://www.who.int/campaigns/world-antibiotic-awareness-week/en/

2 https://cddep.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/AMR-INDIA-SCOPING-REPORT.pdf

3 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-india-working-together-to-address-antimicrobial-resistance

Antibiotic Discovery in the Abyss

By Dr Paul Race, Senior Lecturer, School of Biochemistry, University of Bristol.

Global health

Deep sea coral and fishThe development of antibiotics is considered by many to be the greatest medical advancement in human history. Recently, however, the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as a global threat to our health and wellbeing has brought into sharp focus the pressing need for the discovery and development of new antibiotics capable of overcoming the impending threat of AMR. Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government, has emphasised that there are few public health issues of greater importance than AMR, both in the UK and across the globe. If unchecked, AMR is predicted to cause 300 million premature deaths worldwide, with a cost to the world economy of more than £60 trillion by 2050.

Historically, the majority of clinically useful antibiotics have been based on molecules isolated from natural sources. Even today around 70% of all the antibiotics that are prescribed are derived from so-called ‘natural products’; chemical compounds that are produced by microorganisms or plants to enable their survival in the environmental niches that they inhabit. Although natural product drug discovery was a mainstay of the pharmaceutical industry in the mid 20th century, the advent of structure-based approaches and combinatorial chemistry in the 1980s and 90s, led to industry migrating away from this approach. Now, some 20 years later, the emerging science of synthetic biology is enabling researchers to rapidly discover and optimise natural products for use as antibiotic leads, resulting in a renaissance in this important area of research.

Searching for answers in the deep

At the University of Bristol we are combining the innovations of synthetic biology with robotic environmental sampling to attempt to unblock the antibiotic discovery pipeline. If you want to find new and interesting natural products the best place to look is in microorganisms that have been exposed to evolutionary pressures that necessitate the acquisition of unusual metabolic innovations. The deep ocean is one of the most ‘extreme’ environments on Earth, and microorganisms that live there are considered to be excellent sources of novel natural products. We have been using a remotely operated vehicle, deployed from the James Cook research vessel, to recover environmental samples from previously unexplored regions of the Atlantic Ocean sea bed at depths  more than 4.5 km. Following sample recovery the bacteria present in these samples are grown in the lab and their capacity to produce new natural products with antimicrobial activity is determined. This project has only been running for 18 months but we have already isolated more than 1,000 previously uncharacterised microorganisms, and six new natural product-based antibiotic leads. This marine discovery programme is now being elaborated through collaboration with other researchers in Bristol and elsewhere to include microorganisms recovered from the Antarctic and from desert soils.

In related work, we are using molecular, genetic and chemical techniques to manipulate the cellular machineries responsible for the biosynthesis of antimicrobial natural products from marine bacteria. Building on previous work investigating the natural product abyssomicin C, from the bacterium V. maris, which was first isolated from the Pacific seabed, we are generating functionally optimised versions of this molecule that are better suited for use as antibiotics in animals and humans.

Strong research foundations

Our work forms part of a broad portfolio of research being undertaken at the University of Bristol focused on the discovery and development of new antibiotics. This builds on a strong foundation of EPSRC-funded interdisciplinary AMR research activity including the BrisSynBio Synthetic Biology Research Centre (funded by EPSRCand the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), the EPSRC funded Synthetic biology Centre for Doctoral Training and the BristolBridge ‘bridging the gaps’ project, amongst others.

World Antibiotic Awareness Week, 13-19 November 2017: World Health Organisation

Twitter:  #AMRInsights #WAAW

Applying Social Science Theory to the Problem of AMR

By Claire Chandler, Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology, Co-Director, Antimicrobial Resistance Centre at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Where did the idea for your research come from?

AMIS Programme Research Team during their inception meeting, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, July 2017.

AMIS Programme Research Team during their inception meeting, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, July 2017.

AMR is understood as both a biological and social problem. Often when we talk about the social side of AMR, we think of the ‘irrational’ use of antibiotics by patients and prescribers. From my previous research, we knew that applying this lens – and somewhat pejorative term – to the problem could have unintended consequences – such as holding patients responsible for decisions out of their hands. So I wanted to see how else we might think about AMR and the realm of ‘the social’. With colleagues Coll Hutchison and Eleanor Hutchinson, we reviewed existing social theory to see how this could be applied to the problem of AMR. As well as producing a report to help lay the land for others in this space, we worked with a group of collaborators to develop a programme of research to apply some of these theories in practise through empirical studies.

What is your research programme?

The research programme we’re working on is called Anti-Microbials In Society (AMIS), and consists of two empirical projects – AMIS Thailand and AMIS Uganda – as well as an online resource, the AMIS Hub, which is due to be launched on the 17th November 2017.

How did you set about getting the AMIS programme off the ground?

Firstly, we are fortunate to be working with excellent collaborators in both Thailand and Uganda. For example, our Thai co-investigators both completed their PhDs in anthropology on the use of antibiotics in communities in Thailand in the 1990s, and are now senior members of the Ministry of Health and Mahidol University. We will be able to compare the rich ethnographic work that they did back then with what they do now and to apply different theoretical lenses to that research. Our Ugandan team also have a strong background in medicines use studies. We also assembled a group of 18 inspirational mentors with expertise in AMR from across different disciplines. In July, we held a two-week inception meeting for our whole project team, with specific sessions for inputs from our mentors, as well as time to discuss social theory whilst walking across Regent’s Park!

What is the main aim of the research?

The AMIS programme aims to stimulate engagement with social research that presents different ways of conceiving, responding to, and framing AMR. In our empirical work, we want to be able to describe the rich social-material roles of antimicrobials in societies around the globe. We bring this together with research from other groups and individuals on our AMIS Hub website, where we provide simple summaries that offer policy-makers, scientists and funders new ways to conceptualise and act upon AMR.

Where does it fit into the AMR challenge?

Our use of antimicrobial drugs, including antibiotics, has escalated. Now a part of everyday life, we often are unaware of how much of the way we live our lives is dependent upon these medicines. We propose that the ways antibiotics are used is deeply embedded in the way our societies and economies work. It is important to understand the extent and nature of the way we have become intertwined with these medicines in order to understand the consequences of resistance and the best ways to reduce the threat of resistance. We want to ask new questions and generate innovative ways of thinking about AMR and tackling it, social science is very good at this!

How do you go about it?

In Thailand our research involves the mapping of antibiotic use, and the networks that antibiotics travel within, including in farms, factories, laboratories and during medical practise. The research will also follow antibiotics, microbes and discourses to national and international arenas. In Uganda we have three sites, seeking to understand how antimicrobials shape and enable ways of life within health care facilities, for urban workers and in different scales of chicken and pig farms in peri-urban and rural areas.

Our methodological approach promotes participant observation, in other words, immersion in everyday life, to better understand how antimicrobials are intertwined in societies and individual lives. We also seek inputs from a range of experts from different fields. For example, we are undertaking archival analyses on the history of antibiotics in different settings, with support from archivists such as Ross MacFarlane at the Wellcome Collection. We are also working with microbiologists and clinicians to map our findings together with theirs.

What does your day job look like?

I do a lot of organisation at the moment! We are preparing our protocols and documentary analyses at the moment, and will be starting pilot research in our field sites in January. When I’m in the field, I will be going along to clinics and sitting in and seeing how patients are being managed, talking with the health workers to understand their daily patterns and realities. Similarly, I will be spending time in urban slum areas, attempting to draw connections between the practises and constraints of everyday life, such as factory working or sex work, and the use of antimicrobials. I will be tuning in to how people talk about medicines, reporting the discourse around the reduction in their use and discovering alternatives that people might talk about.

All in all, we want to trace how people in different places and spaces relate to antibiotics and what roles antibiotics appear to be having in the fabric of everyday life.

How collaborative international research, funded through GCRF, is tackling protracted conflicts across the world

By Professor Stuart Taberner, Director of International and Interdisciplinary Research, Research Councils UK

Stuart TabenerIn an era in which wars between states have become less common, and fighting between unstable coalitions of volatile regimes, non-state groups, and terrorist organisations the norm, protracted conflict has profound consequences not only for humanitarian assistance but also for global development.

Innovative and excellent research on these protracted conflicts is essential to helping to generate real-world solutions to these seemingly intractable developments, which stretch vastly from political instability, economic collapse, environmental devastation, the implosion of good governance and public services, to the destruction of cultural heritage, and to the human misery of killing and wounding, religious and ethnic persecution, sexual violence and exploitation, and forced displacement.

In partnership with developing countries and multilateral, international and national organisations dedicated to assisting those in need and to bringing about measurable and sustainable change, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) has set out to begin the groundwork on understanding how we can approach tackling these convoluted issues.

Launched in late 2015 and funded by the UK Government to be delivered primarily through the UK Research Councils, the GCRF has to-date supported 47 internationally collaborative projects specifically focussed on conflict, peace, justice and humanitarian action. These 47 programmes are among more than 500 projects tackling global issues on topics such as health, food security, environment and climate change and across the full range of UN Sustainable Development Challenges.

And on Monday 2 October senior representatives of humanitarian aid and development agencies, outstanding GCRF researchers, colleagues from DFID and the FCO, and high-level representatives from the United Nations and the World Bank and will come together at the two- day ‘Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development: Research, Policy and Practice’ conference.
The conference will be opened by Professor Gilles Carbonnier, Vice-President Designate, International Committee of the Red Cross, and Adama Dieng—UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide—will present a keynote address on ‘The centrality of respect for human rights to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.’ A further highlight will be a plenary keynbote on Securing the peace – lessons from recent conflicts, by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO, International Crisis Group, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, and former UN deputy special envoy Syria.

The conference will provide a forum to consider the ways research collaboration on protracted conflict and partnership with local and global organisations seeking to address the causes and consequences of conflict can be further enhanced internationally, across disciplines, with policy and practice and with diverse communities and partners in low and middle income countries. Breakout sessions will focus on key issues in conflict resolution and prevention and post-conflict rebuilding, including Transitional power sharing agreements, Gender-based violence in conflict, transitions and post-conflict, Cross-border and organised crime, South-south humanitarianism, transitional justice and contenting with the past.

The conference brings together a range of global voices to share insights, learning and experience and debate opportunities for GCRF and other research to make an even stronger contribution to efforts to address the ongoing challenges and consequences—and human suffering—of protracted conflict. The programme presents GCRF programmes specifically targeted at protracted conflict, such as the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS), initiated by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, while also featuring existing and new programmes led by the Department for International Development, the British Academy, and other partners present at this conference. In addition, the Imperial War Museum will discuss its recent exhibition on the conflict in Syria, including its collaboration with academic researchers to explain ongoing conflicts to the wider public.

The ambition for ‘Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development: Research, Policy and Practice’ is to shape a new agenda for research and to create a new platform for intensive collaboration between GCRF and other research on protracted conflict and those who role it is to address its human cost and wider negative impact on global development head-on.

To find out more about GCRF, visit our GCRF webpages.

On the 10th Anniversary of RCUK in China

By Dr Grace Lang, Director RCUK China.

Ten years is a fleeting moment in the history of the Research Councils but this Sunday is a special day. 17th September 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Research Councils’ China Office.

Dr Grace LangBetween 2007 and 2017, British researchers were awarded 17 Nobel prizes spanning Physics, Economics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine – a powerful demonstration of UK leadership in frontier science. In the same period, China’s R&D investment has grown remarkably, making it the world’s second largest investor in R&D. The same period has seen tremendous achievements emerge from UK-China research collaborations, in which RCUK China has played a significant role.

We have developed trust and friendship between the Research Councils and the major funders in China through bilateral dialogue. We have helped the UK researchers navigate China’s complex research landscape, aligned bilateral research priorities and delivered transparency and openness across all co-funded programmes. Alongside Innovate UK, we have piloted joint R&D initiatives involving partners in industry. We have strengthened UK-China researcher-to-researcher networks via workshops, summer schools and people exchanges.

More than £220 million has been co-invested by the Research Councils and Chinese partners, benefitting more than 150 academic institutions and over 120 businesses. The scope of our joint portfolio with China ranges from space science, energy and urbanization to agriculture and environmental sciences. We have boosted social and economic impact, from breakthroughs in sustainable manufacturing technology to unprecedented health policy reforms, with yet more examples emerging as our portfolio matures.

So much for the past decade, what of the future?

Research and innovation are well proven drivers of economic growth and future prosperity. With the formation of UKRI, we will work more closely with Innovate UK, Research England and partners in China at both the national and regional level to develop flexible funding to support UK-China collaboration covering a full spectrum of research, knowledge exchange and business-led innovation.

Research and innovation will also underpin global sustainability. We will continue to champion interdisciplinary approaches to tackling global challenges. We will continue to work with funding agencies in China as well as partners in Europe and other parts of the world to identify new shared challenges that inform sustainable development goals.

Research and innovation should also touch people’s daily lives. We will develop more activities to reach wider audiences to enhance involvement in research, boost public understanding of emerging scientific issues, and stimulate rigorous international debate.

The internationalisation of research and innovation improves outcomes and accelerates discovery. We will continue to strengthen networks and support for researcher exchanges through consortia and centre partnerships.

The RCUK China TeamThe pace of global change continues to increase, and the next decade will bring many fresh challenges. An ever-increasing number of researchers and innovators will need to cross borders, pool resources and focus their creative energies on shared goals. In 10 years, RCUK China has led in shaping the UK-China research relationship, and is now better positioned than ever to help drive this partnership forward.

In my role as Director of RCUK China, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my sincere and deep appreciation for the unfailing support of our funding partners in China and the research communities in both countries. Without your support, RCUK China would have little to celebrate this year!

Thank you for being part of our history and for being part of our shared future.

Search for studies by exact classification on Gateway to Research

Searching for Research Council and Innovate UK’s funded studies on the publicly accessible website, Gateway to Research, has now become easier thanks to a new filter feature.

Once users have searched for their topic of interest, they can now filter their result by its exact classification (research topic, health categories and RCUK programmes).

The new function can be found under the new ‘Classifications’ tab, which also enables users to search for MRC-funded studies filtered by health categories, and all other funders’ (except Innovate UK and NC3Rs) projects by research topic and RCUK programme classification data (Newton and GCRF).

The ability to search for classifications has been provided to give an insight into grants that are from similar areas that may be of interest to the user, however, care should be taken if using these classifications for comparative analysis purposes as the source, coverage and level of usage of the classifications varies significantly across the Gateway to Research funders.

To keep updated with new changes on Gateway to Research and how they work, see the ‘Release History’ page which can be found in the top blue navigation bar.

We would like to hear what you think about the new Classification tab so please send your feedback to us using gateway@rcuk.ac.uk

Rise of the Machines

Digital Revolution Timeline (click to expand)

Digital Revolution Timeline (click to expand)

Robots are changing the world around us in unexpected ways

Move over R2D2 – robots are no longer just the stuff of sci-fi. They’re already here, and whether it’s through advancing drug design or charting the oceans, UK technology is transforming the impact that robots are having on our lives.

At STFC, we’re helping to develop robots that can combat world hunger and explore the universe. Our research is driving forward the field and pushing the boundaries of what robots can do. Meanwhile, a whole variety of other UK-funded research is developing robots for use in medicine, disaster relief, deep sea exploration and so much more.

Robots are helping us to achieve incredible things, and they’re changing the world around us in ways that nobody – not even George Lucas himself – could have predicted.

2 students experimenting with a robot in a farmyard

Credit: University of Strathclyde

Feeding the World

Over a billion people worldwide depend on agriculture for their livelihood; meanwhile, almost 800 million suffer from chronic malnourishment.

But as technology advances, we are finding new ways of improving agricultural production, and shielding farmers and consumers from the very real consequences of a failed harvest. AgriRover is a robot on wheels, complete with a mechanical arm and soil sensing equipment.

Funded by STFC, the endearing little bot was built using technology designed for Mars rovers. Back on Earth, AgriRover acts as a mobile testing facility, to help scientists monitor the quality of soil. With this level of in-depth information, farmers are better equipped to counteract the environmental impact of farming and improve crop yields.

The Milky Way viewed from on top of a mountain

Credit: Pixabay

Intergalactic Investigations

From the depths of the oceans to outer space, robots are helping us to explore far-flung corners of the world. Picture a robot with 24 arms; now imagine it attached to one of the world’s most powerful telescopes in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

This is KMOS (K-Band Multi Object Spectrometer): an STFC-funded robot that is helping us to investigate hidden corners of the universe. The robot’s many arms can be positioned to sense light emitted by distant galaxies, and using thermal signalling, KMOS can help scientists to study these galaxies more quickly and effectively than ever before.

This next-generation robot brings research times down from years to months, and the data it gathers could help us to find out more about the beginnings of the universe, and the origins of stars and galaxies billions of light years away.

A close up shot of the magnifiers on a telescope

Credit: Pixabay


As well as exploring the vastness of space, robots could also help us to investigate some of the sub-microscopic phenomena that underpin life on Earth. Based at the University of Manchester and supported by BBSRC, Eve is a robot scientist that recently helped to discover a potential new drug to fight tropical diseases, such as malaria.

When scientists are looking for a new medical drug, they often have to sift through hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds before they find a substance that has a positive medical effect. This process can sometimes take years, or even decades, and it is highly labour intensive.

But now, scientists have developed a robotic colleague capable of screening ten thousand compounds a day in the search for potential drug candidates. Eve uses artificial intelligence to learn which compounds have the highest chances of success, whilst screening out those that are toxic to cells or risk harmful side-effects. Thanks to robots like Eve, the future of drug design could be quicker, cheaper and easier than ever before.

Children playing with a humanoid robot

Credit: University of Birmingham

Engaging Autistic Children

Robots come in many shapes and sizes, from mammoth aircraft drones to nanorobots smaller than a grain of salt. But perhaps the most intriguing type of robot is the humanoid: an automaton that looks and behaves in an identifiably human way.

Humanoid robots have had some interesting depictions in popular culture. But forget everything you learned from the Terminator movies, real-life humanoid robots actually have the power to improve lives and support the development of vulnerable children.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that autistic children benefit from the presence of robotic ‘buddies’ in the classroom. Robotics could eventually become present in all schools, but the benefits are particularly pronounced amongst students with autism.

This may be because children with autism appear to show an increased preference for computers and technology. At an ESRC-funded trial in Birmingham, autistic children demonstrated an improved ability to engage and focus with humanoid robots. More research is needed, but it’s thought that robot buddies could eventually be deployed more broadly to help aid children’s development.

Surgeons performing surgery in a hospital theatre

Credit: Pixabay

Cutting-Edge Surgery

Of course, not all robots are cute and cuddly – many look more like a dentist’s tool than a toy, but these un-glamourous machines can also change lives. Take medical robotics, for example. We’re increasingly seeing robots exploited to carry out challenging surgical operations, and potentially saving lives in the process.

Keyhole surgery is an extremely complex procedure, performed by inserting elongated instruments into small cuts in the body. Surgeons then observe what they’re doing using an endoscopic camera. This technique can allow surgeons to access hard-to-reach areas and the smaller incisions mean quicker recovery times for patients. But keyhole surgery isn’t always a preferred option, because the precise and delicate movements are profoundly challenging to perform.

However, robots could help to make this technique easier and safer. The University of Leeds is reviewing the results of an MRC-funded worldwide trial exploring the use of robotic assistance in keyhole surgery. The trial has focussed on surgeries to remove bowel cancer: a procedure that involves removing tumours through the abdominal wall.

With robotic tools, surgeons can operate from a few feet away, using magnified video and a set of controls. Results from the Leeds trial are expected to be published later this year and, if positive, we could see the procedure introduced in hospitals around the world.

An older gentleman staring face on at the camera

Combating Dementia

Robots are also helping us to address a more creeping, long-term health problem. Approximately 47 million people are currently suffering from dementia, and that figure is set to almost triple to 132 million by 2050.

Treatments for this potentially debilitating condition are improving, but there is currently no cure. And so alternative technologies could have an important role to play in helping some dementia patients retain their independence.

Advances in robotics are supporting the development of high-tech robotic hands, capable of diverse movements. The artificial hands are becoming more and more lifelike, using software and algorithms to create natural responses and seamless movement. Supported by Innovate UK, the Shadow Dexterous Hand offers 20 different movements, and makes independent decisions about how to pick up, grip and release objects.

This innovation benefits individuals who have lost limbs, but it is also significant for dementia patients. Dementia can affect mobility, leading to a loss of confidence and reduced independence. But with access to advanced robotics, early-stage dementia patients can continue to pick up and handle objects, allowing them to retain their independence for longer.

An aerial drone carrying a package

Credit: Pixabay

Disaster Relief

Healthcare isn’t the only field in which robots are changing lives. Scientists are currently exploring the potential applications for robotic technology to support victims of natural disasters.

In the wake of catastrophic events like earthquakes and floods, disaster zones can become virtually inaccessible on foot. In recent years, drones have been used to deliver food and supplies, but they may be able to do even more in future.

EPSRC-funded scientists from Imperial College are now considering whether drones could be used to both construct and deliver temporary shelters for disaster victims, using additive manufacturing.

Also known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing is carried out by machines that are programmed to construct materials layer by layer based on digitally coded instructions. Additive manufacturing machines are already used on some building sites to ‘print’ items for use in construction – these items can range from small-scale parts to entire houses.

Scientists are now considering whether it’s possible to combine drone technology with additive manufacturing technology printing to create flying mini-factories. Whilst this work is still in its early stages, scientists hope that drones might one day be able to 3D print and deliver temporary shelters for survivors in disaster situations.

A jellyfish floating in the sea

Credit: Pixabay

Deep Sea Exploration

Robots are used in a myriad of fascinating ways, but perhaps one of the most exciting applications of advanced robotics is in research. A staggering 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. It is simply too difficult, dangerous and costly for scientists to fully investigate the deep sea; but for robots, it’s a different story.

We now have robots that can survive thousands of metres under water, under pressures that would be deadly to any human being. Using advanced optics and data collection, scientists can use these robots to study the ocean ecosystem in unprecedented detail.

This is particularly useful to climate research. Thanks to funding from NERC, marine robots are helping scientists to study evidence of climate change in the Arctic Ocean. The decline of sea ice is having a transformative impact on the Arctic’s ecosystem, and learning more about exactly how these changes are occurring could be instrumental to both predicting the future consequences of climate change and informing mitigating action.

Living the Future

Humanity has dreamed of automations for centuries. As far back as the Ancient Greeks, we’ve had stories of mechanical servants and artificial warriors. Although for millennia, they remained just that: stories.

But the robotic age is now well and truly upon us. In recent history, we’ve seen robots grow and evolve in many different directions – from medicine, to technology, to research. What was once solely the reserve of science fiction is now a reality. Truly, R2D2 would be proud.