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

Robo-Scientists

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.

Ability to select and download multi-facet information on Gateway to Research

A new functionality has just been released in Gateway to Research which allows users to select and download multiple facets from the same category and across different categories. This is achieved by making a selection from the options listed within each category and clicking on the ‘Apply filter’ button at the top of the page. This will return the numbers for the selections that have information against them. Further refining can be done to the existing selection if the user requires more exact information by clicking on mire options and using the Apply Filter button. To begin a new search against the entire data within a tab, click on the ‘Clear All’ button and this will return the user to the complete data set for that tab. A useful guide on how this works can be found here

We will appreciate your comments on how useful this new functionality is so please send your feedback to gateway@rcuk.ac.uk

A more than Logical Partnership

By Daniel Shah, Director, RCUK India.

I’m excited – about India, about UK-India research and innovation, and about what we can do together. The relationship is increasingly important and dynamic and I feel privileged to have the chance to be part of something that can make such a difference to both peoples.

Humayun’s tomb, Delhi INDIA

India is finding a renewed place in the world – as one of the fastest growing large economies, a global player, and growing a research power. Data from DST show academic outputs have been increasing by almost 14% a year, and the very best articles by 20%, faster than any other major research country. With the worlds’ largest youth population, a high proportion of the next generation of great researchers, creative innovators and business leaders are here. What impresses me most is that India has both – incredible diversity and stunning scale.

In my last role, I led the international policy work of Universities UK International, the membership body for UK universities, working on research and higher education policy across the whole world. Before that I worked on international and EU strategy for the Russell Group of universities, on research funding and university-business interactions for the UK Government’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills (now BEIS), and in social enterprise. Looking out from Britain at the world, I felt that if you wanted to make a difference, India is the place to go to. (That it is also the place to go for the world’s best vegetarian food, helps!)

As a world leader in research and innovation, the UK has a lot to offer in return. With 1% of the world’s population we are second in top cited academic articles, Nobel prizes, and international students only to the USA. We produce more papers per pound than any large research base. I’m proud that we are an open minded and international research community: with half of the ten most international universities, one in four academics hailing from outside the UK, and one in two articles having an international co-author.  We sit at the heart of global networks of ideas, 60% of Indian Nobel laureates have links to the UK. For a global Britain, research and innovation are central to our place in the world of technology, prosperity and influence.

Rashtrapati Bhavan (Official Residence of the President of India) during the Beating the Retreat Ceremony, Delhi INDIA

In recognition of this growing importance of research and innovation, the UK Government plans to create UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a single strategic research and innovation funding body, which will build on the strengths and values of the current system. UKRI will, subject to legislation, incorporate the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research funding and knowledge exchange parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). This will provide a greater focus on as inter-disciplinary research and a strengthened voice on the global stage. Professor Sir Mark Walport, currently the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, will be appointed as Chief Executive Designate of UKRI. Sir Mark knows India well, from his time as Director of the Wellcome Trust

, as chair of the UK-India Science and Innovation Policy Dialogue and, closer to home for us as the keynote speaker at RCUK India’s 5th anniversary events in 2013.

Part of the Prime Minister’s Plan for Britain is for the UK to be “one of the best places in the world for science and innovation”. She said “we will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.” One of the first pillars in the UK’s Industrial strategy is investing in science, research & innovation. As Sir Mark said, “The government has put its money where its mouth is with the announcement of £4.7 billion of new R&D funding between now and 2021”.

The UK Research Councils and Indian funders are building on many years of collaboration, and our nations are increasing investment in the relationship, including through the Newton-Bhabha Fund (which will rise to £20m per year by 2021). Many new programmes like air pollution and health, water quality, biotech and civil nuclear were announced during Prime Minister May’s first major international visit last November. These partnerships highlight how so many of our shared challenges also contribute to Global Goals, for example in understanding megacities, making rice more resilient to unpredictable water, developing simple devices to measure blood pressure to save pregnant women’s lives or technology for smarter, cheaper solar cells to boost affordable access to clean energy. In research we are all international in that we build on the labours of scholars from many places. International students came to India centuries before the Common Era, but the pace of change means that to remain at the cutting edge collaboration is no longer optional.

The iconic red phone box at an EU event in Hyderabad INDIA

In the nine years since the RCUK India office opened, Research Councils, Indian partners and third parties have between them invested over £200m into high-impact joint research programmes with over 300 researchers and over 90 industrial partners. The UK is now India’s second largest collaborator by co-authorship and the benefits are shared across society from Dundee to Delhi, Manchester to Mumbai, and Birmingham to Bangalore.

India and the UK share democracy and a well-founded respect for the important things in life like tea, literature and cricket: we are a logical partnership. For me personally it is also biological and emotional. As a child of both Indian and British parents, I feel I have a vested interest in our success together. I’m inspired by the changes we have already made and the warmth of the greeting I’ve enjoyed.

There is so much we can do, I am eager to see just how much we can achieve together. As Prime Minister Modi said “I believe that India and the UK must continue to nurture and support an ecosystem of high quality fundamental research to pave the way for joint technology development that can address global challenges.” I look forward keenly to getting to know India better, to a stronger relationship, and to making a difference.

UK-India Research Collaboration on Water Quality

By Dr Monika Sharma, Newton Fund Delivery Programme Manager

Majority of the earth surface is covered with water (~71%) and it serves as one of the most vital component for all the life forms. Water on Earth moves continually through the cycle of evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, reaching the sea and escaping into the streams, lakes, and oceans.

India is rich in water resources, being endowed with a network of rivers and blessed with snow cover in the Himalayan range that can meet a variety of water requirements of the country. However, with the rapid increase in the population, and the need to meet the increasing demands of irrigation, human and industrial consumption, the available water resources in many parts of the country are getting depleted and the water quality has deteriorated. Indian rivers are polluted due to the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents.

Poor water quality poses a serious threat to Indian economy where over one lakh people die of water-borne diseases annually and majority of people have no access to safe drinking water. With initiatives like “Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Mission)” and “Smart Cities Mission” where the various Indian ministries have joined hands to address the major challenges like cleaning the Indian rivers, improved sanitary conditions for the rural and urban India, better Industrial and sewage waste management and efforts to tackle air pollution, to name a few.

The day is not far when India will be smart and swachh enough to offer you a choice between “tap water” or “bottled water” when you dine out in a fancy Indian restaurant or cook in a modular Indian kitchen or for that matter buying a bottle of water will not be a compulsion in trains /planes and the holy dip in Ganga will be as rejuvenating as it is meant to be.

Season’s Greetings from the Research Councils!

By Claire Lane, RCUK Communications Officer

Brussel SproutsIt’s that time of year where we are all buying and wrapping presents whilst trudging round supermarkets finding the last turkey on the shelf. So, we at the Research Councils, thought we would give you a valid excuse to put the sticky tape to one side, stop chasing that elusive bag of sprouts, put the kettle on and take a well-earned break to celebrate with us, this year’s great stories.

In January, we released a study that showed the benefit of blocking brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s. It was originally thought that Alzheimer’s disease disturbs the brain’s immune response, but this latest study adds to evidence that swelling in the brain can advance the development of the disease. The findings suggest that by reducing this swelling the progression of the disease could be halted.

In March, we asked what is life like now, for the British generation born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The finding let us about housing and education, to social mobility, health and religion. If we take religion the comparison between men and women opinions on whether they believe in God and life after death – 60 per cent of the women but only 35 per cent of the men believe in life after death. Similarly, more than half (54 per cent) of the men surveyed said they were atheists or agnostics, compared to only a third (34 per cent) of the women. Read more in  Thatcher’s children: the lives of Generation X.

In April, we wanted you to Walk Shakespeare’s London. When thinking of Shakespeare in London, we automatically think of the Globe Theatre, but the researchers also wanted us all to know about The Rose and other theatres from the period. Did you know that London’s first purpose built theatre is in Shoreditch known, simply as The Theatre, was built in 1576? The venue was taken down in 1598 and transported south of the Thames to form the basis of The Globe. Take a tour with their interactive map that brings Elizabethan London’s theatre land to life.

In May, the Natural Environment Research Council announced the name of their new Polar research Ship in honour of Sir David Attenborough Following a call for suggestions that sparked global interest, the new £200m state-of-the-art polar research ship is to be named after world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. It was selected as a name that captures the ship’s scientific mission and celebrates the broadcaster’s contribution to natural science

In July, we were also  solving a plant-based Rubik’s cube puzzle as researcher discovered a key “twist” in a Rubik’s cube-like plant puzzle. Piecing together the puzzle of how some compounds are made in plants could have enormous potential for developing new and improved therapies.

In October, we announced that the self-driving car made its public debut following their support, there was significant media interest as a self-driving car was trialled in public for the first time in the UK. Media including the BBC, ITV and Sky filmed the car as it made its way around a 1km-long route in trials organised in Milton Keynes by the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC).

In November, we announced pioneering laser technology that could boost the performance of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to new levels of efficiency and therefore helping to unlock some of science’s greatest mysteries going back to the `Big Bang’. The laser technology changes the surface of metals and reduced the ‘electron cloud’.  This cloud of negative particles under certain conditions may degrade the performance of the primary proton beams that circulate in the accelerator, which is central to its core experiments. The technology could have widespread implications and applications in satellite and aerospace technologies.

We hope you enjoyed your break. Merry Christmas from all at the Research Councils.

Gateway to Research downloading outcome information via the CSV functionality

We have listened to our users (via the survey) and have now included the ability to download outcome information using the CSV functionality on the RCUK Gateway to Research. Similar to other result pages, users will now be able to click on the CSV button from an individual outcome type result page and download the information. It is not possible to download outcome data across different types in single download due to the large variance in field types between outcomes.

Please let us know if you have found this latest functionality useful using gateway@rcuk.ac.uk to send us your feedback.

RCUK India Impact Event in Mumbai

By Chhavi Jain, Administrative officer, RCUK India.

Recently RCUK India in partnership with the British Deputy High Commission, Mumbai hosted a Research and Innovation Roadshow in Mumbai as part its impact event series showcasing the strong UK-India research partnership.

Mumbai presents its people a bustling commercial life along with a colossal film industry, often called the ‘City of Hopes & Dreams’, being center of entertainment with Bollywood- the largest film industry of India and the financial hub of India. The city also offers much for research and innovation, with a number of leading institutions such as Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) – Bombay and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). In short there is so much to this city!

The aim of the event was to reach out to a wide group of people and to build new networks within the State of Maharashtra. There was attendance by academics, policy makers, industrial leads, scientists & young researchers. The panel members at the event were Mr Kumar Iyer, British Deputy High Commissioner, Mumbai; Prof Prakash C Ghosh, Associate Professor, IIT-Bombay, , Mr Vijay Srirangan, Director General, Bombay Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Dr Nafees Meah, Director RCUK India.

Dr Nafees Meah, Director RCUK reiterated to the audience that UK is the one of best places in the world for research with top class facilities and a commitment to developing innovative solutions that will help address global challenges. Projects highlighted included a Kem Hospital Pune & University of Southampton collaboration which is clinically trialing use of vitamin B12 both pre and during pregnancy to help avoid adverse foetal programming, particularly in relation to diabetics.

The interest in our impact roadshows continues to demonstrate the huge appetite in India for an enhanced collaboration in innovative high-quality research which delivers impact.