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

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.

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.

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.