Improving our new lives through research

How underpinning long-term investment in research has enabled the UK to adapt and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Humans are a social species, we are wired for connection. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has meant we’ve had to change the way we live and communicate, surviving in isolation whilst trying to work, remain in touch with others, teach, parent and socialise.

I know I have certainly missed interacting with my extended family and friends, colleagues both within Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and external stakeholders!

Technology has been vital to this new way of life, helping to build our national resilience. But the technology that now seems so much part of our lives has been, through EPSRC funding, decades in the making.

One fundamental example of this is the research carried out by Professor Joe McGeehan. In the mid-1970s, Joe McGeehan, today Emeritus Professor of Communications Engineering at the University of Bristol, and whom I know well from when I looked after Toshiba Fellowships, laid the foundations for modern mobile telephony.

After receiving a research grant for £9,600 from the Science Research Council, the forerunner to EPSRC, mobile technology as we know it began its vital journey.

Joe’s EPSRC-funded work led directly to our ability to send pictures and video over mobile networks, as well as the development of 3G networks, wireless local area networks, smart antennas, high-efficiency ultra-linear radio frequency power amplifiers, and software-defined radio. It’s not an overstatement to say that Professor McGeehan’s work then is what’s helping us keep connected now.

Video conferencing is another area where long-term funding has helped contribute to the nation being able to quickly adapt ways of working. Even 20 years ago the idea of everyone being able to do real-time video conferencing over the internet, for example, was a dream.

EPSRC-funded innovations in fibre and amplifier technology at the University of Southampton have played a major part in making it possible, and continue to underpin today’s fibre optic network.

In the last five to 10 years we’ve realised that we are now close to using up the data transmission capacity of the optical fibre used in current networks. A faster, more reliable internet with larger bandwidth will also enable developments in all sorts of areas, such as 3D video conferencing and virtual reality.

Within the Airguide Photonics project, a £6 million research programme funded by the EPSRC, the team at Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre are working on delivering the next generation of internet that will be even more powerful, more reliable, more responsive, and have a higher data carrying capacity.

The design of the fibre that is used today, known as standard single mode fibre, has been essentially the same for the last 30 years. In these fibres the light travels in a core made of high-purity glass which ultimately limits their performance.

By contrast in hollow core fibres, a visionary technology being developed by Southampton, the light travels along a central air-filled core at 50% faster speed than in single mode fibre. This reduces the inherent transmission delay in today’s internet whilst at the same time reducing the impact of many of the other sources of impairment that limit standard single mode fibre.

EPSRC’s long-developed research base, combined with the advances made from giving dedicated people the funding, freedom, time and space to exercise their curiosity, to work collaboratively across scientific and engineering disciplines and to explore new ideas, is now helping us in the battle against COVID-19.

From medical equipment to treat symptoms of the disease to digital technologies to track and test the COVID-19 pandemic, these are just some of EPSRC areas of research contributing to life with COVID-19.

For example, since 2007, EPSRC has funded seven Innovation and Knowledge Centres at universities around the UK. Now, some of these centres are heavily involved in developments to tackle COVID-19, working on everything from hand sanitiser to speed-cleaning ambulances.

And there is multi-disciplinary work that spans the breadth of UKRI. For example, in a project that’s combined several EPSRC funding streams, researchers Professor Muffy Calder (who is also an experienced EPSRC Council member) and Jeremy Singer at the University of Glasgow are developing a new active badge system that both records the location and time of too-close-for-too-long (TCFTL) events. The system notifies badge wearers, for example with a light, when they are TCFTL.

This COVID-19 response project will experiment with the parameters of TCFTL (for example, 2 metres, 15 minutes), as well as different communication technologies and their sensitivity and accuracy of TCFTL.

This research is actively contributing to our immediate response to COVID-19 by looking at the impact of walls and floors for sensing and communication, asking how individuals feel about using active badges, and investigating what new techniques we need to analyse the data.

All these examples show why continuation in EPSRC-supported research via long-term funding is vital. We’re working closely with other UKRI councils to find multidisciplinary solutions to the COVID-19 challenge and our research is enabling society to anticipate, adapt to and respond to change, whether natural or man-made, short- or long-term, local or global.

That makes me proud to be part of an organisation that makes a difference to our economic and social wellbeing.

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback.