Infrastructure investments to boost UK research and innovation

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UKRI is investing £50 million into a portfolio of over a dozen infrastructure projects and scoping studies to underpin the UK’s position as a research superpower.

The UKRI infrastructure fund represents the first portfolio of investments to come from UKRI’s Infrastructure Roadmap programme to boost the UK’s research and innovation capabilities. It marks the first time UKRI has a long-term strategic approach to infrastructure across all research disciplines.

The projects cross all disciplines and span the research and innovation spectrum. They include:

  • a boost to the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope network
  • carbon capture technologies
  • a state-of-the-art airborne research laboratory
  • a £17 million investment in digital research infrastructure.

UKRI Chief Executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said:

Infrastructure and the skilled people who design, build, maintain and operate it are vital to research and innovation. Projects such as the Square Kilometre Array Observatory and the UKRI Airborne Laboratory demonstrate the importance of investing in facilities that can help us answer some of the biggest questions and tackle the most pressing challenges.

This investment provides the foundation from which the UK will continue to play an important role in the advancement of scientific research and understanding around the world.

Building for the future

Addressing problems such as climate change and antimicrobial resistance are obvious and immediate priorities, reflected in the projects receiving funding. But this funding is as much about future challenges and opportunities as those we currently face.
The aim is to put the infrastructure in place for the UK to lead in the research and innovation challenges facing society, and to boost the UK’s long-term innovation capability.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

If the last year and a half has taught us anything it’s that new challenges can arise from anywhere at any time.

By investing millions in the UK’s research infrastructure, we are putting science and innovation at the heart of our efforts to build back better while ensuring that we can respond to challenges now and in the future – from pandemic preparedness to tackling climate change.

Looking to the skies

One of the major projects announced is a £14.75 million boost to the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO). SKAO will have the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope network on Earth, with the SKAO headquarters based in Manchester and facilities in South Africa and Western Australia.

The SKAO telescopes will be able to image huge areas of the sky with unparalleled sensitivity and on an unparalleled scale. Its image resolution quality will exceed the Hubble Space Telescope, and it will lead the way for the UK in scientific discovery, helping to maintain our world-leading position.

This investment also provides £5.5 million for this year, to upgrade the UKRI Airborne Laboratory, enhancing its world-leading research capability and enabling it to remain at the cutting-edge of atmospheric research.

This world-class aircraft is unique in the UK, is capable of being deployed anywhere in the world, and provides invaluable data that allows for climate modelling and weather prediction.

The upgrades will provide new air pollution and aerosol instrumentation and will assess the impact of pollution on both the atmosphere and human health. They will ensure continued capability to respond to airborne environment incidents that could cause an impact economically and socially.

A broad spectrum

Further funding is going to projects covering a broad spectrum of innovative work, including:

  • £17 million to initiate a national Digital Research Infrastructure to enable UK researchers to harness the full power of modern digital platforms, tools and techniques, including net zero computing
  • a scoping study into developing a CO2 Storage Testbed that will de-risk carbon capture and storage on an industrial scale, positioning the UK as a global leader in Clean Growth
  • funding to plan for infrastructure offering cutting-edge technologies to drive innovation in the UK’s screen and performance industries
  • investment to unlock the power of our rich population data to address important health issues and identify early markers for serious diseases
  • £260,000 for a project to investigate the requirements for a new national Floods and Droughts Resilience Infrastructure, which would provide a world-leading observation network. With weather events increasing due to climate change, the aim is to reduce the impacts of floods and droughts in the UK by better understanding the water cycle.

Further information

Project summaries

UKRI Airborne Laboratory, £5.5 million

The UKRI Airborne Laboratory provides atmospheric monitoring equipment within a specially adapted aircraft. It is a vital facility used by scientists investigating climate change, pollution and severe weather. This is for a major upgrade of the aircraft and its scientific equipment.

The aircraft, managed by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and based at Cranfield Airfield, Bedfordshire. It flies approximately 400 hours a year on science missions around the world, including monitoring volcanic eruptions in Iceland, measuring ship exhaust emissions over the Atlantic, and India’s monsoon.

The Square Kilometre Array Observatory (SKAO), £14.75 million

The SKAO’s telescopes – arrays based in South Africa and Australia – will be the world’s two most advanced radio telescope networks on Earth. The telescopes will investigate the development of the early universe in more detail than ever before and provide insight on dark matter, cosmic magnetic fields and exoplanets.

With SKAO headquarters at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, this investment will cement the UK’s role as host and contribute to the construction phase of the telescopes.

CoSTAR – A national infrastructure for creative research and innovation, £410,000

CoSTAR will be a new national infrastructure providing cutting-edge resources to the screen and performance sectors. It will consist of a central hub and experimental studio fitted with real-time digital technologies such as motion, as well as a network of regional labs across the UK.

CoSTAR will connect researchers, and practitioners for cross-sector R&D, to enable the development of new products, services and experiences. This initial funding will support the detailed development of CoSTAR’s business model.

Population Research UK, £450,000

The UK has a world-leading longitudinal population study portfolio spanning 70+ years. This initial funding will support Population Research UK develop a digital infrastructure in a secure and trusted environment to share, access and analyse data in new ways, for example by using artificial intelligence.

This will allow us to address important societal issues (such as mental health, poverty, levelling up, and obesity). It will identify potential early markers for disease (such as cancer and dementia), and help identify intervention points across people’s lives to maximise economic productivity and wellbeing across the UK.

John Innes Centre/The Sainsbury Laboratory Next Generation infrastructure (JIC/TSL NGI), £1 million

This initial funding will enable further design development for The John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory Next Generation Infrastructure, including the opportunity to be energy self-sufficient and carbon net zero.

If the full project is ultimately taken forward, it will:

  • create the infrastructure for a global interdisciplinary hub for plant and microbial sciences
  • integrate capabilities for plant genetics, genomics, pathology and phenotyping alongside field trial facilities. This will address research challenges including genetic crop improvement strategies, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and understanding plant-microbe interactions to develop clinical treatments to improve human health.

Ultra-high-field 1.2 GHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectrometer, £25,000

This funding will support the initiation of a project to commission a state-of-the-art Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer system. This will be for use by UK researchers and businesses to study molecules in order to improve the design of new drugs and materials and design new forms of clean energy, for example, and will help to maintain the UK’s world-leading position in this technology.

The hosts of the new system will be decided through a competitive process.

Hyper-Kamiokande (Hyper-K), £650,000

Being constructed 650m underground in Japan, Hyper-K is an international science experiment to unlock the mysteries of the universe’s evolution. It is both a microscope for measuring the properties of neutrinos and a telescope for observing the sun and supernovas.

This investment enables a collaboration of UK institutes to continue to engage with the project, with the possibility of becoming a partner in the experiment in the future.

CO2 Storage Testbed, £434,000

This scoping study will develop UK investment options for a CO2 Storage Testbed with the ambition to be a globally unique underground CO2 storage research laboratory. It aims to de-risk subsurface CO2 storage and address research and innovation questions regarding the long-term operation and management of geological CO2 storage.

To gather the necessary evidence for any future facility, the scoping study includes engaging widely with stakeholders to fully understand requirements, review the national and international capability and propose a science plan for a future national facility.

Floods infrastructure, £260,000

This award will fund a scoping project to investigate the requirements for a new national Floods and Droughts Resilience Infrastructure. This infrastructure would provide a world-leading observation network and a sensor innovation testbed to mitigate the impacts of flood and drought in the UK.

A consortium led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, with British Geological Survey, Imperial College London and Bristol University, began work in May 2020 to scope the requirements, including data and infrastructure, for a new national Floods and Droughts Resilience Research Infrastructure.

Service Robotics proving ground, £500,000

This design study will support development of the Robotics Proving Ground, an internationally recognised facility in the UK that tests advanced robots to their limits against either rigorous standardised performance evaluations, bespoke tests to meet specific customer needs, or less structured experimentation.

The facility will be focused towards advanced service robotics or ‘robots in the wild’ that navigate complex and often unstructured environments including public spaces, rather than manufacturing and assembly robotic arms already common in factories.

RICHeS (Research Infrastructure for Conservation and Heritage Science), £200,000

RICHeS will integrate over 50 UK heritage organisations who will gain access to state-of-the-art facilities and expertise, transforming the conservation and analysis of their historical and archaeological collections.

These include natural history collections with valuable insights into climate change, historic buildings that need to be preserved and made more energy efficient and artworks that contain secrets of the great masters. This scoping funding will enable engagement with the heritage science community to develop the RICHeS project.

National Preclinical Phenotyping Platform, £2.2 million

The National Preclinical Phenotyping scoping project will design a resource to enable efficient and effective preclinical animal experiments that are accessible by academia and industry.

Globally there is an urgent need for mouse models to more closely reflect human disease, including neurological diseases associated with ageing and the long-term effects of infectious diseases. This will lead to more robust and repeatable pre-clinical resources for future therapeutic discovery.

Relativistic Ultrafast Electron Diffraction and Imaging (RUEDI), £1.36 million

This funding will investigate the design of a new national facility for materials, the Relativistic Ultrafast Electron Diffraction and Imaging (RUEDI) centre, based at the STFC Daresbury Laboratory.

RUEDI will be a facility unique in the UK and globally, capable of observing how structural changes occur within different materials through the use of electrons for diffraction patterns and images. It will support advances in areas as diverse as personalised medicine, energy storage, clean growth and materials operating under extreme conditions.

Electron-ion collider (EIC),  £990,000

The EIC will be built at Brookhaven Lab in the United States. It will be a particle accelerator that collides electrons with protons and nuclei to look inside those particles and study their internal structure, to better understand the nature of matter. This scoping project will position the UK to lead the future development of cutting-edge detector technologies for the EIC.

ISIS II, £1.5 million

The ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, based at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, produces beams of neutrons and muons that allow scientists to study materials at the atomic level using a suite of instruments, often described as ‘super-microscopes’.

This scoping funding will enable feasibility and design studies on the proton driver and target system architecture for the next generation of the ISIS neutron facility.

Diamond II, £2.5 million

Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron, funded via UKRI’s STFC and the Wellcome Trust. It harnesses the power of electrons to produce an intense beam of light that can be used like a giant microscope.

This scoping project will develop the technical design for a transformative upgrade of the synchrotron required to offer a 70-fold improvement in the brightness of the light: increasing performance through speed of observations, resolution of images and sensitivity of chemical analysis.

Digital Research Infrastructure, £17 million

Digital Research Infrastructure (DRI) includes compute, software, people and the underpinning tools and networks needed to advance the work of the UK’s researchers and innovators. DRI supports work across the United Kingdom in areas such as large scale engineering simulations, fusion energy, frontier science, bio-simulations and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The role of DRI will become ever more important as revolutions in AI and the increasing complexity of integrating and understanding data will rapidly change how we undertake research and innovation. UKRI will also support work to fully understand the existing data services landscape so we can efficiently work together in the future.

In the first year, UKRI will invest £17 million in Digital Research Infrastructure to fund a portfolio of interventions in existing digital activities, target areas for closer cooperation across UKRI, and make important investments in areas such as trusted research environments and net zero

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