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Scotland's strength will power research and innovation success


Scotland's strength will power research and innovation success

Harnessing Scotland’s rich research and innovation heritage is vital to UKRI success, that was the clear message at an event in Edinburgh last night.

UKRI chief executive Sir Mark Walport introduced the new organisation and underlined its continued commitment to ground-breaking research and innovation in Scotland.

Sir Mark said: "Since joining UK Research and Innovation, I’ve visited many Scottish universities and businesses and have seen first-hand the ground-breaking work being done.

“Our success rests heavily on how we work with the devolved administrations across the UK. The partnerships we have in Scotland are essential and we will continue to build a strong and collaborative approach.”

The event, at Dynamic Earth, was attended by organisations, researchers and business leaders from across Scotland.  Speakers included Shirley-Anne Somerville, MSP and Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Dr Rebekah Widdowfield, Chief Executive of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Tracy Black, the CBI’s Director for Scotland.

From Maxwell’s equations to Dolly the sheep and from Napier’s logarithms to gravitational waves – Scotland has been, and remains today, a powerhouse of world class research and innovation.

Earlier in the day, Sir Mark met staff and PhD students at Glasgow Caledonian University to talk about research funding and opportunities for early career researchers.

UK Research and Innovation Investment in Scotland includes:

  • 1,026 active research grants with a value of over £735 million
  • 1283 companies funded, with 522 active Innovate UK worth £96 million
  • 118 fellowships across nine Research Organisations

On 1 April 2018, UK Research and Innovation was formed by bringing together seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England. With a combined budget of more than £6 billion, UK Research and Innovation is a Non-Departmental Public Body principally funded through the Science Budget by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

UK Research and Innovation continues to make the case for continued and increased public investment. The UK Government’s commitment to 2.4% spending on R&D by 2027, support for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and new investments in talent highlight that research and innovation is rightly recognised as a crucial to meet the major industrial and societal challenges of our time.

Case studies

Equality bytes

Why aren’t there more women in high-performance computing? Designing and using the world’s fastest supercomputers still tends to be a male preserve. There are many possible reasons for this, from unconscious bias in recruitment, to negative stereotypes – such as dolls that say ‘math class is tough!’ – meaning that fewer girls and women are in the science and technology pipeline.

Trying to do something about this is Women in High Performance Computing. This initiative, led by the University of Edinburgh and supported by EPSRC, works with the international supercomputing community, to address the under-representation of women in the highest of high-end IT. While other initiatives encourage more women to work in tech-related jobs, this is the only one for supercomputing.

Women in High Performance Computing works on raising visibility, especially by giving a platform to inspiring women at major industry events. It goes in for networking and mentoring. And it works with businesses in the tech industry, helping them understand that a more equal and diverse workforce is good for them too.

Women in High Performance Computing has twice received awards from HPCwire, the publication for the international high-performance computing community. These include awards that are voted-on by HPCwire’s readers and editors, showing how highly the initiative is thought-of within the industry.

Supporting Fish Friday

Anyone with a fish tank knows how quickly the water can get dirty, with a build-up of fish poo and uneaten food making things murky. This is a big problem in the aquaculture industry, which produces farmed fish and seafood. Already more than half the fish we eat is farmed, and demand is still growing. But if the industry is to expand sustainably, we need to know more about the health of farmed fish, and how fish farming affects the environment.  

Waste from fish farms tends to settle on the seabed, where it can be toxic to marine life. But it’s difficult to know how many farmed fish is too many, for any given spot. Local factors such as sea currents make the environmental effects of fish farming very hard to predict. This is especially important for Scotland, where almost all of the UK’s marine aquaculture is based, and where there are plans for the industry to double in size by 2030.

A NERC-funded environmental modelling tool, called AutoDEPOMOD, now seems to have solved this problem. The tool, developed by a team at the University of the Highlands and Islands, can accurately predict the effects of fish farms on the seabed below. It’s so good that it is now the industry standard, being used in the granting of licenses for larger fish farms and farms at new sites. It has been adapted for other sea conditions around the world. And in 2010, a study found that using the tool had led to an extra £79 million a year in output from Scottish fish-farms, without any serious environmental impact.

On-site insight

The age of the ‘augmented worker’ is here. Glasgow-based visualisation specialists Soluis have been awarded £1m to develop virtual and augmented reality technology for the construction industry, giving workers on building sites a heads-up on what they’re supposed to be doing.

By using high-tech headsets, which display information on top of what they normally see around them, workers on a building site will be able to find out instantly about building materials on the site, where they need to go, and what needs to be done with them. This will make it much easier and more efficient to commission and use the bits and pieces that go into a building. It should also make construction safer, as workers can keep their heads up and be aware of their surroundings as they find out what they need to know, rather than having their faces buried in a clipboard.

Soluis estimate that their In-Site system will cut construction site waste by a quarter, and increase productivity by nearly a third. In-Site has already been piloted at London’s Liverpool Street Station, as part of the Crossrail construction project. And the In-Site headsets have even been designed so that they fit with hard hats, and other protective equipment used on building sites.

Distant skies

At night on one of Britain’s remote islands the stars may shine bright, but you’re probably a very long way from any professional telescope to look at them with.

Astronomy for Remote and Island Schools, which is funded by STFC, is an outreach project run by the National Schools' Observatory. An intrepid team of mobile astronomers have been bringing their astronomy workshops to some of the most remote schools in Britain, including ones on islands that it takes a voyage on choppy seas to reach.

Covering 80 schools over two years, and involving an estimated 4,000 hard-to-reach students, workshops have included night-time sessions with the chance to use a modern telescope, opportunities to hear from experts about the stars and planets, and tips on creating a dark sky park, making it much easier to observe the heavens, away from the glare of modern lighting. Community sessions run in parallel have given parents and other adults the chance to share the excitement of the cosmos.

Finally, for those who are bitten by the astronomy bug, the team provide useful advice on taking part in citizen science projects (where geographical location doesn’t matter), and online support to help them take their interest further – whether in astronomy or another STEM subject, the sky’s the limit.

Ripples on a pond

It’s been dubbed the most sensitive instrument that’s ever been built. A detector partly built in the UK, and installed in Louisiana in the US, has led to the discovery of gravitational waves – a breakthrough that has earned the team behind it a Nobel Prize.

Gravitational waves are incredibly small movements in the curvature of space, which can travel through the universe, like ripples on a pond. Almost exactly 100 years since Einstein predicted that they might exist (though he thought he might be wrong), gravitational waves were found to be a reality. The discovery means that we can now tune in to a whole new set of information about the cosmos, making possible a new kind of astronomy.

Detecting gravitational waves means picking up on movements that are a fraction of the size of an atom. And that means cancelling out all the ‘noise’ that a detector also picks up – if the wind is too fast, or if there is an earthquake anywhere in the world, making the Earth wobble even slightly.

That’s where researchers in the UK came in, contributing to what was a truly international effort. Scientists from the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research, and a team from STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, helped to develop, build and install the sensitive mirror suspensions that are at the heart of the detectors, and which separate out the tiny movements of gravitational waves from vibrations coming from Earth.

New light on cancer

Why do we become more prone to developing cancer as we get older?

Previously, it had been thought that mutations in genes, developing over time, had been the root cause of cancer. But new research from the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine suggests that it could be our ageing immune systems that are mostly to blame.

The new study involved developing a mathematical model, which links the decline in the body’s production of a type of immune cell called a T cell, as we get older, with the increasing risk of cancer. This model was found to be a much better fit, when it was tested against data from some two million cancer patients, aged between 18 and 70, than the previous view that cancer was caused by accumulating genetic mutations.

One of the things that the new theory explains is why men have a greater risk of cancer than women. If gene mutation was the main cause of cancer, we wouldn’t expect this to be the case. But we know that the function of the thymus, a small butterfly-shaped organ located just above the heart, declines quicker in men than it does in women. And the thymus is where T cells are made: T cells are a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in our immune system, by getting rid of infected or damaged cells. The thymus halves in size every 16 years, and produces fewer T cells as it gets smaller.

These are still early days, but if the new theory is proven right it could lead to entirely new ways of treating and preventing cancer.

Keeping Scotland buzzing

Where would we be without our bees? From a human point of view, these incredible insects are probably the most important creatures on Earth. They pollinate well over half of the top 100 crops that we grow for food: without bees, we might well starve.

For a long time, though, our bee populations in the UK have been in danger. Among the main culprits have been two particularly nasty forms of fungal parasite which are now found in Britain, and which kill bees by making it hard for them to digest pollen. The trouble is, it’s difficult to distinguish one of these parasites – the European version, called nosema apis – from the other – its Asian relative nosema ceranae, which is now also found in British hives, especially in Scotland. And unfortunately, the way to manage infestations of these two parasites is not the same.

Now, BBSRC-funded research at the University of Dundee has come up with new tools and techniques for telling which of these pesky parasites might be causing the problem, when there is an infected hive. And all it now takes is a microscope, rather than having to send off samples from bees to be analysed in a lab. Thanks to the team at Dundee, it’s never been easier for Scottish beekeepers to keep their eyes on their hives.

Battling the bugs

The risk of catching a bug in hospital – from Norovirus to MRSA – grows ever more serious, as immunity to antibiotics makes them much harder to treat. Hospital-caught infections can kill, as well as costing the NHS millions of pounds a year.

It might seem that the job of tackling hospital bugs is entirely a medical matter. But in fact, this is an area where the Arts and humanities are making an important contribution. The School of Design at the Glasgow School of Art has been leading on a number of research projects, which are all about visualising the tiny pathogens that cause illness, and that are normally far too small to be seen by the naked eye. These visualisations then go into training software, showing healthcare staff exactly where bug tend to lurk in a hospital setting, how they spread, and how they can be stopped.

The Visualising the Invisible (Vis-Invis) project, supported by the AHRC, has involved working with NHS Grampian and NHS Lanarkshire, as well as infection control specialists Gama Healthcare Ltd. A 2015 study estimated that if this project led to just one less case of hospital infection across the 200 healthcare sites that Gama uses for training, the saving to the NHS would be almost £1 million.

Working closely with hospital nurses in Glasgow, a subsequent project called Vision-On is now adapting the visualisation software so that it can run on a tablet, making it easier to train healthcare staff in an engaging and accessible way.

Reading the minds of the missing

In the UK, someone goes missing every two minutes. But until recently, very little had been known about why they leave home, where they go to and how they get there, and what then happens to them.

A study led by Dr Hester Parr of Glasgow University, and supported by the ESRC, has given us a better understanding of the reasons why people go missing, and has helped the police and other services to give better support to missing people and their families.

People who go missing, as a way of coping with their problems, are amongst the most vulnerable in society. The research found that missing people often stay near to where they had been living. And while they may consciously avoid being found, missing people are often unsure about what going missing means, or whether they are classed as ‘missing’ at all.

How police treat missing people once they are found also makes a huge difference in how they cope with the experience. If police officers are dismissive of the reasons for a person’s going missing, it can make it more likely that they will go missing again.

The research has now led to changes in police guidance on the handling of missing persons and their families, helping them to understand better the decision-making and emotional state of people who go missing, as well as what their families are going through. This has been built into training modules, helping police officers to understand what missing people do, how they are vulnerable, and how an empathetic response can be the best way of helping them.

UK Research Partnership Investment Fund

The University of Dundee was awarded £12 million in the first round of UKRPIF for the Discovery Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research, attracting in excess of £25 million in co-investment.

Although construction of the Centre was underway, the University was only able to furnish half of the space. The UKRPIF award catalysed further investment, including £14 million by the Wellcome Trust to establish the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research and £8 million to power drug discovery programmes in close partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, and enabling the building to be fully equipped.

The main 'translation' force is the Drug Discovery Unit, occupying two floors of the Centre and housing over 100 staff. This unit translates discovery science into potential drugs for infectious diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and leishmaniasis, and also into targets for other conditions like Alzheimer's, skin diseases and cancer.


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