https://quarterly.blog.gov.uk/2020/02/13/innovation-nation/

Innovation nation

A scientist from the British Antarctic Survey taking readings using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology
A scientist from the British Antarctic Survey taking readings using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology

The start of a new decade always prompts questions about pivot points, and this certainly feels like a key moment for research and innovation. The huge challenges facing the human race can only be tackled by bringing together research across disciplines, and the UK’s economic prosperity outside the European Union demands innovation that draws on the very best thinking.

We joined UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as a jobshare Executive Director, Strategy, Performance and Engagement, mid-way through 2019, and are excited about what UKRI can do to support excellent research and innovation, and the potential its creation can unleash in the sector.

Big business

The UK has a long and proud record in research and innovation. The British state has been funding research since Charles II established the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675. Today, this activity is big business, and global opinion polls of academics and employers show that it is an area where we are considered to excel. In 2017, 1.7% of UK GDP, or £34.8 billion, was spent on research and innovation, with £8.2 billion of this being spent in universities and by government.

The aim now is to leverage UK research spending – in line with the Government’s ambition to increase investment in R&D overall to 2.4% of GDP – to realise long-term benefits across the country. This reflects both political and public awareness that research and innovation are vital to the success of UK growth as we forge a new path in 2020.

Put simply, research and innovation are vital to making people’s lives better: by pushing the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding; improving economic performance and social prosperity in all regions of the UK; and supporting our society and others to become enriched, healthier, more resilient and sustainable.

Generating growth and impact

Our role is to ensure that UKRI gets the strategy right for delivering funding and support to the research and innovation community. Our success will be in generating the most economic growth and positive societal impact possible from our sector.

We believe it is more important than ever for funding to be coherently managed, with access more streamlined, and for the culture UKRI fosters to be as inclusive, fair, equal and diverse as possible.

In the past, research funding was managed by seven research councils, each with their own remit, ranging from the arts to engineering, and by other organisations with a role in university funding and in innovation.

On the recommendation of a report from NobelPrizewinning biologist Sir Paul Nurse, these organisations have been brought together with the creation of UK Research and Innovation, a result of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. UKRI is building on the strengths of the research councils with an objective to make research funding even more efficient and effective, and more responsive to stakeholders.

Groundbreaking science

UKRI funding supports 58,000 researchers, including over 20,000 research students, while UKRI itself employs 8,000 people and put £6.4 billion into research in 2018/19. Most of this money went into universities, although some of the research councils run their own research centres. These include such well-known bodies as the British Antarctic Survey, part of the Natural Environment Research Council, or the Medical Research Council (MRC) where researchers carry out groundbreaking science in MRC‑funded facilities.

Decisions on funding individual bids for research grants are made by academic or industry experts, and UKRI provides the background against which they work. This includes the development of research strategies and subject priorities, as well as leadership in areas such as research ethics, publishing policy and diversity.

A central objective of the transformation is to establish ‘a single front door’ for anyone wanting to apply for research and innovation grants, to make the process more straightforward and efficient. This ambitious goal is set to be achieved over two years, with most of the changes taking place in 2020.

We have made it a priority to ensure our systems and processes free up researchers and innovators to focus on their work, while supporting us to make the best funding decisions.

For example, from March 2020, grant applicants will no longer be required to provide a ‘Pathways to Impact’ plan or complete an ‘Impact Summary’. Also, over the next 12 months, UKRI will be piloting simpler, streamlined application and assessment processes for its research and innovation calls. These will reduce the burden on researchers and innovators applying to UKRI and ensure it continues to invest in the best ideas and people.

Interdisciplinarity

Professor Sir Mark Walport is Chief Executive Officer of UKRI. He says: “Even at this early stage, we are seeing tremendous results from the councils’ sustained activity over many years, and the benefits of bringing them together in UKRI are beginning to emerge.”

Perhaps the most important gain he sees is a simpler approach to funding interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinarity is universally regarded as a vital route to insightful and influential research. Many of the greatest challenges require multi‑disciplinary approaches – climate change, for example, to examine the causes and effects, using environmental science, soil science, geology and meteorology. The same approach can be applied to global politics, the influence of individual people’s behaviour, and more.

The Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) is also being led by UKRI, to ensure that investment links up effectively with government research priorities and opportunities. The fund supports high‑quality multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research programmes, which might otherwise be missed by traditional funding channels. It has already funded projects across the themes of environment, biology and biomedicine, and artificial intelligence.

Research vessel the RRS Sir David Attenborough on deployment in the Antarctic
Research vessel the RRS Sir David Attenborough on deployment in the Antarctic

Digital funding

To deliver our competitive grant funding, we are developing a new digital funding service. This will make it easier for our research and innovation communities to find and apply for funding, and for us to be highly productive and deliver a growing portfolio of investment, using our data to monitor impact and direct future investment.

The new service has been designed to offer a unified and simpler application process, with consistent policies, that delivers all funding opportunities through a single website and single service. This will free up people’s time, automate tasks where possible, remove duplication of effort, simplify rules, processes and policies, and reduce the time taken to deliver funding to researchers.

Dr Geoff Robins is UKRI’s Transformation Director. At its heart, he says, the task of transformation is “doing things in one way, not nine different ways [including Innovate UK and Research England, now under the UKRI umbrella], while retaining the diversity of approach that the individual research councils bring through their links to universities and other innovation bodies”. The ambition is to be “the world’s best funding organisation for research and investment, spending its money in the most effective manner”.

Making lives better

UKRI research is responding to the challenges and producing solutions that will change people’s lives for the better. Already, these range from the discovery of plastic-eating enzymes and new ways to make hydrogen to fuel cars, to the discovery of the earliest galaxies and the award of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Professor Sir Gregory Winter. And from research to solve specific societal or technical challenges, to blue-skies, curiosity-driven research that can deliver unpredicted benefits.

Economies around the world are being transformed by research and innovation. As we steer UKRI strategy, our focus will be on enabling the UK research councils to work together in new ways to deliver an ambitious agenda, building on the strength, breadth and diversity of its portfolio.

Why UK research matters

Plastic-eating enzymes

UKRI-supported scientists have engineered an enzyme that can digest some of our most commonly polluting plastics, providing a potential solution to one of the world’s biggest environmental problems.

The discovery could result in a recycling solution for millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which currently persists for hundreds of years in the environment.

Professor John McGeehan, at the University of Portsmouth, and Dr Gregg Beckham, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), solved the crystal structure of PETase – a recently discovered enzyme that digests PET – and used this 3D information to understand how it works. During this study, they inadvertently engineered an enzyme that is even better at degrading the plastic than the one that evolved in nature.

The University of Portsmouth and NREL collaborated with scientists at the Diamond Light Source to create an ultra-high resolution 3D model of the enzyme with the synchrotron that uses intense beams of X-rays to act as a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms.

Professor John McGeehan, director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, in the laboratory
Professor John McGeehan, director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, in the laboratory (Photo: Stefan Venter, UPIX Photography)

Hydrogen from waste

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Councilfunded researchers at Swansea University have found a way to turn discarded plastic into hydrogen to fuel cars.

Light-absorbing material is added to the plastic, before it is placed in an alkaline solution and exposed to sunlight, which creates hydrogen.

Billions of tons of plastic are used each year and only a fraction is recycled. Most plastic bottles are made from PET, which can be recycled but is often burned or thrown into landfill.

The beauty of the new process, which could be cheaper than recycling, is that it can degrade all sorts of plastic waste, and the plastic does not need to be cleaned to produce hydrogen gas.

Discovery of the earliest galaxies

UKRI-funded astronomers, together with US colleagues, have found evidence that the faintest satellite galaxies orbiting our own Milky Way galaxy are amongst the very first formed in our universe. Segue-1, Bootes I, Tucana II and Ursa Major I are thought to be over 13 billion years old. Our universe is thought to be 13.8 billion years old.

Dr Alis Deason and Professor Carlos Frenk, from Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology (ICC), together with Dr Sownak Bose, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the US, identified two populations of satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.

Finding some of the very first galaxies orbiting in the Milky Way’s own backyard is the astronomical equivalent of finding the remains of the first humans that inhabited the Earth.

It supports the current model for the evolution of our universe, the ‘Lambda-cold-dark-matter model’, in which the elementary particles that make up the dark matter drive cosmic evolution.

With the formation of the first galaxies, the universe burst into light, bringing the cosmic dark ages to an end.

Modernising Antarctic research

The next decade will see major investment in the UK’s world-leading Antarctic research capability. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)-funded British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is transforming how it supports frontier science with a £300-million Antarctic Infrastructure Modernisation Programme, launching the UK’s new polar research ship, the RRS Sir David Attenborough, and undertaking the full modernisation of Rothera Research Station, the main entry point for UK Antarctic operations by air and sea.

The RRS Sir David Attenborough will replace two existing polar research vessels, supporting up to 60 scientists with state-of-the-art laboratories, equipment including remote and autonomous underwater vehicles, and will be the first UK polar research vessel with a helipad and moon pool.

NERC-supported Antarctic research provides the UK with vital understanding of how the polar regions are responding to natural and human-driven pressures, and their impact on global climate.

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