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Building a ‘living bridge’ between researchers in India and the UK

The challenge for researchers and funders is to integrate the way that science itself is changing. This means more collaboration across institutional, disciplinary and international boundaries

education Updated: Nov 27, 2017 16:54 IST
Research,RCUK,India and the UK
India with the world’s largest youth population has a lot to offer to the world in the future. It also means making the most of all the talent available, to educate the full range of the next generation of researchers, especially women and people from historically disadvantaged groups.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

At the start of this month more than 100 researchers from 20 countries met in New Delhi. It is not new to travel to another country to learn, Nalanda welcomed international students centuries before Oxford, and the UK warmly welcomes more international students than almost any country. What is new is the scope for research to address shared global challenges and the range of disciplines we must draw on, from anthropology to zoology.

The event was a chance for researchers and research users to engage with opportunities, including the Global Challenges Research Fund, the UK’s most ambitious research fund yet.

The challenges facing us may be becoming more complex and interrelated, but so are the means for research and innovation to address them. The challenges come from an increasingly interconnected world and humans’ increased power through technology to impact on each other and the planet. Looked at through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals, the “wicked” policy problems seem to lie at the intersections between multiple Goals.How do we get the food, water and energy that we need “zero hunger” and “no poverty” at the same time as affordable energy and climate action, all with only one planet to sustain the next generation?

Indian and UK researchers were recently awarded the Newton Prize for work on new forms of solar energy and the two countries will work together to raise incomes of farmers with small- and marginal- holdings using technologies from biotech to artificial intelligence (AI).

How should one address health challenges that respect no borders but that also depend on our own behaviours?India and the UK are working through joint research to address antimicrobial resistance that could undo decades of health gains.

Then comes the challenge of unemployment.How do we find new models of development that can provide decent jobs for all, with transformations like AI poised to both create and remove jobs, and how should education prepare the next generation for jobs that do not yet exist?

How are cities to be made productive and livable? How will demographic and social shifts create, and corrode, communities and trust?How to share the benefits of growth so that no one is left behind?These challenges are socio-technical, not solved by new technology alone, but by how people interact with technology and each other as culture bearing and creative creatures.

We can also see these global challenges through the lens of business opportunities they present, for example India has set an early date for the transition to electric vehicles, and the UK has just established the Faraday Institution to address the challenge of energy storage. The fourth industrial revolution is eroding lines between physical, digital and biological, spurring business models that blur the distinction between product and service.

The challenge for researchers, and so for research funders, is to integrate the way that science itself is changing with the changing challenges it can be applied to. This means more collaboration across institutional and disciplinary as well as international boundaries. It requires building teams of the best talent the world has to offer, with diversity and pooled resources beyond the reach of any one country. India with the world’s largest youth population surely has a lot to offer our collective future. It also means making the most of all the talent available, to educate the full range of the next generation of researchers, especially women and people from historically disadvantaged groups.

The challenges are not solved by researchers, businesses, communities or policy makers alone, but we can increase and accelerate the collaboration between them. Impact is not the preserve of either the fundamental or the applied, as structural biologist Professor Venkatraman Ramakrishnan wrote recently, “almost every modern invention has one or often many fundamental discoveries that make it possible”. New technologies let us see deeper and further into the nature of ourselves and the universe, from the cryo-electron microscopy behind the 2017 Chemistry Nobel Prize to the gravitational-wave observatory to be located in India.Technology has made sharing knowledge faster and cheaper, but can also affect trust if users struggle to distinguish between evidence and opinion.

The UK is creating a new agency, UK Research and Innovation, bringing together its Research Councils,Innovate UK and a new university funder Research England. Creating a single voice for research and innovation, combined with the largest funding boost for a generation, aims to build on existing strengths and achieve a challenging combination: answers to fundamental questions (from the structure of the cell to gravitational waves) and answers to the needs of society; advancing the UK economy (it will play a key role in UK competitiveness as part of the new Industrial Strategy) and research and innovation as a key element of the UK’s place in the world and advancing global development.

The UK and India are natural partners of choice for each other -UK research and innovation is world-class, India is the world’s fastest growing science power. We are rightly proud of our partnership as nations and relationships between individuals form a “living bridge” between research communities. Together we can achieve more than either could on our own, but we can also set an example for the wider world to address shared global challenges. The scale of the challenge is awesome, but the opportunities are inspiring.

The author is director of Research Councils UK (RCUK) India. He is responsible for delivering a vision for a stronger and deeper UK-India research and innovation partnership, working with Indian and UK collaborators to achieve excellence with impact. Views expressed are his own.

First Published: Nov 27, 2017 16:53 IST