UK's ambition to become leader in scientific development receives £473m funding boost

Article by Amanda Jasi

UK RESEARCHERS are set to benefit from the world’s most powerful electron microscope, a mass spectrometry research network, digital access to historic nature specimens, and access to a new US particle accelerator. All form part of a £473m (US$594.7m) funding boost from national funding agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The investment includes £85m for the Digital Research Infrastructure Programme, to support development in digital services, such as computing and data, as well as software and skills training for UK researchers and innovators.

Michelle Donellan, secretary of state for science, innovation, and technology, said: “As science and technology develops faster than ever, it is vital we ensure UK innovators have the right tools at their disposal to continue groundbreaking work from revolutionising medicine to protecting the world we live in for generations to come.”

She added: “Our £473m investment infrastructure will set the conditions that allow our brightest minds to thrive and build a healthier and more prosperous UK.”

Digitalising nature

UKRI will support the UK’s Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) with £155.6m.

The wider DiSSCo initiative is a partnership involving more than 170 institutions across Europe aiming to make knowledge and evidence about the natural world globally available. DISSCo UK will see the country contribute to the effort by digitalising most of its 137m natural science specimens, some of which are billions of years old, so that they can be easily accessed by teams in the UK and around the world.

Led by the Natural History Museum, the UK project will capture specimens including pinned insects, pressed plants, and microscope slides holding micro-fossils or algae, logging these alongside key data such as when and where they were collected. This is expected to support research that could help address global issues including biodiversity challenges and future pandemics.

The government also anticipates that DiSSCo UK will generate around £2bn in economic benefits, enabling advancements in drug discovery and identifying sources of minerals.

Powerful microscopy

A joint venture between the UK’s University of Liverpool, Science and Technology Facilities Council, and the Rosalind Franklin Institute will use a £124.4m award to build the Relativistic Ultrafast Electron Diffraction and Imaging (RUEDI) facility in Daresbury, Cheshire.

The most powerful high energy electron microscope in the world, the facility will provide UK researchers a competitive advantage in observing, quantifying, and understanding irreversible, ultrafast processes. They will be able to observe and measure the atomic and electronic motions of fundamental biological and chemical reactions in real-time, driving advancements in sustainable energy, advanced materials, quantum technologies, and structural biology.

Connecting spectrometry

UKRI is also awarding £49.35m for the creation of Critical Mass UK, or C-MASS, a network that will link labs using mass spectrometry.

Mass spectrometry is an analytical method used to characterise and identify molecules. C-MASS will bring together cutting-edge technology at a range of laboratories, connecting them via a central hub.

By improving data access and sharing, the network is expected to help researchers better understand the new materials that will be required in areas such as batteries, catalysts, medicines, semiconductors, and quantum technologies.

Boosting particle acceleration

A further £58.5m from UKRI will help boost a joint project with the US Department of Energy, delivering new infrastructure at a particle accelerator facility currently under construction in New York, US. Researchers use particle accelerators to propel and collide charged particles, such as protons, helping to improve understanding of matter and the universe. They have previously led to breakthrough discoveries including the Higgs boson, a vital building block of the universe, and the development of life-saving medical technologies.

The new Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) is expected to join top infrastructure like the Large Hadron Collider in leading major scientific breakthroughs on a global scale. UK scientists will have access to the facility, which as well as boosting fundamental scientific knowledge, could advance research in fields such as artificial intelligence, medical physics, and radiation safety.

The combined £473m funding is provided by UKRI’s Infrastructure Fund and includes investment from the current (2022–2025) and next spending review periods.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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