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Daily News Update




Birmingham leads £92m rail research network

Seven universities have formed the UK Railway Research and Innovation Network, which has a budget of £92 million to fund research to improve the efficiency of the national passenger and freight system.

The University of Birmingham announced in a 10 July press release that the UKRRIN has received £28.1m from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, managed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

A further £64m will be provided by 17 industry partners, including British Steel, Alstom, Siemens and Bombardier Transportation. 

Birmingham will administer the project, working with the universities of Huddersfield, Loughborough, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield, Southampton, and Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University.  

The funding will be used to create three linked centres of excellence that focus on digital systems, rolling stock and infrastructure.

The first of these will be the Digital System Innovation Centre led by the University of Birmingham, which will focus on all aspects of digital railway innovation. It proposes to develop a system and worldwide approach to R&D.

Its first steps will be to investigate railway control and operations stimulation; data integration and cybersecurity; condition monitoring and sensing; and technology introduction processes.

The Rolling Stock Innovation Centre brings together research staff at Huddersfield, Newcastle and Loughborough. It will explore present and future demands on the rail industry with the aim improving the next generation of railway vehicles, by for example, reducing costs and carbon emissions.

The Infrastructure Innovation Centre, led by Southampton, will link R&D in academia and industry partners and act as an information source for industry, facilitating the transition of research into practice.

Its aim is to develop a “reliable and resilient” seven-day railway with valuable asset management, increased capacity and reduced delays.

As part of that project, a team at Sheffield, working in partnership with British Steel, will be conducting research on creating more robust and reliable components for the rail infrastructure.

A spokeswoman from the university told Research Fortnight that it would focus on five areas: rail materials and support; new materials and friction management at the rail-wheel interface; and power supply infrastructure, primarily overhead line dynamics, design and maintenance.

Sheffield will use the new investment to test full-sized, unmodified rail components in real or simulated service conditions in preparation of deploying the technology on the national network.

A number of other industrial partners will support the project over its expected 10-year life. They include IBM, Unipart Rail, SMRT, British Steel, RSSB, Thales, Hitachi, AECOM, Aggregate Industries, Atkins, Pandrol and Progress Rail.

Rail operators including Network Rail, HS2, Transport for London, Rail North and the Department for Transport are also backing the initiative. 


UK > Politics > Whitehall


Electric cars gear up for role as energy stores

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is offering firms a share in £20 million earmarked for research projects exploring how electric cars can better connect with the UK's national power grid.

The programme aims to iron out the "peaks and troughs" in energy use by developing vehicles that can be supplied with electricity from the grid when demand is low and can act as a source of power at peak periods, BEIS announced on 10 July.

There are competitions for feasibility studies (£2m), collaborative R&D (£4m) and real-world demonstrators (£14m). Eligible projects may investigate novel business models, consumer awareness, and technologies that facilitate transactions between electric vehicles and the grid. 

Funds of £125,000 to £7m are available per project, across the three competitions, with a potential to cover 70 per cent of a business’s total costs. The R&D projects can be funded for 18 months to three years.

The Office for Low Emission Vehicles and Innovate UK are providing some of the funding. 

The deadline for applications is 18 October.


Università degli Studi della Campania Luigi Vanvitelli invites applications for admissions to their research doctorate programs. The application deadline is 14 July 2017. For more information and to see the range of programs, click the banner above to visit the website.


UK > Universities


UK government offers education fund £40m top-up

The UK government has pledged a further £40 million a year to the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) increasing its annual budget to £200m.

The additional money will be allocated in the 2017-18 funding round, and the fund's budget will continue at the same level until 2020, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced on 10 July. 

Usually, HEIF funds knowledge-sharing between higher education institutions in England and international institutions to increase economic and societal reach. The extra funds will support universities to collaborate with business and to commercialise their research. 

David Sweeney, director of research and knowledge exchange at HEFCE, said: “We welcome this additional funding, which recognises the important role that our universities will play in delivering the government’s industrial strategy, and will enable the sector to rise to the challenge of accelerating the commercialisation of knowledge from our world-class research base.”

The extra funding partially fulfils a recommendation on HEIF's future role made by Andrew Witty, chancellor of the University of Nottingham, in a review of universities and growth, published in 2013.

In the report Witty said, “In order to strengthen the incentives on universities to engage with innovative small and medium-sized enterprises the government should make an explicit long-term commitment to HEIF, which should increase to £250m a year.” 


UK > Innovation


European agency opens UK satellite centre

The European Space Agency has launched its European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in the UK at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire.

The ECSAT centre will focus on telecom and satcom services; the fastest growing and most profitable area of the space industry, ESA announced on 9 July.

Magali Vaissiere, ESA's director of telecommunications and integrated applications, said: “ECSAT exists to lead the ESA programmes that address commercial market needs, whether for infrastructures, products or services.

“We put ECSAT here because of the UK’s strengths in these areas, as well as in entrepreneurship and the supporting service industries in finance and law.”

According to Vaissiere, in practice, ECSAT will lead the development of new satellite systems in areas including ultra-high definition TV broadcasting and mobile broadband services.

It will also manage big-data programmes that focus on climate and environmental monitoring.


Robots offered opportunity to explore alien conditions

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has invited eight teams to submit full proposals for projects to develop robotics and artificial intelligence technology to work in dangerous and challenging environments.

The successful bids invited to take part in the second stage of the competition for funding from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund were announced by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on 10 July.

Among the principal investigators invited is Matthew Mowlem, head of ocean technology and engineering at the National Oceanography Centre. His team will look at robots operating in hostile marine environments.

Tracy Shimmield, co-director of the Lyell Centre at the British Geographical Survey, proposes to explore deep-sea mining research and innovation.

The other teams are led by David Lane, professor and founding director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics at Heriot Watt University; Yang Gao, associate dean of the faculty of engineering and physical sciences at the University of Surrey; Mirko Kovac, director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London;  Barry Lennox, professor of applied control at the University of Manchester; Samia Nefti-Meziani, director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems and Advanced Robotics at the University of Salford; and Rustam Stolkin, senior fellow in robotics at the University of Birmingham.

The government pledged £93 million to fund robotics and AI research in extreme environments through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund in its spring budget this year, of which £42m has been allocated to this research hub competition.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has also committed £42m to fund research on creating safer working environments by replacing humans with robots in offshore energy production, nuclear energy, space and deep mining.


UK > Views of the UK


Rethinking Brexit

There are plenty of good reasons for the UK not to leave Euratom when, and if, it leaves the European Union.

Quitting the agreement puts “the continued operations of the UK nuclear industry at risk”, according to the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. However these reasons do not explain why Euratom has risen to the top of the political agenda.

There is a campaign underway not only to keep Britain in Euratom but to bring this issue to a head, possibly through a vote in the House of Commons, as soon as possible. This campaign is broadly based and highly coordinated, ranging from George Osborne's Evening Standard to Labour's deputy, Tom Watson. Nine Conservative MPs have gone public in support of the move—enough to destroy the Conservative-DUP majority in the Commons. But why now?

The answer lies in the letter the British government sent to the EU invoking Article 50 and setting in train the two year journey to its departure from the EU. This letter covers Britain's withdrawal from both the EU and Euratom. If Britain wants to not withdraw from Euratom, it will need at least to revoke that part of the letter that deals with Euratom.

This will require answers to questions such as, "Will the EU 27 agree to a revocation?", "Can Britain revoke unilaterally?" and "Is it possible to revoke the letter partially, or do you have to revoke the whole thing and start again?"

These are questions that, for their own reasons, both the UK and EU sides have preferred to avoid answering definitively. However, once answered for the Euratom withdrawal, they will provide a precedent for the EU withdrawal. Put simply, the possibility of revoking Article 50 will become real and visible. Suddenly there will be a Plan B.

This is the second attempt by anti-Brexit MPs to forge a cross-party coalition to defeat the government. They failed the first test when Conservatives refused to back Labour amendments to the Queen's speech. This gambit is vastly better prepared and so a critical moment approaches.

If the rebels win on Euratom, it would both put Plan B on the table and demonstrate the government's lack of control on Brexit. It would reveal that there is no guarantee that the government can get any deal through parliament. To talk then of a coalition of chaos would not be point scoring but the truth. If not, it will begin to look as if Theresa May has a clear run at Brexit.

The idea of revoking Article 50 has been so little discussed until now that it has yet to acquire a settled political meaning. Clearly it would violate the prime minister’s promise that Brexit means Brexit, which May uses to propogate the convenient notion that hers is the only way for the government to respond to the referendum result. But the rest of us should avoid agreeing to that portrayal.

Revoking Article 50 would be an eminently sensible, pragmatic response to the mess the UK is in. It wouldn't wipe out the referendum result. That would still give parliament permission to leave the EU if it wants and a mandate for change in the UK's relations with Europe. Article 50 could still be re-invoked in future. It would however give the country time to forge a genuine and mature consensus on the way forward, which surely must include not trashing our economy and research base.

This article also appears in Research Fortnight.


Europe > France


France doubles down on climate effort

France will be carbon neutral by 2050 and sales of petrol and diesel cars will stop in 2040, according to the government’s environmental strategy.

The climate plan, published on 6 July, contains 19 priorities in environmental policy, including making France’s commitment to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change legally binding.

Other measures include

  • increasing the price of carbon emissions over the next five years by more than the previous target of €100 per tonne by 2030 
  • making thermal insulation a national priority and eradicating energy poverty in 10 years
  • becoming carbon neutral by 2050, although the plan does not say whether this goal would become law
  • banning the import of all products that contribute to deforestation, with products to be specified early next year
  • banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040

The plan also included a pledge to “focus on research and innovation to find climate solutions”. The government said it would fund research programmes in high performance solar cells, recyclable batteries, digital science, energy and green transport, as part of its wider investment strategy.

It also reaffirmed its efforts to bring top climate change scientists to France, by way of a programme called Science, Come to France. This includes the Make our Planet Great Again initiative, which was launched in June with €30 million of government funding.

The climate plan’s commitment to make the Paris climate agreement legally binding is in line with president Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to a global environment pact intended to solidify the agreement.

On 8 July, Macron tweeted that on 12 December, “France will host a new climate mobilisation summit”.


French government pledges ‘no cut’ to science funding

Universities and public research institutions are likely to be spared in the public spending cuts being prepared by the French government.

In a speech to the parliament on 4 July, prime minister Édouard Philippe said the government’s “investment efforts [in universities and research] will not be reduced” as France looked at how it would stem the debt “volcano”.

Philippe said that the government would balance spending cuts with an ambitious infrastructure investment programme and tax cuts for people and businesses.

“Tomorrow’s collective intelligence and economic growth” would also be built “in university labs”, Philippe said.

The prime minister said that universities would gain more autonomy, but would have to work more closely with businesses in the coming years—two central themes in president Emmanuel Macron’s election manifesto. Macron also promised to ring fence the science budget.

In his speech, Philippe announced an overhaul of the university entrance system for first degrees, saying it was an “absolute scandal” that 60 per cent of undergraduates failed to graduate. The government would steadily increase the requirements for university entry over the next three years, Philippe said.


Anti-robot rhetoric is holding back innovation, academy says

Public suspicion of robots is stopping France from becoming a world leader in the field, the French Academy of Technologies has said.

The academy urged the government to create a dedicated robotics taskforce in a statement on 10 July.

“In France, anti-robot discourse stimulates anxiety and misunderstandings for some people, leading to the spread of negative ideas that can be highly destructive [to the robotics industry],” the statement said.

France was ranked fourth in the world in terms of robotics research, the academy said, but only 13th in terms of businesses’ adoption of robotic technologies. Public distrust of robots was partly to blame, it said.

The academy singled out the “robot tax” proposed by former Socialist Party presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, which is still championed by many on the left in France. Such a tax would be “catastrophic for France’s nascent robotics industry”, the academy said.

France could become a world leader in robotics if government made a concerted effort to support businesses in the area, the academy said. 


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