Discovery channelled: Big ideas under threat

Funding for scientific research is set to be slashed. But without it, Britain faces a dearth of innovation. Rob Sharp learns what big ideas we'll be missing out on
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Cloaking devices helped Doctor Who's Tardis blend in, allowed the toothy on-screen Predator to elude Arnold Schwarze-negger, and let Klingon Birds of Prey slalom around Captain Kirk's photon torpedoes.

But how many people know that British scientists discovered the beginnings of real-life cloaking technology 10 years ago? Imperial College London's senior theoretical physicist, John Pendry, is widely credited with having invented "metamaterials" – tiny substances that could one day bend light around themselves, conferring invisibility. The technology has applications in medicine, security, and construction.

And are you aware of self-driving cars? How about electronic GPs in your bedroom? Self-mending metal for your Audi or Kawasaki that could cut down on the trips to the garage?

In October, the Government's comprehensive spending review is set to slash science funding by 25 per cent, mothballing thousands of research projects across the country. This will be a huge shame, because the sector is involved in some of the most interesting endeavours in the world: everything from the CERN project, home to the Large Hadron Collider, to Isis, the Oxfordshire research facility used to help design the wings of the Airbus A380 aircraft.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), one of the scientific public-funding bodies facing cuts, spearheads everything from Pendry's research to the potentially labour-saving wizardry of self- healing materials. It hopes the ingeniousness-per-pound of its spending – which currently totals £800m a year across the physical sciences – could help blunt the long-term impact of the Government's fiscal guillotine. "The British have a long record of being inventive and coming up with novel ideas, many of which have led the world," says Professor Dave Delpy, the EPSRC's chief executive. "We are moving into an increasingly competitive period for scientific discovery, and Britain needs to maintain its position."

Bespoke gifts enticing to consumers, home-based health monitoring and crowd-sourcing weather information all fall under Delpy's financial aegis. He maintains they will all one day help the public and should continue to capture people's imagination. Here is a taster of some of his most enticing areas of research.

Now you see it... Invisible materials

Elusive "metamaterials" have flown under the public's radar until now. Pendry discovered these bizarre substances, built atom by atom using "nanotechnology" (know-how operating at a nanometric scale), in 2000. "Metamaterials sound like they're breaking some fundamental law of physics, but they're not," explains Delpy. "You can use them to make things which don't reflect, or which absorb light but allow light radiation to pass around their surface, effectively rendering them indiscernible."One of Pendry's US research associates, David Smith of North Carolina's Duke University, has received funding from the Pentagon to look into security applications for the materials.

"You can also use metamaterials to build things that detour acoustic waves," adds Sebastien Guenneau, a researcher at the University of Liverpool, "which could allow more resilient anti-earthquake buildings and dykes." And Delpy says metamaterials could improve the sensitivity of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), used by cancer specialists and others. If MRI scanner magnets are more sensitive, they can be smaller and cheaper.

GP-quality care in your living room

The University of Aberdeen's scientists envisage a world where people with diabetes, heart disease or other long-term conditions keep health-docking stations in their homes. Here, they could input such data as blood pressure, sugar levels and heart rate into the devices, which would transmit the information to health professionals monitoring patients' well-being remotely. Such wizardry could reduce time pressure on GPs and help spot problems earlier. Sensing technology might then lurk in every corner of a patient's home, monitoring sleeping patterns, levels of movement, use of cookers and fridges, and answering the question: is that patient looking after themselves?

"Digital technology has a real part to play in rural society and business," says John Farrington, director of the University of Aberdeen's Institute for Rural Research. "Remote regions should be provided with the same services that those dwelling in urban areas have, and that might mean taking advantage of new communication methods. Considering the present fiscal climate, it's important that the whole of Britain realises its social and economic potential."

Farrington hopes that portable sensory devices could be used by doctors or nurses to measure an injured person's vital signs on arriving at the scene of a traffic accident. "This information would be analysed and and advice would be given on what should – or should not – be done to help the casualty," suggests David Godden, one of Farrington's colleagues at the University of Aberdeen.

Self-repairing planes

An aeroplane is soaring way above the cloud cover mid-Atlantic. Travelling at hundreds of miles an hour, the fuselage is hit by a flock of birds; the engines suffer, and the cabin's air-tight seal is ruptured. But at a push of a button the plane's metal shell leaks liquid into the cavity. It quickly hardens, and a disaster is averted. On landing, by mixing dye into this gooey resin crews can swiftly identify where the damage occurred.

"This approach can deal with small-scale damage that's not obvious to the naked eye, but which might lead to serious failures in structural integrity if it escapes attention," says Ian Bond, one of the people spearheading such research at the University of Bristol. "Certain structures weaken and then break quickly with very little warning; any heads-up on this process could save lives," concludes Delpy.

Design your own Christmas presents

Buying a gift? Consumers already know about expensive bespoke products and mass-produced tat, but what about a third way?

Scientists at the Universities of Exeter and Brunel are examining the applications of 3D printing technology, through devices mainly used to build prototypes in research and development laboratories. These three-dimensional printers pump layers of fast-setting plastic on top of one another. But what about trying to do this with chocolate? The hope is that web-based computer programmes will allow customers to produce specially designed gifts; the design technology could then be rolled out for clothes or kitchen cabinets, for example.

"The techniques we use are world-leading," says Liang Hao, a senior lecturer in the University of Exeter's engineering department, and recipient of an EPSRC grant. "Designing a 3D physical product is a very new concept that has not been implemented in the commercial world in this way before. It has a lot of market potential. Digital media like YouTube are based on the user uploading their own concept. If we develop suitable tools, there is no reason why people shouldn't be able to design physical products as well."

Crowd-sourced traffic reports

"Pervasive computing" refers to any small-scale computer technology in PDAs, mobile phones or microchips embedded in the environment. The EPSRC funds the work of Participate, a joint venture between the Universities of Nottingham and Bath, their industry partners British Telecom, the BBC, Microsoft, science equipment company Science Scope and Brighton-based artists' group Blast Theory. Participate hopes to "crowd-source" data about Britain – everything from local temperature to traffic – and build a comprehensive online database of local information accessible from, and updated via, a mobile phone, for example.

Some of the information could be provided by sensors buried in road signs or the sides of buildings. As well as sending information to a website, Delpy says these sensors could be linked together to form autonomous networks; this would be cheaper and could relay traffic information down a chain of sensors."This idea has been led by research teams at the universities of Nottingham and Newcastle," adds the funding chief. "Mobile-phone games could be a good way of motivating people to take part in the project while collecting useful data as a side effect."

Cars that drive themselves

Systems like Land Rover's Forward Alert system shrill with an ear-splitting beep every time someone's gas guzzler approaches another car's bumper; but where's the technology going next?

A team led by the University of Oxford's engineering department is looking into the use of road-side sensors along motorways allowing for "hands-off" automatic drive functions on prolonged trips. Delpy says the technology for such devices is already in place, but the public needs to learn to trust such gadgets.

"And it's not just for people going on holiday; at the moment there are many disabled people who can't get their GP to sign off that they are fit to drive," he says. "This will allow people to maintain their independence and add to their freedom." And smart cars could control congestion in a more efficient manner than humans (our reactions are sometimes overly cautious). A fleet of autonomous cars operating ceaselessly in our cities could increase transport capacity and reduce carbon footprints.

Lastly, US Congress predicts a third of all ground vehicles in the US armed forces will be unmanned by 2015: Britain's armed forces would also like a slice of the technological pie. With the EPSRC's funding, like so many fantastical avenues of research, it might just happen.