Research matters: Behind every breakthrough lies first-class infrastructure
World-class research needs facilities that evolve and keep pace with its advances
Thursday 19 January 2012
Excellent researchers need excellent facilities if they are to push forward the frontiers of knowledge. In November 2011, researchers at CERN discovered hints of the biggest breakthrough in the history of particle physics, the Higgs boson particle. Finding proof that the Higgs boson exists would illuminate why particles have certain mass and help answer fundamental questions about the creation of the universe. Investment in this remarkable facility has produced five Nobel Prizes and generated countless discoveries, not least the invention of the World Wide Web, on which all of us now rely. It is now the largest particle physics laboratory in the world and UK researchers are among those from more than 20 countries who have the opportunity to work there.
Research Councils UK gives researchers access to a full range of world-class facilities, both in the UK and abroad, because we believe this is vital if we are to remain research leaders. These facilities range from telescopes for astronomers, to ships, aeroplanes and satellites for environmental scientists, to high-performance computers for data analysis and laboratories for experimental science. Just now The Francis Crick Institute, founded by the Medical Research Council and the world's leading medical charities, is being built on a brownfield site between the British Library and St Pancras station in London. It will bring together scientists from all disciplines to help turn laboratory discoveries into viable medical care as quickly as possible.
As research continues to break new boundaries, so the facilities that support it must be continually improved and supported. Recent new investments in science facilities and infrastructure reflect this and recognise that investment in the UK research base is essential to stimulating economic growth and societal well-being.
Today, the infrastructure for research is evolving as rapidly as the research itself. Alongside traditional large-scale facilities and laboratories, there are innovative developments in information and communications technology and data storage and analysis. These include the preservation and transmission of historical documents in the humanities. Previously unseen, handwritten manuscripts of Jane Austen, for example, were recently made available online thanks to the University of Oxford, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and working with technology developed by the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's College London. And in Birmingham an AHRC-supported project integrates the city's treasury of historical materials through its new, state-of-the-art library.
Computer technology is making resources available to anyone from academic researchers to members of the public, who are increasingly engaged with the nuts and bolts of research activity. An example is Galaxy Zoo, a worldwide project started in Oxford to enlist amateur astronomers in classifying galaxies online. It is a classic example of so-called "citizen science".
Access to the outputs of research undertaken today will be crucial to the researchers of tomorrow. Understanding Society is the world's largest study of households and is giving an unprecedented insight into how people and families respond to local, national and international change.
The study follows individuals over time, regularly collecting data about each participant to provide an enduring profile of British society in the 21st century. The Economic and Social Research Council supports these studies, which can yield crucial evidence for health and social policy as well as having applications for business and industry.
As UK researchers continue to make breakthroughs, the infrastructure that supports their work needs to evolve and keep pace with them.
More information about Research Councils UK is available at www.rcuk.ac.uk
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