The UK is an important player in academic research worldwide. This includes being one of the world leaders in many emerging scientific fields. The UK government has recognised eight fields as Eight Great Technologies – technologies that, with support, can lead to UK strengths and business capabilities.
In the 2012 autumn statement, £600m was put into these fields, and this week’s Science and Technology Strategy announced continuing support for them, including funding for new research centres.
But what are these eight technologies? Despite working at an institute with clear links to several of the technologies, I admit to only having heard about them recently – and not in my role as a researcher, but through my interest in science policy. So I’ve summarised the eight in this post.
1 Big data
‘Big data’ is a buzzword that seems to be thrown around a lot in both the research and policy worlds (although an inside source tells me that “big data is so 2014”, and we should start calling it “data science” now). It refers to the collection and analysis of huge datasets, which are often complex and full of lots of linked information. These large datasets are difficult to process using traditional methods, effective analysis to draw out useful information.
An example of this is the application of past data to customise medical treatment. If we can understand how a patient’s age, background and results interact, we find the best course of action. There are applications in plant science too – in combining data on the spread of a plant disease, for example. Such work needs to consider plant density, neighbouring species, temperature, weather and disease vectors.
And understanding the data is not the only issue facing this technology. To store a lot of information, we need an awful lot of filing cabinets (aka computer storage) – and we need sophisticated and secure systems to encrypt and anonymise sensitive data. These problems come with their own range of issues to be solved.
You’re reading this blog online, so these words have probably passed through a satellite in reaching you. Satellites are vital sources of data and information too – including environmental data on sea ice and holes in the ozone layer. Many of us also use global positioning satellites daily – to check in on social media, track our lost devices or track our latest cycle ride. The UK is a world leader in the research and development of satellites, and is also well-positioned to be at the forefront of the commercial world of satellite applications.
3 Robotics and autonomous systems
Computers and technology are taking over many aspects of our lives. Robotics are used across the many industries, especially in manufacturing. Autonomous robotics are also essential for space investigation. The European Mars Rover, due in 2018 and designed to be more autonomous than its predecessor, will use mainly British technology.
Autonomy is also slowly taking its place in our day-to-day lives; driverless cars will become a familiar sight, and the so-called internet of things will follow. The development of these systems is likely to make our lives a lot easier; certainly, if they could invent a robot to plant my seeds for me, I’d save an awful lot of time!
4 Synthetic biology
One of the technologies where the Norwich Research Park is already playing a big role is synthetic biology – the field of designing and constructing biological devises and systems. It will bring together both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ scientists from many different backgrounds to work together.
It has huge potential for biotechnology – especially in plant science. Using synthetic biology, we could engineer plant ‘factories’ for producing important biological products, such as drugs, fuels and food. The John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory are already taking advantage of this highly collaborative field through the OpenPlant initiative with the University of Cambridge.
However, if we are to truly expand our horizons with this technology, we first need to have some standardisation between parts. This will improve as biological instruments and technologies become faster and cheaper.
5 Regenerative medicine
Regenerative medicine is the technology of restoring function in the human body by replacing or restoring human cells, tissues or organs. This could be through transplantation, stimulation of bodily restoration mechanisms, or development of biomaterials to grow parts for repair. Innumerable numbers of illnesses require these processes for treatment, so this has potential for making a real difference. Scientists are already working on regeneration of nerve cells during loss of sight. Perhaps one day we will be able to regrow entire organs to avoid the risk of donor organ rejection. The challenge here relies on the control of cells, and the understanding and creation of stem cells. There is also a second issue of developing tests on the safety of new cells developed.
This is another challenge where Norwich is stepping up to the plate (if you’ll excuse the pun). The UN forecasts that global food production will need to increase by 70% to keep up with need in 2050. The UK will not have enough land to feed itself at current yields, and that’s without considering land use for fuel. We need to grow more food on less land, so we need to improve our crop species.
We also need to bear in mind competition for water and resources – especially as climate change makes our weather more erratic. And our crops have little genetic variety, so are at huge risk from disease. Combining genetic modification with synthetic biology could hold massive potential for crop improvement, but still faces roadblocks from protesters and policy.
7 Advanced materials and nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular scale – for example to create new products. As our understanding of materials improves and nanotechnology progresses, we can begin designing materials with a purpose in mind, whether that’s strength, conductivity or another use. A good example is graphene – a material first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004. It has many different applications and a $9bn dollar global market.
As our designs for new systems and technologies improve, materials need to improve to keep up. Take, for example, superconductors: their development was essential for the creation of LED lights, which are now in common use (also, incidentally, a UK invention).
8 Energy storage
Energy covers a whole range of technologies, so it requires a huge amount of interdisciplinary collaboration. More than one of the other great technologies will require large amounts of power and energy, and this will increase global demand. We need to improve our ability to power the world without exhausting our fossil fuel reserves and contributing to climate change. This includes better-embracing nuclear power and improving alternative technologies.
And all this energy we produce needs to be stored. Batteries certainly need improvements (hands up if your smartphone needs daily charging!). Improving battery life and cost will be essential if we want to shed our dependence on fuel-driven cars, and will also become more and more important as technology improves.
These Eight Great Technologies all have strong links to UK research, helping us become a world-leading modern economy. But they require collaborative efforts from diverse disciplines – so we lab biologists need to get out there and chat to the engineers and not just each other. Progress on one technology may well rely on the progress of another, and limitations will always exist as one field waits for the other to catch up.
We will also need to carefully consider the safety, security and ethics of our developments. Ethical dilemmas surround the use of stem cells and genetic modification. If build more nuclear power plants, can we ensure the safe disposal of radioactive waste? If we store huge amounts of personal data, will these resources be vulnerable to hacking? These questions extend the challenges we face, and answering them will require diverse networks of people working together.
Get more information about the Eight Great Technologies from these handy infographics.