Comment: science engineering collaboration is key to meeting grand challenges

Dr Samantha FrancisCollaboration between the UK’s engineering and science base is key to meeting the challenges we face as a society writes Dr Samantha Francis, Deputy Director, Research Base, EPSRC

Collaboration in science and engineering is vitally important to complement knowledge and skills to push established boundaries into entirely new directions. Collaboration relies on motivation, enthusiasm and good communication to transfer new ideas, perspectives and understanding to realise its benefits. It been shown throughout history, and more recently through the pandemic, that many of the advances that produce global benefits are inherently collaborative endeavours.

UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) mission is to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good. Its constituent research councils bring together expertise, views and influences from across the research and innovation landscape to provide a variety of perspectives and views; NERC provides an environmental perspective, MRC brings in medical expertise to keep our nation healthy, Innovate UK to represent the views of business, ESRC brings a societal focus and AHRC a cultural perspective.

The awards this year demonstrate that collaboration is where great things can be achieved. It is hard, but through struggle comes reward, and benefit to humanity

At EPSRC, as investors in excellent engineering and physical sciences research and training, we have always recognised the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Engineering continues to be an interactive discipline that relies on collective problem solving and diverse viewpoints to extract ideas from science and progresses them towards reality and impact. This is notably important when there is the potential to overcome some of societies biggest challenges – and we are currently facing one of the biggest challenges with science taking a stand to defeat it.

In 2016, EPSRC invested in the Engineering Grand Challenges. We brought the community together to tackle some of the world’s biggest societal and technical problems that we face for future cities, water for all, engineering across length-scales and risk and resilience. These programmes have relied on collaboration and cross-disciplinary knowledge to make a real impact.

Collaboration is key to meeting a range of challenges, including the development of sustainable cities. Image via stock.adobe.com

An example of impact includes the Self-Repairing Cities project which has realised a vision where infrastructure is autonomously maintained by robots to rid cities of intrusive and disruptive street works, preventing the waste of material, reduce carbon emissions, time, making infrastructure a safer place to work.

The Managing Air for Greener Inner Cities (MAGIC) project used the free energy of the wind and temperature differences between indoors and outdoors to change the way our cities are developing. The Victorians improved health by covering sewage systems – MAGIC’s aim is to see if the same can be done by improving air quality. Another project, the TWENTY65 interdisciplinary research consortium, is driving a reimagining of water services to deliver safe water sustainably via systems that are affordable, adaptable and resilient.

This year in particular, as the projects near their end, we have already learnt a lot about how collaborative, cross-disciplinary endeavours can work effectively to make a real impact. This couldn’t have happened without bringing together different views, perspectives, expertise and good communication.

In 2021, we will revise our programme of Grand Challenges, and enhance collaboration between academic, industry and other stakeholders will be vital to provide ambitious and realistic solutions to today’s critical challenges.

The Engineer’s Collaborate To Innovate awards, that EPSRC have supported since its inception, demonstrates the value and importance of collaboration, particularly that with business.

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The shortlisted projects demonstrate how collaboration has led to world-leading research and innovation, demonstrating the varied dimensions to collaboration across academia – the University of Bristol working with UCL, Cambridge and Manchester on Volcanology; across academia and business – the University of Nottingham working with Ford, Gestamp and the National Composites Centre – and internationally – with Swansea University, Imperial College and Brunel working with Indian Institute of Science Education. Collaborations can be small partnerships, but also large consortia – one shortlisted project in the Healthcare and Medical category has hundreds of partners.

The UK has a long track record in pioneering collaborative research and development to achieve technological innovations as well as societal impact. A common trait over the centuries of those involved in these collaborative projects is that they have embodied the principles of mutual respect, trust and enthusiasm that are required to build productive and constructive working relationships with collaborators. Even more so today, taking the time and effort to collaborate within and across disciplines is vitally important, particularly as we currently find our physical movements being restricted and physical collaboration is arguably harder.

The awards this year demonstrate that collaboration is where great things can be achieved. It is hard, but through struggle comes reward, and benefit to humanity – as many of our pioneering scientists and engineers have and will continue to prove.

Dr Samantha Francis is Deputy Director, Research Base at EPSRC and a member of the C2I2020 judging panel