Technology Touching Life

Multidisciplinary UK Research and Innovation?

This Tuesday (the 20th June 2017) I attended a workshop on the new Technology Touching Life scheme being run by three of the UK’s research councils [1]. The workshops (this was the last of three) were run jointly by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Reseasrch Council (EPSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC) to foster multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary networks and better integrate such research into the often disciplinary nature of the research councils.

Given the current changes in the research council structure, and the regularly recognised important of multidisciplinary research at this interface, can we expect to see a change in how the councils work together for better multidisciplinary research across the UK?

The Research Councils and RCUK/UKRI

Briefly, I should introduce the research councils for those who don’t know what they are and what they do. Unfortunately, with the recent Higher Education and Research Bill [2], this will be probably be out of date by the time anybody reads it!

Currently, the UK research councils are seven government bodies that fund strategic research and develop training and communities across the whole of academia from arts to zoology. Until the recent bill they were partnered under the banner of Research Councils UK (RCUK), though they (in my experience) act as seven very separate bodies.

Where the research councils are going, under the new banner of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will be interesting to see… but, suffice to say, things may change over the coming years.

Multidisciplinary UK Research and Innovation?

The Technology Touching Life scheme seems to  be, to me at least, an attempt by three of the research councils to a) change how the research councils deal with research that crosses between their remit, b) encourage the UK’s already excellent research community in that area and c) address problems and perceived problems of how multidisciplinary research is funded and supported between research councils.

What do I mean by ‘multidisciplinary’, well really the terms cross-, multi- and inter-disciplinary have come to mean the same thing (although, in truth, there are subtle differences and the three form more of a spectrum): research, or researchers, that occurs between or in-between the traditional disciplinary units. A good example is my own field, microscopy and bioimaging requires researchers from optics, computing, chemistry and biology to work together to develop new instruments, analysis algorithms and labels to answer challenging biological questions.

Currently, a major (perceived at least) problem with multidisciplinary projects being submitted for funding by the research councils is the phenomena of proposals ‘slipping through the gaps’ between the councils’ respective remits. Whether or not this is true, it’s something that one hears again and again in academia at the interface of disciplines.

Technology Touching Life - Changing Perceptions to Solve Problems

One solution might be to ring fence some money for research just in these areas… sounds great, right? Well, one of the reasons that I personally have high hopes for the Technology Touching Life scheme is that it comes with no research funding: and that’s because throwing money at a such a cross boundaries area won’t change how the community and the councils approach multidisciplinary research and funding.

The Technology Touching Life scheme isn’t about funding, it’s about changing the way that the research councils and research communities work with multidisciplinary projects and researchers. It’s not about only letting only multidisciplinary researchers peer review multidisciplinary proposals, but rather better informing non-multidisciplinary researchers to recognise the impact research could have that transcends the classic disciplinary boundaries.

The challenges of multidisciplinary research and the problems of understanding and perception of such research are constantly reported on and commentaries on such challenges pop up again and again. The Technology Touching Life scheme won’t solve these challenges overnight, but as the research councils begin to morph into their new shape of UKRI, maybe this scheme can help shape them in a way that boosts the UK’s thriving multidisciplinary scientific community.

P.S. The Maxwell Report (2014) and The Nurse Report (2015)

It’s very important that I highlight here why and how the Technology Touching Life  scheme has come about. Essentially, in the last three years we have had two very important reports:

  1. The ‘Maxwell Report’, or ‘The Importance of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research to Health and Life Sciences’ by Professor Patrick Maxwell, was an independent review published in 2014 by the EPSRC discussing the relationship between the engineering and physical sciences and health and life sciences [3]. The review considered how multidisciplinary institutes were structured, what research challenges exist at the interface and what role physical sciences have played and will play in life science research.
  2. The ‘Nurse Report’, or ‘Ensuring a Successful Research Endeavour: Review of the UK Research Councils’ by Sir Paul Nurse in 2015, was a review produced for government about the past, current and future roles of the research councils in enabling the world-class research that happens across the UK [4]. It is this report that has lead to the Higher Education and Research Bill.

And, because of these reports and other factors, the research councils at the engineering and physical sciences boundary with health and life sciences have chosen to look at how they enable the UK’s multidisciplinary research in this area and what they can do to further that support.


Chas Nelson
LKAS Research Fellow in Data Science

An interdisciplinary scientist with a background in quantitative microscopy and bioimage analysis.