Research intelligence - Plugging in to India

New collaborative links between Britain and the subcontinent will bring technological gains to both, writes Cat Davies

September 16, 2010

India has acquired a host of international suitors as a result of its booming economy and rapidly growing status on the world stage.

This summer, the latest in line was David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who visited the country as part of a British delegation of politicians, academics and business leaders. On his return, he spoke of the "enormous scope" for cooperation between the two countries.

So what can be achieved, and how?

Although its message was firmly focused on the future, the British delegation saw that large-scale collaboration was already in action.

During his trip, Mr Willetts visited the Telecommunications and Computer Networking Group's laboratory at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. The lab has pioneered real-world applications including a solar-powered "virtual bank", an effective low-cost model for delivering banking services to rural areas where power supplies may be unreliable.

The lab is an important centre within the jointly funded India-UK Advanced Technology Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks Systems and Services (IU-ATC), a collaborative effort between nine British universities and seven research institutes in India.

Gerard Parr, professor of telecommunications at the University of Ulster and the leading British academic at IU-ATC, said he was first invited to India in 2005 by the British High Commissioner to look at "why the UK wasn't the partner of choice for research, specifically in engineering and telecommunications".

"I did a tour of the various research institutes of technology and it became obvious that there was a real hunger to do something with the UK, but there were no mechanisms in place," he said.

At that time, there were several government-funded projects linking Indian researchers with their peers in the US, Japan, France, Germany and Israel. Convinced that Britain was missing out, Professor Parr started to develop a consortium of interested parties.

The funding it has received includes a £9.2 million grant for larger-scale research and development from Research Councils UK, India's Department of Science and Technology and industry, which it secured last year.

British partners include University College London, the University of Cambridge, Lancaster University and Queen Mary, University of London. Participating Indian institutions include the Institutes of Technology at Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Hyderabad, and the Institute of Science in Bangalore.

Working with industrial partners in both countries, including BT and the Indian IT company Infosys, the consortium is one of the biggest Anglo-Indian collaborations of its kind, focusing on the engineering, social and economic aspects of digital communications technologies and their application.

In one undertaking, Ulster, UCL and Queen Mary are working with the United Nations Development Programme and IIT Delhi, IIT Hyderabad and IIT Bombay to explore the design of wireless sensors that could give warning of landslides in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Another project sees partners at Ulster, Bristol, BT, IIT Madras and Infosys working to provide internet access for villagers in rural southeast India and technologies that may afford greater access to medical help.

But it is not just remote Indian communities that stand to benefit from these projects, as Britain also faces challenges in equity of access to high-speed broadband as well as bridging the urban-rural divide.

"We can't just do research and publish papers. There have to be socio-economic outcomes to what we're doing," Professor Parr said.

Other significant developments in Anglo-Indian collaboration include the opening of an office in India in 2008 by Research Councils UK, and the launch in 2006 of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI).

Prime ministers David Cameron and Manmohan Singh recently announced the extension of UKIERI. A new phase starting in 2011 will include a strand that aims to "support innovation across higher education institutions through sustainable partnerships".

Chris Darby, the head of science and innovation for the Foreign Office in India, said: "What we're aiming for is a change in the way we collaborate. We want to move on from short-term visits to a place where real research is funded jointly."

The IU-ATC is the first project to use a funding system that overcomes the "double-jeopardy" problem, where international groups seeking to work together are forced to go to their respective domestic funders and clear two separate sets of hurdles.

"We're trying to put together joint programmes where UK and Indian funders commit their money together, and funding decisions are made together so that there's only one hurdle to get over. It's still a competitive system, but UK and Indian researchers should have a single route for their work to be funded," Mr Darby said.

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