UK-India research projects win a bumper crop of cash

Academic collaboration between the two nations gets a multimillion-pound boost. John Gill reports

February 21, 2008

An initiative to assist collaboration between academics in India and the UK has announced 81 new awards with funding totalling £4 million.

Recipients of this year's UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) awards include 37 research projects, among them 13 collaborations that have been co-funded by the Indian Department of Science and Technology (IDST).

UKIERI awards have also gone to research fellowships, PhD scholarships, collaborative programme delivery projects and "school cluster partnerships". Among the research projects to receive funding in 2008 are intelligent robotics to aid the disabled, fire-resistant construction in earthquake zones and water purification using industrial waste.

In each case, researchers from universities in India and the UK will collaborate, with the aim that the countries will start to see each other as academic "partners of choice".

Tim Gore, British Council project manager in India, said the scope of the projects was exceeding expectations.

The total of 37 awards being made this year is higher than the 25 that were planned, and IDST investment has boosted funding for research in areas such as sustainable energy and nanotechnology.

Gordon Brown's visit to India last month suggests that international co-operation in education and research is moving up the political agenda. Mr Gore said that the UKIERI was key to building trust between the two countries.

An example, he said, is a memorandum of understanding signed while the Prime Minister was in India that will establish an international exchange programme for deputy vice-chancellors and other senior university managers.

"This will be a tremendous way of building closer co-operation ... UKIERI is an enabler, allowing researchers and academics to spend time together, which is vitally important in knowledge transfer," Mr Gore said.

"It speeds up joint research, allows complementary strengths to be deployed and can allow testing of propositions in the very different contexts of India and the UK."

The UKIERI, which is managed by the British Council, is backed by government and by businesses including BP, Shell and BAE Systems.

In UKIERI's first two years, its awards have gone to six major research projects, which received up to £500,000 each, and 61 smaller research projects that received up to £150,000 each. The scheme will distribute a total of £26 million over five years.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said the UKIERI "has made a major contribution towards stimulating UK-India research collaboration at the cutting edge of scientific and technological innovation, as well as creating stronger higher education partnerships.

"This closer collaboration is playing an important part in developing the wider strategic relationship between the UK and India," Mr Rammell said.

A Commonwealth of Knowledge: British scientists work with Indian counterparts

Justin Hargreaves, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, will work alongside scientists from the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi on a project to use industrial waste to purify water.

The team, which has received £70,000 from the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI), will use methane from red mud, a waste product of industrial processes such as aluminium smelting, and extract hydrogen and carbon, which they then hope to use to develop a method of decontaminating water.

Dr Hargreaves said: "We will be looking at removing different heavy metals from water, which are a problem not only in India but also in the UK."

Ian Pulford, an environmental chemist working on the project, said Glasgow had a particular problem with contamination left by a factory that closed in the 1960s.

Dr Hargreaves said it was important for the UK to build relationships with India's growing higher education sector: "This is an absolutely essential way of getting collaboration started."

  • Anthony Brookes, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, has also won funding from UKIERI that will allow him to work with the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi. The plan is to create a global, web-based database summarising all research data linking DNA genotypes with common diseases.

It is hoped that a global database of gene-disease information will allow geneticists to build a clearer picture of the part genes play in different human responses.

Professor Brookes said: "Strengths and ideas have been merged, training has improved and the cultural and scientific strengths of both groups have been maximised."

  • The production of bio-diesel from inedible oil seeds is the focus of another winning project.

In the UK, biofuel is made from rapeseed, which can also be used to make cooking oil or margarine, but in other countries turning edible crops into fuel is a politically charged issue.

Adam Harvey, a chemical engineer at Newcastle University, explained: "In India they're very interested in making biodiesel from non-edible oil seeds because of the food-versus-fuel debate (surrounding) biofuels.

"If you use food crops to make fuel, it pushes up food prices: it is a case of poor man's food versus rich man's fuel," he said.

"There are one or two non-edible oil seeds that grow particularly well in India, and they also have a very large institute with some good pieces of kit."

Dr Harvey will be working with scientists from the Indian Institute of Petroleum in Dehradun.

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