Major funding unveiled for cutting-edge research tools that could halt future pandemics and protect the planet

Researchers around the world will soon be able to access millions of the natural, historic specimens found in UK museums at the click of a button as part of a £473 million UK fund to enhance key research infrastructure

  • Digitisation of historic specimens among projects unveiled by Science Secretary at the Natural History Museum
  • researchers will be given access to millions of historic specimens – illuminating the secrets of the world’s rich history to solve some of the most pressing issues of our time 
  • further work includes construction of most powerful microscope of its type and collaboration with US partners that could transform science as well as our understanding of the universe

Researchers around the world will soon be able to access millions of the natural, historic specimens found in UK museums at the click of a button as part of a £473 million UK fund to enhance key research infrastructure. These samples are key to scientific breakthroughs like stemming future pandemics and protecting the planet, making the UK a leading country in scientific development.

In a visit to the Natural History Museum in London this week, Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan announced that more than £155 million from UK Research and Innovation’s Infrastructure Fund will support the museum’s cutting-edge Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo). It will digitise most of the UK’s 137 million natural science specimens – some of them billions of years old – so that teams in the UK and round the world can access key detailed data at their fingertips.

The process involves capturing images of a specimen such as a pinned insect, a pressed plant or microscope slides of samples like micro-fossils or algae and logging them with key data like when and where it was collected. This can in turn support research into groundbreaking solutions for major global problems like supporting biodiversity and protecting countries against future pandemics.

This is expected to generate around £2 billion of economic benefits for the UK by enabling advances in sectors such as developing new drugs and discovering sources of minerals.

A further £124 million will go towards building the most powerful high energy electron microscope in the world – the Relativistic Ultrafast Electron Diffraction and Imaging (RUEDI) facility in Daresbury, Cheshire. It will give UK researchers a significant competitive advantage in observing and understanding irreversible ultrafast processes, which allow them to measure structural and chemical processes in materials as they happen in real time – rather than simply ‘before and after’.

It will lead to a deeper understanding of the biological function within living cells which can be used for better drug design. It will also provide more insight into the interplay between electrical and magnetic fields driving quantum computing and the structural integrity of materials during explosions, earthquakes and advanced manufacturing processes.

Science and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, said:

"As science and technology develops faster than ever, it is vital we ensure UK innovators have the right tools at their disposal to continue groundbreaking work from revolutionising medicine to protecting the world we live in for generations to come.

"From digitising millions of specimens to help halt future pandemics, to building the most powerful microscope of its type right here in the UK to improve drug design, to better information sharing between labs, our £473 million investment infrastructure will set the conditions that allow our brightest minds to thrive and build a healthier and more prosperous UK."

More than £58 million will go towards a joint project with the United States Department of Energy to develop new infrastructure that will address fundamental questions on the nature of matter. It will be built by Science and Technology Facilities Council laboratories in Daresbury and Oxfordshire, with support from universities across the UK, before being installed at the Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. This new particle accelerator facility will join top infrastructure like the Large Hadron Collider, built by CERN in 2010 and stationed near Geneva, in leading major scientific breakthroughs on a global scale.

The EIC will give scientists crucial information about the forces and interactions inside protons and atomic nuclei as the smallest particles interact by colliding beams against each other. Particle accelerators have previously revolutionised our understanding of physics, leading to breakthrough discoveries such as the Higgs boson, a vital building block of our universe, as well as the development of life-saving medical technologies. UK scientists will have access to the groundbreaking new facility following their frontline role in developing this international project.

Nearly £50 million will go towards Critical Mass UK (C-MASS) – the creation of a network linking laboratories using mass spectrometry, a technique that identifies the characteristics of molecules. The cutting-edge technology and coordinated approach will enable researchers to understand more than ever before about new materials required for quantum technologies, semiconductors, batteries, catalysts, medicines and much more.

C-MASS will also enable large-scale screening and allow researchers to combine datasets leading to key information about respiratory health from patients’ blood and to compare this with data on air quality.

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair for the Science and Technologies Facilities Council and Infrastructure Champion for UKRI said:

"Through these investments UKRI continues to equip the research and innovation community with the tools it needs to explore and develop the science and technologies needed for the coming decades. From improving our understanding of the structure of matter itself to digitising the country’s collections of natural specimens, these projects will strengthen the UK community’s quest for discovery and innovative applications.

"The long-term nature of this investment also helps to maintain the UK’s key position on the world stage of research and innovation for the future. On a personal level, I am particularly pleased that today’s announcement will strengthen the UK’s collaboration with the US Department of Energy, in the development and delivery of a major new scientific facility."

From: Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, Science and Technology Facilities Council, UK Research and Innovation, and The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP