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Case studies: Sustainable world


Applying geoscience to help decision making in London and around the Thames

British Geological Survey (BGS) scientists are creating the Geochemical Baseline Survey of the Environment (G-BASE) dataset. This is providing a high-quality, detailed multi-element analysis of stream waters, stream sediments and surface soils collected from across Britain, including rural and urban areas.

As a part of G-BASE, 6,600 soils samples have been collected from open ground in Greater London. Sampling took place over a two-year period up until 2009. The project is known as 'London Earth' and is providing information on the surface chemistry of the most highly populated area of the UK.

The London Earth data is nearly complete and will be released in early 2011. Concentrations of 50 different chemical elements have been measured in the samples at the BGS laboratories near Nottingham. These include potentially harmful elements, such as arsenic, lead and nickel. Lead, for example, was widely released by industrial activities and was a significant component of petrol. Inevitably, it is at higher concentrations in the city, raising concerns for human health.

The British Geological Society is supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). 

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BBSRC works to improve farm animal welfare

On 22 February, BBSRC announced the results of its animal welfare programme; an £8 million investment over five years aimed at producing a better understanding of how to improve animal welfare and the quality of animals’ lives. With meat consumption rising worldwide and other threats to global food security, farmers are under pressure to produce more food, but this will need to happen with an eye to improving standards of animal welfare.

The three strands of the BBSRC programme looked at new means of measuring animal welfare and the impact that early life experiences have on animal welfare. They also explored how a farm animal’s environment and its perception of that environment, can affect its welfare. An example of the work funded by the Animal Welfare programme is a project which uses an ingenious small-scale camera and computer set-up to monitor the health of broiler chickens. The welfare of broiler chicken flocks is sometimes assessed by observing how well the birds are walking and moving around, eventually calculating a so-called "gait score". This new technology, developed by a team at the University of Oxford lead by Professor Marian Dawkins, uses a computer and camera to monitor the shifting patterns of movement in the flock. If there are a lot of slow-moving birds the overall pattern of movement is disrupted and the monitoring device detects that there may be a welfare issue such as illness or lameness in a proportion of the birds.

Lead researcher Professor Marian Dawkins, University of Oxford explains: "We have been working from the outset with industry partners to ensure that we develop something that is useful on commercial farms and is an improvement on the traditional ways of measuring the welfare of animal flocks."

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Professor Harry Elderfield on the “other C02 problem”

“Ocean acidification is the next big thing. Possibly a third of our growing emissions of carbon dioxide dissolves in the oceans and since CO2 when dissolved in seawater lowers its pH, it will affect the acidity of the water. What impact will this have? How might this affect marine organisms whose shells may dissolve? How might it affect commercial fish stocks?”

Professor Harry Elderfield from the University of Cambridge is chairing the advisory group on a major new research programme into ocean acidification funded by NERC, Defra and DECC.

“The UK programme will be part of an international undertaking, CO2 has no national boundaries, but as we don’t really know what the impact is, this will be an important piece of research,” he says. “It isn’t straightforward, as CO2 concentration varies with ocean currents, temperature and biology. You can’t just collect a bucket of water and start your research.”

Professor Elderfield started his long and influential research career as a marine geochemist, but became interested in the early history of the ocean, how and why the chemical composition of the oceans, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations and global temperature, have changed over time.

“I look at climate history and what it can tell us about what changes are happening now. I believe that scientists should stick to sound science and not scare people, but certainly climate change is making people think carefully about what the future may bring. Just knowing what the earth has done in the past is important to the debate on climate change and when doing research you are thinking ‘is this relevant to this debate?” To hear more from Professor Elderfield, listen to a podcast here featuring him and other researchers talking about the impact of their work.

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Professor David Goulson and the plight of the bumblebee

The plight of the bumblebee made front-page news in 2006 when Professor David Goulson first took his research out into the wider world.

As a conservation biologist, Professor Goulson had become frustrated by the gulf between academic research and ‘practical, on-the-ground conservation’. Over 16 years researching the behaviour and ecology of bumblebees, he had focused increasingly on explaining why so many species were declining and in developing techniques to conserve them.

“I realised, however, that farmers, politicians and nature reserve wardens don’t read scientific journals,” he said. “I needed to find a way of communicating my research to people who could use it.” He decided to translate what he had learned into practical conservation measures, launching the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in May 2006.

“Its impact has exceeded my wildest expectations,” says Professor Goulson. “We now have a membership of more than 6,000 people, and bumblebee recording schemes which have generated a great deal of data. Although it’s hard to measure, more importantly I believe we have influenced the views of tens of thousands of people, and through this instigated many practical conservation projects.

“Our education pack has gone out to more than 200 primary schools, and we have set up the first bumblebee nature reserve in Scotland. We recently obtained funding for a 200 acre grassland restoration project in Wales with the Grasslands Trust.”

Much of Professor Goulson’s work in recent years has been funded by BBSRC, and he was named BBSRC Social Innovator of the Year 2010 for his work on bumblebee conservation.

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Professor Oliver Phillips, Professor in Tropical Ecology, Earth and Biosphere at the University of Leeds, talks about working together internationally to address the impact of climate change on the Amazon

The Amazon accounts for more than half of the world’s rainforest, covering an area 25 times the size of the UK. No other ecosystem on earth is home to so many species nor exerts such control on the carbon cycle. “Tropical forests are the most exciting and interesting places to be if you are a biologist,” Professor Oliver Phillips says. “My early research funding from NERC enabled me to explore a lot of ideas about the Amazon and get things going without some of the normal pressures of academic life.” Awarded in the late 1990s his NERC Research Fellowship gave Professor Phillips time to study this unique region of the world.

In the last decade Professor Phillips has worked to build up RAINFOR, an international network established to understand the biomass and dynamics of Amazonian forests. “Our approach is very collaborative,” he says. “This is an international challenge. The Amazon Forest is huge and includes nine nations. As UK citizens we also affect the environment of tropical countries. And as outsiders, UK scientists can sometimes play a role in helping bring researchers together from countries which have tropical forests to address questions which transcend national boundaries.” To read more about how Research Councils UK are supporting excellent people who have an impact look at Impacts: People and Skills which is available here

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Fuel efficient, low carbon cars: 25 yrs of engine research

The University of Bath and Ford Motor Company have been collaborating for 25 years, and during the last decade, research has focused on fuel economy and cutting CO2 emissions. This partnership has made improvements across a range of engines within everyday passenger cars, such as the Focus and Fiesta. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has supported these projects since 1996.

72 million tonnes of CO2 are produced from cars every year in the UK, but the challenge to create affordable and increasingly environmentally-friendly cars is one which continues to be pursued at the University of Bath. Average CO2 emissions from new cars in the UK fell from 189.9 g/km in 1997 to 149.5 g/km in 2009: a reduction of 21.3%. But the current rate of improvement must be maintained.

Professor Gary Hawley says: “A 1% improvement in fuel economy represents 750,000 tonnes CO2 saved each year, if applied to all passenger cars. Here, at the University of Bath, we are working to achieve a 10% increase in fuel economy.” The University of Bath is part of SETsquared - the enterprise and research partnership of the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Southampton and Surrey.

To see 20 of the best examples of their research, many funded by the Research Councils and learn about the impact this has made on our economy, environment, health and society, come to a unique RCUK supported event: Changing Worlds, on Wednesday 13th October, in Westminster, London.

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Monitoring currents to help predict future climate change

The NERC Rapid Climate Change programme has developed a unique array of sensors running across the Atlantic Ocean. These sensors monitor the Atlantic Meridional over turning Circulation (MOC), the ocean current that brings warm water north to the UK. Any changes to these ocean currents could rapidly alter the UK’s temperate climate.

The Rapid Climate Change Programme had an estimated economic benefit to the UK of £32-36 million in its 2001-08 lifespan. Those benefits include using data collected by the sensors to reduce uncertainty and improve risk assessment in future climate predictions, while energy suppliers use the results to assess future energy needs. The programme’s next phase, RAPID WATCH, will continue to monitor the Atlantic conveyor and assess the scientific and broader benefits of having a more permanent system. The research will involve scientists from the UK, Canada, Germany and the USA, working with the Met office Hadley Centre.

To read more about how Research Councils UK are working in partnership to find solutions to problems facing society today look at Impacts: Achieving investment in UK research through partnership which is available here

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BBSRC food security research highlighted high profile papers

On Friday 10 December 2010 three papers on plant disease-causing microbes appeared in Science magazine. The work reported is largely BBSRC-funded and involves researchers from the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Imperial College London, University of Warwick and University of Exeter, among others. The papers present newly sequenced genomes of two types of mildew and the water mould that causes late blight in potatoes and tomatoes - work that will contribute to future food security by creating opportunities to enhance our knowledge of plant disease resistance, as well as uncovering potential new targets for better control of these microbes.

Powdery mildew: Blumeria graminis is a powdery mildew fungus that affects barley and is especially a problem in cool, wet climates such as in the UK. Researchers have discovered how this particular genome includes features that help the fungus to overcome the plant's defences.

Downy mildew: Hyaloperonospora arabidopsidis is a type of water mould or oomycete that infects the model plant Arabidopsis. Close relatives cause disease and damage on many crops including broccoli, maize, grapes and lettuce. Research shows that this pathogen slims down certain parts of its genome to suppress plant immune responses. The research will also help us understand the relationship between plants and pathogens in general, enabling the selection of disease resistant crop plants in the battle against other plant diseases.

Late blight: Phytophthora infestans is a destructive plant pathogen that causes late blight in potatoes and tomatoes. Researchers sequenced two strains of P. infestans and three closely related species that infect different plant families Comparison of their genomes uncovers new information about how they adapt to new plants or to the evolving immune system of an existing host. They can now suggest that the most evolutionarily stable genes are better targets for genetic resistance.

The RCUK Global Food Security programme is led by BBSRC and more information is available here

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