Winner: The Open University
Project: nQuire: empowering citizens to think and act scientifically
How do you feel about the ways companies use your personal data? What times of the day are you at your best? Can you tell the difference between real and fake news stories? And how noisy is your classroom or workplace?
These are just some of the research questions posed on nQuire, the Open University’s online citizen science platform, which aims to educate the general public in thinking scientifically and empower them to act as scientists, solve problems that interest them and their communities, and develop critical thinking skills that allow them to judge the information they hear.
Unlike existing citizen science projects, nQuire involves members of the public at every stage of creating and managing scientifically structured investigations, from design, to recruiting participants, to accessing and analysing findings, to sharing results. This helps develop understanding of the scientific process.
It began with a series of smaller scale collaborations with schools, funded by the Economic and Social and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Councils and with the Sheffield University Technical College, funded by the Nominet Trust, which offers grants to support socially motivated tech.
The platform was then redesigned to accommodate large-scale scientific investigations involving thousands of users, to provide secure data storage and support research projects through downloads of anonymised data and built-in consent forms. It is open to anyone, accessible via mobile devices and allows investigations to be set up and managed in areas from social sciences to the community and environment.
A £185,000 partnership with the BBC helped nQuire to reach diverse audiences, while the Open University’s ethics board ensured the process of approving investigations in terms of ethical and research quality would meet required university standards.
The platform was tested through the television programme Springwatch, which involved more than 220,000 people taking part in structured investigations into garden birds, mammals and insects. Findings from these investigations highlighted the need for log piles, long grass and hedgehog feeding to promote biodiversity.
Another investigation, involving 6,000 people and including OU students, suggested sleep patterns varied by age and gender and by the hours people reported they were at their best
The project has received further funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund and UK Research and Innovation. External partners in nQuire investigations or “missions” have included the British Trust for Ornithology, UCL, the University of Exeter and University of Bristol.
The OU is now working with other academic partners in Europe, aiming to extend the reach of nQuire beyond the UK.
Runner up: University of Manchester
Project: Setting City Area Targets and Trajectories for Emissions Reduction (SCATTER)
Researchers at the University of Manchester have been conducting groundbreaking research into climate change for 20 years.
They have demonstrated the importance of limiting global average temperature increases to 2 degrees centigrade — the figure recognised by the Paris Climate Agreement — have shown how carbon budgeting can help society meet climate change targets, have incorporated aviation and shipping emissions in national climate change plans, and allocated carbon budgets between developed and developing nations.
This work won the research team £180,000 in government funding for the Setting City Area Targets and Trajectories for Emissions Reduction [SCATTER] project, developed in collaboration with Greater Manchester Combined Authority and consultancy firm Anthesis.
This involved supporting a number of UK cities in setting and developing carbon targets and policies.
Tools and methodologies developed through the project make it possible to calculate the total emissions that can be emitted at local levels to keep in line with the Paris Agreement and to devise carbon budgets for individual local authorities, regions and organisations.
It has made many local authorities more ambitious in setting environmental targets; Greater Manchester, for example, has moved from aiming for 80% carbon reduction by 2050 to zero by 2038. Many, including West Midlands Combined Authority, Sheffield City Council and Leeds City Region, have also revised their long-term and short-term goals, using interim carbon budgets and setting annual percentage reduction targets.
Organisations including Electricity Northwest, Manchester City Football Club, Bruntwood and Manchester Housing Partnership have all revised their strategies to contribute to delivering Manchester’s new city-wide target on carbon reduction.
Runner Up: University of Reading
Ten years ago, a team from the University of Reading published results from animal studies that would change the lives of a group of sick children.
They had found that none-psychoactive cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD) – parts of cannabis not associated with the high that cannabis smokers enjoy – reduced the number and severity of seizures experienced by animals treated to model the symptoms.
Epilepsy affects around 50 million people worldwide. Most can control their seizures with anti-epileptic drugs but for 30% of patients these fail to work or produce intolerable side effects.
Among those unable to benefit from these drugs are children with two rare forms of the disease, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. These children can experience dozens and sometimes hundreds of seizures a day, causing cognitive disabilities and confining them to a wheelchair before they reach secondary school. One third die before they reach adulthood.
Claire Williams, a psychologist at the University of Reading, had been involved in research on cannabinoids since the 1990s, while Ben Whalley, professor in neuropharmacology at the university, had conducted experiments on the effect of cannabinoids on rat brain tissue slices.
They were approached, together with another Reading pharmacology professor, Gary Stephens, by GW Pharmaceuticals, a company specialising in plant-derived cannabinoid therapeutics, to test the use of cannabinoids in reducing seizures.
The success of these tests prompted GW Pharmaceuticals and a Japanese company, Otsuka Pharmaceutical, to award the team more than £1 million to conduct further research, with a view to developing a drug.
As a result of their work, CBD was recommended for approval as the medicine Epidiolex by the US Food and Drug Administration in April 2018. By the end of September 2019 it had been prescribed to more than 15,000 US patients.
The European Medicines Agency has also approved the drug, and since January 2020 it has been available to patients on the NHS. Research is now being conducted into how it can be used in the treatment of other diseases.