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Ritchie Somerville and Gemma Cassells explain how SFC funding helped the University of Edinburgh stimulate innovation aimed at regional recovery in response to the pandemic.

Banner image for Supporting Research and innovation in the time of COVIDRitchie Somerville

If you cast your mind back to late spring 2020 we were just at the end of the first lockdown from the Coronavirus pandemic and, generally, people were unsure what the immediate and long term implications of the virus were going to be. After three months of self-isolating, working and education from home, what the remainder of the year held in store was far from clear.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council recognised the challenges that the pandemic was presenting for the academic sector and for wider society, and through the “Additional research funding for universities 2020-21”, funding was made available to protect world-class research and help institutions focus on long-term planning. Other aims included the prioritisation of research that would help fight the pandemic and support social and economic recovery.

As part of the University of Edinburgh’s response to this, the Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) team devised the BEACON Programme, setting three challenge areas: recovery and growth though entrepreneurship; climate, food and sustainability; and building back better through an open call for research.

The open call for research was focused specifically on south east Scotland and provides a really useful insight into how this approach has had a positive impact both in terms of the outcomes the SFC were seeking but also regionally and nationally, in creating new partnerships and impacts.

The research open call focused on proposals meeting six criteria, in line with the SFC conditions of funding to the University.

These included creating or securing jobs at the University of Edinburgh or in the city region; being data-driven and regionally focused. Projects also had to be ethical and responsible in their intent and actions and aligned to wider DDI programme objectives.

Funding was provided in a mix of £10k, £20k and £50k awards, with the focus on seed funding projects across the University to catalyse opportunities for adoption of data science across the region, whilst
pump-priming future research and adoption opportunities.

Funds were allocated through two calls for projects, between November 2020 and January 2021, and in total twenty one projects were funded, including ‘Leveraging Data Driven Innovation to Support Expected Surge in People Experiencing Homelessness in Edinburgh due to COVID-19’ and “The Show Must Go On!” Examining the Impact and Recovery from COVID-19 in the Performance Arts.’

One of the projects, ‘Unlocking Gaelic sound: Increasing digital footfall in Edinburgh’s archives through novel language technologies’, enabled the University to respond to the challenges presented by the pandemic and build new opportunities for researchers. This project, led by Dr William Lamb, partnered with the National Library of Scotland and others to develop the world’s first software that can listen to spoken Gaelic and transcribe it as written text. The project secured jobs for two postdoctoral researchers who were at the end of fixed term contracts. The research team hope to upgrade the technology so it not only prints what it hears, but responds verbally too – just like voice assistants Siri, Alexa or Google. This further work has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for £460,000 to develop this technology, with interest from companies like the BBC and Duolingo.

Ritchie Somerville is Head of Strategy for the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, The University of Edinburgh/Edinburgh & South East Scotland City Region Deal. Gemma Cassells is Lead Strategist, DDI.

Visit ddi.ac.uk.