Worthwhile research

Companies spun out from British universities are now more effective than their Stateside counterparts, according to Ederyn Williams, Director of Warwick Ventures at the University of Warwick. Speaking at a Royal Academy of Engineering conference on 29th April, Williams said how UK research is good value. The science research base is about £3 billion and British universities created almost 200 spin-off companies in the year 2000. He compared this with the £20 billion a year spent on research in the USA and the 368 spin-offs formed there in the same year.

Williams added that despite almost seven times the funding some 10,802 invention disclosures were made compared with 2,500 by UK universities. Unfortunately, results that look superficially positive are underpinned by the much lower salaries of researchers in the UK compared with the US, says Williams. He believes more research is therefore done for the money whereas American universities seem to be much more aggressive in their patenting and licensing of inventions to the detriment of company formation and contributing directly to the economy.

Ederyn Williams

Ederyn Williams

One driving force behind the sudden surge British UK university business is, Williams claims, down to the University Challenge seed funds established by the Government in 1999. Most of these 15 seedcorn funds only started investing in 2000 but they have already supported over 200 projects and spin-off companies, he explained. Most of the funds have only invested about half their initial cash so there is plenty more to come.

Some British universities are not only creating their own companies, such as Warwick Effect Polymers, Bradford University company Photox, and Newcastle and UCL’s Xcellsyz to exploit intellectual property generated in their research laboratories but two, Warwick and Birmingham Universities, are also heading up the Mercia Spinner project to assist six other West Midlands universities to translate their technology into profit.

Dave Haddleton of Warwick Effect Polymers

Dave Haddleton of Warwick Effect Polymers

In five years, Williams enthuses, so many of the infant companies that have recently been formed will have grown to such a substantial size that even the most hardened sceptic will have to admit that university spin-offs are a major source of national economic growth.

Photox

Photox

Spotlight asked Dr Williams whether British universities should be pushing even more to commercialise their intellectual property rights. Yes, absolutely! he told us, There are still many valuable opportunities which are dropping down the ‘black hole’ because of lack of skilled staff or funds to patent and undertake initial assessment and planning tasks.

He adds that so far, we are nowhere near the bottom of the barrel. Ed French of Coventures Ltd has estimated that academic researchers could likely generate two commercially exploitable innovations every three years, which in one sense amounts to two per PhD student. Williams suggests that the science base is currently only about a fifth of the potential stream of inventions.

There is a worry that fundamental science can become marginalized by commercialisation efforts but Williams disagrees, The best university innovations come from basic scientific breakthroughs, not near-market applied research which is better done in industry, he told us. So as far as I am concerned, the more pure science the better, as it will give us a stream of real ‘breakthrough’ innovations which we can then exploit, he added.

Further reading

Ederyn Williams
http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ventures/staff/

Warwick Ventures
http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ventures/

Royal Academy of Engineering
http://www.raeng.org.uk/

Warwick Effect Polymers
http://www.warwickeffectpolymers.co.uk/

Photox
http://www.photox.co.uk/

Suggested searches

Technology transfer
UK science policy

Ancient storms

A Chinese library is an unlikely place to go looking for catastrophic hurricanes, but a US geography professor reckons that he can unearth ancient storms by trawling the archives of China dating back to the time of the Song Dynasty.

Kam-biu Liu of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge made the news two years ago when his work on core samples from coastal lakes and shorelines revealed that catastrophic hurricanes hit the US Gulf Coast every three centuries or so. Now, he is getting to the core of archaic weather via a different route.

Kam-biu Liu

Kam-biu Liu

Liu’s previous work involved carbon-dating coastal core samples to find out when prehistoric storm surges washed sand into the lakes. His detailed studies of cores dating back five millennia have given birth to a new field of science – paleotempestology – the study of past tropical cyclone activities using geological methods.

But, historical records from Guangdong Province on the southeastern coast of China, have now revealed details of some 1,133 typhoons that led to serious loss of life and property in this area. Liu has spotted clusters of very powerful storms happening in a fifty-year cycle in this region. The period studied spans 1,025 years beginning in 975 AD, and, according to Liu is the longest documentary record of tropical cyclone activity ever compiled.

First Song Emperor Taizu

First Song Emperor Taizu

The significance of the discovery that major tropical cyclone activity occurs every fifty years has not been lost on the Chinese government. Guangdong Province is now one of the most rapidly expanding economic regions in China and its long and exposed coastline makes it highly vulnerable to catastrophic storm surges and coastal flooding. Some 158 cyclones blasted Guangdong between 1949 and 1988, with thirty-three of those gusting at wind speeds above 73 mph making them typhoons. If a typhoon the strength of Hurricane Camille were to hit Guangdong Province today, the destruction and possible loss of life would be immense, Liu suggests, The logical question to ask is, what is causing these cycles?

Super Typhoon Winnie (1997) approaching China

Super Typhoon Winnie (1997) approaching China

The answer could lie in Chinese dynastic histories. In North America the record is very short, Liu explains, Even after Columbus it’s very sketchy for the first hundred years. And the Gulf Coast has virtually nothing before the 17th century. Contrast the American records with the meticulous historical records kept as an official history by each dynasty over the last three millennia. These dynastic histories carry with them details of natural disasters, including typhoons.

1997’s Typhoon Chebi

1997’s Typhoon Chebi

Studying in Hong Kong and Beijing libraries Liu and his team have worked their way through hundreds of records highlighting entries such as the following from the Zhenhai County Gazette: In the sixth lunar month of the sixth year of the Emperor Chongzhen (1633 AD), a typhoon struck. Torrential rain fell for ten days. Houses collapsed. Naval battleships were drifting in the sea; eight or nine out of ten were destroyed, drowning numerous soldiers. Since the first year of Chongzhen there was no year without typhoon strikes. The damage was especially serious this year. It was widely believed the culprit was a mischievous dragon.

Liu and his team checked the reliability of the historical record by comparing it with a 26-year period, from 1884 to 1909, when the historical record overlapped with instrumental observations. The historical record, it seems, under-reported the number of tropical cyclones. But, the under-reporting is much smaller if only typhoons are counted. Liu points out that the year-by-year accounts in these Chinese records are far more accurate than any sedimentary core research. The sedimentary records are accurate only to between 100 and 200 years. They can reveal the major storm cycles, but the historical record is essentially at a much higher resolution and shows annual activity within these major cycles.

Researchers believe that a colder climate and a lower sea surface temperature are at the root of reduced hurricane activity and intensity. However, a peak in landfall activity occurred between 1660 and 1680, which was the coldest and driest period the Northern Hemisphere had experienced over the last 500 years. Liu conjectures that climatic changes merely shift the path of tropical cyclones further south so that they cause more landfalls in Guangdong Province. But, in order to find out what causes storms to follow their cycles, Liu and his colleagues are working their way through library records along the coast of China, and plan to branch out into the historical records of Japan and the Philippines. Integrating the historical data will help us understand the climatological mechanisms that control these activities, Liu explains. Once we understand those, it will help us predict these storms.

One clue to the storm cycles that can be revealed by a modern scientific approach is that the periods of greatest storm activity and typhoon landfalls occur when there is very little sunspot activity. Indeed, such a period occurred between 1660 and 1680, which was marked by very low sunspot activity. The relationship between sunspot activity and earth’s climate is still very unclear, but revelations in Chinese dynastic history could play a role in finding new answers to the ancient problem of predicting seriously stormy weather.

Further reading

Kam-biu Liu
http://www.ga.lsu.edu/liu.htm

Suggested searches

Paleotempestology
Hurricanes
Climatology

Sparks fly no more

One of the world’s biggest van de Graaff electrostatic accelerators is to be shut down amidst protests from European nuclear physicists. The two-million-volt Vivitron facility in Strasbourg, France, is set to close even though researchers point out that the successor to this technology is yet to be built.

France’s National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics made the decision to close the Vivitron purely for financial reasons. According to a report in the journal Nature, the move to close the facility will drive some exotic nuclear researchers out of the field for good.

The Vivitron facility

The Vivitron facility

The fundamental physics of exotic nuclei, those atomic nuclei whose proton and neutron counts are wildly different from the more common stable nuclei, is a highly energetic research field worldwide. There are, however, many unanswered questions in the field about how protons and neutrons interact that continue to challenge nuclear physicists. Research at the Vivitron facility into exotic nuclei has been at the heart of understanding everything from the stellar synthesis of the chemical elements to our fundamental models of the universe and the forces that hold it together.

Two technical hiccups in the 1990s saw the facility shut down temporarily in 1991 and 1995. The first incident followed pollution with hydrofluoric acid accidentally produced in the sulphur hexafluoride gas drying towers, which led to a 12 month closure. The second involved problems with the suppliers of a new rubber-coated fabric belt which closed the facility for eight months. Despite these setbacks, the Vivitron continued to spark scientific interest.

However, there has been a move away from accelerators of this kind in recent years to carrying out exotic nuclear research with radioactive ions. Marielle Chartier, on leave from the University of Bordeaux, is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool, began an EPSRC Advanced Fellowship in October 2001, and is at the forefront of radioactive beam research.

The predictive power of nuclear models developed for stable nuclei will be greatly improved by extending mass measurements to the most exotic nuclei, explains Chartier. It is radioactive ion beams that are thought to be the best bet for generating the essential data for understanding nuclear physics but facilities based on this concept are still in their infancy or, more to the point, yet to be built.

There are hundreds of Vivitron users outside France who, according to Nature, are planning to challenge the closure. One point of contention is that there are many PhD students working on projects that rely on data from the facility.

Further reading

Suggested searches

Exotic nuclei
Radioactive ion beams
Particle accelerators
van de Graaff electrostatic accelerators