Robotics, free speech, health conditions and taxes explored by 2021 Future Leaders researchers

Seven UCL academics have been awarded UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships to accelerate their contribution to world-changing research and innovation.

They are among 97 of the most promising scientists and researchers in the UK identified for government funding this year to help them develop their ideas from the lab and lecture theatre to the market, creating workable solutions to major global problems.

A robotics project called ’Robohike’, led by Dr Dimitrios Kanoulas (UCL Computer Science), will look at navigating and hiking over rough land. It aims to give autonomous four-legged robots the ability to navigate through difficult terrain, including farmland, construction sites and natural disaster areas, where timing and safety are critical. Dr Kanoulas said:

" RoboHike aims to introduce novel high-level perception and learning approaches to model, identify, and map footholds for quadrupedal robots, to achieve fast, robust, and reliable navigation and hiking skills on challenging environments and terrains. The Fellowship focuses on the next-generation autonomous robotic systems in construction, agriculture, and damaged sites, where efficient navigation is required. We want to give quadrupeds the environment cognition needed in autonomising manual labour in hard or dangerous tasks. "

Dr Jeffrey Howard  (UCL Political Science) will lead a team studying the ethics of content moderation by social media platforms. These use both human moderators and artificial intelligence to reduce or remove many categories of harmful speech, from harassment to hate speech, and from manipulated movies to medical misinformation. Yet, platforms disagree on which rules are justified alongside a commitment to free expression, and policymakers disagree on how this practice should be legally regulated. Dr Howard said:

"Combining philosophical principles with insights from law, computer science, and social science, the project will explore these issues through a range of academic publications, policy reports, podcasts, and a curriculum promoting good online citizenship. In doing so, it will generate the philosophical guidance that companies, policymakers, and citizens need to combat harmful speech on social media. "

The sociality of tax - what taxes are and what they do - is the subject of the project led by Dr Miranda Sheild Johansson (UCL Anthropology). It  will investigate fiscal regimes in an anthropological fashion, exploring the types of social relations that paying and not paying tax produce, spanning multiple fieldsites, including neighbourhoods, workplaces, community groups, political interest groups and tax offices, and three fiscal systems-Bolivia, Sweden, and the UK. It will make clear the social consequences that fiscal regimes can have, such as creating relations of belonging and exclusion, cross-generational and community solidarity or antagonism, and producing popularly held beliefs about fairness, wealth creation and productivity.  Dr Sheild Johansson:

"My research explores how fiscal systems shape our relationships and identities, our ideas of who owes whom, and how history and culture in turn shapes tax action.  It will investigate fiscal regimes in an anthropological fashion, comparatively and cross-culturally: spanning multiple field sites in Bolivia, Sweden, and the UK. The aim is to re-shape academic and popular understandings of what taxes are and do - to  democratise fiscal conversations. "

Four of the Fellowships awarded to UCL this year relate to physical and mental health.

Dr Laura Pallett (UCL Infection & Immunity) will be leading research to help patients with liver disease:

"Since 2018, liver fibrosis and associated liver disease has been the leading cause of premature death in people aged 35-49. With limited treatment options, we need to understand urgently how the local immune response contributes to fibrosis initiation and development. My primary goal with this prestigious Fellowship is to investigate how a specialised population of immune cells known as liver-resident T cells ’talk’ to neighbouring cells and where this ’conversation’ goes wrong, in the hope of uncovering new targeted therapies to halt liver disease. "

Patients with sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis stand to benefit from work led by Dr Philip Pearce (UCL Mathematics), with the setting up of an interdisciplinary research group working at the interface of mathematics and biology:

"We will use mathematical modelling to investigate how molecules such as proteins aggregate or condense into larger structures that affect biological function in health and disease - common examples include stiff protein fibrils or fibres that are associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and sickle cell disease, and liquid-like droplets formed from viruses that are thought to protect bacteria from antibiotics.

"My team will validate our mathematical models through collaborations with experimental biologists from around the world. Our ultimate goal will be to provide concrete recommendations to healthcare professionals for the treatment of relevant diseases, such as sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis. This ambition will be made possible by the long-term, flexible and interdisciplinary nature of the Future Leaders Fellowship."

The project led by Dr Joseph Hayes (UCL Psychiatry) will focus on better outcomes for people with severe mental illness, allowing him to develop a team focused on pharmacoinformatics in this area using electronic health records from around the world.

"Improved treatments for conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are desperately needed. I will focus on two approaches to improving outcomes - medication personalisation and drug repurposing, both of which have shown early promise and have the potential to reduce illness burden and disability in this population. "

Dr Michael Bloomfield (UCL Psychiatry) will lead research investigating the mechanisms underlying psychosis associated with childhood trauma.

Each Fellowship lasts four to seven years with awardees receiving between £400,000 and £1.5 million over an initial four years. This enables researchers at universities and in business to progress their studies quickly by funding essential equipment and wages.

UKRI  Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said:

"I am delighted that  UKRI  is able to support the next generation of research and innovation leaders through our Future Leaders Fellowship programme. The new Fellows announced today will have the support and freedom they need to pursue their research and innovation ideas, delivering new knowledge and understanding and tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time."

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement), said:

"My warmest congratulations to our seven successful applicants. This is a great achievement that recognises their excellent work so far, and their potential as the research leaders of tomorrow. Recruiting and retaining the best academic talent is integral to UCL’s commitment to research excellence, and the diverse topics chosen by our new Future Leaders - from tax to mental illness, and robots to free speech - reflect the many ways our wider research community apply academic insights to a range of social challenges."


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