RCUK and big data

Big data is a term for a collection of datasets so large and complex that it is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage, and analyse them. ‘Big’ is not defined as being larger than a certain number of ‘bytes’ because as technology advances over time, the size of datasets that qualify as big data will also increase. Research Council funded research over the decades has not only improved the software which analyses the data but has also enabled mass datasets to be captured which helps us understand and interpret our society and world around us.

From the fastest computers being built in the 1960s by Research Council funded researchers at Manchester University that could store both data and programmes, to the Rutherford Appleton lab Tier-I Grid computing service which sustains record breaking data transfer to CERN, UK researchers have been at the heart of technological developments to sustain and enable big data to develop.

Big data has played an essential part of understanding our society and the world around us. From the 1970s Research Council funded researchers have been using cohort studies to collect data on births and families. The British Cohort Study showed that assessments of school-aged children suggest that their development is not affected by whether or not their mother worked during their first year of life.

Over time the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) and then Research Councils’ Millennium Cohort Study have provided a vast amount of data over the years which have assisted scientists across the world with research into health and social problems. More recently, Research Council funded researchers for the Understanding Society project have provided approximately three billion data points of information, and the 2014 Life Study, the UK’s largest national birth cohort study so far will gather data on 100,000 babies born in the UK – all of which will help to inform policy-makers policymakers and governments in the years to come.

The UK’s Research Councils have played a vital role in the development of big data – and this in turn has had a significant impact on placing the UK as a world leading authority in many areas. From understanding our environment, where the first map of ice thickness was published by the British Antarctic Survey which reduced the global estimates on freshwater by 10 per cent, to enhancing our technology so research into genetic advancements can be made, researchers funded by the Research Councils have played a significant role in worldwide advancements, and will likely do so for years to come.

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