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Interview: Anna Angus-Smyth on Assistive Sandpits

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Interview time!

I’ve been hearing a lot about the EPSRC Assistive, Adaptive and Rehabilitative Technologies Sandpit – a research event that is attempting to get rising stars of assistive technology all into the same place for a week in September to see what ideas spring up. More than one of you mailed in to tell me about it (largely, I suspect, because it sounds like a cross between TooManyCooks and the Hacker Model of Disability) so I got in contact with one of the organisers, Anna Angus-Smyth, to find out a little bit more about it.

JR: So I’ve had more people email the blog about this sandpit than any other issue (which I suspect says much more about my readers than anything else), it’s clearly been of interest to the assistive technology community. Did you know that there was such a broad range of interest and potential expertise when you put the call together or were you responding to the identified need? I guess the question really is: is this call because you recognised there were great people waiting to do work, or because you saw that there was great work that needed to be done?

AAS: I think the answer is a combination of the two, we think there are great people out there, and great clinical needs to be solved, but we rarely see new and innovative solutions in the form of research proposals. It seems that often researchers in this field are driven by clinical pull or by technological push, but it seems that there is a gap where the two could be joined together to give innovative research solutions to real clinical problems. A sandpit was motivated by the idea that we could bring together people who understood both sides in order to identify both real challenges where Engineers and Physical Scientists could make a difference, but also potential new and exciting solutions to these challenges.

JR: The call mentions that it’s trying “to engender a radical change in the research undertaken in this field”. Many of us agree that a radical change is needed – but we tend to disagree on the specifics of the new direction – does the ESPRC have a roadmap for how it sees researchers in this field fitting into the overall social or research context?

AAS: A sandpit by nature is an activity without a pre-defined outcome, the intention is to challenge researchers to think about new and exciting research which could meet social and medical needs. As a consequence, we have no prescriptive ‘roadmap’ to describe the outputs we expect. Saying that, we are funders of new engineering and physical sciences (within which which I also include ICT, maths, and manufacturing research) research, and hope that the sandpit will produce a range of novel technologies and ideas which are informed by the medical context, but not necessarily ready for clinical use.

In order to for the sandpit attendees to truly identify and think of new solutions to clinical challenges they will need to be a diverse group, who perhaps inherently do not have a common ‘roadmap’ for the field, and this will be one of the key challenges of the event. As a consequence, it is important that any applicant, regardless of their background is willing to come into this with an open mind, understanding that they may need to think differently, and consider different questions to those within their usual frame of reference. However, we hope that together the attendees will be able to begin to think about common goals for the future of research in this area, and to understand how researchers from different disciplines can come together to tackle key issues.

JR: Assistive technology is a many-headed beast, would you say you particularly welcome applications from the researchers who see themselves with soldering irons and arc-welders, the researchers who see themselves as designers with whiteboards and artistic insight or the researchers who ground themselves in relationship of people and technology?

I think the key to your question is that research funded by this sandpit will need to be predominantly in the EPSRC remit. This does not mean that we only want applications from those ‘with soldering irons and arc-welders’, we really need to have attendees who understand the clinical need along with the design and manufacturing challenges involved, as I think that without finding a way to integrate these elements and researchers we cannot truly take the step forward that this area needs. This is exactly the reason why a sandpit was chosen as a mechanism to fund new research in this field! I also think that your question about those with ‘soldering irons and arc-welders’ deliberately mis-portrays the work of many engineers who work in, or could contribute to this field! Instead we need to think about how we can integrate those who research at the technological frontiers of robotics control and electrical engineering, materials engineering, manufacturing processes, HCI, machine learning, biomechanics, and wider medical engineering with those who understand the contribution these fields can make in the fields of assistive, adaptive and rehabilitative technologies.


For those of you interested in applying, and I suggest you do, the deadline is: 5th June and the application site is here.

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