EPSRC Strategic Advisory Body Recruitment: 2 Weeks Left To Apply!

EPSRC is recruiting applicants for its strategic advisory bodies from academia, industry and other stakeholders. There are vacancies for various career stages across the EPSRC themes of: Digital Economy, Energy, Engineering, Fusion, Healthcare Technologies, Information Communication Technologies, Manufacturing the Future, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Research Infrastructure. Applications are made by individuals on an online web form, and must be submitted by Friday 4th August, 4pm.


EPSRC Reviews Research Areas and Plans 2017/18 Calls

balance by Hans Splinter CC BY-ND 2.0
balance by Hans Splinter CC BY-ND 2.0
balance by Hans Splinter CC BY-ND 2.0

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has today published a review of its “Balancing Capability” strategy.

This follows “extensive engagement” with the research community and forms the basis of its portfolio over the next five years. It includes a review of the 111 individual research areas which span the entire remit of EPSRC funding as well as a useful plan of forthcoming calls in 2017/18.

Nine research areas have been marked as “reduce“, including Chemical structure, Complexity science, Fuel cell technology and Medical imaging. 12 areas have been marked as “grow“, including Biophysics and soft matter physics, Electrical motors and drives, Materials for energy applications, Robotics and Pervasive and ubiquitous computing. The remaining 90 areas are all “maintain“. For more on what the grow-maintain-reduce distinction means in practice, check out this useful blog post from October 2016 by Professor Tom Rodden, Deputy CEO at EPSRC.

The planned 2017/18 calls include several in the area of ICT: Trust, Identity, Privacy and Security 2.0 (planned for Q4 2017/18), Human-like Computing (Q3 2017/18), and Cross-Disciplinary and Co-Creationary ICT-led Research (Q4 2016/17). There are also a number of planned Healthcare Technologies calls and two Global Challenges Research Fund calls planned in Q4 2016/17 and Q1 2017/18, titles of which are yet to be announced.

The high level framework for EPSRC’s approach has already been set out in its Strategic Plan (2015) and, more recently, its Delivery Plan 2016/17 – 2019/20, which sets out four “prosperity outcomes” which will shape its funding decisions: Productive Nation, Healthy Nation, Resilient Nation, and Connected Nation. After his arrival in post in 2014, EPSRC Chief Executive Professor Philip Nelson was keen to prioritise engagement with the research community on shaping future research priorities, especially following criticism that his predecessor, David Delpy. had made decisions on funding strategy without properly consulting researchers.

Whether and to what extent this five-year plan will be strengthened, altered or made redundant once Sir Mark Walport takes the reins at UKRI (expected to be active from April 2018) is an open question. Nevertheless, in the short term at least this review provides a useful focus for universities and academics who are preparing grant applications to EPSRC or delivering EPSRC-funded research.


UK Government Consultation on Innovation Strategy- Air Your Views!

It seems to be consultation season lately, and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS for short) are joining the fun. While preparing the UK’s 2014 Science and Innovation Strategy, a consultation has been opened where parties with an interest in where funds for research are invested in the future are invited to share their views.

Consultations of this kind are a vital way of influencing policy, and where future funding for R+D will go. The consultation is here.  (And if your response isn’t polite don’t tell them I sent you!)


EPSRC Council Open Forum: Researchers Wanted!

Committee Rooms by National Assembly for Wales CC BY 2.0EPSRC has today re-opened registration for their Council Open Forum until 20th September.

This is a chance for members of the academic and business communities to:

  • hear from EPSRC Council members;
  • question them about EPSRC’s plans and policies; and
  • debate the issues important to both them and Council

Council members will also be running poster sessions on EPSRC’s Strategic Goals and the science and engineering sponsored, and will hold surgeries with attendees for less formal discussion. This is a great opportunity for any academic who has an interest in EPSRC funding to find out more about their priorities and how the Council works.

EPSRC is particularly keen to engage with active researchers, including early career researchers, and research users. The forum itself will take place on 15th October.


Research Councils in 2013, Part 1: Harmonisation, Demand Management and Early Career Researchers

This is part 1 of a 2-part series. I’ll post the second part tomorrow.

Polaris House, Swindon was the location of the latest joint ARMA (Association of Research Managers and Administrators) RCUK “Study Tour” which took place yesterday. We’ve been to these kinds of events before, but this was a little different. All previous Study Tours I’ve attended have been hosted by a single Research Council or funder, whereas this was a joint effort with representatives from all seven RCs, plus the “Shared Service Centre” – the back office for all RCs – and Je-S help desk. There was also a conscious attempt throughout most of the sessions to be more interactive, and the programme was pitched at “senior” research managers with a promise of greater discussion of policy and future strategic directions for RCs.

The key word was “harmonisation“: Peter Hollinswaite (Business Manager at MRC) set the tone by announcing that the RCs have now reached a more or less “stable state”, following a 2-3 year process during which they have moved to a single physical location and aligned pre- and post-award processes (all Councils now use Je-S, for example). However care was taken to distinguish harmonisation from ‘standardisation’. There was a recognition that different RCs serve different academic and user communities with distinct needs, so business models may differ – for example in the way they support postgraduate students, though even here there have been increasingly harmonised moves towards “block grant” models vs the old individual and project grant studentships across all the Councils.

The usual stats and numbers were rattled through first to give some context:

  • RCs processed 14,000 applications in 2012
  • There has been an increase in success rates from 18% to 26% across all schemes over the past 2 years
  • Demand has fallen 5% per annum over the past 2 years

Peter said that the next phase of cross-Council harmonisation would include: further simplification and rationalisation of funding schemes; a review of the process of peer review; scrutiny of terms and conditions and guidance to reduce confusion. As part of this process RCs will be carrying out surveys with various stakeholder groups, including research admin offices in universities.

The perennial topic of “Demand Management” was the focus of Gerald Owenson’s (BBSRC) discussion session. He outlined a number of measures, which he labelled ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’, introduced over the past few years which have led to the reduction in numbers of bids and consequent increase in success rates. Direct measures include:

  • Resubmissions are now generally not accepted by RCs unless invited (NERC is an exception – you can resubmit after 9 months)
  • Use of outline or preliminary stage applications has increased – the rationale is that outlines require less paperwork and so take less time for both applicant and RC to process. However, I’d argue that significant work goes on ‘behind the scenes’, particularly in terms of costing and partnership formation, which although not present in the submitted bid nevertheless take a significant amount of time
  • EPSRC has introduced individual researcher sanctions which limit repeatedly unsuccessful applicants to one bid per year. This has been controversial but has increased EPSRC success rates significantly, though other RCs have been reluctant to follow suit

Indirect demand management measures include:

  • Providing feedback to PI and Research Organisation (RO), including peer review and panel meeting comments. Peer review comments are not currently systematically returned to ROs, but Peter indicated this is set to change
  • Encouraging ROs to undertake internal assessment or peer review  of bids before submission, which most universities do to some extent
  • On this last point in particular, Gerald encouraged ROs to make use of their own internal staff resources, including the “insider knowledge” of people who are on RC peer review colleges and panels. I suggested to him later that it would be useful to offer opportunities for academics and research managers to sit in on RC panel meetings, in order to broaden experience. However he indicated this would be difficult due to limited space in the panel meeting rooms!

Kirsty Grainger and Avril Allman (both NERC) emphasised the importance of PhD studentships and Early Career Researchers to Research Council future plans. Of the annual UK output of 17400 PhDs, 5000 are RC-funded. For some Councils around 50% of funding is invested in PhDs. Increasingly measures to secure fitness for employment is seen as a key part of student training programmes. In addition all Councils now encourage interdisciplinary studentships, although there must be a lead Council. There was a suggestion that there may be specific joint-Council interdisciplinary calls for studentships in future.

Find out what the Research Councils and universities think about Je-S, as well as some insight on EPSRC and NERC priorities for 2013 in Part 2 tomorrow.


AHRC Wants Your Views on Draft Strategy “The Human World”

The AHRC is seeking comments on its recently published draft 5-year strategy, subtitled “The Human World” (presumably as a nod to its emphasis on international collaboration in arts and humanities within the strategy):

AHRC Strategy 2013-2018 draft published for comment

If you want to have your say you’ve got just under a month to fill in and submit their online survey (deadline: 8th November 2012).

In a nutshell: What are the key messages?

The strategy leads off with a series of “affirmations”, statements of intent for the AHRC over the next five years. Bear in mind that this is a strategy, so this is less operationally-focused than the delivery plan released last year. Nevertheless there are useful pointers to AHRC’s future priorities. Amongst the affirmations you’ll find commitments to:

  • “focus on excellence” and “build capacity through partnerships”;
  • support cross-disciplinary research addressing grand challenges (although they are careful not to use that term)
  • increase impact of arts and humanities research to stimulate economic and public benefit
  • enhance the global contribution and reputation of arts and humanities research by cooperating in international funding schemes

At the core of the strategy are six priorities which are unpack throughout the document, these are:

  1. Research: where it goes without saying the emphasis is on funding the best ideas, but also supporting larger, more collaborative projects.
  2. People: there is a threefold agenda here to support PGRs, early career researchers and enable leadership through fellowships and thematic projects
  3. Partnerships and Knowledge Exchange: this is a key part of the strategy and AHRC emphasise the fact that knowledge arises “between” different types of organisations, not just within universities
  4. International: another theme which comes across strongly with an emphasis on co-funding, an example of which can be seen in the recent HERA call
  5. Advocacy and Leadership: an interesting mixture of impact, partnerships and bringing together “dispersed information”
  6. Efficiency: responding to the challenging financial environment

Among the challenges and changes facing the arts and humanities, according to the strategy, is the need to bring researchers together in cross-disciplinary networks and multi-funder partnerships. This is highlighted as one response to the increasing breakdown between old disciplinary barriers, and to ensure that UK research can respond to complex problems and maintain its high status internationally.

There is a (re-)commitment to the 5 thematic areas which have been established over the last few years – Care for the Future, Digital Transformations, Science in Culture, Translating Cultures, and Connected Communities. This is reinforced by recent news that themed large research grants in these areas are now available in these areas.

Among disciplinary areas to be prioritised are: design, heritage, digital technology, and performing arts. These are seen as key areas where formation of partnerships with non-academic bodies can lead to greater impact on the economy and society.


NERC and AHRC seek advisory board members

Both NERC and the AHRC have issued calls for members of key advisory boards and groups:

NERC wants science and innovation advisors

NERC has announced it is looking for members of its Science and Innovation Strategy Board, which is the key source of advice to NERC Council on science and innovation matters. As a member of this board, you would help NERC shape its overall science strategy and advise Council on strategic priorities of funding initiatives as well as informing and advising on current and future directions in UK environment science.

You can either nominate yourself or someone else for membership, bearing in mind the profile and attributes which NERC expects of members of SISB. A list of current members is also available. The deadline for nominations is October 9th at 5pm.

AHRC wants members of a new Research Careers and Training advisory group

AHRC has announced it is establishing a new advisory group tasked to focus specifically on research careers and training within the arts and humanities. The terms of reference of the group include providing strategic advice on matters relating to postgraduates and researcher training, and advising on skills development needs and discipline health.

The AHRC are seeking members in the following areas:

  • Two senior academics who have a demonstrable interest in researcher development at PG level and beyond
  • Training lead for postgraduate and researcher development in a University or other research organisation.
  • Representatives of two non-academic organisations (preferably one public and one private sector), which might include independent consultants
  • Two student representatives
  • Two early career researcher (within 8 years of PhD, or 6 years of first academic appointment) representatives

Potential applicants have until the 5th October to nominate themselves using the application form [.doc].


Future Directions for Design Research: Initial Scoping Study Released

You may remember back in Spring this year the Design Council and AHRC jointly invited the design research community to comment on barriers and opportunities to funding and to highlight gaps in design research. This consultation has now concluded and an initial scoping study [PDF] has been produced outlining the key findings and suggesting possible future areas for research funding:

Design Council – Measuring the Value and Role of Design

The key messages in the report are:

  • An ‘open call’ approach to funding design research is generally favoured, ensuring that design remains at the centre of any multidisciplinary approach
  • Thematically, healthcare and service design were both seen as strong options for future calls, and indeed Design Council are currently leading a study on service design to conclude in November, for which there may be small amounts of funding available – contact Ruth Flood to find out more.
  • A range of funding mechanisms were suggested, allowing for both large and small grants, with a general trend towards ‘sand-pit’ collaborative development approaches
  • Working with business and policymakers is seen as important, but this cannot be the sole approach to research
  • Large-scale collaborative grants were seen to be the right approach for multidisciplinary research, but the importance of access to small grants was also emphasised
  • There was strong endorsement of AHRC and Design Council working closely together
  • Further research is needed to evidence the value of design to the economy and, in particular, innovation: designers, economists and business practitioners should collaborate on this
  • There are opportunities to put design at the centre of sustainability focused projects in science and business
  • Further academic research should be conducted to demonstrate the impact that improved environmental/urban design can have on human outcomes in health or broader well-being

The immediate next step is to carry out work on service design and anyone interested in encouraged to contact Ruth Flood (Ruth.Flood@madano.com) from Madano partnership – the consultancy which carried out the initial study.


New National Centre for University-Business Partnerships

HEFCE and the Council for Industry and Higher Eduction announced this week a new National Centre for Universities and Business. The centre, funded by HEFCE initially, aims to increase university-business collaborations in order to improve economic growth. According to the HEFCE announcement:

The centre will publish an annual ‘State of the relationship report’ which is intended to become the premier influence on policy development in the area of HE-business links. It will also conduct enquiries into major matters of HE and business interest. This will include examining the impact of the new student funding and fees regime on graduate recruitment and the longer-term business workforce. The Centre will be on hand to offer services to HE and business, such as good practice developments and support in establishing international links.

It’s unclear at this stage whether there will be any funding available for research-industry collaborations. We need to wait for a business plan to be developed by the steering group, which is due by autumn 2012. However, is it is likely to be linked closely the existing HEIF strand of funding already provided by HEFCE.


TSB: High Value Manufacturing Strategy Published

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has published its strategy for investing in the UK’s High Value Manufacturing sector:

High Value Manufacturing Strategy: 2012-2015

The HVM sector is a major contributor to the global and UK economies, however increasingly globalisation has led to a shift in the manufacturing base to countries with lower labour costs. The UK government seeks to increase its investment in high value manufacturing to ensure that the country reduces its dependence on the service sector. Sustainability in manufacturing will form a central part of the TSB’s approach.

In the strategy the TSB groups 22 key competencies in UK manufacturing into the following five themes (see pages 10-11 of the strategy document for full details):

  1. Resource efficiency: including energy generation and storage, lightweight vehicles, and synthetic biology;
  2. Manufacturing systems: including miniaturisation, systems modelling, and the human/machine interface;
  3. Materials integration: including smart materials, and development of advanced coatings;
  4. Manufacturing processes: including flexible, adaptive manufacture and additive manufacturing;
  5. Business models: including managing fragmented value chains, and developing new business models

There are potential opportunities here across a number of disciplines and research areas relevant to Northumbria University staff, including computing and engineering, design, life sciences, and business.

TSB investment in the strategy is expected to be in the region of £50M per year. A key part of this will be investment in the Catapult Centre (£25M/year) but the other half will be in process and product-related collaborative R&D projects available in the TSB’s competitions.