Answers to knotty problems

Millions are on offer for cross-subject complex-systems approaches to tackle urgent concerns. Neha Popat reports

April 9, 2009

Up to £10 million is on offer to ambitious academics who want to join forces and tackle some of the world's most pressing problems - from the prevailing economic crisis to future food supply, even war.

Under a call for proposals, titled "Complexity Science for the Real World", the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council wants to hear from academics who can turn the tools and techniques of complexity science towards solving such problems.

"The difference between complexity science and conventional science is that the whole notion of prediction has to be re-evaluated," said Jeffrey Johnson, professor of complexity science and design at The Open University. "In conventional science, you have various theories to (predict where) a system will be at a particular stage in the future. But in complex systems, the dynamics arise from the interaction of the agents in play."

Complex systems include cities, markets, ecosystems and information technology networks - systems with interacting parts that cannot easily be understood.

"For example, with human systems, it is generally not possible to make predictions about what will happen in the future because they are so complicated," Professor Johnson said.

Despite recent growth in the number of complex-systems science schemes, this is the first time funding has encouraged such projects to focus solely on social issues.

It is an area that Gavin Salisbury, senior cross-disciplinary interfaces manager at the EPSRC, considers vital to understanding modern living.

"We want to further the field of complexity science, but also confront the issues that aren't being tackled through other initiatives.

"It's about galvanising the community and building capacity in the UK to deal with emergent forms of behaviour. This is a chance for complexity science to generate useful answers to real-world problems," he said.

An eye on prevention

The programme will focus on three themes: catastrophe, risk, robustness and recovery; self-sustaining communities, including the sustainability of consumption and production; and demographics, including issues such as immigration and pensions.

Dr Salisbury said that studies into the recovery and future prevention of crises such as the current economic downturn could be one of the many areas of research that receive the funding.

"Our aim is to fund projects that will provide tools for these issues to be tackled. The areas that are in our remit are things such as interesting modelling techniques, computer science and the mathematics that underpins them.

"It is really about making a significant stride to develop the tools for these larger-level problems to be tackled," he said.

Although the scheme calls for proposals to be based on one or more of the three thematic areas, entry requirements have been kept intentionally broad to ensure that academic thinking is not restricted, Dr Salisbury added.

Professor Johnson said: "The world is more connected than ever before. It is very complicated and highly connected, and there is a very rapid transmission of effect from one place to another."

He said that it was especially important for collaborative research to be carried out to ensure progress in the field.

"Socio-technical systems encompass many areas, such as road traffic and transport systems, the production of food, even war. These all have many subsystems within them interacting ... and so far we don't have any really good science to understand how all that happens.

"It is imperative that we (make) a combined effort to correct this."

The programme is open to academics from all subject areas. However, projects involving researchers in the economic and social sciences will be looked upon favourably.

The bids must also focus on the development and application of novel complexity science tools.

It is expected that the successful proposals will not significantly overlap with previously funded research into complexity science and that three or four projects will be rewarded with financial backing, each receiving funding for up to six years.

"With funding on this scale, it is relatively long term and is therefore aiming to have an international impact," Dr Salisbury said.

An information session for potential applicants will be held on 28 April. However, interest should be registered with the EPSRC by 17 April at the latest.

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