EPSRC sets out to spark results in new priority areas

Key themes are application of nanoscience, IT and next-generation healthcare, writes Zoe Corbyn.

January 24, 2008

Academics pursuing research in the digital economy, nanoscience or next-generation healthcare could be in for a rewarding three years.

This is because these areas have been identified as new priorities by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which has the largest overall budget of all seven UK research councils.

"These are the three big new themes ... (but) they have grown out of base areas we have been working on for a long time," said Catherine Coates, the EPSRC's director of planning and communication. She said the council had been advised by panels that include users.

The council's new delivery plan, which covers the period 2008-09 to 2010-11, earmarks £39 million in funding for the digital economy, £16 million for nanoscience through engineering to application and £12 million for next-generation healthcare.

Funding ramps up in the later years of the period, and Ms Coates said the council envisaged it continuing well beyond the period of the plan. "We would not want researchers to think this is a three-year flash in the pan," she said.

The new priorities will sit along- side the old favourite of energy research, where the EPSRC will work with the recently established Energy Technologies Institute. About £21 million, from a £240 million budget, will be invested in this area.

The council will also join other research councils in contributing to programmes on ageing; living with environmental change; and global threats to security.

The idea behind the digital economy theme is to look at how information and communications technology could transform industry, particularly transport, healthcare and the creative industries.

"We want to look at it from the application end and identify the basic challenges ... and what is needed to transform these industries," Ms Coates said. Calls for research proposals are expected to be developed in the next few months.

As with the digital economy, the EPSRC's focus in nanoscience will be strongly on end use.

"It is trying to get really excellent nanoscience pulling through to application," said Ms Coates, who defined the approach as one of "grand challenges".

One call on nanotechnology for renewable energies has been issued, and closed in November, but a second £5 million call on nano- technology for healthcare will be issued in mid-2008. The council has just announced a consultation to obtain input from researchers.

Next-generation healthcare is designed to recognise what Ms Coates described as the "essential nature of engineering, physical sciences and IT in the healthcare arena".

"There is a limit to what the EPSRC can do on its own, so we are looking to work with partners such as the Medical Research Council, charities and others to make sure that the unique part we can play gets properly embedded in bigger programmes," Ms Coates said. Calls for proposals, when they are issued later this year, will come jointly.

In terms of the three new areas, Ms Coates said there would be a "slight reduction" in the amount of money available for pure responsive-mode funding, where academics pitch a research idea in a field of their own choosing.

Although the Government is increasing the EPSRC budget by 18.6 per cent in cash terms over the next three years, Ms Coates said, the additional money was intended partly to go towards funding research infrastructure costs rather than increasing research volume; therefore, some responsive-mode funding would be diverted.

However, she said that there would still be plenty of flexibility within the target areas for "sparky, innovative ideas".

"The areas have a broad objective that the EPSRC has defined, but it is responsive in that we don't know what the right research is to achieve the objective, so we are very much wanting to look at speculative opportunities. It will be blue-skies within the priority (areas)," she said.

Ms Coates also said the EPRSC would be encouraging its researchers to think more boldly and ambitiously than in the past.

"We would like people to be thinking about more 'transformational research'," she said, adding that it was what others might call "high risk, and potentially high return ... We want people to come forward with things that might not work, but which, if they did work, would really make a difference."

She added that this approach might lead to longer, larger programmes. "If people have a big idea and want to tackle it using a bigger than normal longer programme - or consolidate what they are doing - we would be very happy to consider that," Ms Coates said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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