Investing in meeting of minds

The EPSRC will devote £8m to enquiry spanning the physics-life sciences divide. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 17, 2008

It is a problem research funders know only too well: some of the most exciting discoveries to be made are on the boundaries between disciplines; yet the true potential of cutting-edge proposals may not be recognised when subjected to the judgment of peer reviewers.

Peer reviewers, caught within the traditional confines of their subjects, can be inherently poor assessors of interdisciplinary research. Proposals in a new area without an established track record can suffer a similar fate at their hands.

To help overcome the problem, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council uses a tool it calls "signposting", which highlights the areas for special attention.

At the beginning of this month the EPSRC added the "physics-life sciences interface" research theme to its list of blue-skies signposts. It is promising up to £8 million towards the area, depending on the quality of proposals submitted.

"(The signposts) enable the introduction of strategy into our responsive-mode funding (open to researchers to bid into at any time for curiosity-driven research)," said Kedar Pandya, the head of cross-disciplinary research at the EPSRC. "It is a small intervention to provide a framework ... it says this is an emerging area or a priority area that we would like to see proposals in."

The interaction between physics and life sciences is not the only area to be newly signposted. "Synthetic biology" and "water engineering" have also just been added on the engineering side of the EPSRC's portfolio and "microelectronics design" is set to follow in May. Unlike the physics-life sciences interface, no specific funding has been earmarked, although the EPSRC anticipates that roughly up to 10 per cent of its research engineering budget will be spent on them.

The signposts, which the EPSRC stresses are not calls for research proposals, change the way responsive-mode peer-review panels assess proposals. Rather than being treated by panels like any other curiosity-driven research proposals, those that the EPSRC considers to fall within the signposted areas are put on a separate list. Extra experts are then drafted in to help panels with the assessments.

The idea is not to keep signposts open for ever, but for enough time to build up the capacity in the field, with closing dates for the new signposts yet to be set. "If you think about a measure of success you should be able to close the signpost and retain a vibrant research community that is able to access responsive-mode funds without their need," Dr Pandya said.

The two physics signposts that the EPSRC has had open since April 2007, when the idea was first introduced, are in "plasmonics" and "quantum coherence". They remain open until the end of June and thus far five grants totalling £2.5 million have been awarded.

The physics-life sciences interface is intended both to increase the volume of high-quality interdisciplinary research proposals that cross the boundary between physics and life sciences and to help bridge cultural and language differences between the two communities, which is an issue hampering interaction, according to Dr Pandya.

The area covers everything from the design of instruments to improve healthcare to the application of physics to understanding biological processes. Examples include using light beams to manipulate stem cells, light therapy to treat cancer and the development of devices to track sea mammal migration.

The theme was added, explained Dr Pandya, following a consultation with researchers that identified a lack of vibrancy in the EPSRC portfolio. "We spoke to our advisory teams who said there is excitement at this interface and that possibly the EPSRC's portfolio isn't as strong as it should be," Dr Pandya said. He added that proposals would need to demonstrate "substantial" collaboration across the disciplines and that "longer, larger and more ambitious grants" were preferred, in line with the strategic direction of the EPSRC.

Two researchers working at the interface are Miles Padgett, from the University of Glasgow, and Kishan Dholakia, from the University of St Andrews. Both advised the EPSRC and are delighted with the outcome.

"The danger with these things is that they fall through the cracks. In the same way that you can't find researchers working in both aspects of the field, you can't find a referee that can judge both aspects either," explained Professor Padgett.

"Signposting means the community is more amenable to receiving these types of proposals," Professor Dholakia said.

Both said they hoped it will help physicists, who have tended to stay out of the field for fear of being regarded as mere technicians, to become more adventurous and enthuse young researchers, who are excited by the interdisciplinary field. "It is not just a supporting role, it is an enabling role," Professor Padgett stressed.

- For further information on the physics-life sciences signposts, see

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