Research intelligence - When minds come together across the virtual 'sandpit'

£36 million is being offered to fund three new cross-discipline digital research 'hubs'. Chloe Stothart reports

September 25, 2008

The world has already been transformed by digital technologies, but there are still many more areas of life that could be revolutionised by these innovations.

So says the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which, with three other research councils, is in the middle of its £103-million Digital Economy Programme looking at areas of business and society that could benefit further from digital innovations. And the research programme is not aimed just at information technology experts, as the involvement of the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council and THE Arts and Humanities Research Council attests.

The programme is looking to distribute £36 million over five years to three "hubs" (£12 million per hub), which will bring together academics as diverse as social scientists, economists, business scholars, IT researchers and engineers to produce research that is "novel" and has the potential to transform business, society and the research community.

Some of the funding is dedicated to encouraging work between the hubs, and also between the researchers and the users of the technology. That money could be used to fund networking, public engagement and workshops known as "sandpits", where research proposals to tackle problems in particular industries are created and peer reviewed in a few days.

The hubs will be based at single universities, although some may draw in expertise from other institutions. The universities that secure an award to set up a hub will provide office space for the centre. The hub director is likely to be from the industry where the technology would be used, and other users will be part of the work from the outset. The hubs also have a full-time manager and research administrator.

John Hand, head of digital economy at the EPSRC, said the projects should start by understanding the needs of the users of technology. He said: "We don't want it to be about creating a widget and then finding a use for it; it is about how understanding user problems drives the research in a different direction. The intention is always that is will lead to new technologies, and the focus is on the impact, which has to be transformational, not just doing something we already do a bit more quickly."

A workshop in the summer set out the "big questions" the programme should address, including developing levels of security and privacy in the digital industry to build trust with users, the need to make advances in digital technology accessible to all and the need for collaboration between disciplines.

The deadline for applications, which should first be discussed with the EPSRC, is 26 November 2008, and the projects are due to begin in October 2009.

A smaller-scale version of the programme, which has been running since April, consists of 29 shorter research projects.

Norman Fenton, professor of computer science at Queen Mary, University of London, was one of several researchers funded to form a research "cluster" to explore which statistical and analytical tools could help doctors and medical researchers make better decisions.

For example, a computer program is being developed to show what disease outcomes are likely to be for patients. At present, this sort of support for clinicians does not exist, said Professor Fenton, but systems that make data more useable could help to improve medical decision-making.

"It helps them make better use of the data that is out there and gets it to them in a more comprehensible form," he added. The group, which also includes researchers from Leeds and Reading universities, is considering whether to apply to be a hub.

The Digital Economy Programme also includes up to £30 million for for up to five doctoral training centres (each worth between £5 million and £7 million), which will support ten students a year for five years. The students, who will remain in the centre for four years, will focus on their core subject but also link up with other disciplines.

"It is about working with social sciences, economists, psychologists," Mr Hand said. "We need a community of people who know how to work with these other disciplines." Some 13 proposals for doctoral centres are being considered, and the winners will be announced early next year.

A leadership fellowship is also on offer for academics who plan to be world leaders in their field in five years' time. It pays about £700,000, although this varies according to research costs. Applications for the fellowship close on 9 October.

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