UK universities that want to strengthen existing research collaborations with institutions in the US, China and India will be able to apply for £12 million in grant funding from the UK's seven research councils from next month.
Details of the Science Bridges awards are due to be issued in April, but Research Councils UK has released an "early warning" note to alert universities to the opportunity so that they can start planning.
The scheme aims to foster partnerships between research-intensive nations, explained Randal Richards, RCUK's chief executive for strategic delivery. "Research is now global, and the US, China and India are some of the most research-active countries in the world."
The awards are different from most council awards in that they are meant not for individual researchers but rather for institutions that already have "substantive" research links with US, Chinese or Indian partners, Professor Richards said.
The focus will be on applied research and innovation, he added. "The idea is to deepen and strengthen current institution-to-institution links ... We want to accelerate the deployment of research knowledge, enable the acquisition of new skills and encourage wealth creation between the partners."
The concept of Science Bridges is not new. It stems from 2005, when the Office of Science and Innovation, based in the Department of Trade and Industry, issued £6 million in awards to three institutions (Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Manchester) and the SETsquared partnership (a consortium of the universities of Bath, Bristol, Southampton and Surrey) to improve their existing links with specific universities in the US.
The decision to expand the scheme flows from a recommendation that Lord Sainsbury made when he was Science Minister.
"The Science Bridges scheme ... (has) helped develop entrepreneurial skills among researchers and supported commercial development of technology and expertise in spin-outs ... (and) should be extended to China and India, and to other key high-technology innovative countries," he concluded in The Race to the Top, his review of science and innovation released in October 2007.
The Comprehensive Spending Review earmarked £12 million for Science Bridges and, while Professor Richards acknowledges that the funding is relatively small, he is excited about expanding the Science Bridges concept. The plan is to split the money equally between activities with the US, China and India. Only one call for proposals is planned. Professor Richards said he thought about three projects per country would be funded. "It is going to be about that number ... any more and you reduce the impact."
Charging RCUK with expanding the concept makes sense, Professor Richards said, because it recently opened offices in the US, China and India, and those offices will manage the awards. "They know on the ground what is going on and who is doing what to whom and where and why," he said.
Partnerships in any field are eligible, and institutions' proposals could be "the norm rather than the exception", Professor Richards said. He added that unlike the pilot - in which particular institutions were approached to bid - this call would be open. "We haven't identified any institutions ... if they think they can cut the mustard, they should put forward proposals." The scheme is intended to be flexible. "Institution" could refer a collaboration of UK universities, and any company involvement would be welcomed.
Researchers who want to get involved should approach their institutions, he advised. "These are institution-to-institution links. If researchers think they have something they can add to a proposal, they need to get in touch with the right person in the university and get discussions and conversations going ... We are working towards getting full details out in April, if not sooner."
Nick Smailes, the director of SETsquared, sees much benefit in expanding the Science Bridges and is eagerly awaiting details of the call. In the project pilot, SETsquared received £1.5 million over two years to work with the University of California. The money was used to develop applied research collaborations between SETsquared academics and colleagues in California. It also contributed to a project to help UK start-up technology companies accelerate their development into the US.
To secure funding under the scheme, "We had to demonstrate that we had partners in the US, and we had to demonstrate that those partners were very willing to participate", Mr Smailes said. "Institutions can try to set up their own science bridge, or they can seek to partner with existing people like ourselves."