Weighty ambitions

The EPSRC's new strategy intends to strengthen research to attract extra funding in future, explains David Delpy

November 24, 2011

The UK has an enviable reputation for research. By many measures of quality we are second only to the US, and in terms of productivity - such as citations per pound invested - we are ahead.

However, the world is changing: international competition is intense, and given the investment plans of countries such as China and India, it is certain to increase. In addition, the effects of inflation will reduce available research funding for the next few years at least.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's strategic plan, which includes the goal of "shaping capability", aims to ensure that we maintain our global reputation. It recognises that if we are to continue to excel in areas of strength, we must take a more strategic approach in deciding the levels of investment we make in the research areas we support.

This brings two broad changes to the way we work. First, we have classified our portfolio into 111 research areas, and we are clearly and transparently signalling the ones we wish to "grow", "maintain" or "reduce", relative to other areas. This is based on their quality and importance and the existing capability being supported.

This process involves engagement with the research community through learned societies, industry and leading research universities and researchers. Once we have synthesised the input and evidence, we work with our strategic advisory teams, comprising senior academics and industrial researchers, to test and confirm our thinking.

Shaping capability will define the course ahead, but it will not set budgetary absolutes. We are not going to cease funding any of the research areas we have identified. We will maintain a core capability across engineering and the physical sciences and a capacity to respond quickly to emerging areas. We will always be open to receiving and funding truly transformative or ground-breaking proposals in any research area.

Secondly, peer review will undergo some change in order to underpin shaping capability, with the first step being the introduction of "national importance" as a criterion. Research excellence has always been the principal criterion for deciding priorities and our new approach will build on that. Excellence is a given and remains pre-eminent.

What we are referring to is the national importance of the proposed project to the UK over the next 10 to 50 years in relation to other work in that area. We consider the potential impact of a research area on the current or future success of the UK economy; whether it has been identified as something that will enable the development of key emerging industries; whether it makes a clear contribution to meeting key societal challenges facing the country; and whether it is vital to the health of other research disciplines.

Some have asked if these changes could diminish blue-sky research and/or weight decisions in favour of applied research. We do not believe that and it is certainly not the intention. Similar thoughts were expressed when we asked researchers to think about "Pathways to Impact", but feedback from our peer review panels indicates that it has not affected the level of transformative research we have funded. We expect a similar result with the introduction of national importance as a criterion.

Researchers are used to providing evidence of national importance, as well as excellence, in applications. In many ways, what we are now asking for merely formalises that practice. Of course, proposals will continue to be assessed through peer review. We have published guidance on national importance and we will continue to develop materials as panels and reviewers assess importance.

We are committed to ensuring that the UK continues to have an enviable research reputation, punching above its weight in quality, and maximising the societal and economic benefits of what we invest in. By working in partnership, focusing primarily on excellence but also on national importance, we believe these ambitions are achievable.

Remaining focused on realising these ambitions will place the research community in a favourable position to make the case for increased government funding in the future.

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