Our science strategy

This new Delivery Plan builds on a successful record of investment in the UK engineering and physical sciences (EPS) research base. Research Excellence Framework (REF) Impact Case Studies show that we have realised demonstrable benefits in:

  • Excellent research
  • Impacts beyond EPS
  • Impacts on the economy
  • Impacts on the public sector / policy
  • Environmental / social advances
  • Skilled people / leadership.

Investment priorities

Building on those foundations, we have developed an outcomes-focused approach to drive our Delivery Plan. The four Prosperity Outcomes represent what we expect our investments to deliver on behalf of the UK:

  • Productive nation
  • Connected nation
  • Resilient nation
  • Healthy nation

Read more about the Prosperity outcomes.

Protecting the UK's long-term capability

A core strength of EPSRC's operation is our flexible investment in research activity which enhances the UK's academic capability. We will maintain a programme of long-term, excellent research where the emphasis is on 'bottom-up' investigator-led ideas, including community-generated challenges. Comprising around 60% of our total research portfolio, this investment is essential for the UK to compete in a globally competitive environment now and in the future. The longer term results from this will support all our Delivery Plan aspirations, including the Prosperity Outcomes. REF Impact Case Studies show that real-world benefits often emerge over a twenty-year timeframe; consideration of the appropriate 'pathway to impact' will therefore remain a priority.

However, investment choices are necessary in order to deploy public funds wisely. Our Balancing Capability strategy, set out in our Strategic Plan, is our means of determining priorities at the research area level. By articulating and signalling evidence-based trajectories for each area, we will make appropriate levels of investment, in line with UK strengths and needs, and taking account of existing capacities. Our peer review processes have been adapted to support this, and our advisory structures help us to monitor the portfolio and identify corrective action.

In this Delivery Plan, we will

  • Continue prioritising at the research area level
  • Incorporate the wider context into our research area rationales e.g. government strategies, non-EPSRC funding, international strategies
  • Articulate EPSRC's ambitions in relation to the Prosperity Outcomes so that the community can identify where they can contribute
  • Through partnerships, align our strategic directions with others, shape research programmes, and accelerate the impact of our investments by connecting discovery to scale-up
  • Incorporate the training landscape into our research area strategies
  • Give a stronger voice to businesses by engaging them in our strategy development as part of ‘national importance’
  • Identify synergies within our current portfolio to ensure we obtain the best outputs from our investments
  • Champion long term, integrated programmes which encourage the UK community to work coherently in support of outcomes and which are responsive to needs and challenges as they arise
  • Develop people approaches which encourage agility and resilience in the portfolio

Expected outcomes – by the end of the Delivery Plan we will have

  • Adjusted set of research area trajectories
  • Greater contextual alignment of Balancing Capability methodology other stakeholders / perspectives including university strategies and business

Supporting interdisciplinary research

The UK Research Councils are recognised internationally as leaders and innovators in supporting interdisciplinary research. Many other funders look to us for best practice. At any one time, more than 50% of Research Council grant portfolios are interdisciplinary.

We have a strong track record of co-facilitating and co-funding interdisciplinary research, innovation and PhD training – through individual Council investments and through multi-agency 'grand challenge' programmes. We are agile in responding to emerging UK needs and new partnership opportunities.

We will now use our experience and convening power to help design and implement the new, multi-agency Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), working with BIS to develop a consistent approach to GCRF and to maximise the fund's impact in meeting combined UK aid and research goals. Within our own budgets, Research Councils will continue working together to address complex UK and global challenges that require interdisciplinary approaches, such as Energy, Digital Economy, Technology Touching Life, Data for Discovery, and Urban Living.

Investing in highly skilled, numerate individuals

EPSRC delivers the highly skilled people the UK economy needs. The people we train are the next generation of UK leaders in business, research organisations and elsewhere. The highly skilled, numerate people we deliver take with them into the economy the skills and know-how needed to produce the new technologies, products and services which create jobs and enhance productivity. They also have the absorptive capacity to use knowledge and technologies which may have been developed elsewhere.

Our Building Leadership strategy recognises that it is inspirational scientists and engineers who lead excellent research and maximise its impact for the economy. We will invest in and nurture the most promising and skilled researchers and innovators, enabling them to maximise their contribution within universities, business and other organisations to a prosperous nation.

In this Delivery Plan, we will

  • Increase diversity in our portfolio and governance structures
  • Identify new ways of encouraging innovation through people, including exploring the use of role models, the role of postdoctoral researchers, mobility, and the environments which encourage innovation
  • Support a balanced portfolio of routes to doctoral training
  • Develop an active approach to the management of early career researchers
  • Explore approaches for postdoctoral career development
  • Promote adventure and creativity in our portfolio
  • Develop research leadership skills for the most promising researchers

Expected outcomes – by the end of the Delivery Plan we will have

  • Greater diversity in our research community and policy structures, drawing on the full talent pool
  • An enhanced approach to early career development
  • Better ways of encouraging innovation through people

A key part of our investment in individuals focuses on postgraduate skills for the wider economy, industry, government, the third sector and research organisations. However, students themselves also deliver excellent world class research and impact, both through completion of their doctoral research projects and through collaboration on their research training and their subsequent employment. Around 35% of EPSRC funded students go directly into careers in business following their doctoral qualification.

We support three distinct approaches to training:

  • Cohort-based training (Centres for Doctoral Training - CDTs) which focus on specific topics and produce well-rounded doctoral students with an emphasis on skill-sets for the modern economy, as well as research skills. All have collaborating partners which help to shape the research and training and ensure the centres have ongoing relevance and further financial support.
  • Direct, flexible allocations to universities (Doctoral Training Partnerships - DTPs) which enable universities to be strategic in their investments in doctoral students and respond flexibly to emerging priorities and opportunities for leveraging additional funds;
  • Training which takes place in collaboration with business with business-initiated projects (Industrial Case).

Investing to ensure that national funding has real impact

It is not enough simply to make investments in world-leading research and training. Our role is also to ensure that those investments have as much impact as possible for society and for the economy. We take action to make it more likely that impact will arise, that it will rise more quickly, and that benefits accrue to the nation.

Our Accelerating Impact strategy sets out our plans in this area. We will ensure that the resources researchers need to achieve maximum impact are embedded within our standard investments via the 'Pathways to Impact' element. Note that this includes our commitment to Public Engagement. However, we also recognise the case for non-embedded, bespoke investment which enables universities to respond rapidly as exploitation opportunities arise from their portfolio of EPSRC-funded research. These direct investments in support of enhanced impact are supplemented by our commitment to responsible innovation and to effective data tools for users to access the outputs from our investment.

In this Delivery Plan, we will

  • Sustain the Impact Acceleration Accounts as a complement to the embedded Pathways to Impact approach
  • Work with Innovate UK and other funders to align or co-fund and develop joint approaches in key areas, as in Quantum Technologies
  • Enable more and deeper connections between EPSRC investments and the Catapult Centre network
  • Further develop tools to share our portfolio and its outcomes with users
  • Identify new ways of encouraging innovation through people, including incentives for agility and thought leadership

Expected outcomes – by the end of the Delivery Plan we will have

  • A rich variety of deliverables both from our Pathways to Impact investments on grants and from our Impact Acceleration Accounts
  • Increased, and deeper, interactions between EPSRC investments and the network of Catapults Centres
  • Simplified support for the innovation system working with Innovate UK, other Research Councils and other key organisations

As well as delivering excellent, world-class research and highly-skilled people for the economy, it is crucial that those investments translate into new technologies, new products and services which can generate business creation, new jobs, and resulting growth. Funding to support the translation of research knowledge and expertise provides the essential connectivity between the underpinning science base and the innovation activities that will deliver the societal, economic and policy impacts that will contribute to the UK’s prosperity.

Our analysis of REF Impact case studies shows that EPSRC’s investments have helped drive over £60 billion economic activity. Through its portfolio of funded programmes, EPSRC connects over 3000 companies to the research base, over 60% of which have been identified as SMEs. Our investments alongside the business sector – as cited in REF impact case studies – have realised an additional £1 billion of leverage on public funds. Funding for knowledge transfer activities capitalises on this success to secure and accelerate the realisation of the potential impacts from our research and training investments. The evidence from the REF Impact case studies show that 400 new businesses have been established to take our research to market. These firms employ some 50,000 people and have contributed an estimated £4 billion in revenue to the economy.

Investing in state-of-the-art infrastructure

The UK's international stature in research is founded in part on the availability of internationally competitive scientific infrastructure including world-class laboratories. For many areas of science, it is vital that both UK researchers and industry have access to the equipment which enables them to be at the forefront of scientific discoveries and pioneering innovation. The use of such infrastructure also helps develop the skills of the next generation of highly skilled individuals. We will invest in:

  • mid-range facilities (eg mass spectrometry, Electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy, X-ray Magnetic Scattering facilities), giving more than 5,000 researchers across the UK access to national, state of the art infrastructure, expertise and techniques that are core to EPSRC research priorities, providing an essential layer of capacity and capability, between lab-based equipment and the large national facilities
  • state-of-the-art equipment used by multiple users and multiple research projects
  • large-scale, strategic equipment the nation needs to enhance its research capability – with technology roadmaps used to identify future requirements
  • e-infrastructure (eg next generation high performance computing) which supports techniques such as modelling and simulation that are as important as physical experimentation, benefiting areas such as aerospace, climate modelling and security.

Enhancing equality and diversity

The long-term strength of the UK research base depends on harnessing all the available talent. As an investor in research, we are committed to attracting the best researchers from a diverse population into research and innovation careers. Unlocking this diverse talent increases our ability to achieve our ambitions in this Delivery Plan and beyond.

As part of UK Research and Innovation we produced a Statement of Expectations for Equality and Diversity and published Equality and Diversity data. In this Delivery Plan we will continue to take bold, transparent action, in partnership with others, to drive the diversity agenda. Working through UK Research and Innovation we will deliver the UK Research and Innovation action plan which has the objectives of:

  • Leading by example
  • Challenging bias and ensuring fair and inclusive funding processes
  • Leading and supporting change in our research community.

We are working towards an equality and diversity target to recruit under-represented groups (eg women and ethnic minorities) into strategic advisory positions (at least 40% by the under-represented gender for our Council and Strategic Advisory Network (SAN) and 30% female membership for our College and Strategic Advisory Teams (SATs) by 2020).

In this Delivery Plan, we will

  • Explore approaches for positive action to improve diversity, such as those highlighted in the recruitment of Strategic Advisory Network (SAN) members and the refresh of the Peer Review College membership, but also consider application to research funding
  • Develop an UK Research and Innovation Framework for partnership between Research Councils and their leading institutions
  • Implement institutional partnership awards in partnership with UK Research and Innovation building on our university dialogue campaign to consider successful interventions and identify opportunities for long term partnership working
  • Undertake a comprehensive investigation of our peer review processes and funding mechanisms to challenge bias and ensure they are fair and inclusive
  • Make revisions to our peer review and funding processes as informed by this investigation
  • Continue to publish studentship data, as well as research grant and fellowship success rates by gender, age and ethnicity (and by other protected characteristics where sufficient data is available)
  • Deliver an ambitious unconscious bias training programme for all our staff, peer reviewers and strategic decision makers, to raise awareness, ensure fair and inclusive funding processes and reduce the impact of bias

Expected outcomes – by the end of the Delivery Plan we will have

  • Improved diversity in strategic advisory positions and in the membership of peer review bodies
  • EPSRC, working in partnership with the research community will have contributed to changing cultures and practices to achieve, as part of a long term aspiration, increasing diversity in the research workforce
  • EPSRC is assured of the objectivity of its peer review and policy decision making processes, such that they are not influenced by gender, or any other protected characteristic
  • EPSRC has managed the impact of unintentional bias from its peer review processes, behaviours and culture

Driving an efficient research base

UK research is the most productive in the world. The Research Councils, including EPSRC, will continue to work with BIS, HEFCE, Universities UK and the HEI sector to promote collaboration and sharing of infrastructure, data assets and other resources to further raise efficiency and productivity across the sector. Using our expertise as funders of research and facilities, we will work with the sector to pioneer policies, incentives and performance measures for efficient sharing and utilisation of research assets.