3.2.2 Realising excellence in people

To be productive and competitive, the UK needs a diverse workforce with the right skills. Moreover, as it aspires to deliver an ambitious Industrial Strategy and increase investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP, a major expansion in people with research and innovation training and experience is needed. This comes at a time of a widening skills gap in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector, with companies struggling to recruit people able to lead and deliver innovation, particularly in rapidly expanding areas such as AI and data science.

We support around 9,000 doctoral students through three distinct routes: Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) with universities across the breadth of discovery research; Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), which develop students as part of a multidisciplinary cohort, often working with business and other partners; and Industrial CASE awards, where businesses select university partners and projects. We also support over 6,000 post-doctoral researchers. All these people are key to the research landscape and have huge potential to engage more in innovation across academia and business.

Long-term ambitions

We will maximise people's contribution to UK success in research and innovation and enhance the career development and mobility of postdoctoral researchers, so they have the experience to apply their skills across sectors. Our long-term aspiration is to ensure that:

  • those we support have an excellent appreciation of the context in which research and innovation operates, including responsible innovation, research integrity, cross-sectoral working, equality, diversity and inclusion and of alternative career paths that build on engineering and physical science skills
  • our researchers should have the opportunity to be trained at the interface of science, engineering, technology and finance so they can move seamlessly across research and business sectors. Success will be reflected in the UK research base commercialising its research far more effectively
  • the role of outstanding leaders, teams and contributors who deliver UK research and innovation is valued and supported. In particular, the essential contribution of technical and software experts should be recognised by establishing funding mechanisms to support their career progression.

Near-term actions

In 2019-20 we will:

  • work with UKRI partners to deliver the UKRI's cross-cutting Talent and Skills agenda, with the initial focus on delivering Innovation Scholarships which include opportunities for researchers to work across the university and business sectors
  • review our support for post-doctoral researchers in light of the recommendations of the review of the Concordat for researchers (PDF) and our work on the role of people in innovation
  • work with UKRI to improve the quality of data and analysis to understand the outcomes of supporting people at different career stages, focusing on post-doctoral research assistants (PDRAs) and technical support staff
  • evaluate the introduction of our New Investigator Awards, two years after their introduction, to understand and clarify their impact and their future role in supporting the development of our early-career researchers
  • to aid rapid expansion in doctoral student numbers and greater industry engagement:
  • invest £180 million in the DTP for students starting in October 2020 and 2021
  • invest £17 million in Industrial CASE studentships starting in 2020 (see Section 3.2.4)
  • review current investments, such as CDTs, DTPs, Industrial CASE awards, NPIF studentships and innovation placements, to support development of a skilled workforce contributing to the 2.4% aspiration
  • develop an action plan to benchmark and improve the profile of our 'responsible innovation' approach and ensure greater usage by the researchers we fund. Increase training in responsible innovation for future researchers through CDTs.

Case study

Talented PhD students drive research and innovation

We support almost a third of the UK's engineering and physical sciences PhD students, with 40% of our doctoral graduates going on to work in the private sector. Their contribution to UK innovation and growth is extensive and varied. For example, students from the EPSRC Scottish CDT in Condensed Matter Physics are developing skills in organic semiconductors that are being used in everything from solar cells, TVs and smartphones to healthcare and sensing. The EPSRC CDT in Industrial Functional Coatings at the University of Swansea, meanwhile, is developing skilled researchers in areas such as resource recovery of precious metals from laptops, tablets, mobile phones and other waste electronic devices; the Welsh Government has used knowledge and expertise at the CDT to inform its policy on the circular economy. A significant number of spinouts have also arisen from the work of the PhD students we fund. For instance, digital animation company NaturalMotion is commercialising work on computer simulations of nervous systems. The result, Dynamic Motion Synthesis, has been used in Hollywood films and, in 2014, gaming giant Zynga acquired the company for £320 million.