3.2.1 Promoting excellence in research

We will continue to invest in research in ways that are optimised to the specific researcher base and research outputs desired. As part of this strategy, we propose investing in the following three research funding delivery vehicles, which we believe will maintain and enhance the UK's ability to remain a world-leader in engineering and physical sciences research and the technologies derived from it. Prior to launching new calls, our overall funding landscape will be reviewed with a view to simplification, where possible:

  • New Horizons: This will comprise funding for researcher-led, high-risk discovery research focused on advancing knowledge and securing the pipeline of next-generation innovations. It will include funding for completely new ideas, which are essential to future-proof our research base, so it generates solutions to the as yet undefined problems confronting society
  • Centres of Excellence: This will comprise support for single- or multi-organisation activities building on a world-leading skills base that underpins existing and nascent technologies
  • Institutes: Support will focus on longer-term multi-organisation activities which take a nationally/internationally leading role in developing the research base and technologies derived from it.

By drawing together people, expertise and facilities from across institutional boundaries, our Centres of Excellence and Institutes will allow the UK to leverage and build world-leading research strengths, providing a national focus with international impact. The proposed introduction of a science, engineering and technology board (see Section 4) into the EPSRC Governance and Advisory Board Structure, evolving from our 'Big Ideas' initiative, will enable the EPSRC community to engage in the identification of candidate areas for these large-scale investments.

Long-term ambitions

Our long-term aspiration is to ensure that:

  • the UK is seen as a place where the brightest minds can access funding for entirely novel research ideas that deliver new insights and understanding and may open up new technology sectors. Success will be reflected in our ability to make high-profile hires and retain leading researchers in the UK
  • our Institutes and Centres of Excellence enhance the capability, volume, profile and visibility of our research base internationally. Success will be reflected in the international recognition of their research, the strength of their international links and levels of engagement with industry, business, government and the wider public
  • a wider range of businesses invest in new relationships with the research base to address the real-world problems they face and which allow them to explore fundamental research questions that impact on their future success in a safe space. Success will be reflected in the diversity of new partnerships formed with the business community
  • researchers and businesses across the country have been connected to local clusters to capture the full value from national infrastructure and build communities of practice.

Near-term actions

In 2019-20 we will:

  • challenge the engineering and physical sciences community to formulate high-risk discovery research proposals to deliver 'New Horizons' in the EPSRC landscape. Scope a pilot to invest up to £10 million in 2020-21
  • harnessing our partnerships with research organisations and industry, develop a pipeline of at least five thematic areas per year for future investment in Centres of Excellence and Institutes.
  • launch a second international centre-to-centre call for up to £15 million, to provide opportunities for leading UK research groups to work with the best international researchers.

Case study

The Alan Turing Institute

We established this institute in 2015 to build on the UK's existing strengths and position the UK as a world-leader in 'big data' and algorithm research. Headed by the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, Warwick and UCL, it has been attracting the best data scientists and mathematicians from the UK and worldwide, growing a strong collaborative network with partners in academia, industry, government and the third sector and promoting development and use of advanced mathematics, computer science, algorithms and big data. For example, the ground-breaking GUARD project, funded by GCHQ, is creating complex network models that can predict conflict. These can measure the strength of causal mechanisms, assign risk factors to specific geographic areas and translate research into impact in developing countries suffering from prolonged conflict. This will help automate the identification of future conflict areas for high-fidelity analysis and policy/action advice.