Balancing Capability - Grow, Maintain, Reduce

Posted on 04 October 2016
Photo of Tom Rodden

Promoting World-Leading Discovery and Ensuring Research Excellence

As the UK's largest funder in engineering and physical sciences research, it's vital that we continually review our portfolio at the research area level (the building blocks of our portfolio) to ensure it is balanced and effective in the longer term. Research in engineering and physical sciences can develop rapidly which can require both responsive funding and opportunities for dialogue between the funder and the academic community.

Balancing Capability is about recognising that we have a finite budget to work with and, as a result, need to balance our investments across our portfolio, taking into account input from the academic community but also the needs of the business users and national and international challenges.

The objective of this strategy is to ensure our investments are targeted in the most appropriate and effective ways that enable the research community to deliver excellent science and ensures new research opportunities are able to flourish. The process involves taking a detailed look at our whole research portfolio to ensure that all research areas can continue to respond to the dynamic landscape.

Why Balance?

Balancing our portfolio creates the space for us to respond to changes from both community-led 'bottom up' and from strategic 'top down' research. The impetus for 'bottom up' change arises from the research community: eg the first decade of research on graphene was almost entirely community-led from within physics research. The drivers for 'top down' change tend to be outside the research community, often focusing on rapidly creating or expanding a capability to secure a UK competitive position: eg in quantum technology. To be effective, it's vital that the strategy applies to the whole portfolio and creates the space to respond to changes.

How EPSRC achieves this

We undertake a full analysis of all research areas in the portfolio to identify areas that may need attention and how the portfolio may need to change. This year our understanding and knowledge is supported by evidence gathering during which we invite academic institutions, learned societies, businesses and professional bodies to submit information. We have received over 1,000 pieces of evidence from the academic community covering over 110 areas of research. Throughout this analysis we consider the impact and interaction that different research areas will have on one another. This ensures areas are not looked at in isolation.

What do 'Grow, Maintain and Reduce' mean?

The analysis undertaken in partnership with our advisory boards and the evidence provided by the academic community enables us to develop suggested trajectories for each research area. This provides an indication of whether the research area will be an area of funding growth, an area to be maintained at the current funding level or if it should receive less funding to enable other areas to develop. Identifying each research area within EPSRC as 'Grow', 'Maintain' or 'Reduce' provides an indication of the general direction of funding for this specific area in relation to the whole portfolio and at this point in time:

  • Grow: The research areas' share of the whole EPSRC portfolio is projected to increase. This may be via appropriate strategic interventions and/or community-led activity.
  • Maintain: Active monitoring and intervention may be necessary. In many instances how the research area is focused may need to change, not the share of the portfolio.
  • Reduce: Areas where there is scope to reduce the share of the portfolio without adversely impacting upon the achievement of the vision and goals overall. This includes a strategy for change in the rationale that protects excellence and encourages and supports the refreshing of research agendas.

The Grow, Maintain, Reduce signal is supported by a detailed rationale telling the unique story of that research area, articulating what, on the basis of evidence and advice received, may need to change, and how.

What's in a Rationale?

Research area rationales are developed in close partnership with the community. They set out the strategic ambitions for the next five years and articulate a shared vision for the portfolio by the end of the EPSRC Delivery Plan period. Rationales are drafted within EPSRC by the research area Portfolio Manager, drawing upon evidence and advice received. Drafts are reviewed by our SAT/SANs and refined to take on board any comments from these advisory boards.

Area rationales are not prescriptive statements of what 'must' happen; they are suggestive of changes that could be beneficial to research in the UK. They form a basis for understanding the status of the research area and tracking any change over time. The rationales are allowed to develop and change, recognising that what actually happens within that area may differ. The strategic focus is a key section of the rationale and is discussed in partnership with the Strategic Advisory Team (SAT) and with key external stakeholders. The Strategic Advisory Network (SAN) provides a strategic and integrational role to take a broader perspective which balances across the different thematic areas. The EPSRC Council ensures the overall direction is on course to reach our delivery plan aspirations.

The Balancing Timeline

Right now we are working on the research area rationales and are preparing information for SATs, SAN and the Council. The trajectory for each research area is being fully considered in relation to the whole EPSRC portfolio and, with over 100 research areas to analyse and develop rationales for, we aim to publish them in January 2017. We will communicate this information on the EPSRC website and by contacting the academic communities directly.