Building research ideas in a sandpit

Posted by Professor David Butler on 25 March 2015

A sandpit is a residential interactive workshop, structured to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to address research challenges, with the aim of producing research proposals. At the end of the process grants are agreed.

In January 2015 a sandpit was held to look at the global issue of securing a sustainable supply of water, energy and food.& The link between the resources is known as the water-energy-food nexus.

David Butler, Professor of Water Engineering, University of Exeter, was Director of the recent Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) water-energy-food nexus sandpit and gives an insider view.

The great day had finally arrived. Although the sandpit participants were not aware, many hours of preparation had preceded this point. We had sifted through an unprecedented number of applicants to choose a sparky, talented and committed group of multi-disciplinary scientists and engineers to take on this key global challenge – the water-energy-food nexus.

We had assembled a high-calibre group of mentors to support the participants in the gruelling challenge of formulating viable research projects in just four to five days. We had invited speakers from industry and government to share their insights and priorities. We had booked experienced research facilitators and a venue away from distractions. The team had arrived early and was ready and waiting. And then they were with us – excited, expectant and raring to go!

The ‘sandpitting’ process is now fairly well honed by EPSRC, ably supported by their facilitators, so we had a proven methodology waiting to be rolled out. The first day was really all about us getting to know each other and particularly for the participants to find out about each other’s skills and interests. We also introduced the basic metaphor of the week – the tree. Well, OK you had to be there but the tree became an important focus of the emerging ideas leading ultimately to possible projects. The trunk was the core of the week, branches were themes, and leaves were ideas….

Day 2 revolved around our excellent invited speakers. The nexus encompasses a broad range of end users and stakeholders and we were fortunate to have contributions from across the board, typically based on a certain perspective from the nexus. I enjoyed the expert witness sessions and ‘in the stakeholders’ shoes’ sessions and I think the participants did too.

On the third day we facilitated participants in generating those creative, non-conventional ideas including one session called river jumping – no health and safety rules were breached! The afternoon saw a photography challenge where teams formed and competed to show us their most creative sides. With butternut squash showing as a regular appearance on the menu it also featured in some of the funniest photographs. All these challenges encouraged creativity and disruptive thinking to allow project ideas to be developed and for teams to start to gel before the end of play on Wednesday.

“Good Morning Nexus Sandpit” began Thursday with a chance for participants to quiz me, the mentors and EPSRC colleagues about anything on their minds. This was followed by many and varied sessions providing further opportunities for working together, forming alliances, offering ideas and expertise. The process was building and so was the level of activity and sheer intellectual effort in the room. It was clear at this point, that this was no off-campus jolly but a serious and demanding approach to research proposal conception and writing. Thursday afternoon saw the first project pitches to participants and facilitators alike. Ideas arose, ideas fell by the wayside but it seemed clear to me as director that something good was stirring and a great range of project ideas was crystallising. After each group pitched their ideas the participants gave feedback as part of the real-time, peer review process within the sandpit.

The deadline was looming and feverish activity was all around as teams locked themselves away to write their project proposals and prepare for the Friday pitches.

Research proposals undergo real-time, robust peer review at the sandpit. Friday was crunch day. Our review panel was formed of the mentor group and each research team came in turn to pitch their project and answer questions. As always, money was limited and we had the unenviable task of distilling down our seven to three, based on the assessment criteria at the sandpit. It was tough but everyone knew, right from the outset, that it would be.

I had the task, as Sandpit Director, of announcing the results to the assembled throng waiting outside. The sense of emotion and anticipation was palpable in the room. For some, of course, the decision was ecstasy, others agony. Yes, there were winners and losers, but in a sense all were winners regardless of funding outcome. Contacts had been made, ideas formed and, not to be neglected, a great deal of personal development took place in a very short time.

I am a participant veteran of two sandpits prior to this one and now having seen the process from this side of the fence too am even more of a fan of this way of working up research proposals. It is hard work, tiring, emotionally and intellectually challenging but also stimulating, refreshing and fun. The question I am most often asked about sandpits is “should I apply”? My answer is always “yes”.

The resulting three research projects have been awarded a total of £4.5 million and start work in spring 2015.

The successful research projects are:


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

David Butler
Name: Professor David Butler
Section / Team: Water Engineering
Organisation: University of Exeter