Stronger Communities do Better Science

Posted by Dr Sarah Harris on 16 January 2019

Ask friends, family or your colleagues to name the biggest scientific stories of the recent past. You will find the same examples recur, irrespective of scientific background. Physics experiments that verified predictions about the fundamental nature of the universe, such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves, captured imaginations world-wide. Digital technologies are changing our everyday lives as improvements in data science, communications and robotics are rapidly disseminated to consumers. The societal influence of the human genome project (completed in 2003) is becoming ever more profound now that individuals can access their genetic code for under £100 (cite 23 and Me).

The power of scientific insight

It is instructive to examine the human factors that made these breakthroughs possible. Particle physics and astronomy are sufficiently mature that their communities have achieved consensus on the central research questions. This scientific insight is so powerful because discrete pieces of research can be allocated to expert teams, then the results assimilated co-operatively to form the bigger picture.

The current explosion in digital technology first required sustained industrial investment into core capabilities, such as data storage, networking, and CPU speeds. Now these are mature, using them in combination has precipitated sudden developments in unexpected areas. A topical example is machine learning, which needed sufficiently large data sets and fast CPU to become available before algorithms could be predictive. In recent years, only the biological sciences have seen unexpected breakthroughs made by individual research teams; examples being gene editing with CRISPR-Cas and the discovery of gene regulation by small interfering RNAs. Nevertheless, these discoveries were made against a backdrop of an international effort in genomics, which has massively accelerated their impact.

Scientific innovation driven by cross-disciplinary working

Inspired by these achievements, the purpose of the Big Ideas Initiative is to nurture nascent research communities, and to help them unify around a central scientific question. The trajectory followed by digital technology shows us that UK researchers should prepare for an imminent explosion in scientific innovation driven by cross-disciplinary working; a foresight which inspired the creation of UKRI. Such transformative research rarely respects boundaries of discipline or affiliation (e.g. academia or industry), so Big Ideas are expected to require pan-disciplinary interactions. Communities are stronger advocates for their research as consensus inspires confidence. By telling a coherent story followed up with tangible results, we can build support for our science from government bodies and from taxpayers.

Big Ideas – bigger picture

The initial Big Ideas application gives you the opportunity to envision the bigger picture by articulating your research to a non-specialist audience. While ultimately a Big Idea will become a focused community following a cohesive programme of research, the Big Ideas Advisory Group expect to receive ideas at differing levels of maturity. In terms of scale, Big Ideas are anticipated to require significant effort and resource in terms of research, skills, people, groups and engagement. These will be on a larger scale than an individual research proposal or programme grant. This is an opportunity for the community to pitch their Big Ideas to EPSRC where we are looking for visionary, adventurous and inspirational ideas that will enthuse the public and Government. The key factors are the excitement, the transformative potential and the enthusiasm for creating a community. For the most promising ideas, there is a development fund to support workshops and network building. I am enthusiastic about Big Ideas as it is about long term vision, community and collaboration, and because it gives me the opportunity to proactively support the UK’s most ambitious science.


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

Name: Dr Sarah Harris
Job title: Lecturer
Department: Biological Physics
Organisation: University of Leeds

Dr Sarah Harris is lecturer in Biological Physics at the University of Leeds and a member of the EPSRC Big Ideas Advisory Panel.