Balancing Capability – Council's view and the process

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How EPSRC gathered strategic advice and how the strategy is used in practice.

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Balancing Capability – Council’s view and the process

Ms Bonnie Dean – EPSRC Council Member (BD)

I’m Bonnie Dean, in addition to being a Council Member I am also a non-executive in a number of organisations in the Public and Private Sectors.

How does the Balancing Capability strategy relate to the EPSRC Delivery Plan?


The Balancing Capability strategy fits in with the Delivery Plan and the four outcomes - productive nation, healthy nation, resilient nation and connected nation.  It ensures that we will have the building blocks and the capability and ambition to deliver those four outcomes, that’s why it’s so essential to the Delivery Plan.

What is the aim of the Balancing Capability strategy?


The Balancing Capability strategy was developed both to protect our capability and our national strengths, but also to balance out our capacity and to make sure that we were investing appropriately across such a wide and diverse portfolio.  Over time we have developed the strategy into a very useful tool, so that we can communicate effectively with the community about changing national priorities, changing research strengths and making sure that we are assessing those appropriately and protecting our international standing. 

Dr Neil Viner – EPSRC Director, Programme Delivery (NV)

Balancing and priority setting in general isn’t something you just do once, the world changes and the last time we carried out this sort of review was over five years ago.  This was a major stocktake and a chance to re-set what we were doing and align it with the requirements that were coming through in our new Delivery Plan. 

How has EPSRC used advisory streams and community engagement to help them make decisions? (BD)

The review process was professional and very rigorous.  We put out a call for evidence and we received over a thousand pieces of evidence from sixty two organisations and this was followed by an extensive dialogue to make sure that we incorporated this evidence appropriately into the research profiles and into the review of the balance of the portfolio. 

The Strategic Advisory Network (SAN) work stream was very important to this process because they helped us look across the entire portfolio to make sure that we were working cohesively and they also helped us look across areas where one set might come across another and whether there are opportunities for collaboration. 


We had Council Members engaged right the way through the process and the objective of that was very much making sure that EPSRC, its council and the advisory streams are all moving together and understand exactly what is going on in a way that was completely transparent to them.  Alongside that we had a whole raft of activities to make sure that all the important stakeholders like the learned societies, the professional institutes, the universities, all the key researchers, were being engaged with so they knew what was going on.  They were being given feedback on what had happened as a result of the call for evidence.

How did EPSRC secure external assurance for the process?


As we neared the end of the process we had what we called an assurance group which was a combination of Council and Strategic Advisory Network members, who read every rationale after EPSRC staff had finished their drafting, checked them over and by sense checking them they made sure the argument hung together. They challenged us where they felt that we hadn’t referenced the evidence strongly enough and gave us all kinds of feedback we needed to try and get to the state where they were comfortable for it to be released into the outside world.

What are the benefits to adopting this approach?


The many benefits to the Balancing Capability strategy, first of all it provides transparency that also allows the EPSRC to know what’s in our portfolio and why.  It gives us confidence that we are protecting our international standing and the evidence produced from the recent review helps us articulate the value of the portfolio to a very wide range of stakeholders.

What does EPSRC mean by ‘Grow, Maintain, Reduce’ and how will the research area rationales be used?


The first thing to say is that the grow, maintain, reduce apply to proportions of the portfolio, they are not absolutes because we are not putting budgets on individual research areas.  I think the most important route by which they have been used is actually by the people who write research proposals, reading the rationales and thinking about what the rationales are saying for the context of the research that they propose. I think it’s really important to stress that whether a research proposal is a grow, maintain or reduce area, we will still be funding on the basis of excellence, but how a proposal is written, if it is referenced to that context, actually can make it a better proposal.  I think it is also important to say that the outcomes of Balancing Capability allow EPSRC and research communities and business to have a dialogue that has a bit more structure, because it gives us a clear platform to say this is what EPSRC thinks is going to happen.  It’s not meant to be a prescription of what will happen, but it is our best guess based upon what we know. 

As I sit here, I think it’s a good opportunity for me to say thank you for all the work that has got us to this point.  Everybody that I’ve worked with, including the learned societies, the universities, people in business, individual researchers, they have all freely and enthusiastically joined in with us on this and I am very grateful for your time and effort and for their time and effort.  Thanks