Shaping capability: EPSRC's research portfolio and developing peer review to deliver the Strategic Plan

Supplementary content information

EPSRC - Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Shaping our portfolio

You will be aware of the continued work we have been undertaking over recent months to shape our portfolio of research and training in areas which are internationally excellent and nationally important.

To maintain the UK's global research standing in light of increasing international competition, and with limited funding available to us, we must focus our investments to ensure we use resources effectively, build the capability we need to compete and gain the most long term benefit for the UK.

Working with our major stakeholders, we have mapped EPSRC's current portfolio and with the support and input of our Strategic Advisory Teams and agreement of Council, we have made decisions on the relative funding trajectory for the remaining 53 of the total 113 research areas.

The action categories for these research areas are available to view online through the ‘Our portfolio’ section. A full list of research areas and action categories is also available. You will see details of our strategy and approach for each research area along with diagrams and other information to provide additional context on EPSRC's investment.

Shaping capability is not about predicting where new research discoveries will come from but does seek to ensure EPSRC continues to invest in a balanced portfolio, with any changes managed over time. We will monitor the shape of the portfolio and the scale of investment in different areas as it evolves and continue to encourage the free generation of ideas, curiosity, and research creativity.

We will continue to accept and fund proposals in areas within a reduce category; we are not stopping funding in these areas but expect to see some reduction in the overall investment to create space to grow other priority areas. It is likely that competition for funding in reduce areas will be greater as a result. In addition the strategy for areas identified as grow, maintain or reduce may encourage a particular focus for example on research that meets particular industry needs, addresses a societal challenge or community identified grand challenge.


In February 2012 we updated the priority areas open for fellowship applications and we have now up-dated these further - the latest updates are available on the areas in which fellowships are available page.

EPSRC’s commitment to Peer Review

Peer review is central to achieving the goal of Shaping Capability and Council is clear that we need to adapt our current process in support of it. In taking this decision, Council would wish to re-emphasise the following principles and commitments:

  • Research quality remains pre-eminent in assessing applications. We will only support applications that are deemed excellent as judged through peer review.
  • We have introduced ‘national importance’ as a major secondary criterion against which proposals will also be assessed by peer review but this criterion will not override research quality.
  • In deciding which of the areas within our budget we would wish to grow, maintain or reduce, there are no research areas we will completely withdraw from funding.
  • Panels will continue to advise on the rank ordering of proposals with EPSRC allocating funding in priority order based on this advice.
  • We remain committed to the principles of peer review.

National importance

We introduced National importance as a major secondary criterion on 15 November 2011. Following feedback from the community we have updated our guidance on National importance to provide further clarity and better define the relationship between national importance and the current UK research landscape.

National importance is defined as the extent, over the long term, which the research proposed;

  • contributes to, or helps maintain the health of other research disciplines, contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges, contributes to current or future UK economic success and/or enables future development of key emerging industry(s).
  • meets national strategic needs by establishing or maintaining a unique world leading research activity (including areas of niche capability).
  • fits with and complements other UK research already funded in the area or related areas, including the relationship to the EPSRC portfolio and our stated strategy set out in “Our Portfolio”.

Guidance for applicants can be found on the how to prepare a proposal page. Further guidance from experienced peer reviewers can be found on the preparing a proposal to include national importance page.

Input and advice on changes to the panel process

Over the last few months EPSRC has been working with a group of experienced panel members and chairs, and members of EPSRC’s Strategic Advisory Teams, Strategic Advisory Network and Council to gather input and advice on changes to the panel process in the context of the Strategic Plan goal of Shaping Capability. Listening to this advice we have kept the changes to the panel process as minimal as possible whilst still ensuring that the process supports our Shaping capability goal.

In December 2011 EPSRC held a workshop to gather feedback on some proposed options for changes to peer review. Attendees all had experience of the current peer review process and were from a range of research communities across the EPSRC remit.

Based on the outputs of this workshop, EPSRC developed several options for changes to the peer review panel process. To get input and advice on these EPSRC held four pilot panels in January 2012, with external participants and some EPSRC staff. A list of those involved in the workshop and pilot panels.

The outcomes of the December workshop and pilot panels were presented to a Sub Group of Council who considered the information and put forward a recommendation on the changes to the panel process to Council. Council approved this recommendation on 07 March 2012.

Modifications to the panel process

There are four modifications to the panel process to enable panel members to most effectively prioritise the proposals they are considering on the day in the wider context of the overall portfolio:

  • National importance criterion includes consideration on how the proposal complements the current UK research landscape, including the EPSRC portfolio as published under Our portfolio on our website, and will be considered at panels as a major secondary criterion.
  • Panels will receive a contextual briefing from EPSRC to help panel members consider the proposals on the day in the wider context of the EPSRC portfolio.
  • Speakers (introducers) scores will be requested two-three days in advance of the meeting to enable EPSRC and the panel to reflect on the scores prior to the meeting, and help focus discussion during the meeting.
  • The number of Panel members speaking to each proposal will increase from two to three people to encourage an even richer discussion on the relative merit of proposals and how they complement the existing portfolio.

What this means for applicants, reviewers and panel members

We have now published the relative funding trajectories and strategies for our entire portfolio. From April we expect all applicants to describe their proposals in the context of our portfolio.

Reviewers are already asked to comment on the National importance statement and from April they should also comment on how the research fits with and complements other UK research already funded in the area or related areas, including the relationship to the EPSRC portfolio and our stated strategy set out in “Our Portfolio”.

Proposals submitted after April will be considered by the new panel process in the Autumn and panel members will be briefed prior to the panels taking place.

We would like to take this opportunity of thanking all those who have worked with us over recent months to both shape our portfolio and input into the changes to peer review. We look forward to working together to ensure that the UK continues to undertake internationally competitive research that contributes to UK economic growth, and improves our quality of life. It is vital that we work together to achieve this and to demonstrate the importance of past, present and future funding for research.

EPSRC Regional meetings will be held in May 2012, providing an opportunity for us to work with you and move forward with our whole Delivery Plan. Further details will be published on our website shortly.