Physics grand challenges


What could be achieved in 20-40 years if physicists, from different research groups, disciplines or institutions, were to work in a coordinated way towards an established stimulating scientific goal?

EPSRC believes that by aiding the research community to work together we can accelerate progress towards major scientific breakthroughs. To this end we selected representatives from the physics community (see list of this advisory board below) to suggest possible stimulating scientific goals or grand challenges which could be used as the focal point for future research endeavours.

While these challenges are to be physics-centric they should not be exclusively for physics to address. We would hope that research within these challenges would have the potential:

  • For cutting edge world leading physics
  • To enable the UK's national capability to be used to best advantage
  • To have a positive societal or economic impact
  • For collaborations between researchers in disciplines beyond physics

It is clear that physics research can contribute to many globally acknowledged challenges, such as providing fusion energy, improving healthcare technology and developing next generation communication systems. We hope the following list represents those that are, in general, not already being addressed by other initiatives.

We acknowledge that it is not always possible to identify the most important developments in advance, and that major breakthroughs will always continue to come from outside any agreed set of challenges. However, of the challenges identified here hopefully some resonate with physicists, encouraging them to work together and with others to achieve significant scientific outputs.

Your input

Early in 2011 we asked you for your input around nine possible challenge areas. A report summarizing these findings (PDF 1.2MB) and the outcomes of the advisory group follow up meeting is available.


The inputs from the surveys were considered by representatives from the physics community. They decided to consolidate the challenges into four that they recommended pursuing. These are:

Emergence and Physics Far From Equilibrium

One of the key scientific advances of the latter part of the twentieth century was the appreciation that dramatic collective behaviour can emerge unexpectedly in large complicated systems, in ways that could not have been predicted from even a detailed knowledge of their components. Many of these 'emergent' states arise very far from equilibrium - life itself being a prominent example - and their existence implies that nature employs subtle organising principles whose understanding will provide a central challenge for the coming decades. Meeting this challenge will require work cutting across the traditional disciplinary boundaries in science and will involve combining experiments under extreme conditions with the development of entirely novel classes of theory. This fundamental work will be driven by the ever-present possibility that emergent states may provide the foundations for the technologies of the future.

Quantum Physics for New Quantum Technologies

Next generation quantum technologies will rely on our understanding and exploitation of coherence and entanglement. Utilising properties beyond the classical limit will transform metrology, communication, imaging, the simulation of complex systems, and ultimately computing. Success requires a deeper understanding of quantum physics and a broad ranging development of the enabling tools and technologies.

Nanoscale Design of Functional Materials

The systematic design and construction of materials and devices based on structure at the nanoscale is a major challenge. The ultimate aim would be to be able to dial up a desired property using new principles rather than proceeding by trial and error, and to assemble targets cheaply in large quantities. Realisation of this challenge will advance technologies in a wide range of fields such as healthcare, sustainable materials, information handling, energy harvesting and storage.

Understanding the Physics of Life

The physics of biological systems and processes is not fully understood. A greater understanding of the physics of biological systems and processes would enable new arenas of experimentation, control and modelling. Physicists can learn from areas where nature has evolved a better way of doing things and exploit this knowledge in the development of new technologies. In turn, they are uniquely placed to contribute innovative instrumentation and alternative approaches to research that have always driven the study of life sciences. A central challenge for physics is for this approach to be embedded into biology, and increase the involvement of physicists with biological and medical researchers in a broad range of relevant areas.

There was significant discussion around the Imaging Far From the Limits challenge as this was seem as an interesting and very much worthwhile endeavour, it was felt however to be a cross cutting capability that is required across many research disciplines rather than a physics grand challenge in itself. We would hope that any activity within the four grand challenge areas would encompass this concept.

Next steps

The work to date outlines a starting point for these physics grand challenges. It will be key to the success of the challenges for the research community to identify with them and drive them forward themselves.

Physics Grand Challenges NetworkPlus Grants

It was felt that the Understanding The Physics of Life and Emergence and Physics Far From Equilibrium challenges are broad and could benefit from being brought into sharper focus. With this in mind, in August 2011 we launched a call for Grand Challenge NetworkPlus grants in these two grand challenges. A total of £500,000 funding was available for to support one 3 year Network in each grand challenge. The call closed in January 2012 and following an interview panel NetworkPlus grants were awarded to:

  • From Molecules to Systems: Towards an Integrated Heuristic for Understanding the Physics of Life(GoW EP/K000594/1) - From Molecules to Systems: Towards an Integrated Heuristic for Understanding the Physics of Life - Professor Graham Leggett, University of Sheffield

    The Understanding the Physics of Life network, which includes a 20% funding contribution from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), was initially coordinated by Professor Graham Leggett and Dr Jamie Hobbs from the University of Sheffield. Over the course of the three-year network grant they aimed to form new, cross-disciplinary research communities in which physicists and biologists work together and which involve academia, industry and other end-users. These communities worked collaboratively to identify the major research challenges in the physics of life, and in particular, to address the grand challenge of integrating biology across the length scales from molecules to systems. The network is now in its second phase, having been awarded another three-year network grant which includes a 40% funding contribution from BBSRC, and is being coordinated by Professor Tom McLeish and Dr Martin Cann from the University of Durham.
  • Towards consensus on a unifying treatment of emergence and systems far from equilibrium. (GoW EP/K000632/1) - Towards consensus on a unifying treatment of emergence and systems far from equilibrium - Dr Bogdan Hnat, University of Warwick

    The Emergence and Physics Far from Equilibrium network will be coordinated by Dr Bogdan Hnat from the University of Warwick and Dr Tobias Galla from the University of Manchester. This diverse network aims to draw upon expertise from a variety of disciplines including plasma physics, materials science, mathematics and complexity science. Although very broad in nature, the network team aim to bring focus to the grand challenge by identifying unifying aspects of the dynamics for systems far from equilibrium such as spontaneous development of structure and patterns, dynamics of large-scale failures and responses to strong driving forces and shocks.

    To ensure the success of both networks it will be essential for membership to consist of researchers from a wide variety of disciplines. Therefore, both networks will be open to researchers across the UK that are enthusiastic about working with others to develop common strategies and ideas for addressing the grand challenges. If you are interested in participating in the activities of either network you should get in touch with the network coordinators directly.

Bright IDEAS Awards - The Big Pitch

During 2012 we ran Bright IDEAS Awards - The Big Pitch calls in the Quantum Physics for New Quantum Technologies and Nanoscale Design of Functional Materials grand challenges. Bright IDEAS awards are 18 month research grants awarded to individual researchers with exceptionally pioneering, adventurous and potentially transformative research projects.

The Bright IDEAS Awards call for Quantum Physics for New Quantum Technologies was launched in April 2012. The Bright IDEAS Awards call for Nanoscale Design of Functional Materials was launched in September 2012. Both calls have now closed.

Physics Grand Challenge Advisory Board Members

  • Professor Andrew Fisher, University College London
  • Professor Charles Adams, University of Durham
  • Professor Jeremy Baumberg, University of Cambridge
  • Dr Simon Benjamin, University of Oxford
  • Professor Michael Charlton, University of Swansea
  • Professor Andy Mackenzie, St Andrews University
  • Professor Tim Spiller, University of Leeds
  • Professor Nigel Hussey, University of Bristol
  • Professor Peter McClintock, University of Lancaster
  • Professor Phillipa Browning, University of Manchester
  • Professor Ciaran Lewis, Queens, University of Belfast
  • Professor Miles Padgett, University of Glasgow