Professor Iain Todd, Director of the MAPP ESPRC Future Manufacturing Hub, tells us about his experience of submitting an idea to EPSRC’s Big Ideas initiative:
My motivation for getting involved with EPSRC’s Big Ideas initiative originally stemmed from a visit to the University of Sheffield by EPSRC’s Executive Chair, Lynn Gladden, in which she expressed an opinion that, as a community, we really could do better at sharing our collective ideas with EPSRC. As a member of the materials community, I knew that these great ideas existed, but that they weren’t always that visible.
This was the catalyst for the creation of the ‘Internet of Materials’ Big Idea, which aims to place data at the core of materials innovation to remove constraints – physical, resource, manufacturability – that currently inhibit its economic and societal impact.
For me, leading the development of this idea was not about the funding. It was simply that if the materials community did not become better connected and more coherent, we risked being left behind.
To lead the development of a Big Idea, you don’t need to be a true expert in that field. My own background is in metallurgy, not data, but I could see the value of coordinating and connecting the different players to build an idea that could be truly transformative.
This has given me the opportunity to work across multiple communities – with mathematicians, physicists, data scientists, computer scientists, electrical and control engineers, and the informatics community – identifying those research questions that cross disciplinary boundaries.
Although my personal end-goal was not to lead any large-scale investment that arose from the Big Idea, the process of initiating and developing the idea has had multiple benefits, shaping and refining our thinking about the data infrastructure that might need to be put in place to fully realise the idea and what the overall landscape looked like.
This, in turn, led to us being awarded funding through phase 1 of the UKRI Digital Research Infrastructure programme, which enabled us to support a number of important feasibility studies, which are generating insights and impact beyond their initial scope.
We got responses and projects that we hadn’t even thought about or imagined. I do not believe that this would have come about had we not laid the groundwork beforehand through the development of the Big Idea.
One significant benefit we’ve experienced as a result of developing and refining the Big Idea is that we’ve been able to create a forum for discussions between the academic and industrial research communities in an emerging and rapidly developing area of research. Having the Big Idea as a focal point has enabled us to explore our mutual interests and potential synergies. It has helped us gain a better understanding of each other’s perspectives.
When the idea was initially reviewed by EPSRC’s Science, Engineering and Technology Board, they advised that I should develop it further, working closely with EPSRC’s Advanced Materials team and their advisory board. This allowed us to hone our ideas, which fed into the developing EPSRC Advanced Materials priorities, specifically around the need for digital materials development. In particular, EPSRC used the idea to shape thinking in the materials and materials manufacturing space for the 2021 Spending Review, as a potential area for investment.