Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: EPSRC circular economy critical mass programmes

Apply for funding for engineering and physical sciences research which directly contributes to a circular economy.

You must:

  • be based at a research organisation eligible for EPSRC funding
  • meet individual eligibility criteria
  • involve at least 1 project partner

This EPSRC investment aims to support up to 2 critical mass circular economy programmes co-created with stakeholders to deliver high impact novel research.

Projects can be up to £7.5 million at 100% full economic cost. We will fund 80% of the full economic cost up to £6 million.

Project duration can be up to 60 months.

A webinar for interested applicants will run on 12 December 2022, check the ‘How to apply’ section for details.

Who can apply

Standard EPSRC eligibility rules apply. Research grants are open to:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • UK Research and Innovation-approved independent research organisations
  • eligible public sector research establishments
  • eligible research and technology organisations
  • NHS bodies with research capacity

Check if your institution is eligible for funding.

You can apply if you are a resident in the UK and meet at least 1 of the conditions below:

  • are employed at the submitting research organisation at a level equivalent to lecturer or above
  • hold a fixed-term contract that extends beyond the duration of the proposed project, and the host research organisation is prepared to give you all the support normal for a permanent employee
  • hold an EPSRC, Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship aimed at later career stages
  • hold a fellowship under another schemes (please contact EPSRC to check eligibility, which is considered on a case-by-case basis)

Holders of postdoctoral level fellowships are not eligible to apply for an EPSRC grant.

Principal investigators and co-investigators may be involved in no more than 2 applications submitted to this funding opportunity. However, they may only apply as the principal investigator on 1 application.

Submissions to the outline stage of this funding opportunity will not count towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy. Unsuccessful full proposals will count towards this policy.

If you are currently restricted under the repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy, you may apply to an unlimited number of outline opportunities. However, you will only be able to submit 1 full proposal as principal investigator or co-investigator during the 12-month restricted period.

What we're looking for

This EPSRC opportunity aims to fund up to 2 critical mass programmes directly contributing to the realisation of a UK circular economy and the environmental, economic and social benefits this will bring.

There are many different definitions of a circular economy. At its heart, UKRI considers it to be about:

  • producing less
  • keeping the products, materials and resources we do use and produce in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible
  • recovering resources after use

Circular economy is a key feature of EPSRC’s engineering net zero priority ambition, details of which can be found in our strategic delivery plan. Through our engineering net zero priority we aim to deliver systems approaches and solutions to:

  • use the Earth’s resources as efficiently as possible
  • eliminate pollution and contributions to landfill
  • help deliver a sustainable zero carbon future

The delivery plan identifies specific opportunities and investment activities to work towards a circular economy.

Realising the environmental, economic and social benefits of a circular economy requires new technologies, products, processes, tools and materials. This EPSRC strategic investment will build on related EPSRC and UKRI programmes by focussing on these engineering and physical sciences (EPS) research and innovation challenges.

Although these programmes must have the EPS research challenges of a circular economy as their core focus, EPSRC recognises that achieving a circular economy at scale is complex and high-risk, requiring the integration of multiple stakeholders and broad interdisciplinary teams across and beyond the remit of EPSRC. These critical mass investments will provide the scale, flexibility and length of award necessary to support this.

Opportunity objectives

Successful programmes will address EPSRC’s strategic aims through the following objectives:

  • deliver high quality, novel EPS research addressing timely and strategically important challenges demonstrably driven directly by the vision of a circular economy and its benefits to society, the economy and the environment
  • maximise demonstrable impact from the programme in the short, medium and longer term through engagement, collaboration and co-creation with industrial, policy and third sector stakeholders and an active consideration of the wider system in which the programme’s research and planned outputs exist
  • support the longer-term uptake of circular economy technologies and practices by industrial partners
  • maximise quality and impact of the programme through collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches and co-creation with new and existing stakeholders, both academic and non-academic, across and beyond EPSRC’s remit
  • support the integration of academic research and innovation with local, regional and national government priorities to inform and influence future policy and regulation
  • complement existing EPSRC and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) investments to significantly grow the UK’s EPS capacity and capability in the circular economy
  • embed careful consideration of environmental sustainability in all proposed project outputs and outcomes, research approaches and programme operations throughout the lifetime of the programme

What we expect to see in proposals

This funding opportunity will support programmes for which the core vision and primary research challenge are driven directly by the challenges of delivering a circular economy and the economic, social and environmental benefits it enables.

Programmes which are relevant to the circular economy but where it is not the core focus and vision are not eligible for this opportunity, and applicants should consider alternative EPSRC opportunities.

The proposed research must demonstrably lie primarily within EPSRC’s remit. However, involvement of researchers from other disciplines (including those from other UKRI councils) is welcome and encouraged. Circular economy research is often interdisciplinary by necessity, so applicants are expected to co-create solutions between different disciplines, within and beyond EPSRC’s remit, as appropriate.

We will not fund programmes where:

  • the majority of the research is outside of EPSRC remit. Proposals deemed to have a majority remit within another UKRI council will be rejected. EPSRC reserves the right to make such remit decisions without reference to peer review
  • a circular economy is a beneficiary or potential impact pathway rather than the core focus of the programme. This will be deemed out of scope by the outline panel and applicants will not be invited to submit a full proposal

Programmes must:

  • address 1 or more timely research challenge or challenges focussed on a single strategically important theme which is driven directly by the vision of a circular economy
  • demonstrate a coherent long-term strategic vison and bring together a collaborative and world-leading academic team with relevant stakeholders to address it
  • take a systems approach, considering the wider context in which the proposed research and research outcomes will sit and the trade-offs and unintended consequences of adopting a circular economy in the chosen area
  • demonstrate co-creation and collaboration with stakeholders including industry, policy and the third sector to identify timely and strategically important research challenges
  • identify and embed clear, realistic and proportionate impact and translation pathways which will maximise demonstrable impact from the programme in the short, medium and longer term
  • drive added value as a core focus of the programme by demonstrating synergistic connectivity between partners, disciplines, and workstreams
  • use the scale, flexibility and length of the funding to deliver UK-wide national leadership and advocacy and embed creativity and agility into the plans for the programme
  • develop the skills of the researchers and partners involved, embedding equality, diversity and inclusion throughout the programme, as well as supporting development and training for early career researchers
  • embed environmental sustainability throughout the programme, both in research outcomes and in programme operations

EPSRC will accept applications in any sector or sectors, or considering any resource flow or flows, but the broader research, business, policy and civic landscapes within which the proposed programme would sit must be considered. Programmes which connect with and contribute to the innovation and sustainable development priorities of local, regional and devolved administrations are encouraged.

Applicants must be able to articulate how they will interact with existing investments and demonstrate how their work will compliment and add value to the existing research and innovation landscape. Programmes addressing resource flows covered by the UKRI National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Research (NICER) programme or other UKRI investments are not excluded from this opportunity. However, applicants must demonstrate how their project would be complementary to these and other UKRI investments and add value to the broader research and innovation landscape.

Programmes can include fundamental and applied research. However, programmes addressing underpinning scientific challenges that only have relevance to the circular economy as a beneficiary or potential impact pathway cannot be submitted as part of the funding opportunity.

The following articulates some of the key EPS challenges to achieving a circular economy, one or more of which may be addressed by a given proposal. It is by no means an exhaustive list and applications need not be restricted to these areas:

  • developing our fundamental understanding of how and when to implement circular economic systems and at what geographical and policy scales
  • ensuring renewable, reusable, non-toxic resources are utilised efficiently as materials and energy, to ensure positive environmental, economic and social impact
  • adopting a systems approach to manufacturing processes and design, using the right materials designed for extended lifetimes through repair and reuse
  • utilising waste streams as a source of secondary resources and recovering waste for reuse and recycling

Interdisciplinary approach

Programmes submitted to this opportunity must have a core focus on EPS research challenges, and the proposed research must demonstrably lie primarily within EPSRC’s remit. However EPSRC recognises that, in many sectors, circularity cannot be achieved without the involvement of researchers and stakeholders from different disciplines within and beyond EPSRC’s remit.

Programmes should therefore be co-created and co-delivered with appropriately interdisciplinary collaborators who can provide further understanding of the contextual factors which influence the system in order to:

  • enable the design, production and uptake of acceptable, usable and realistic solutions
  • improve understanding of feasible translation pathways
  • deliver innovative circular economy solutions to achieve real impact

Participation by researchers from disciplines outside EPSRC’s remit will be eligible for funding. BBSRC and ESRC may provide co-funding for specific proposals on a case-by-case basis. This will be determined at the full proposal stage.

Where relevant, EPSRC will work with other councils to ensure a representative range of subject expertise is involved in the peer review process. However, please note that as this is an EPSRC opportunity, programmes deemed to have a majority remit within another UKRI council will be rejected. EPSRC reserves the right to make such remit decisions without reference to peer review.

Systems approach

Applicants must place their research in the context of the wider system (technological, economic, social, cultural and environmental) within which the proposed research outputs would sit. These aspects should inform and influence the research direction of the proposed programme throughout its lifetime.

Applicants are not asked to research the entire system or necessarily carry out systems engineering but should:

  • define the system or systems they are developing
  • consider the systems that their system will sit within and interact with and the feedback loops this may generate. These may be upstream or downstream of your system and at similar or different scales
  • consider the wider social, legal, regulatory, economic and environmental context

You should consider questions such as:

  • how does your research influence or impact other parts of the system you are developing?
  • how could other systems influence or impact your system, technology or process?
  • what further research might be needed for your technology or process to have the desired impact in a current or future system? Your programme may not necessarily deliver this further research but it should look to identify it and consider the implications of it

A shift to a more circular economy provides an opportunity for the UK to achieve more sustainable and clean economic growth and prosperity. However, implementing it within the current UK system may not always be the most appropriate approach. Programmes should consider the risks, costs and trade-offs associated with different materials, technologies and processes, using tools and approaches such as life cycle analysis and impact assessments where appropriate.

Stakeholder engagement

With this funding opportunity EPSRC aims to maximise impact through engagement, collaboration and co-creation with industrial, policy and third sector stakeholders.

Programmes should have a strategy for engaging with stakeholders, both academic and non-academic, across and beyond EPSRC’s remit. This should include plans to interact with a new and emerging range of relevant collaborators throughout the lifetime of the grant. Applicants should provide clear evidence of genuine, substantive partnerships, with co-creation and co-delivery of projects and activities in addition to financial contributions.

EPSRC expects programmes to secure significant leverage, both financial and in-kind, from stakeholders. The amount should be commensurate with the sector involved (for example, small and medium-sized enterprises are not expected to provide the same level of financial contribution as multinational corporations). However, EPSRC expects leverage to grow over the lifetime of the programme as stakeholder relationships progress and new partnerships are formed.

Applicants should consider how they will embed stakeholder interactions in the programme’s governance structure. In particular, advice from users must be appropriately utilised in the decision-making strategy to grow diverse user engagement, both in terms of number of users and value of contributions to the programme (financial and in-kind). Relationships with stakeholders should evolve as appropriate as the programme and the research develops.

The research and innovation landscape for circular economy is diverse and reaches across the UK. In recognition of the national role that the awards will play in the EPSRC portfolio, we expect applicants to demonstrate how they will engage and collaborate with circular economy stakeholders across all parts of the UK. Applicants should apply for the resources they need to enable strong connectivity with all parts of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales).

To evidence your strong partnerships, you must include at least 1 and up to 3 project partner letters of support at the outline stage. You will have the opportunity to include additional project partner letters of support (unlimited) at stage 2 (full proposals).

Environmental sustainability

UKRI’s environmental sustainability strategy (PDF, 1.5MB) lays out our ambition to actively lead environmental sustainability across our sectors. This includes a vision to ensure that all major investment and funding decisions we make are directly informed by environmental sustainability, recognising environmental benefits as well as potential for environmental harm.

In alignment with this, UKRI is tackling the challenge of environmental sustainability through our ‘building a green future’ strategic theme, which aims to develop whole systems solutions to improve the health of our environment and deliver net zero, securing prosperity across the whole of the UK.

Environmental sustainability is a broad term but may include consideration of such broad areas as:

  • reducing carbon emissions
  • protecting and enhancing the natural environment and biodiversity
  • waste or pollution elimination
  • resource efficiency and a circular economy

EPSRC (on behalf of UKRI) expects programmes to embed careful consideration of environmental sustainability at all stages of the research and innovation process and throughout the lifetime of the grant.

In particular, for this funding opportunity programmes should ensure that environmental impact and mitigation of the proposed research approaches and programme operations, as well as the associated project outputs and outcomes, is considered. Programmes must also seek opportunities to influence others and leave a legacy of environmental sustainability within the broader operations of their academic and industry partners.

Management and monitoring

Programmes should:

  • have effective management and monitoring arrangements for the investment. This should include a risk management strategy and a strategy for how the flexibility of resources will be managed
  • establish and run an independent advisory board, or equivalent body, to provide advice and recommendations on the strategic, scientific and research direction and activities
  • consider costing in project management and other administrative support, for example by employing a full-time equivalent project manager, and not relying on the principal investigator for these duties
  • include plans for the development and promotion of the careers of all team members, including investigators, research assistants, technicians, and any aligned students

Funding available

EPSRC has up to £12 million available for this funding opportunity. Proposals must not exceed £6 million at 80% full economic cost or 5 years in duration. This means the maximum amount you can apply for at 100% full economic cost is £7.5 million.

The total cost of the full proposal should be within 10% of that requested in the outline proposal.

Programmes funded through this opportunity are intended to use resources flexibly in a way that maximises their value. This opportunity does not allow for flexible pots of cash or unassigned funds. Instead, funding should be provisionally assigned at the start of the programme. This funding can then be reallocated and redeployed subject to programme needs and UKRI terms and conditions.

Individual items of equipment between £10,000 and £400,000 can be included on proposals for individual research projects if both of the following apply:

  • the equipment is essential to the proposed research
  • no appropriate alternative provision can be accessed

Find out about EPSRC’s approach to equipment funding.

Additional justification of the requirement for individual items of equipment between £10,000 and £400,000, and details of the proposed contribution to the cost of the equipment, must be provided in the Justification of resources (JoR) and with equipment quotes provided as attachments if required.

For any items or combined assets with a value above £138,000 (including VAT) a 2-page equipment business case must also be included in the proposal documentation. Guidance on how to prepare an equipment business case is provided below.

Responsible innovation

You are expected to work within the EPSRC framework for responsible innovation.

International collaboration

Applicants planning to include international collaborators on their proposal should visit our website and review the trusted research section for guidance on getting the most out of international collaboration whilst protecting intellectual property, sensitive research and personal information.

How to apply

You should ensure you are aware of and comply with any internal institutional deadlines that may be in place. You should prepare and submit your proposal using the research councils’ Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system.

When adding a new proposal, you should go to documents, select ‘new document’, then select:

  • ‘create new document’
  • council: EPSRC
  • document type: outline proposal
  • scheme: outline
  • on the project details page, you should select the ‘EPSRC Circular Economy Programmes Outline Stage’ opportunity

After completing the application:

  • you must ‘submit document’, which will send your application to your host organisation’s administration
  • your host organisation’s administration is required to complete the submission process. You should allow sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process between submitting your proposal to them and the funding opportunity outlines closing date

EPSRC must receive your application by 8 February 2023 at 4:00pm.

As well as the Je-S application form, the following documents must be submitted:

  • case for support (4 pages) providing evidence against the outline assessment criteria (see ‘how we will assess your application’)
  • letters of support from project partners (minimum 1, maximum 3 attachments). Read the EPSRC guidance on project partner letters of support
  • cover letter (optional attachment with no page limit and not seen by peer review)

You should attach your documents as PDFs to avoid errors. They should be completed in single-spaced Arial size 11 font or similar-sized sans serif typeface.

Applicants are advised to visit the EPSRC website for general advice on writing proposals for EPSRC funding.

Ethical information

EPSRC will not fund a project if it believes that there are ethical concerns that have been overlooked or not appropriately accounted for. All relevant parts of the ‘ethical information’ section must be completed.

Guidance on completing ethical information on the Je-S form.

Webinar

EPSRC will run an optional webinar and question and answer session for interested applicants on 12 December from 11am to 12pm.

This is not compulsory to attend but attendees will be able to ask questions about the application process. The meeting will be recorded and uploaded to this funding opportunity page.

Webinar registration before the meeting is not required.

Join the 12 December webinar (password: 487962)

Enhancing collaboration

EPSRC expects that projects of this nature will require the integration of multiple stakeholders and broad interdisciplinary teams.

Therefore, in order to maximise the value of this activity to the wider community, the text from the ‘summary’ Je-S section for the successful outlines, along with the principal investigator name and institution, will be published with the full funding opportunity guidance.

This aims to support potential additional partners to identify, approach and join programmes. Any investigators involved in outlines that are not prioritised will be encouraged to engage with those that are prioritised, where appropriate, as the full stage proposal interdisciplinary consortia are scoped and developed. EPSRC may consider facilitating conversations between aligned proposals if deemed necessary.

How we will assess your application

Assessment process

Assessment will be in 2 stages:

  1. Outline stage, assessed by an expert outline panel.
  2. Full proposal stage, with postal peer review and interview panel.

1. Outline stage: expert outline panel

Proposals will be assessed by an expert outline panel, which will produce recommendations to EPSRC on which proposals should be invited to the next stage.

Any outline proposals determined by EPSRC to be not primarily within the remit of EPSRC will be rejected prior to outline panel assessment. EPSRC reserves the right to reject such proposals without reference to peer review.

2. Full proposal stage

Following the outline panel in March 2023, successful outline applicants will be invited to submit a full proposal. EPSRC anticipates this full stage will open in April 2023 and close in June 2023 (this may be subject to minor changes). Full proposals will be sent to postal peer review, followed by an interview panel in October 2023.

Further details on how to submit a full proposal will be communicated to applicants who are successful at the outline stage.

In the event of this opportunity being substantially oversubscribed so as to be unmanageable, EPSRC reserves the right to modify the assessment process.

Assessment criteria

1. Outline stage: expert outline panel

The aim of the expert outline panel is to provide EPSRC with a recommendation on which proposals should be invited to full proposal stage.

The outline panel will assess proposals based on the following assessment criteria:

Suitable and timely vision and demonstrable importance of the proposed research (primary)

This includes:

  • the novelty, ambition, adventure, and transformative nature of the proposed engineering and physical sciences research
  • the extent to which the programme addresses 1 or more research challenges within a single strategic theme which is timely and important
  • the extent to which the programme demonstrates a coherent long-term strategic vison and the potential for this to deliver demonstrable impact to the UK
Fit to opportunity scope (primary)

This includes:

  • the extent to which the challenge of a circular economy is the core focus of the programme. Proposals where a circular economy is a beneficiary or potential impact pathway rather than the core focus of the programme will be deemed out of scope by the outline panel and will not be invited to submit a full proposal
  • the extent to which the programme is co-created and co-delivered in partnership with relevant stakeholders such as industry or government (UK, regional and local including devolved administrations)
  • the extent to which the programme identifies and will embed clear, realistic and proportionate impact and translation pathways
  • evidence that the programme will take an appropriately interdisciplinary approach through collaboration and co-creation across and (as appropriate) beyond EPSRC remit
  • evidence of plans to embed a systems approach, considering the wider context in which the proposed research and research outcomes will sit and the trade-offs and unintended consequences of adopting a circular economy
  • the appropriateness of critical mass long term funding and flexibility of resources for addressing the identified research challenges, and the extent to which this would deliver added value
Applicant and partnerships (secondary)

This includes:

  • the appropriateness of the track record of the applicant or applicants
  • the balance of interdisciplinary skills of the project team, including collaborators

2. Full proposal stage: peer review and interview panel

The invited full proposal stage of this opportunity is likely to run on The Funding Service (TFS), our new funding platform, rather than via Je-S.

The Funding Service has a digital form-based format. This means that the exact application requirements and assessment criteria may alter from what is currently published. Further information will be published in the full proposal opportunity.

Set up an account on the new UKRI Funding Service.

The assessment criteria for the full proposal stage are expected to include:

  • quality
  • importance
  • fit to opportunity, including:
    • consideration of environmental sustainability
    • the development of staff skills and the embedding of equality, diversity and inclusion
    • national leadership and advocacy
    • demonstration of co-creation and co-collaboration with stakeholders, the identification and embedding of realistic impact pathways, and the embedding of a systems approach
  • applicant and partnerships
  • resources and management

Feedback

Feedback will not be provided at stage 1 unless specifically requested by the expert panel. Feedback at stage 2 will be provided in the form of reviewer comments.

Contact details

Get help with developing your proposal

For help and advice on costings and writing your proposal please contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

Ask about this funding opportunity

Naomi South, Portfolio Manager

Email: naomi.south@epsrc.ukri.org

Telephone: 07513 484896

Becky Cheesbrough, Portfolio Manager

Email: rebecca.cheesbrough@epsrc.ukri.org

Telephone: 07849 300164

Manufacturing and the Circular Economy team

Email: circular.economy@epsrc.ukri.org

Please include ‘Circular Economy programmes’ in the subject line.

We aim to respond within 5 working days.

Get help with applying through Je-S

Email

jeshelp@je-s.ukri.org

Telephone

01793 444164

Opening times

Je-S helpdesk opening times

Additional info

Links to wider programme or area

There are many different definitions of a circular economy. At its heart, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) considers it to be about:

  • producing less
  • keeping the products, materials and resources we do use and produce in circulation at their highest value for as long as possible
  • recovering resources after use

The UKRI 2022 to 2027 strategy aims to drive the development, adoption and diffusion of green technologies, building a sustainable circular economy and a greener future for the UK as we move to net zero. More circular use of resources is crucial to:

  • achieving net zero carbon emission targets
  • reducing resource consumption, waste and pollution harmful to biodiversity
  • enhancing health and resource security
  • offering the UK significant economic, social and environmental benefits

Supporting the interdisciplinary, whole systems, engineering, physical sciences, maths and information and communications technology research and innovation needed to deliver a circular economy is a priority for EPSRC. It directly delivers against EPSRC’s engineering net zero priority ambitions to collaborate across UKRI to deliver whole systems approaches and solutions to:

  • reduce resource use
  • eliminate pollution
  • deliver a sustainable zero carbon future

UKRI has previously contributed to the development of the UK’s circular economy research and innovation community through funding opportunities such as:

This EPSRC funding opportunity will complement the circular economy research and innovation already being done by the above investments and will help contribute further to a growing circular economy community in the UK.

Grant additional conditions

Grants are awarded under the standard UKRI grant terms and conditions.

Responsible innovation

EPSRC is fully committed to develop and promote responsible innovation. Research has the ability to not only produce understanding, knowledge and value, but also unintended consequences, questions, ethical dilemmas and, at times, unexpected social transformations.

We recognise that we have a duty of care to promote approaches to responsible innovation that will initiate ongoing reflection about the potential ethical and societal implications of the research that we sponsor and to encourage our research community to do likewise.

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