There is a growing need for next-generation AI technologies that have the capabilities to meet the demands of real-world applications, both now and in the future. To realise the vast potential of AI, and for the UK to remain a global leader within the field, we must further develop our understanding of the theoretical foundations of AI and overcome existing methodological barriers.
This major investment will form part of EPSRC’s new strategic delivery plan and will grow investments in AI, digitisation and data along with other priority areas. This underpins UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) strategic theme ‘building a secure and resilient world’.
This investment seeks to support this through the creation of up to three cross-disciplinary hubs that will, through advancing underpinning mathematical and computational concepts, develop novel approaches to methodological challenges in AI.
It is anticipated that the hubs will bring together researchers from across the mathematical and computational sciences to tackle the foundational problems that exist across a range of AI methods, fields, or capabilities.
EPSRC encourages you to include representation from different mathematical disciplines, as well as AI researchers, within your core research team. Evidence of co-creation, and leveraging the interface between AI and mathematics, is expected to be evident within the proposed research questions.
EPSRC is not specifying research priorities for the hubs beyond the need for them to tackle the foundational or underlying theoretical problems that exist within AI (such as the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions of modern AI systems). This is due to the breadth of potential research, and the importance of investing in approaches that can address both current and future needs of AI technologies.
You should think beyond the optimisation of current systems and are asked to propose innovative, and creative research programmes that will advance our fundamental understanding of AI and AI systems. For illustrative purposes only, this may include tackling the challenges that are associated with:
- uncertainty quantification
- integrating causality and inference into AI models
- vulnerabilities (for example, interpretability, verifiability, robustness)
- algorithm development
- algorithmic bias
- fundamentals of optimisation
Aspects of ethics, and responsible research and innovation, should be considered where appropriate.
Proposals that are based on applying current AI methods to an application area will not be accepted.
- highlight why your proposed hub is nationally important
- outline how your cross-disciplinary approach will enable for novel approaches to current and future methodological challenges in AI to be developed
Funded hubs under this programme will be expected to:
- deliver world class fundamental research in AI, building capability and capacity around advancing the underpinning mathematical and computational concepts of AI, delivering a wide range of outputs and impact for the UK society and economy
- form new cross-disciplinary partnerships, both within and across mathematical and computational sciences that establish the long-term capability that is critical in underpinning the future of AI
- be inclusive. Each hub will coordinate and collaborate across their relevant UK research communities. Hubs should be responsive to the wider stakeholder and investment landscape, maximising the value of this investment through alignment to other strategic activities, either existing or new. Particular consideration should be given to the inclusion of, and connectivity to, local and regional stakeholders
- engage research users and key stakeholders, to establish an ongoing dialogue and opportunities for collaboration focusing on their key priorities. These stakeholders may include:
- the UK wide national and international research community
- government departments and bodies
- industry and businesses
- non-governmental organisations
- third sector
- funders of research
- support the development of a healthy, diverse, and inclusive AI talent and skills pipeline. Consideration should be given to the advancement and training of those engaged in the hub from every career stage. Consideration should also be given towards how any skills programme can be offered more broadly to enhance digital skills in the broader community. This could include:
- the provision of skills training
- supporting research software engineers
- setting expectations around data and software management
Structure of AI hubs
A typical hub will comprise of (but is not limited to):
- a virtual or physical centre which is multi-institutional but based around a ‘lead’ research organisation
- a hub director (academic) with a proven track record of managing large investments and excellence within their disciplines or sector
- a wider leadership team, representative across the different disciplines involved in the hub, from varying career stages with a track record of excellence within their disciplines. It is expected that this team will be diverse against protected characteristics
- a small coordinating management body (which includes a full-time hub manager) and an administrative team that will ensure that the programme runs efficiently
- a named lead from one of the host institutions for knowledge transfer and external communications, whose role will include coordinating knowledge exchange between the hub and the wider landscape
- postdoctoral research assistants (PDRAs) distributed across the project. Funding cannot be requested from these grants for PhD studentships or related funding. However, students funded from other sources can be incorporated into the broader project plan, provided that PhD students’ work is not part of the critical path of the hub’s research
- appropriate advisory and governance structures, including as a minimum, an independent advisory board. The board should meet at least annually and include key academic, industrial, relevant policy officials and other stakeholders. It is expected that a UKRI representative will sit on this advisory board, who will be appointed by UKRI. Provision of the precise and full membership of such a board will not be required at point of application
- demonstrate a commitment to making data, code, and implementation as open as possible
It is expected that management of hubs will require more investigator time (whether for the principal investigator or distributed across the team) than standard UKRI grants.
Principal investigators will be expected to participate in broader UK AI ecosystem discussions with UKRI and other governmental stakeholders and participate in events.
The expectation of a dedicated project manager reflects the need for coordination across the hub and with the AI ecosystem, enabling the required cross-disciplinary approach and the facilitation of engagement with users of the research.
As part of the management process, hubs will be expected to set an appropriate statement of objectives and internal key performance indicators (KPIs) focused on key outputs and outcomes within six months of the hub grant starting. KPIs should be appropriately set against baselines, to be considered at the start of the hub.
You are expected to have a clear plan for supporting diversity, in a broad sense (for example, protected characteristics and career background). It is anticipated that proposals will evidence a strong commitment to supporting the development of researchers (including early career researchers) across the hub and its activities.
Activities focused on early career researchers and wider capacity building including for stakeholders will be welcome. We also expect hubs to demonstrate a commitment to making data, code and implementation as open as possible.
In order to deliver the aims of this investment, EPSRC expects the hubs to be cross-disciplinary. We encourage you to include a breadth of capability both across and within the mathematical and computational sciences.
The total EPSRC funding available for this funding opportunity is expected to be up £20 million to fund up to three hubs. Funding for each hub will be awarded over 60 months (at 80% FEC).
Due to the nature of the programme, there will be additional requirements on reporting, monitoring and evaluation, and grant extensions. This will be reflected in the grant additional conditions, and those funded will need to comply with them. Further details are provided in the ‘additional information’ section.
Resources may be used for research expenses including:
- UKRI-funded research facilities. Please note that if you plan to use a major facility in your research, contact the facility before applying to EPSRC. EPSRC will check if your proposed research is feasible and obtain a technical assessment if Je-S marks it as required. Major facilities include those funded centrally by EPSRC or a European facility
- research technical support including research software engineers, data scientists, PDRAs and fellow salaries
- other standard expenses
Resources may also be used for activities that initiate, grow and maintain collaborations with stakeholders (for example academia, business, government, third sector) such as:
- staff exchanges
- regular travel
Although this is not a funding opportunity designed for significant capital expenditure, equipment over £10,000 in value (including VAT) and up to £400,000 is available through this funding opportunity. All equipment should be fully justified and essential to the mission of the hub.
Smaller items of equipment (individually under £10,000) should be in the ‘Directly Incurred – Other Costs’ heading.
Maximum funding per application (at 80% FEC): £8 million
Minimum funding per application (at 80% FEC): £6 million
Due to the scale of these awards, significant collaboration and leverage (cash or in-kind) will be expected from project partners (for example, business, public sector, third sector). This may include models such as endowing chairs, supplementing to academic salaries or hosting academics within facilities.
It is expected that the leadership team of the hub should contain a demonstrable track record of engagement of this type.
We expect collaborations to build a mutually beneficial two-way relationship based on:
- secondments in both directions
To ensure the awards are inclusive of a variety of approaches and research fields, no specific leverage expectations are being set for eligibility to this programme. The appropriateness and strength of collaborations and plans for each hub to form additional partnerships will be a factor in peer review of proposals.
Clear plans for engaging with new and existing collaborators over the duration of the hub should be detailed in the case for support. Please see the document guidance section for more information.
We expect bidders to demonstrate how they will engage and collaborate with stakeholders across all parts of the UK. This is in recognition of the diverse nature of the research and innovation landscape for AI across the UK, and the national role that the awards will play in the EPSRC portfolio. You should apply for the resources you need to enable strong connectivity with all parts of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales).
Involvement of The Alan Turing Institute
As the UK’s national centre for data science and AI, The Alan Turing Institute is well-positioned to work with successful projects from this programme. The exact nature of the institute’s interaction with successful projects will be dependent on the details of each project. The Turing will not be offering specific support (this includes offering letters of support) to individual applications.
It is expected that all hubs will either have, or will develop, links with the Turing as part of facilitating the flow of ideas and methods across the AI ecosystem, but these will not be mandated. Previous engagement is not required at the point of application, nor will it be considered as part of the peer review process.
Responsible innovation and trusted research
EPSRC is fully committed to developing and promoting responsible innovation and trusted research.
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
- encourage our research community to do likewise
The hubs will be required to embed principles of responsible innovation and those of trusted research throughout their activities and will be expected to engage with the relevant regulatory bodies where concerns may arise under the National Security and Investment Act. Aspects of bias, privacy, security and ethics should be considered where appropriate.
UKRI’s environmental sustainability strategy 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 expects hubs to embed careful consideration of environmental sustainability at all stages of the research and innovation process and throughout the lifetime of the hub.
Hubs should ensure that environmental impact and mitigation of the proposed research approaches and hub operations, as well as the associated project outputs, methodologies developed across science and engineering and outcomes is considered.
Hubs must also seek opportunities to influence others and leave a legacy of environmental sustainability within the broader operations of your academic and industry partners.
Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)
As leaders in the community, the hubs will be expected to embed EDI in all their activities throughout the lifetime of the investment.
If funded, this will include identifying the specific EDI challenges and barriers in their own environment and developing a strategy to address these, with reference to EPSRC’s published expectations for EDI.
Hubs must ensure that they request appropriate resources to develop and deliver their EDI strategy effectively. This must include at least one costed staff post with responsibility for EDI (the hub EDI lead).
Hubs should include information on EDI resources (including the mandatory costed staff post for the EDI lead and any other resources, for example mentoring schemes, training, workshops and data exercises) in the justification of resources document.
EPSRC does not specify any particular full-time equivalent, salary level or career stage for the EDI lead post. Hubs may decide what is most appropriate for their programme, while giving due consideration to flexible working.