The vision for ICT capability is to support UK scientists to deliver the very best research and training to meet the future scientific needs across the science base. This needs to be set in the context of the national provision and also how the UK competes in these areas internationally.
To deliver our vision for information and communication technologies (ICT) capability in the UK and ensure that we will provide the flow of people needed to sustain capability at all career stages in areas of strategic importance, we have mapped the whole portfolio and highlighted those areas with strategies where we wish to encourage a shift in the current levels of investment.
Alongside the strategies for each research area, EPSRC has identified a number of cross-ICT priorities which researchers are asked to consider when preparing proposals. These are currently under review, with refreshed priorities expected in 2022. The widespread integration of responsible research and innovation and the improvement of equality and diversity across the portfolio are also priorities for the theme.
EPSRC cross-ICT priorities 2022 to 2025
EPSRC has established eight new priorities due to be articulated in the new EPSRC strategic delivery plan. Within this framework, digital technology and the information and communication technologies (ICT) portfolio is primarily captured under the AI, Digitalisation and Data: Driving Value and Security as well as Digital Futures priorities.
As part of an effective ecosystem for engineering and physical sciences, there is an emphasis on developing and retaining talented people and teams within a multidisciplinary research culture where everyone is respected, valued and able to contribute and benefit.
Our outcomes-focused approach drives everything we do, ensuring that we invest through the most effective routes to deliver maximum impact. EPSRC encourages close working with business to increase private investment as well as working with overseas research funders and communities, deepening partnerships with key countries to strengthen the UK’s international profile as a partner of choice across the breadth of the ICT priorities
Delivering the ICT vision
To deliver our vision for ICT capability and digital technology in the UK, as well as to ensure that we will provide the flow of people needed to sustain capability at all career stages in areas of strategic importance, we have mapped the whole portfolio and highlighted those areas of national importance.
EPSRC first launched a set of cross-ICT priorities in 2012, which were successful in changing community behaviours and building critical mass in areas of national and international importance. Below is the latest iteration of these priorities, which have been developed with advice from the academic and business community and our ICT SAT.
These priorities are for ICT academic researchers to consider when preparing funding applications. We wish to stimulate and encourage research that aims to address these priorities and recognise that researchers from many of the research areas in the landscape, including those beyond ICT, can and should contribute and work together to do so.
We recognise that these priorities overlap and that each area can inform progress or direction in others.
Responsible innovation and ethics
As a public funder of research, we have a responsibility to ensure that our activities and the research we fund, are aligned with the principles of responsible research and innovation, creating value for society in an ethical and responsible way.
Given the societal and environmental impacts as well as the effect that ICT can have on humanity more broadly, it is extremely important that applications understand the ethical and unintended impacts of their work. Embedding responsible innovation is vital across ICT, given the UK and global importance of the technologies involved, as well as the potential for dual use. We recommend use of the AREA framework.
What is a cross-ICT priority?
We use a combination of strategies to deliver the ICT theme’s goals. Strategies have been developed at both the individual research area level and also as broader cross-ICT priorities.
Some funding schemes require applicants to consider one or all of the priorities specifically. More broadly, however, applicants are asked to consider the different priorities and consider how they might be relevant to or impact on their research and how they might contribute to addressing them. We welcome applications addressing specific individual ICT cross-cutting priorities, as well as those spanning multiple priorities.
EPSRC remit for applications in ICT can be extremely broad, and we continue to support research across the full spectrum and remit of ICT, both fundamental and applied, as well as interdisciplinary, intradisciplinary and multidisciplinary projects. The highlighted cross-ICT priorities below are in no way an exhaustive list of what we support, but should be viewed as areas of national importance, where the EPSRC ICT team intends to run activities.
Some research areas falling predominantly within other EPSRC Theme remits intersect with our cross-ICT priorities, including fundamental AI, quantum technology, advanced materials, engineering (including space technology and robotics), manufacturing and circular economy research, as well as resilience, security and cryptographic aspects of ICT.
Overarching Cross-ICT Priority: People at the heart of ICT
People’s lives are affected by ICT in a variety of ways on a daily basis. They engage with it whether they are aware of it or not, as a direct user, or through experiencing the impact of ICT technologies. This priority aims to encourage researchers to adopt a people-centred, user co-created approach through interdisciplinary, intradisciplinary, and multidisciplinary research. Research proposals could be informed by drawing upon meaningful collaboration with expertise in areas such as economics, arts, humanities and social sciences, ethics, and environmental science.
Researchers should consider any potential impacts their work could have on people, communities and society. They should consider the needs of all stakeholders, including researchers, individual users, communities and society, industry and policymakers, in their work and carry out their research responsibly, so that the outcomes are trustworthy, ethical and safe, and any unintended consequences of research have been anticipated and addressed, where possible. Researchers should consider how people could be affected by their research, either positively or negatively.
As ICT continues to grow and we become ever more dependent upon it, it is increasingly important that end users’ needs are taken into consideration by the researchers developing these technologies. The end user will vary for different types of research. The ICT research community must be engaged in dialogues with the end users to ensure the outcomes of their research are responsible and appropriate.
Core areas to consider here, could include:
- People centred, user co-created approach – delivered through interdisciplinary, intradisciplinary, and multidisciplinary research, where appropriate. Technology is often focused on ‘what we can do’. However, there often needs to be consideration of ‘should we?’, as well as using horizon scanning to understand the future economic and societal needs. Considering the end users and people impacted by the research, as well as balancing potential positive and negative impacts on society, is of vital importance.
- The future of digital professions and the related practices – how do we ensure high quality, trustworthy data and software? How do we prevent the next Post Office Horizon scandal?
- Equitable digital society – addressing issues of social division, inequality and distribution of power within the digital economy; promoting the co-creation and design of appropriate digital technologies and services that will support a fairer, more inclusive and equitable society.
- Content creation and consumption – creation and consumption of digital media, games, and interactive software, as well as the wider application of digital creativity techniques and technologies, including augmented reality, animation, immersive technologies, music and acoustic technology, across many domains.
- Beyond a data-driven economy – focus on addressing issues by considering both the impacts and opportunities that the data-driven economy will have on stakeholders including individuals, businesses, governments, as well as NGOs and the third sector. The key focus is the range of challenges and opportunities for business; however, it will also need to address the commensurate challenges of governance and government. The deliverability of economic and public value from research should be considered, in addition to theoretical potential.
Cross-ICT Priority 1: Next Generation Computing
The UK has a strong research capability across computer science, software engineering, distributed computing and high-performance computing, as well as biologically inspired, for example neuromorphic computing, and photonic computing. To deliver against this priority, there is a need to bring together these communities with expertise of software, architecture, programming languages and hardware.
We encourage the development of new and emergent ideas and technologies around next-generation computing. Where appropriate, these ideas and advances should be genuinely disruptive with the potential to change the ICT research landscape. It is expected this disruption may also result in a reframing of or new models of industrial collaboration and co-creation to ensure these new ideas and technologies benefit the wider society and incorporate principles of equitable digital society, sustainability and social good.
We encourage fundamental research into unconventional computing materials, infrastructures solving non-linear problems using different types of computers and dealing with large amounts of non-centrally stored data, and applied research in the application of these technologies to other research fields. Use cases and applications are likely to be key in determining what the technological challenges are, and we will be looking to support co-creation activities to identify these.
Embedding consideration of responsible innovation is particularly important for this priority area.
Challenges to consider here, could include:
- the programmability and portability of systems
- trustworthiness and reliability
- the power consumption of compute. This overlaps with the ‘sustainable ICT and ICT for sustainability’ priority.
- new materials research, for example, unconventional computing materials, architectures and infrastructures
- next generation interaction technology
- moving beyond big data, for example smart processing
Core areas where advances will help deliver against the above challenges are:
- Distributed computer systems – full stack approach, including the software and technology
- Biological computing, for example neuromorphic computing, DNA-inspired computing
- Photonic computing
- Next generation HPC – full stack approach
Cross-ICT Priority 2: Sustainable ICT and ICT for sustainability
Throughout, we are using the 1987 UN definition of sustainability: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” especially, around the goals of responsible consumption and production as well as climate action.
This priority focuses upon reduction of energy and resource consumption both within and enabled by digital systems across ICT. It is about encouraging applicants to embed sustainability across all aspects of their research, create behavioural change within the community and develop novel systems to aid with net zero and broader circular economy ambitions. In addition, it is about enabling academics to understand how their work is aligned with the sustainable ICT agenda, as well as how to link into industry and commercialise technology.
There is a constant drive towards innovation, however, there also needs to be a focus on resulting side effects of this, for example e-waste, lack of circularity including modularity reduce, replace, remove, redefine, reimagine, inefficient resource and data management.
This priority crosses the entire breadth of ICT remit, focusing on both the technology-centric and society-centric research, together and not in isolation.
Core areas to consider here, could include:
- Sustainable digital society – sociotechnical aspects of the use of digital technologies, focusing more on digital technology to promote behavioural change, to address human-made environmental impacts, improve environmental sustainability and work towards reaching net zero, while considering the impacts of the digital technologies themselves
- Hardware-software co-design to achieve more efficient, long-lasting and greener systems. Transparency throughout the technology stack will allow for more impactful and collaborative research. Including all aspects of net zero and green AI.
- Greater use of meaningful interdisciplinary, intradisciplinary, and multidisciplinary research within projects to look at both the technological and societal implications of their work. This is of importance here given the intersect between ICT, circular economy, environmental research and social science.
- Reducing the environmental impact (reduce CO2 emissions) and critical material usage associated with ICT.
- Circularity of ICT – design of novel materials, components and products for circular ICT, including consideration of extending life, end of life, reuse, repair, disassembly and remanufacture, taking into account the full product life cycle
Cross-ICT Priority 3: Semiconductor Technology
Targeted government support for research and innovation will be essential to achieving national goals for the domestic semiconductor sector, feeding the start of the technology cycle, securing critical supply chains and providing the training and skills that will drive the industry forward.
The UK has a strong foundation to build on, with world leading research in embedded circuit design, compound semiconductors, advanced materials, photonics and security. Considerable funding has been delivered through UKRI and its subsidiaries, EPSRC and Innovate UK across the area. This includes both fundamental and applied research and innovation in semiconductor technology as well as closely related and dependent technologies such as quantum, AI, communications and power electronics. There are opportunities for economic growth and development of sovereign capabilities by harnessing these existing areas of strength.
Semiconductor research and innovation continues to be a UK government priority area. Semiconductors are a key enabling technology for the Electronics, Photonics & Quantum technologies family of UK strength and opportunity, as highlighted in the Innovation Strategy, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Select Committee report on The Semiconductor Industry in the UK and the DCMS Semiconductor Strategy. This technology is essential to digital infrastructure that society relies on to enable communications, security, growth and prosperity.
We encourage research proposals that develop semiconductors that apply to electronics, photonics and quantum areas. This can include aspects of design, use of new materials, development of new architectures, devises, manufacturing, circular economy, resilient supply chains, where appropriate.
Cross-ICT Priority 4: Future Communications
Communications research is a critical area that underpins the whole future digital society. There is a vibrant research and innovation community in the UK supported by a large UKRI portfolio, predominately by EPSRC and Innovate UK.
Given the national ambition around world-class communications technologies, systems and networks including terrestrial, satellite and underwater, as well as diversification, we need to foster an environment that enables discovery, development and deployment of the necessary technologies, components, protocols, algorithms and applications. Sustained investment in future communications is a vital step in achieving this. By investing in this wide range of enabling capabilities, we can reignite the UK’s status as a science and technology superpower and deliver for the next generation. Some exciting areas of opportunity for the UK capability to address are:
- shape the next generation of wired and wireless technologies over the next decade and beyond, including the advent of 6G
- cloud and distributed computing and exploring the interface between software and hardware
- associated new materials, devices and sensors that enable network to network architecture
- security, resilience and trust
- enabling digital supply chain in the UK and the increasing focus on digital sovereignty, as well as cyber physical supply chains and the challenges of a secure, trustworthy, and resilient cyber physical supply chains
- net zero communications
- novel applications of future networks and systems, including novel use of the improved speed, interoperability, ubiquity, future networks, immersive environments, serving content (streaming, for example)
- sustainable management & control protocols for future networks
Future telecoms and communication systems research and innovations remains a UK government priority area. Future telecoms technology is a covered by the Electronics, Photonics & Quantum technologies family of UK strength and opportunity, as highlighted in the Innovation Strategy, DCMS report on Accelerating the pace of telecoms innovation (PDF, 11.4MB). Also see the EPSRC blog post from DCMS, Springboard for telecoms research and innovation.
We want to enhance and maintain this status to ensure that the UK continues to be at the forefront of future communications systems and technology. To do this, we need to foster a sustained environment that enables discovery, development and deployment of the components of advanced communications networks.
The following research areas are covered by the ICT theme:
- architectures and operating systems
- artificial intelligence technologies
- biological informatics
- digital signal processing
- graphics and visualisation
- human communication in information and communication technologies
- human-computer interaction
- ICT networks and distributed systems
- image and vision computing
- information systems
- microelectronics design
- microelectronic device technology
- music and acoustic technology
- natural language processing
- optical communications
- optical devices and subsystems
- optoelectronic devices and circuits
- pervasive and ubiquitous computing
- programming languages and compilers
- radio frequency and microwave communications
- radio frequency and microwave devices
- software engineering
- speech technology
- theoretical computer science
- verification and correctness
- vision, hearing and other senses
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