Previously, we’ve been able to use ideas in the Ideas Bank to develop bids for additional funding from sources such as the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). For example, the Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) programme was developed from a submission to EPSRC’s Big Ideas initiative, and secured £33 million SPF funding.
From driverless cars to surgical robots and decision-making algorithms, autonomous systems can deliver better services and products at lower costs, and can make major contributions to global challenges. The TAS programme brings together experts from multiple disciplines, across more than 20 UK universities, to address important technical, socio-technical and humanities questions. The programme aims to ensure that autonomous systems can be designed, developed and implemented in a way that earns trust, engaging broadly with academia, business and industry, the third sector and policymakers.
But this isn’t where the story ends, as the majority of ideas submitted to us do not go on to be directly funded in this way. Some ideas will inform EPSRC strategy going into a Spending Review, or as we develop our future Delivery Plan priorities. Others will go back out to the research community or be taken forward by other organisations.
All of these outcomes, and the process itself, are valuable for both submitters and the engineering and physical sciences community as a whole, as they help us push the boundaries of what we know and get other stakeholders, like the public and the government, interested in these ideas too.
Big Ideas is genuinely an opportunity to develop and champion community-driven ideas and identify opportunities for new areas of work that may not have materialised through more traditional ‘top-down’ strategy development.
Different ways that EPSRC uses Big Ideas
Figure 1 below summarises the different ways that EPSRC uses Big Ideas to inform its future plans and thinking.
Please note that any funding opportunities that are informed by a Big Idea are likely to involve applications that will be assessed in open competition, adhering to the principles of fair, transparent peer review. Therefore, although well-placed to submit competitive applications, there is no guarantee of the original submitter being the ultimate direct beneficiary of any funding that may subsequently arise.
Big Ideas submissions have been used:
- to inform EPSRC’s bids for additional funds (for example bids to the Strategic Priorities Fund, and the Fund for International Collaboration)
- to inform spending review opportunities and thinking
- to shape thinking ahead of pursuing other funding opportunities (for example through standard mode or programme grants)
- to inform EPSRC strategy and approach (for example to scope calls, and feed into theme forward plans and EPSRC Delivery Plan thinking)
- to inform dialogue with other parts of UKRI and beyond (for example, with other government departments)
Informing strategies and plans: two examples
Figure 2 below shows how two Big Ideas submissions have informed ICT strategies and plans.
Example 1: Next generation digital infrastructure
Aim of the idea: “To realise a ‘fully converged national digital infrastructure’ that underpins and drives forward the UK’s economy. A national infrastructure that is open, sustainably powered, providing ubiquitous on-demand connectivity with 100% coverage and 100% availability, and that is highly-predictable, highly-secure, highly-resilient, highly-efficient, and provides users with seamless access at the lowest-cost.”
The idea of UK-wide whole-system testbed for telecoms is not new. However, this community-initiated Big Idea helped to structure EPSRC’s thinking about this, and broaden the community engaged in any potential activity.
In addition to contributing (in part) to a successful bid to the Strategic Priorities Fund, it has also informed discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) about the future of their testbed initiative and the requirements of the broader research and innovation ecosystem.
It also informed a successful Fund for International Collaboration (FIC) bid with India, to work on a joint initiative to try to link UK and Indian testbeds through shared base station technologies, and work together on the diversification agenda.
Example 2: Living with data – visualising uncertainty
Aim of the idea: “Enabling better decisions through making complex data sets and analytics easier to understand and access through new visualisation and virtual interaction technologies.”
This idea, co-created by EPSRC and the information and communications technology (ICT) community, heavily influenced EPSRC thinking and evolved throughout the 2020 Spending Review process.
Although not fully developed to the stage of inclusion in the Ideas Bank, it continued to feed into the broader technology landscape around artificial intelligence and how decisions are made with data of all types.
The idea went on to form the basis for the ICT theme funding opportunity ‘Enabling human-centred decision-making through data visualisation’ (open 7 June to 2 August 2022) which aims to support novel research into how interactions with data and visualisations could improve human-centred decision-making.