Tuesday, 13 December 2011

EPSRC & the Difficulty of 'National Importance'

I wrote last month about EPSRC's plan to include 'national importance' as a criterion for judging funding applications. At their Regional Event in London yesterday they gave a little more idea what they had in mind. However, it was clear that they were still (as Catherine Coates said) in 'listening mode', and were keen to get feedback on their proposals.

Since announcing their plans, EPSRC have taken time to try and pin down 'national importance'. It is currently envisaged as research that will have an impact in 10-50 years time, and that:
  • is key to maintaining the health of other research disciplines;
  • directly contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges;
  • contributes to current or future UK economic success;
  • enables future development of key emerging industries.
Whilst it might be tempting to dismiss this as too vague and too long term to be worth engaging with, I'd urge caution. After all, 'national importance' is now the second criterion after research quality, with impact, track record and resources/management trailing behind.

However, it will still be a challenge to put meat on these bones, and also to make the case for today's research being key to developments in fifty years time. Imagine if EPSRC had introduced this in the 1980s: the issues of national importance would have been the coming ice age and the threat from the Soviet Union. As for smart phones, Star Trek Communicators were as close as we got. And you couldn't even text on them. And that was only thirty years ago.

So looking into the future to predict national importance is tough. Moreover, even though this is the Number 2 criterion, it will have to jostle for space in the 'Case for Support.' It will not have a separate attachment, unlike the Number 3 criterion, impact.

And, whilst it's going to be tough for applicants to try and make the case for national importance, it's going to be every bit as hard for the peer reviewers to sift on this basis. This was clear when EPSRC got us to have a go, using abstracts from previously successful applications. We sat there, huddled around the abstracts, trying to second guess where the research might lead.

However, Paul Thompson rounded off the session by bringing a sense of perspective. There was already an expectation that applicants should make the case for the importance of their research; all the EPSRC were doing was making this explicit. As with impact, get others to have a look at your application, and get help from Research Services in identifying and framing national importance.

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