UKRI, Europe and the ‘Grand Challenges’ – What’s On the Horizon for 2018

On the blog today Al Innes, Research Development Officer for the College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences in the Research Support Office at the University of Edinburgh, takes us the through some of the highlights coming up on the research horizon in 2018.

UKRI Comes to Stay

We’ve had almost a year now of Mark Walport touring the land telling us all about UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). In many ways it already feels like it’s here, although it does not officially replace RCUK until 1st April 2018. We’ve started using it in our daily meetings, it’s casually dropped now without having to scan the room to see if anyone needs an explanation. In so many ways it is business as usual.

Even if it no longer feels like a cataclysmic funding shift ready to tear our house and home asunder, we still have only a small amount of detail about how it will actually work. The government’s industrial strategy published in November gave us a few ideas about how UKRI would work in reality, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, launched in 2017, will carry on tackling the ‘grand challenges’ of AI and Data, clean growth, the future of mobility, and an ageing society. With £1bn of wave 1 already underway,  they have ear-marked an extra £725 million to tackling these in wave 2.

The suggestion here is that a chunk of money that size is designed to support ever more cross-council multi-and-inter-disciplinary activity. These challenges cannot be tackled by one research council alone. They also dropped a hint about the Strategic Priorities Fund, taking on from Paul Nurses’ 2015 review, where he flagged up the need to prioritise multidisciplinary research – and yes, you guessed it, tackle “grand challenges”, as well as responses to emergency situations.

That gives us some indication, but we still have to wonder how much freedom will the seven research councils have under the UKRI umbrella? How will Innovate UK function, especially in its ‘dual support mechanism’?

Europe is back on the menu

The distance from 2018 to 2020 may seem like a long one, but distances can sometimes be deceptive. As we approach this the final stand of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 framework, UK participation is now agreed (Theresa May reached an agreement with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on 8 December about continuing participation in Horizon 2020).

So comes an almighty sigh of relief, and a renewed vigour for collaboration with our partners. Of course, this also brings with it the looming reality of the 9th Framework (FP9). Whether or not the UK will be involved formally or not (I’m a glass half full sort of person, so let’s assume we will have at least Associate Member status) it’s something that will certainly shape our thinking over the coming months. If the European Commission follows the same pattern as it did in 2014 – discontinuing the FP7 logo and moving the assessment criteria squarely under the new (impact-centric) H2020 guidelines, while FP7 projects were still very much alive and kicking – then FP9 intelligence will be hugely important to all UK applicants, irrespective of any post-Brexit deal.

H2020’s work programme – detailing all the calls between 2018 and 2020, was launched in October. Some £26bn is still available, and UK researchers are well positioned to capitalise on this.  In the social sciences and humanities realm, there are now specific calls on migration and security – with particularly high numbers in February, March and April – demonstrating that the EC is keen to get social science and humanities more fully integrated this time around. That really follows on from the lessons they’ve learned from the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 (who doesn’t love some interim evaluation, right?) via which, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas pronounced:

“We can always do even better, and will use the lessons learned to make Horizon 2020’s last three years even more effective, and to design a fit-for-purpose successor programme.”

They also highlighted a number of areas beyond social science and humanities that would see increased focus: the Digital Single Market, High Performance Computing, ICT, SMEs, Energy Union, Space and the Circular Economy.

The bottom line here is: Keep Applying!

Of course, you don’t just need to listen to me. Professor Jonathan Seckl made the same point just last week!

All the world’s a stage

International collaboration has an ever increasing importance: both for the UK as an EU member state in flux; but also with the EU itself expressing more and more desire to build research links outside of Europe.

International collaboration was given a huge shot in the arm in 2016 when the UK allocated £1.5 billion in development funds to the newly minted Global Challenges Research Fund. This endeavour has built a new landscape, and a new attitude to working internationally – that is certainly palpable across the University of Edinburgh – with fruitful partnerships in Overseas Development Assistance-compliant countries having grown through GCRF in the last 18 months, no matter the discipline.

There are a number of GCRF calls to look forward to in 2018 and we have a fabulous (if we do say so ourselves!) Toolkit for GCRF available for any and all prospective applicants from the University looking to get involved.

2017 might have, in some ways, seemed like a year of uncertainty but 2018 is shaping up to be a year for yet more huge opportunity; and I am very much looking forward to it!

Al Innes is Research Development Officer for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences within the Research Support Office. 

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