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UK industrial strategy, sustainable growth and research

Jonathan Rans explains what the current UK Industrial Strategy means for research, the current funding priorities and who to contact if you are interested in applying for Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) funding.

The Genesis of the Industrial Strategy

The UK is in the grip of a long-term productivity crisis. Comparisons with the rest of the G7 show that the UK’s output per worker is 15% below the average. This presents a ‘productivity puzzle’ that remains resistant to government efforts. The Government’s Industrial Strategy white paper, ‘Building a Britain fit for the future’, was published in November of 2017. It represents the latest attempt to address this conundrum by focussing on innovation, skills for the future and UK-wide growth.

So what does that mean for research?

Looking at the Department for Business, Education and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Allocation of Funding for Research and Innovation published in August 2018, we can see a clear development of Government priorities. Industrial research is gaining prominence with an increase in spending for National Productivity Investment Funding (NPIF). NPIF is closely linked to the Government’s industrial strategy for economic growth and will double its budget share by 2020.

Previous industrial policy has been largely driven by economic crises and is, consequently, narrower and tends to be focused on individual sectors. This strategy adopts a broader-based, ‘whole-economy’ approach to boosting productivity and distributing benefits across the UK. The Industrial Strategy is explicit about the central role universities have to play alongside the public and private sector to drive innovation in business. It also offers some suggestions about what this may mean in practice.

In essence, the strategy boils down to five pillars of sustainable growth: Ideas, People, Infrastructure, Business Environment and Places. These themes cut across the entire strategy, rather than subdividing it into neat sectors, so it’s likely that elements of them all will be of relevance to universities. Having said that, the skills and innovation aspects of the strategy are certain to define our funding opportunities.

Industrial research priority areas

Alongside the five pillars, the strategy introduces four ‘Grand Challenge areas’. These are areas of broad, technologically-driven change expected to have a major impact on societies of the future. As such, these are priority areas for government-supported innovation and will define the available research opportunities. The Grand Challenge areas are:

  • Artificial Intelligence and Data Driven Innovation
  • Clean Growth
  • Ageing Society
  • Future of Mobility.

These give us a high-level steer on the focal areas for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), which will be the primary way in which the government realises the innovation aspects of the strategy. The Government has committed £4.7 billion of investment over 4 years to 2021 to transform existing industries and create new ones. It is recognised that tackling these challenges will require a broad-based effort and the ISCF aims to stimulate collaborative research that crosses disciplinary boundaries and involves industrial partners.

The role of arts, humanities and social sciences

One interdisciplinary interface receiving particular attention is that between businesses and researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences. While it’s clear that the deep involvement of  researchers from across these disciplines is seen as vital to successfully addressing the Grand Challenge areas, it remains up to researchers themselves to articulate how that integration might be achieved. In practical terms, this means that, the bulk of the opportunities are likely to be realised by contributing to large, multi-disciplinary projects.

Exploiting ISCF Funding

This highlights the primary difference between the ISCF and previous Innovate UK and Research Council schemes. ISCF has a strong focus on the development of broad-based research consortia, including a strong multidisciplinary base. Typically delivered by Innovate UK , most programmes are industry-led. This means that building a credible response to calls benefits from institutional-level co-ordination. For that reason, Edinburgh Innovations has employed an ISCF Project Manager to support application development and drafting. Researchers interested in finding out more about ISCF, or how their research could contribute to a Grand Challenge bid, should contact Caroline Woodside (

ISCF Wave 2 Priority Areas

Wave 2 of the ISCF is the current tranche of activity; it spans 2018-2019 and has been allocated £725 million of funding from BEIS. This wave focuses on eight priorities falling under the four Grand Challenge areas:

  • Transforming construction
  • Data to early diagnosis and precision medicine
  • Transforming food production
  • Next generation services
  • Energy revolution
  • Healthy ageing
  • Audience of the future
  • Quantum technology

For more details on the Wave 2 priority areas inviting applications, contact Caroline Woodside. With details on Wave 3 priority areas due to be announced soon, it’s worth keeping an eye on the Innovate UK blog and twitter account to keep abreast of developments. The Research Support Office also maintains a list of current opportunities on the ISCF webpage alongside contact details and other relevant links.

Jonathan Rans is Strategic Research Executive in the Strategic Research Development Team.

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