Preparing new proposals to include national importance

EPSRC introduced National Importance as an additional assessment criterion in November 2011. In 2010, EPSRC published its Strategic Plan articulating a very clear goal of Shaping Capability. We evolved the name of Shaping Capability to Balancing Capability in 2014 to more accurately reflect our strategy and will continue to align our portfolio to areas of UK strength and national importance.

In 2016 we published an updated Delivery Plan, which details our ambition of ensuring that our investments support four inter-linked outcomes which collectively underpin UK prosperity. This framework is a strategic expression of how engineering and physical sciences research and skills add value to the nation, and provides an ambitious vision to inspire researchers.

In order to meet the aspirations set out in our Strategic and Delivery plans, we will base all investment decisions primarily on international excellence but also on national importance (set in a global context and as described in the Delivery Plan) while continuing to encourage the free generation of ideas, curiosity and research creativity.

Applicants should clearly identify the national importance of their proposed research project in their case for support and reviewers are asked to consider national importance as a major secondary criterion, after research quality, in their assessment.

What is national importance?

National importance is the extent, over the long term to which the research proposed:

  • Contributes to, or helps maintain the health of other research disciplines
  • Contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges including those described in EPSRC's Delivery Plan
  • Contributes to current or future UK economic success including those described in EPSRC's Delivery Plan and / or enables future development of key emerging industry(s)
  • Meets national strategic needs by establishing or maintaining a unique world leading research activity (including areas of niche capability)
  • Fits with and complements other UK research already funded in the area or related areas, including the relationship to the EPSRC portfolio and our Research Area strategies.

The extent to which a project relates to each of these points will depend on the nature of the research proposed. We encourage and recognise the research we invest in has a global impact.

What is a research area?

  • Research areas provide a broad, high-level overview, of a discrete area of EPSRC's portfolio.
  • A research area portfolio includes all research and training activities sponsored by EPSRC in that area of research.

What is the national importance of a research area?

  • Consideration of national importance, along with quality and UK capability, enables us to make relative judgments on research areas across the whole EPSRC portfolio. These are detailed in our research area rationale statements.
  • In this context, National Importance includes consideration of: the potential impact of the research area on the current or future success of the UK economy, whether it will enable the future development of key emerging industry(s), if it makes a clear contribution to meeting key societal challenges facing the UK, and if the research area is key to the health of other research disciplines.

What is the relationship between the national importance of a project and that of a research area?

  • The national importance of a project is a key element in determining its intrinsic merit, on which it will mainly be assessed. It is important to judge the national importance of a project separately to the importance of a research area for the following reasons:
    • A project in a research area highlighted for growth by EPSRC may be of low importance if it does not align to the strategic direction of that area
    • A project in a research area highlighted for reduction by EPSRC may be of high importance if it aligns well with the strategic direction of that area.
  • Applicants should indicate how their research relates to EPSRC's research areas and strategies in the national importance section of their case for support. Many projects will be relevant to more than one EPSRC research area.

What is the relationship between national importance and Impact?

  • The purpose of National Importance is to encourage applicants to articulate why it's important for their research to be supported by the UK taxpayer so that the UK remains internationally competitive. National Importance has a number of strands (set out above) and so answers to this question might cover; why the research might benefit the UK economy, why it may lead to advances in a different academic discipline, why it is important in the context of EPSRC's Delivery Plan or why it's important that an internationally leading group continues to be supported.
  • The Impact criterion focuses much more on how you might accelerate the route to making it happen; what activities are you proposing to ensure that the potential beneficiaries have the opportunity to benefit? Impact is about who the beneficiaries of the research might be and how you are going to work with them to shorten the time between discovery and use of knowledge.
  • We do not expect applicants to be able to predict the impact of their research, nor do we expect reviewers to make assumptions about the probability of the benefits being fully delivered. However, we would encourage all researchers to think at the earliest stage who might use the outputs of their research and how to make that happen.

More information can be found at Impact - guidance for applicants and reviewers.

Further guidance on what to include in your application

Whilst for many applicants this is not new, but instead a formalisation of what they already do, we do understand that some researchers may be less used to considering national importance and may be uncertain as to what to include in their proposal. Therefore, we've approached some experienced peer reviewers working in areas across EPSRC's remit and asked them for a few points on what national importance means to them.

What would you think about when writing about national importance in your application?

The usual process that I use when I prepare big proposals requiring this approach is to use national reports that support my arguments. There are usually a lot of reports around that can be used. There are a number of issues with reports - the proposer might be an author or contributor, they may not be current, or they may not be important. The big issue then becomes establishing what are the reports that really matter. The example of this that I use in healthcare is that the 2006 Cooksey review is a real touchstone report, it still matters after five years. Referees in consequence will need to know the 'reports' landscape also.

Professor David Williams, Professor of Healthcare Engineering, Loughborough University

Research is global. So what can research of national importance be? I take the 'national' as meaning that it tackles problems of pertinence to the UK, or develops understanding and tools which will beneficially impact the UK. Some of these may be specifically relevant to the UK's needs, while others may offer much broader international benefit as well - uniqueness to the UK is not a necessary requirement. I take 'importance' to mean that the work has contributed to a change in direction, in practice, in application, or in understanding of a discipline or its use.

Professor David J Hand, Professor of Statistics, Imperial College

To me, judgments about national importance should consider how the research will benefit the UK in the context of strong and rapidly growing international competition. This applies whether the perceived importance is fundamental in nature or more applied. For example, proposers should explain, and reviewers should judge, how a piece of research will lead to fundamental science breakthroughs that will compete with internationally leading research groups in the relevant area, not just those based in the UK. Likewise, many companies have global reach and can shop around for research innovations; as such, applied importance should also be set in a context of international competition. In this sense, mapping onto societal or economic challenges may not in itself be sufficient to ensure importance. No proposals should be considered as inherently important or unimportant on the basis of their theme alone; this has to be judged on the basis of what is proposed, and by whom. A brilliant, well-founded idea can always compete, even in research areas where the UK as a whole is relatively weak, but proposers should demonstrate that they have an appreciation of the nature and the scale of the international competition. Genuinely transformative ideas can redefine what is nationally important in the future.

Professor Andy Cooper, Head of the School of Physical Sciences, University of Liverpool

What would you be looking for as a peer reviewer?

When considering how to evaluate the national importance aspect of a proposal I would be looking for the applicant(s) to set out the current landscape that their proposal fits within and use evidence to support their interpretation of this landscape. For instance, this could include reference to national reviews of specific areas or reviews of gaps in capability that have been prepared by funding and research councils. Government papers also hold some useful information. These reviews tend to focus on research areas however there are also papers on the industrial landscape which is important to consider when setting the overall scene and looking forward. As this is looking at a 10-50 year time scale there is a degree of crystal ball gazing needed but if fully backed up with the best available evidence then this is as good as one can expect. Once the scene has been set and justified I would be looking for the applicant(s) to put their proposed research into this landscape with reference to existing and competitive research to show how their research would satisfy the national importance. Reference to the expected impact on other priority areas and the UK industry/end user community in terms of importance would also be useful in gauging the scope of the importance for the specific proposal. It would be easy to confuse national importance with impact and I think it's critical that proposals address each item specifically without too much overlap.

Professor Duncan Graham, Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, University of Strathclyde

EPSRC and the research community both recognise that there are many ways in which fundamental research is of national importance. These include the provision of trained personnel, outreach, raising the UK's international profile and, of course, commercial exploitation. Consequently, when assessing research proposals, I would be aware that research can become important for different, often unforeseen, reasons and over a range of timescales. A key personal influence when judging national importance is the history of science and innovation. Assessment criteria must be sufficiently broad to ensure that, if applied retrospectively, they would not block any of the groundbreaking discoveries made over the last 100 years and beyond, which have transformed our lives. Most of these discoveries originated from fundamental research, but turned out to be of immense commercial and societal benefit. Two recent Nobel Prizes awarded to UK scientists - Sir Peter Mansfield for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for graphene - resulted from research curiosity. But MRI has already transformed industries, medicine and lives and graphene offers similar impact. It is, of course, impossible to predict which research proposals to EPSRC will be so groundbreaking. However, there is strong evidence showing that investment in high-quality fundamental science will, overall, be more than repaid by commercial return. Ensuring that mechanisms are in place to exploit research results that do have commercial potential, for example through EPSRC's Knowledge Transfer Secondments and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships schemes, is thus also of high national importance.

Professor Mark Fromhold, Professor of Physics, The University of Nottingham

As a reviewer, I think it is going to be quite hard to address the national importance criteria, especially if the proposal is not in one's own precise research area. In the first instance, I would therefore expect the investigators to appreciate this, and to put the national importance of their research area into context, both clearly and concisely. We are asked to consider the points for National Importance as detailed above. I would expect clear demonstrations of routes by which research would address these areas, and not throw-away statements such as My research is important nationally to the automotive industry. This would need to be substantiated with answers to questions such as: which part in particular? Why? What routes are there for uptake? I'd also like investigators not to rely on statements, such as providing a trained pool of researchers - this is certainly an important part of the grant proposal, but for me I would be looking for something a little more tangible in terms of the national importance.

Professor Edmund Linfield, School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, The University of Leeds

If you still have questions, then please contact the relevant portfolio manager for your area to discuss further. EPSRC staff will be happy to discuss general principals regarding the changes. Contact details for all EPSRC staff can be found on the contact us page.