Where E3 began
Back in 2018, which seems like another world now, the then recently created Research England launched a novel funding scheme called ‘Expanding Excellence in England’ or E3. The scheme was specifically designed to target small clusters of researchers, within (or across) universities, whose:
- research excellence was acknowledged by the sector, and
- had the potential to grow their capability
Reaching a ‘critical mass’, however, is not a simple matter. It involves universities assuming some risk to grow the capacity of a small cluster into a larger, self-sustaining centre of research.
It is particularly risky for universities who are not in receipt of a significant block grant or with otherwise limited ability to fund capacity building projects. These require significant resource and capital budgets and may not reach financial sustainability for some time.
The aim of E3 was therefore to share this risk with institutions to:
- super-charge capacity building
- enable these institutions to take advantage of their world leading research
- advance new and novel research agendas, to stay ‘one step ahead of the game’
It was also critical for E3 to not just move researchers around the country but to create new, sustainable pipelines of talent across England in strategic areas and encourage the development of equally excellent research cultures.
We can see from early indications that E3 round 1 units are achieving these aims. When compared with the preceding 3-year period, between 2019 and 2021, the 13 E3 funded units have seen staff numbers increase by nearly 280 (full-time equivalent) and an additional 161 partnerships with the public, private, charitable and university sectors.
From a financial sustainability perspective, indications from the third year of reporting show that income across the units has increased from approximately £22.5 million to £41.2 million.
How E3 enabled research units during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic hit during the first academic year of E3 funding. The E3 units, however, were not to be blown off course. Indeed, many units sailed headfirst into it, using the flexible nature of this funding to meet COVID-19 challenges.
For example, a unit at the University of Northumbria, in efforts led by Professor Darren Smith harnessed both their E3 funded equipment and postgraduates, to pivot to the national genomic response as part of COG-UK. The team were able to rapidly identify variants of concern.
It is also because of the flexible nature of the E3 budget, that the 13 funded units were able to alter course: money intended for then-cancelled fieldwork or conferences could be spent on early career researcher training, hosting webinars, or other activities that underpinned the units’ work.
It became clear however, that the extent of the disruption necessitated an extension of the timeline and a further period of ‘bridge’ funding to assist units in achieving long term sustainability as we came out of the pandemic period.
E3 successes and impact
And yet, despite COVID-19, the units have notched up a number of successes since 2019. These include institutions being awarded their first ever:
As well as:
- a prestigious Economic and Social Research Council centre
- numerous high profile collaborations (for example, with Google DeepMind)
- the success of individual researchers funded via E3
Generating local and regional impact and building on the strengths of institutional settings were themes at the heart of this scheme.
E3 funding at the University of Lincoln enabled 2 research groups to combine and grow into the largest agri-food automation centre in Europe and the world’s first global centre of excellence in agricultural robotics. Lincoln Agri-Robotics has secured over 100 agri-tech projects, involving 214 unique partners in both local and global industries, research and university centres, government agencies and third sector bodies.
Plans for E3: round 2
On the back of these early signs of success, and the recognition of the breadth of pockets of research excellence across England in the Research Excellence Framework 2021, Research England now intends to pursue a second round of E3 funding to further grow research capacity and capability across England.
We are also pleased to announce that Professor Mary Stuart, former Vice-Chancellor of Lincoln University, will be chairing the independent assessment panel. Professor Stuart is not only a champion of the role of higher education providers in place and delivering local economic growth, but has first-hand experience of the transformative nature of E3 funding.
Professor Stuart said:
The E3 fund has already provided funding to enhance excellent research across England and this new round will drive this further and deeper.
I am really looking forward to working with panel members to make a difference to research activities across the country.
I would urge colleagues to apply to join us.
We are aiming to officially launch the competition before the end of the year and further detail on how to apply will be provided then. We expect an increased budget for this competition in comparison to round 1 and will be placing greater emphasis on putting ‘place’ at the centre of proposals and harnessing these awards to further diversify research talent.
Expert panel members required
We are pleased to be recruiting for panellists for the expert assessment panel for a second round of funding. We welcome applications now and before the closing date on 3 January 2022.
We will leave the final word to our new Executive Chair, Dame Jessica Corner:
I am delighted that Research England is able to support the growth of excellent research in our universities through a second round of E3 funding at a time when offering such support is crucial to ensuring the continued growth of research and innovation.
I particularly look forward to seeing the impacts this second round of funding will have on the talent pipeline and on providing a stepping stone to the financial sustainability of small, excellent research units.
Top image: Credit: Pexels