Research England launch Expanding Excellence in England (E3): round 2

Hands holding plants growing out of soil

To build capacity and nurture talent in our research system, I set out the opportunity E3 provides through our novel means of funding.

Expanding Excellence in England

In 2018, we set out to deliberately create the opportunity for institutions to build critical mass and capability from small clusters within and across universities where there was not yet scaled research activity.

Research England was keen to share the risks associated in building research excellence from a small activity into larger, self-sustaining research centres, particularly in universities without substantial underpinning block grant funding. We wanted to support novel research agendas unlikely to be found elsewhere and through these build future potential discovery pipelines contributing to knowledge, understanding and commercial application.

Earlier this year, Research England confirmed its commitment to this fund, and I am pleased to announce that today, we launch the second wave of E3.

In the first round, 13 projects were selected across a wide range of universities, disciplines and in different locations across England. In looking at the progress of these schemes, the impact is palpable and there are early indications that these schemes have been game changing for institutions and for novel research endeavour.

They have led to at least 280 new academic appointments, a plethora of partnerships with business, charities, and public and private sector organisations. Overall external research income for these units has doubled and training programmes for future research talent have been developed. The web of effects spread beyond the centres themselves to the multiple interactions through their wider engagement. It has been particularly inspiring to visit some of the projects during my early days as Executive Chair.

Many of the centres are found in institutions where there have been improvements in performance in Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 and, also where significant growth in staff returned has occurred with increased quality-related (QR) allocation as a result.

Though not all will develop the traction as originally conceived, and institutions must remain free to direct and develop their research as they see fit; the schemes appear to be reaching sustainability with permanent commitment by institutions. Indeed, some are moving to the next stage of development and are planning to scale, broaden their scope and are clear peaks of excellence.

REF 2021 indicates there are many pockets of excellence across England where there is scope to expand; it is clear, if we are to increase the research and innovation footprint in the UK, and with a wider geographic distribution, E3 is an important vehicle.

The projects may have contributed to a more general shift in QR beyond the greater south-east where there is a 16.5% increase of QR resource. Some centres stand out in the way they are enabling critical mass research capability in what may have been deemed a ‘cold spot’, and some have forged important collaborations with established research-intensive institutions nearby.

So where next?

We are allocating up to £180 million over 5 years, drawn from Research England’s recurrent research and capital budgets, to support a second tranche of exciting and imaginative schemes in universities.

Why now?

Though these are challenging times in the current economic environment and difficult decisions are being made across institutions in England it is crucial that the sector does not scale back its ambition, or limit opportunity to generations of talent in key research areas.

This is especially true in parts of the country where investment is needed most, and where it is therefore incumbent on organisations such as Research England to direct our resources to continue to invest in innovative research areas and support talented research, technical and professional research staff.

Our approach

In 2018, decisions were largely ‘place’ blind with the primary criteria centring on the size, excellence, novelty of the agenda and the plan for sustainable growth. While these criteria remain important, for this round we will be placing greater emphasis on the regional context and how units can benefit local economies, society, and cultures.

We will also consider location and the opportunity to build institutional collaboration where this can enhance capability or avoid duplication where facilities can be shared or enable complementarity. Furthermore, we will look at how institutions will build inclusive research cultures and support early career researchers in their plans for expansion.

While this fund is primarily aimed at those institutions that do not have substantial underpinning QR allocations, we continue to encourage joint applications that build on institutional collaborations where this can enhance local capabilities. To provide a better runway towards sustainability, we will also increase the length of the funding period available from 3 years to 5 years.

Successful units will start to receive their funding for the 2024 to 2025 academic year; we aim to provide an 8-month notification period so that recruitment of staff can begin as early as possible.

Part of the wider research and innovation system addressing great challenges

The features of a dynamic system should encompass diversity of setting, geography, type of institution and disciplines. Capability needs to be built in new and different fields, and capacity in underserved disciplines and new forms of interdisciplinary practice as well as support the development of technologies.

We need concerted, collaborative, and collective effort not just across disciplines but also institutions, sectors, and countries to address the many challenges faced by our society. We must foster agile and determined ways of working, new forms of leadership, a different understanding of how we value and assess research practice and new cultures.

Research England is looking to use the levers at its disposal to support such direction and E3 is 1 of these.

In both our commitment to continuing E3 and our change in emphasis in what we seek to fund, we signal future direction for our research system.

Find out more about the E3 fund: round 2 funding opportunity.

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