National importance statement examples - EPSRC

As part of our ongoing guidance on national importance, we have worked with successful applicants to highlight good examples of national importance statements.

The paragraphs included below have been extracted from real proposals that have been through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) process. All of the proposals were successful and received supportive reviewer comments on the national importance criteria.

There are several ways to articulate national importance which can be seen in the examples below. There are a number of aspects of national importance as described in our guidance for example social benefits, economic benefits or world-leading science.

As demonstrated by these case studies it is not always necessary to make a case against all of these.

Bio-inspired approaches to functional nanostructured materials

Steven Armes, Professor of Polymer and Colloid Chemistry, University of Sheffield
Fiona Meldrum, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, University of Leeds

This interdisciplinary research proposal has the potential for substantial impact across multiple EPSRC priority areas. In particular, control of self-assembly is currently a signposted area within EPSRC’s physical sciences portfolio, and our combined scientific expertise clearly maps onto two subsets of this portfolio: functional ceramics and inorganics and polymer materials.

Our proposal is also relevant to both materials engineering-composites and materials engineering-ceramics within EPSRC’s engineering portfolio.

With EPSRC support, we have established a lead of six to nine months over our international competitors (Nature Materials, October 2011). Our unique partnership integrates cutting-edge polymer science with state-of-the-art bio-inspired materials research.

Follow-on funding is now sought, so that we can capitalise on this competitive advantage in order to establish the UK as world leaders in this emerging area.

The medium-term (three to five years) objective is to exploit our rational approach, elucidate fundamental design principles and hence generate a wide range of novel nanocomposite materials that combine functionality with hierarchical structure.

Given increasing environmental concerns, such sustainable processing routes will become increasingly important. Moreover, Procter and Gamble and Unilever have strong commercial interest in the microencapsulation of organic actives.

It is difficult to specify deliverables over 10 to 50 years, since these will ultimately depend on as-yet unknown physical properties. Nevertheless, this work programme offers enormous potential for the development of next-generation materials and could influence the production of important biomaterials, such as artificial bone and synthetic dental enamel.

Advanced Monte Carlo methods for inference in complex dynamic models

Arnaud Doucet, Professor of Statistics, University of Oxford

From an academic point of view, this work will help maintain UK excellence in computational statistics and Monte Carlo statistical methods. With ever-increasing computational power, Monte Carlo methods have become very popular in a wide range of disciplines and many other academic research areas will directly benefit from the outcomes of this project including ecology, econometrics, data mining, social networks analysis but also statistical genetics, robotics, tracking and so on.

From an end-user importance point of view, this work will be of interest to a wide range of businesses and companies in the UK. Monte Carlo methods are already widely used in the finance (volatility estimation, pricing) and defence industries (tracking, autonomous robots, navigation) and any innovation in this field is quickly adopted.

However, these methods are also useful for ecommerce companies (social networks analysis), pharmaceutical companies (pharmacodynamics or pharmacokinetics), TV companies (for example automatic tracking of football players on a pitch) and so on.

From a societal importance point of view, data assimilation techniques are already widely used for weather prediction, for example, to study the diffusion of pollutants in the atmosphere.

Monte Carlo methods are used routinely in this field but current methods are quite crude so any significant development in this area will have a major impact. These techniques could also be of great use in the digital hospital component of the digital economy programme which involves the real-time accurate data fusion and tracking of patients.

A multi-functional organic charge coupled device

Martin Taylor, Professor of Organic Electronic Engineering, Bangor University

Plastic electronics is realising its potential for applications in areas such as ultra-thin displays, solar panels, intelligent packaging and printable logic. The value of the market is predicted to rise to $5 billion by 2012 (IDTechEx).

The UK government has recognised printed electronics as a key growth sector for the UK. EPSRC has supported world-leading research in this sector for decades, initially in areas such as electroactive materials and carbon-based electronics.

More recent investments include a £50 million state-of-the art National Centre for Printed Electronics in Sedgefield and ongoing support through Technologies Strategy Board, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) and Innovative Electronics Manufacturing Research Centre (IeMRC) funding for collaborative research and technology transfer projects.

The proposed programme is consistent with EPSRC’s non-complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) devices and manufacturing the future themes, and will also contribute towards the healthcare technologies theme, through the opportunity it presents for fabricating conformal imaging systems for diagnostic applications.

The programme also fits with the Welsh government’s economic regeneration strategy, which identifies optoelectronics, product design and advanced materials as cross-cutting themes.

The expertise and experience of the group is already contributing significantly to the Welsh government’s technology transfer activities by supporting the growth of Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SMEs) such as SmartKem Ltd, which is developing high-performance, organic semiconducting materials to the plastic electronics industry.

The outcomes from this proposed project will contribute directly to the success of these long-term investments through the development of a new class of organic electronic device.

The UK has an excellent academic and industrial track record for producing high performance materials for plastic electronics. The UK printing industry is also highly competitive both in the manufacture of printing equipment such as General Vacuum and as end users such as Camvac. Both companies are represented on the advisory board of our collaborative IeMRC Flagship project: roll-to-roll vacuum-deposited carbon based electronics.

By extending our expertise from single devices to state-of-the-art design and fabrication of functional systems compatible with manufacturing processes, this programme will firmly establish Bangor as an important player in the supply chain between materials producers and end-user.

Excluding organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) and organic photovoltaics (OPV) research, virtually all other academic research in plastic electronics focuses on the properties of single devices, thus neglecting the problems associated with circuit design and circuit integration for example interconnections, crossovers and the need for high device yields.

The proposed programme will contribute towards filling a gap in the expertise of the UK plastics electronics community in these areas and will complement the research being undertaken in our IeMRC project.

Physics and applications of electron vortex beams

Jun Yuan, Professor of Physics, University of York
Mohamed M Babiker, Professor of Physics, University of York

Our proposed research aims to meet the grand challenges in science identified by EPSRC for the coming decade including nanoscale design of functional materials and directed assembly.

The proposed research contributes directly, by providing the ability to assemble nanostructures potentially atom by atom using atom trapping and to shape materials into complex structures through patterned illumination.

It also contributes indirectly, by providing additional phase and chiral sensitive analytical techniques to facilitate the nanoscale structure-property correlation.

The research will lead to new materials of relevance to areas such as electronics for sensors, communications and information-processing, as well as data storage within a 10 to 15 year timescale.

Socio-economically, our research will allow the UK to remain at the forefront of new developments in electron microscopy with new concepts, novel instrumentations and involving highly innovative and skilled people.

We expect our research to result in new startups and in the UK becoming a base for international investment in relevant technologies.

Our research will also have impact in the contexts of pharmacological and biological research and development by providing phase and chiral-sensitive imaging tools at the nanometer scale.

The research will contribute to meeting the grand challenges in biology, especially in the single cell imaging at molecular resolution by providing high contrast and high resolution imaging of thick samples approaching single cell dimensions. This may greatly aid system biology in the post-genome age, the development of which will lead to new drugs and healthcare improvement.

CVD diamond as a substrate for biological cell growth – towards direct brain-computer interfaces

Paul May, Professor of Physical Chemistry, University of Bristol
Dr Maeve Caldwell, Neuroscience, University of Bristol
Dr Frederik Claeyssens, Biomaterials, University of Sheffield

The UK is currently a research leader in both biomaterials development and stem cell research, and this proposal will help strengthen this position over the next 10 to 50 year timeframe.

In particular, the UK has an emerging research presence in the field of neuronal tissue engineering and neural implants, for example via companies such as ReNeuron (neuronal stem cell therapy) and Renishaw (neurosurgical implant tools).

Additionally, the importance of neural implants to address neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis will only increase in the mid-term future, especially in light of our ageing population.

Even very recently (as reported on 17 January 2012) the Neurological Alliance, representing 70 organisations and charities, warned that the NHS is facing a neurological timebomb unless urgent action is taken to address diseases such as Parkinson’s.

The proposed research directly addresses current inadequacies, including rejection problems, in brain interfacing devices (such as deep-brain stimulation). If successful, the outcomes of the experimental programme of this proposal will be rapidly translated towards industry or clinical applications, and will have an important societal impact within the 10 to 50 year timescale.

Development and application of fibre-laser based excitation sources for biomedical photoacoustic (PA) imaging

Paul Beard, Professor of Biomedical Photoacoustics, University College London (UCL)
Professor David Richardson, Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre, Southampton University

Photoacoustic (PA) imaging is widely regarded as in the ascendancy. For example, from around five research groups worldwide in 2003 the number had increased to over 40 in 2011.

As a result of significant EPSRC investment, the UK has played a pioneering role in the development of the technique from its very earliest days and has now established an internationally leading position.

The unique laser technology that will be developed by the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) and applied by UCL will significantly enhance the UK presence and competitive edge in the field, both in advanced PA imaging instrumentation and the biomedical application of the technique.

More generally, the research will contribute to the health of the strong UK research base in medical imaging, a vital element of which is the development of new modalities such as PA imaging.

The UK is also internationally-leading in fibre laser research. EPSRC and the Technologies Strategy Board have made significant and sustained investments in the field for over 25 years and as a result the UK has pioneered and made seminal contributions to the field.

There is now acute interest in the technology, with many countries around the globe (including the US, Japan, Germany, China, France and Australia) launching major programmes over the past decade.

Tackling societal challenges: with increasing rates of major diseases such as cancer and the ageing population in the UK there is a need for new technologies such as PA imaging that could provide improved clinical detection, diagnosis and treatment monitoring as well as new tools for basic research in life science.

Fibre laser technology also has great potential for exploitation in addressing many of the grand challenges facing society. In manufacturing, fibre lasers are improving precision while reducing cost and energy demands; they are also being used for sensing and environmental monitoring, to power the internet and in many aerospace and security applications.

Benefits to the UK economy: by removing the bottleneck that current lasers represent, fibre laser technology could lead to rapid growth in the commercialisation of PA imaging as a preclinical imaging tool within three to five years ($300 million PA global market) and within a decade for clinical use ($10 billion global market).

Fibre lasers are also displacing incumbent defence, manufacturing and medical technologies, as well in fundamental science, and are enjoying an ever-increasing share (currently around 10%) of the annual $8 billion global laser market.

Alignment to EPSRC priorities: this proposal is aligned with EPSRC’s healthcare technologies challenge theme of which new medical imaging technologies is sub-theme.

Historically and currently, EPSRC has invested heavily in biomedical imaging research. The current portfolio of £79.2 million represents 7.7% of the total investment in engineering-related areas – suggesting its importance.

Fibre laser research itself is also linked to the needs of the EPSRC Manufacturing the Future theme since laser-based techniques are of ever-increasing importance across a range of manufacturing sectors.

Work at the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) in this area is supported by a number of routes including the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Photonics (based within the ORC) and Technology Strategy Board projects such as SMARTLASER.

The fibre laser research also has potential to impact the EPSRC energy theme since nanosecond pulse shaped fibre lasers are used as precision seed sources to drive the high-power laser systems being used to investigate laser driven fusion.

Resilient and sustainable steel frame with innovative post-tensioned connections and rate-dependent passive dampers for multi-hazard resistant design

Dr Theodore Karavasilis, Assistant Professor in Structural Engineering, University of Warwick

The UK government recognises the importance of construction to achieving a sustainable economy. This project will help the UK meet this and other targets by developing a sustainable steel structural system which can realise decreases in construction cost; rapid assembly on-site; and simple deconstruction, adaptability, and potential for reuse of structural members.

The project will help the UK to achieve resilient infrastructure by developing rapidly repairable steel structures with enhanced resistance to bomb blast, heavy vehicle collision and strong earthquakes. The research will support:

Key existing industries (UK economy): the project will provide several UK industries with technology to increase their markets in the UK and abroad. Steel manufactures or contractors, producers of elastomers and companies producing post-tensioning solutions will have significant benefits.

New or emerging industries (UK economy): the project will highlight the effectiveness of rate-dependent dampers against extreme loading conditions and support UK industries on viscous, elastomeric, magnetorheological or other smart materials to understand the commercial potential of an investment on dampers production.

The proposed innovative fuse-PT bar system is a new design paradigm in the area of post-tensioning and new industrial products incorporating this innovation can be developed with further research and development.

Other research areas: the proposed research and concept can contribute to other research areas including: design against windstorms or tsunamis; retrofit of existing building infrastructure; design of dampers to decrease wind accelerations in tall buildings; and use of dampers to extend the service life of bridges under traffic loading.

EPSRC challenge themes: the project fully aligns with EPSRC’s global, economic and societal challenge themes Living with Environmental Change; Global Uncertainties; and Energy – the latter by developing a frame with low energy demand construction.

Related research in the UK and overseas: self-centring systems, dampers and multi-hazard resistant design are research areas currently attracting major funding in the USA, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan.

Engineered burden-based feedback for robust and optimised synthetic biology

Dr Thomas Ellis, Lecturer in Synthetic Biology, Imperial College
Dr Guy-Bart Stan, Lecturer in Synthetic Biology, Imperial College

Synthetic biology is a priority area for UKRI and the Technology Strategy Board. Investing in foundational work in systems and synthetic biology is intended to aid downstream industrialisation.

Major influential international bodies, including the OECD, the US government and the recent Six Academies meetings (US, UK and China) agree that the future global economy requires industrial synthetic biology.

In the UK this will allow us to exploit our current research base in engineering and biological sciences to create new synthetic biology industries, rejuvenate the existing biotechnology sector, support many SMEs, attract inward investment and create new jobs.

Overall, this project will directly contribute to the UK’s growing world‐class excellence in synthetic biology, as well as existing excellence in control engineering research in the UK. It will help produce foundational tools, parts and methods that will greatly aim downstream industrialisation of synthetic biology and realisation of the future bioeconomy.

Wind turbine gust prediction

Dr Bryn Jones, Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, University of Sheffield

There are few problems of more pressing urgency than the long-term securement of a clean and reliable source of energy. Concerns over climate change, coupled with dwindling North Sea fuel resources and volatility in the oil market, are forcing the UK to move away from fossil-fuel based energy production.

At the same time, nuclear fission remains politically unpalatable, while the promise of nuclear fusion remains a distant prospect. It is well known that the UK is endowed with vast offshore wind-energy resources, and it is therefore no surprise that wind energy is a key strategic component of government energy policy.

At present, offshore power production stands at approximately 10 TWh per year, but is forecast to increase to 430 TWh per year by 2050. The investment associated with such growth will inevitably see a significant rise in the number of UK nationals employed by the wind energy industry, a figure that currently stands at 4,000 jobs.

However, the development of this key emerging industry, and the associated economic benefits, are unlikely to be achieved unless the unit cost of power production in the offshore market can quickly become more competitive with traditional methods.

The key to this lies in developing technologies that can optimise the use of the wind while reducing the large costs associated with construction and maintenance, hence the importance of the proposed research.

The proposed research into wind turbine gust prediction resides squarely within the remit of EPSRC’s energy challenge theme in addressing challenges in offshore renewables and targeting technologies with the potential to meet the UK’s carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction targets. It also addresses the Framework Programme 7 activity ‘Demonstration of innovative designs to reduce fatigue loads and improve reliability of multi-megawatt turbines’.

Wind energy aside, the ability to estimate the state of a flow from a limited set of measurements is of fundamental importance to all emerging and future flow-control technologies. For instance, the ability to estimate, in real-time, the flow behind road vehicles at typical motorway speeds would open up the possibility of being able to actively control the unsteady vortex-shedding mechanism that is a major source of vehicle drag and hence fuel consumption.

This is a major, unsolved problem of national importance given that in the UK alone, road transport consumed over 40 million tonnes of fuel in 2009, amounting to nearly 30% of total annual UK energy consumption.

Similarly, reducing aircraft skin friction drag by just a few per cent would provide enormous economic and environmental benefits given that the airline industry consumes around 1.5 billion barrels of jet fuel per year. Again, active control of the flow relies upon the provision of accurate estimates from a limited number of sensors.

Given the potential economic and environmental impact of flow-control technologies in overcoming a number of energy efficiency problems in the wind energy and transportation industries, it is essential that the UK adopts a leading position in this research field.

Multivariate Bayesian modelling of skewness and kurtosis with applications in biostatistics

Mark Steel, Professor of Statistics, University of Warwick

One major set of contributions of this research would be in the development of statistical methodology. This is an area where the UK has traditionally been very strong, but in recent decades this comparative advantage has been somewhat eroded, as documented in the International Review of Mathematics (both in 2004 and 2010).

In particular, the research proposed here would build upon key areas of strength of the UK research base in statistics (Bayesian modelling, computational statistics, biostatistics, longitudinal data analysis). This aspect of the research would contribute to the mathematical sciences portfolio of EPSRC (within the growth area of statistics and applied probability).

An important second set of contributions would be in the specific areas of application in biomedical modelling. The joint modelling of longitudinal responses and the time to an event (such as death or the onset of a disease) is critical in understanding the evolution of many diseases, such as HIV, cardiovascular disease, renal disease or liver cirrhosis.

In such situations, we also often wish to include additional recurrent events (such as opportunistic diseases or hospitalisations) in the model, as they are important indicators for quality of life.

Allowing for flexible joint modelling of all these processes, formally taking into account model uncertainty and censored or missing observations would be an important advance in this area. In addition, we would make code freely available, so our methodology could be used by applied statisticians and medical practitioners.

Thus, we also contribute to substantive applications in the theme ‘Healthcare Technologies: techniques for biomedical understanding’ highlighted in the EPSRC portfolio, which includes modelling which can be applied to biomedicine.

Given the importance of enhancing our understanding of the progression of for example HIV and cardiovascular diseases, we expect this can also be of interest to non-academic organisations and decision-makers in health policy.

Special holonomy: geometric flow and boundary value problems

Jason Lotay, Lecturer in Pure Mathematics, University College London (UCL)

The proposed research is in geometry, with a focus on using techniques from geometric analysis and electronic data systems (EDS) to study nonlinear partial differential equations (PDEs).

The UK is internationally recognised as a leader in geometry, which is a fundamental part of modern mathematics and has applications throughout the physical and life sciences, engineering and information and communication technologies (ICT).

The International Review of Mathematical Sciences 2010 found that the part of geometry that most needs strengthening in the UK is the connection between geometric analysis and partial differential equations and recommended that opportunities should be exploited for fruitful collaborations between analysis and other fields of the mathematical sciences, most notably in geometry and topology. These sentiments are echoed in the findings of the EPSRC Pure Maths Workshop (2012).

Geometric flows are a major part of geometric analysis internationally and form a developing area of research in the UK. These flows play a central role in this proposal and have proven to be important tools not just within mathematics, where they have led to the resolution of longstanding famous conjectures, but also in engineering where mean curvature flow provides a robust means for removing noise from empirical data (for example, in images of brains from various types of scanners).

Another crucial part of the project is the use of elliptic boundary value problems, which occur in a variety of contexts both within mathematics and in physical applications such as modelling beam bending and the interactions between molecules and cells in biology.

Overall, the national importance of the proposal will be to strengthen the research at the interface between geometry and analysis in the UK.

Boolean modelling of biochemical networks

Ozgur Akman, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, University of Exeter

The UK government’s Science and Innovation Framework 2004 to 2014 highlighted systems biology as one of its exemplar multidisciplinary research themes, with significant potential in economically critical areas such as medicine and crop breeding.

In 2007, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences jointly published an influential report further outlining the strategic importance of the area to the UK as a vehicle for advancing knowledge and building the nation’s wealth. Crucially, the report identified the construction of predictive mathematical models through iterative cycles of experiments and computational analysis to be a fundamental objective of both systems biology and its sister discipline synthetic biology.

The development of robust techniques for building and validating quantitative models of complex dynamical networks is therefore a key challenge for physical scientists working in these fields, and is the general research theme within which this project lies.

Moreover, the application of quantitative modelling methods to circadian biology is necessary to understand and predict the effects of climate change on key clock-regulated phenological processes in plants, such as photosynthesis, flowering time, seed germination and fruiting.

This will inform rational strategies for breeding agronomically and ecologically important crops with improved performance under new climate scenarios. Conversely, quantifying the effect of temperature shifts on plant distributions will be important for accurate long-range predictions using climate change models.

The proposed project thus aligns directly with the EPSRC’s strategic priorities in the themes of mathematical sciences (particularly nonlinear systems and complexity science) and living with environmental change.

Theory of badly approximable sets

Dzmitry Badziahin, Lecturer of Mathematical Sciences, Durham University

The research proposed in this application primarily aims at developing new techniques and solving outstanding problems in the theory of diophantine approximation. For decades this area of research has been a UK strength and has led to numerous breakthroughs, some of them being acknowledged by Fields medals (Roth, Baker).

Nowadays, the UK position in diophantine approximation as well as in other research areas particularly close to the proposed research such that ergodic theory and dynamical systems are strong and represented across the country, for example at Bristol, Manchester, Warwick, York and other places.

Doubtless the UK will continue to hold one of the world-leading positions in the area. The proposed research will help maintain the UK leadership and contribute to the development of its research capability in this research area.

This will highly likely remain important over the next 10 to 50 years as the various high-profile research activities in the area have only recently started unfolding. In particular, EPSRC is currently funding two large research programmes in the area: one at Bristol (EP/J00149X/1) and one at York (EP/J018260/1).

After all, the proposed research is perfectly aligned with the current EPSRC portfolio of research: number theory and more broadly analysis are two currently active themes within mathematical S=sciences.

Bringing set theory and algebraic topology together

Andrew Brooke-Taylor, EPSRC Early Career Fellow, University of Bristol

Set theory in the UK is currently a small but world class grouping, and is one of the four major areas of mathematical logic, which EPSRC plans to maintain. This project will significantly benefit the health of set theory, with new and strengthened connections to the central mathematical discipline of algebraic topology, and a refocusing of research on such connections.

At the same time, the set theoretic tools of forcing and large cardinals which will play an important role in this project are notably also major features of the two current EPSRC-funded classical set theory projects – inner model theory in outer models led by Philip Welch (Bristol), and Combinatorial set theory at the successor of a singular cardinal: a marriage of a forcing axiom and a reaction principle led by Mirna Dizamonja (UEA), so this project is a good fit for the current UK set theory landscape.

Algebraic topology is a central topic in the Geometry and Topology area, which was identified by the International Review of Mathematical Sciences 2010 as an area in which the UK is an international leader and which EPSRC has decided to maintain.

The EPSRC portfolio webpage for this area explicitly states a strategy to build upon growing connections with other mathematical disciplines and beyond, making this proposal particularly resonant with the strategy. It would of course ensure that the UK is at the very forefront of research bringing set-theoretic tools to bear on the area.

It should also be noted that the UK has a world-leading community in topos theory (with a strong showing for example in the category theory and logic group in the Faculty of Mathematics at Cambridge). This is another topic that brings category theory together with logic, although generally non-classical logic rather than the classical logic in which this project is couched.

Despite the differences between the subject matter of this proposal and the usual interests of the topos theory community, the general environment in the UK of excellence in category theory and the foundations of mathematics is something which this proposal would help to maintain and expand in new directions.

Regarding short-term social and economic impact, the UK has a particularly strong history of public engagement in science, with for example the internationally distributed New Scientist magazine based in the UK. Thus, the public engagement in science pathways described in the Pathways to Impact statement will be particularly relevant to the UK.

Last updated: 14 October 2021

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