Artificial intelligence for better biomedical and health research

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Apply for funding to use artificial intelligence (AI) for biomedical and health research.

To lead a proposal, you must be from a UK research organisation eligible for MRC funding.

You can focus on:

  • reducing issues that stop the use of AI
  • finding new uses for AI
  • enabling better use of AI.

We encourage you to work with partners outside the research community. You must be willing to make the results of your research available to anyone to use.

We will fund up to 100% of your project’s direct costs.

We expect to fund five to seven projects for up to six months.

Who can apply

The principal investigator must be based at the lead organisation, which should be UK-based and one of the following:

  • higher education institution
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisation or NHS body
  • government-funded organisation (other than an MRC unit or institute)
  • MRC institute
  • MRC unit or partnership institute
  • institute or unit funded by other research councils
  • public sector research establishment (PSRE).

Review the list of eligible and potentially eligible PSREs.

Principal and co-investigators

Principal investigators may only submit one application to this initiative as a principal investigator, but may be involved in more applications, if listed as a co-investigator. Where two or more investigators will have equal intellectual input and leadership roles, they may be named as co-principal investigators.

A principal investigator (PI) or co-investigator (CoI) must have a contract of employment with the research organisation for the duration of the grant prior to application.

Read the MRC guidance for applicants.

We recognise the diversity of expertise and skills necessary for a successful research team. We encourage proposals to recognise the contribution of different disciplines and technical professionals, using researcher co-investigator status as appropriate.

Read the MRC guidance on researcher co-investigators.

Collaborations

We welcome collaborations across:

  • academia
  • NHS
  • industry
  • third sector.

Collaborations with commercial parties will be required to submit an executed collaboration agreement at the full application stage only.

Your team may include international co-investigators where additional impact can be justified. This must be discussed and agreed with the Programme Manager (Dr Yan Yip, informatics@mrc.ukri.org) in advance of submitting your expression of interest form.

Industry involvement and available funding

MRC is keen for industry to be actively involved in consortia and, whilst we expect that large companies would support their own costs in participating in the consortia, we are willing to consider requests for funding from small or medium companies involved in the consortia.

These requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and will need to be accompanied by an explanation at the full application stage as to:

  • why the involvement of the company is essential to the success of the consortia
  • how the funding to the company will be used to support the objectives of the consortia
  • why the company is not able to support the costs themselves.

MRC will undertake diligence checks on companies requesting funding to ensure that public money is appropriately awarded. MRC reserves the right to adapt the funding model available to companies to comply with future UK subsidy control rules. If this is necessary, MRC will communicate with applicants during the application process.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

The MRC is committed to achieving equality of opportunity for all and aims to create an inclusive environment that encourages excellence in scientific research through good equalities practice. Diversity is one of the core MRC values, and we are working to ensure that the ways in which we fund embrace a diversity of:

  • thought
  • people
  • geographical locations
  • ideas.

There has been a longstanding lack of diversity in the data science and AI sectors, particularly with regard to gender and ethnicity. As well, only 2% of applicants for MRC grants (principal investigators and co-investigators) have disclosed disabilities. We strongly encourage applications from under-represented groups, including:

  • female and ethnic minority researchers
  • researchers with disabilities or long-term conditions.

It is important that researchers and their research teams are able to work flexibly and in a way that meets their personal circumstances. MRC endeavours to support such arrangements subject to the funding opportunity’s:

  • intent
  • proposed project plans
  • expected duration of funding.

MRC guidance on career breaks and flexible working (PDF, 41KB).

What we're looking for

AI is an area of strategic interest for the UK government and UKRI recently published a strategic review of AI opportunities across the breadth of its remit, including health. This review highlights opportunities for AI research and innovation in the UK as well as setting out UKRI’s ambitions for supporting these transformational activities, working together with our partners to realise the vast potential of AI.

This MRC funding opportunity will support robust, fast paced, agile, proof-of-concept ‘sprint’ projects that will unlock the potential of AI in biomedical and health research. Due to the nature of the funding opportunity we expect team members to be in post with access to any necessary infrastructure, including necessary data assets.

Projects will deliver high impact outcomes by focusing on critical challenges in the use of AI in biomedical and health research and may do one or more of these:

  • address specific roadblocks or problems encountered in the use of AI to improve research and innovation, for example:
    • delivering responsible and trustworthy AI solutions that improve existing research
    • developing new AI enablers of further research
    • addressing data integration across different modalities and scale
  • explore the application of AI to new challenges, for example:
    • novel applications of AI in areas with little or no significant AI activity but which have major potential benefits to be realised from AI for research and innovation
    • developing and improving AI technologies in areas with existing AI activity, such as testing next generation AI solutions to demonstrate value add
  • identify, through the course of the project, barriers or lessons in the use of AI to improve research and innovation, for example:
    • proving that AI does not confer an advantage over conventional approaches
    • demonstrating the inability of (proposed) AI approaches to deliver robust solutions across different settings.

The sprint projects can take the form of a conventional research project or other modes, for example, hackathons.

Research areas

The funding opportunity is open to all areas of biomedical and health research within MRC remit but applications addressing areas of strategic priority for MRC are encouraged, for example:

  • prevention and early diagnosis
  • precision medicine
  • managing chronic conditions and ageing population
  • developing treatments better and faster
  • MRC board or panel interests, for example antimicrobial resistance, structural biology, drug discovery, molecular and cellular imaging
  • cross-cutting themes such as:
    • use of AI to increase research efficiency
    • data integration across different types and scale and to enable multimodal research
    • repurposing AI methods or technologies (particularly if not developed within a biomedical or health context) for use in biomedical or health research.

Funding

Funding from this opportunity will not support:

  • requests to purchase capital equipment (although costs to use existing infrastructure are eligible)
  • projects solely requesting funding for access to data (although projects seeking to use AI to improve data management, for example federation, curation, interoperability, are eligible)

The funding opportunity will support 100% of the direct costs of the project except where subsidy controls may apply to industry partners. Large commercial entities should not request direct support. Leveraged funding and contributions in kind from partners, particularly via staff time and access to facilities, are welcomed.

We aim to announce successful projects by April 2022. Your project must start by May 2022.

How to apply

This funding opportunity will involve a two-stage review process, consisting of a mandatory expression of interest stage followed by a full application (for invited applicants only).

We advise applicants to refer to the assessment criteria in the ’How we will assess your application’ section when writing a proposal.

Expression of interest

When you start your application you will be taken to the online expression of interest form.

Expressions of interest that include commercial collaborations do not need to be accompanied by a heads of terms or collaboration agreement at this stage but an executed collaboration agreement will be required if invited to submit a full proposal.

The deadline for expressions of interest is 16:00 on 20 October 2021.

We are unable to provide feedback for unsuccessful applications at the expression of interest stage.

Full application

Only applicants successful at the expression of interest stage will be invited to submit a full application. Any proposals received which have not been invited to submit a full proposal will be rejected without further review.

Full proposal applications will need to be submitted through the UKRI application platform. Successful applicants will be invited to the application platform following the outline decision.

Full applications will open in early December 2021 and close in February 2022.

Full applications that include commercial collaborations must be accompanied by an executed collaboration agreement signed by all consortium partners. This should address the following:

  • details of the lead applicants and other co-applicants
  • the objectives of the collaboration
  • the collaborators’ intellectual contributions and value of any resource contributions provided (in cash or in kind over and above that requested from the grant if awarded)
  • whether the proposal is basic or applied research
  • how the proposed collaboration or outsourcing either enables the planned research to be undertaken or enables the planned research to be undertaken to the required quality or timescale
  • why, in the absence of the requested funding, the planned research could not be undertaken or could not be undertaken to the required quality or timescale
  • whether non-industry applicants have any direct or indirect interests in the industrial collaborator or collaborators and, if so, how conflicts of interests between the parties are being managed.

Applicants are expected to explain how the results of the collaboration will be disseminated, in keeping with the objectives of the funding opportunity and principles of open and reusable source or code best practices.

Project results must be published in accordance with open access principles. Prior to publication, partners may have the opportunity to review manuscripts and raise objections but only when it’s clear that publication will present a risk to their existing listed intellectual property (IP).

All foreground project IP generated through a project shall be shared as open source under a MIT licence or other equivalent permissive licence unless by doing so there is a risk of disclosure of sensitive or personal data in which case the IP must be fully allocated to the lead research organisation named on the application.

How we will assess your application

Your proposal will be assessed via a two-stage review process. The expression of interest stage should capture key information on the research question, approaches and the research team in order to:

  • assess your proposal’s fit to the remit and ambitions of the funding opportunity
  • enable general feedback to be provided to guide the submission of full applications.

Expressions of interest will be considered by an independent expert review panel, including lay membership, convened by MRC.

Decisions to invite to the full application stage will be made by the panel. Success will be determined by expressions of interest evidencing:

  • a clear articulation of one or more critical challenges that if addressed will achieve high impact by enhancing the potential of AI in biomedical and health research
  • a longer-term view of the research impact, setting out how outcomes may lay the foundations, generate feasibility or reveal lessons for future work, and which may demonstrate broader applicability beyond immediate research questions that may be used as exemplars
  • being collaborative; multi-disciplinary or cross-sectorial approaches are strongly encouraged
  • value for money.

High risk, high reward projects are particularly welcomed.

Full applications will only be opened to applicants who are successful at the expression of interest stage. Invitation to submit a full application will be sent out in December 2021 and the deadline will be in February 2022 (dates to be confirmed).

Full applications will be assessed by the independent expert review panel using the standard criteria for an MRC research grant and noting specific criteria for this funding opportunity include:

  • innovative nature and added value of the proposed work
  • impact of anticipated outcomes and value to research and innovation uses of AI
  • potential added value of combined expertise of the project team and partner organisation or organisations.
  • availability and quality of resources (for example staff or data assets) needed for project delivery
  • ability to deliver tangible outcomes that will inform the use of AI in health and biomedical research in the longer term
  • design and experience of fast-paced, agile project management
  • value for money.

Full applications are expected to set out a detailed delivery plan for the project, including:

  • objectives
  • milestones
  • supplementary data.

Read the standard MRC research grant criteria.

There will be no external peer review for this funding opportunity.

Contact details

Dr Yan Yip

Email: informatics@mrc.ukri.org

Include ‘MRC AI call 2021’ in the subject line.

Additional info

UKRI AI review

This document sets out UKRI’s aspirations for supporting transformational activities, and for working with our partners to place the UK in a strong position to realise the vast potential benefits of AI.

Read the UKRI AI Review: Transforming our world with AI.

PSREs

Providing this opportunity to PSREs addresses the principle of ‘investing in excellence, wherever it is found’ in the Nurse review of research councils: recommendations (GOV.UK).

Intellectual property guidance

MRC recognises that intellectual property (IP) considerations will vary across each individual consortium and we support the formation of appropriate governance structures that principally facilitates the delivery of a programme’s scientific aims and objectives.

We note the intention of the funding opportunity is to:

  • address critical challenges to the use of AI in biomedical and health research for the benefit of the wider research and innovation community
  • manage background and arising IP for the benefit of the consortium and the UK.

As such, MRC requires an executed collaboration agreement to be provided at the full proposal stage and any required changes to be agreed before MRC provides funding to the successful consortium.

Whilst the exact provisions included in the agreement will require discussion by the consortium, MRC has some principles in relation to the management of IP which it expects to be taken into consideration. These principles can be discussed in more detail during the application process.

To summarise, the collaboration agreement should ensure that each partner has the rights to use any background and arising IP to deliver the research planned by the consortium.

MRC would expect the consortium to jointly agree and co-ordinate the protection and commercialisation of arising IP:

  • taking into consideration how access to background IP may be achieved if needed for commercialisation
  • ensuring that consortium members and the wider research and innovation community have and retain appropriate rights to use arising IP.

MRC would expect that any arising IP that is of general applicability and utility would only be licensed non-exclusively for commercial purposes to ensure the widest possible impact.

Depending on contributions made, it may be appropriate for industry consortium members to be granted rights to use arising IP for internal research purposes and an option mechanism to take licences for commercial purposes if jointly agreed by the consortium.

All foreground project IP generated through a project shall be shared as open source under a MIT or other equivalent permissive licence unless by doing so there is a risk of disclosure of sensitive or personal data in which case the IP must be fully allocated to the lead research organisation named on the application.

Project results must be published in accordance with open access principles. Prior to publication, partners may have the opportunity to review manuscripts and raise objections but only when it is clear that publication will present a risk to their existing listed IP.

Project outputs will be published in accordance with the branding and communications guidelines that will form part of any award letter.

Supporting documents

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