Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Levelling Up sandpit

Apply to attend a four-day interactive sandpit to develop novel projects that can address multifaceted questions related to levelling up and inform policymaking.

You will be asked to complete an expression of interest form to apply for the sandpit.

The sandpit will take place over four days. The first day will be in-person while the rest of the sandpit will be held remotely via Zoom. Attendance for the full four days will be mandatory for selected participants.

We expect to fund up to £1.4 million at 80% full economic cost (FEC) for all research projects arising from the sandpit.

Who can apply

Standard ESRC eligibility rules apply but participants from the full breadth of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) remit are welcome to apply.

You must be based at a UK research organisation eligible for UKRI funding to lead a project.

Eligible organisations are:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisations
  • public sector research establishments
  • NHS bodies with research capacity

Check if your institution is eligible for UKRI funding.

This funding opportunity is also open to applicants from business, third sector or government organisations based in the UK. In this case, ESRC’s rules on inclusion of project co-leads from business, third sector and government will apply.

It should be noted that successful participants from business, third sector and government will not be eligible to take over the leadership of a project as the organisation would not meet UKRI organisational eligibility criteria for a project lead, but they could be included in successful projects as project co-Leads or project partners. Moreover, projects co-leads from UK business, third sector or government organisations will only be able to claim certain costs depending on their organisation type.

For this funding opportunity, no more than 20% of the participants will be allowed from business, third sector or government organisations.

International collaboration is not allowed under this funding opportunity.

What we're looking for

Sandpit aims

The overall aim of this sandpit is to commission novel, interdisciplinary, challenge-led research projects that can address multifaceted questions related to levelling up. The research commissioned will be used by members of the Levelling Up Advisory Council (LUAC) to inform expert advice to ministers.

More widely, the sandpit will also act as thought leadership, stimulating debate and driving greater understanding of levelling up policy amongst the public, local authorities, think tanks and the private sector. We need to build new evidence, and draw together existing evidence from other disciplines, to guide this policy agenda.

Sandpit process

The sandpit will be an intensive, interactive workshop bringing together a diverse group of participants from a range of disciplines and backgrounds to work together over four days.

It will be led by a director, supported by a team of expert mentors. Stakeholders from relevant bodies will also participate in the sandpit as ‘problem owners’ who set the scene for participants. Sandpit sessions will be facilitated by a professional facilitation company.

The sandpit process can be broken down into several stages:

  • defining the scope of the challenges
  • evolving common languages and terminologies amongst participants from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines
  • drawing upon perspectives from relevant stakeholders and the expertise brought by the participants to share understandings of the challenges
  • taking part in sessions focused on the challenges and using creative thinking techniques to identify approaches to help tackle these challenges
  • capturing the outputs of the process in the form of highly innovative research project proposals
  • reaching a funding decision on projects developed at the sandpit using ‘real-time’ peer review

We do not require participants to develop specific plans for research activities prior to the sandpit. Ideas for activities will be developed collaboratively during the process. Projects developed through the process will pitch for funding on the final sandpit day.

Attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding. It is our intention that this sandpit will be a valuable experience for all attendees irrespective of whether funding is secured.

Scientific scope

The research agenda for this sandpit is structured around:

  • the LUAC’s workstreams and their resulting research priorities
  • the overarching relationship between the six capital and target outcomes
  • specific questions around the capitals themselves that are not being covered elsewhere
  • wider questions on specific place needs, and the intersection with other government priorities

The research ideas developed at the sandpit should investigate some or a combination of the following challenge areas, as set out by DLUHC below:

Overall levelling up prioritisation

The Levelling Up agenda aims to ensure that everyone in the UK have a path to economic success and personal wellbeing, regardless of where they live. The Levelling Up White Paper emphasised the importance of horizontal interventions across multiple policy areas, to strengthen the supply of each of the six capitals. It’s important that we understand the relative priorities of different interventions, and the interaction between outcomes. In particular:

  • what drives differences in regional economic growth, real wages and productivity between places? Which is most important? What are the extent and costs of insufficient supply or misallocation of the six capitals in different locations across the UK? How should we prioritise policy interventions across the 12 Missions and the six capitals as a consequence? (High priority; Quantitative approach)
  • what drives differences in wellbeing and pride in place between places? How do these factors interact with the 12 Levelling Up missions? How should we prioritise policy interventions across the 12 missions and the six capitals as a consequence? (High priority, Quantitative and Qualitative approach)
  • what role does natural capital play in determining regional outcomes? How might we integrate it into the Levelling Up agenda?
  • how well does government (at all levels) allocate its resources between the six capitals? How can allocative efficiency in the use of scarce public resources be improved to the benefit of levelling up and other goals?
Human capital

Human capital is central to the economic and social wellbeing of people and places. Improving people’s health, education, skills and employment prospects will ensure that everyone, wherever they live, have the opportunity to live fulfilling, healthy and productive lives. Existing research has demonstrated that education and professional experience both determine earnings capacity. And there is widespread evidence of the impact of economic scarring constraining recovery from place-specific and macroeconomic shocks, because of unemployment depleting human capital. Moreover, the concentration of high-skilled adults in a place also boosts its outcomes via positive spillover effects. This part of the research agenda focusses on how we can support and extend human capital in places, to attract and retain high quality jobs, and support wider benefits to economic and social wellbeing. In particular, we need to understand:

  • which factors (for example; social capital or liveability of a place, housing affordability, transport connectivity) have the greatest influence on the migration of skilled workers? How should policy influence labour mobility?
  • what can the UK do to ensure the lowest skilled benefit from the changing skill mix required by the UK’s changing industry mix, including greater demand for soft skills? What would be the most effective policy options?
Institutional capital (devolution)

Institutional capital is vital for a place’s successes. Local leaders and local administrations can tailor policy to the specific challenges that areas face. As a consequence, devolution is a central part of the Levelling Up agenda. We are both supporting the establishment of new devolved administrations, and devolving further powers. We are very keen to further develop our evidence base for these decisions, including defining a counterfactual, which has previously proved challenging. Our aim is to draw on evidence from UK devolution from the last 20 years, and devolution of powers internationally, to support the design and implementation of further devolution, specifically:

  • how can we best evaluate the impact of devolution in the UK? How do we establish a credible counterfactual for devolution, including drawing on lessons from other countries? Are there novel or innovative data and methodologies that could be used?
  • what has been the impact of English devolution so far on local economic growth, social outcomes or both? What effect on growth and productivity in English city-regions would greater decentralised policy responsibilities (political, economic and fiscal) equivalent to comparator OECD cities have if assigned to the city-regional or sub-regional level? What role does quality of local government have on outcomes?
  • what effect does variation between sub-national governments of powers and responsibilities held have on quality of government? What effect does variation in governance system and structure have for the same? What are the Governance benefits of English Combined Authority and County mayors?
  • what are the most effective institutional mechanisms to promote inter-regional learning, capacity building and skills development? What systems of governance and funding produce sustainable and enduring benefits from such institutions?
  • what can social research tell us about public perceptions and understanding of English devolution? Which factors (individual demographic, spatial, and so on) drive sentiment towards Mayors and Mayoral Combined Authorities ( MCA s)? Do the public have a good understanding of MCAs’ powers and responsibilities? Can innovative or novel data be used to explore perceptions?
Social capital

Research has shown that depleted social capital is a cause as well as a reflection of the under-performance of places. For example, low levels of community cooperation and trust reduce the attraction of places as a destination for people, business and finance. But it has historically been difficult to measure social capital, and the evidence base on its impact and how best to support it is limited. Under the Levelling Up agenda, we would be particularly interested to focus on:

  • how can we improve the geographical alignment of local governance and resources with communities’ understanding of place?
Specific place requirements

Levelling up will mean different things and require different interventions across particular types of place. We want to embrace that diversity, and support the conditions that every place needs to succeed. To do so, we need to understand more around the particular needs and challenges within areas, specifically:

  • how should we account for the differing needs of place in policymaking? Which types of place or policies might require a particular place-sensitive approach?
  • to what extent are economic and social inequalities in London driven by place-specific factors? Given this, are these best addressed by national or local levers?
  • how can we harness London’s economic activity to benefit other regions?
  • what drives the large differences in outcomes between poor children born in London and those outside?
  • analysis of economic and social inequalities in Belfast compared to the rest of Northern Ireland
  • what is needed to drive rural economic growth?
  • what has been the impact of levelling up policies in rural areas?
  • how should we design and deliver of levelling up in rural areas?
Intersection with other government priorities

Levelling up will not be delivered in a vacuum. The UK faces a number of other key challenges. We want to understand how these affect the context for Levelling Up, and how we can ensure that the Levelling Up agenda complements other interventions, specifically:

  • how could Levelling Up align with net zero funding to drive growth in left behind areas?
  • what are the risks facing left-behind places due to the net zero transition and what can we do to mitigate, including international examples?
  • what has been the impact of macroeconomic shocks for regional inequality – including the global financial crisis, the cost of living shock, and COVID-19? What are the implications for how we:
    • implement our current Levelling Up agenda
    • ensure local economies are more resilient against future shocks

What we will fund

We seek to support project proposals that:

  • consider a UK-wide perspective and include lessons learned, and recommendations needed, in relation to each of the topics under consideration
  • have the potential to inform the design and delivery of levelling up policy, driving forward the levelling up agenda and strengthening government’s approach to place-based policy and delivery
  • produce outputs that are able to move forward public debate on levelling up issues

We will not fund proposals that solely focus on describing the challenge without considering specific plans for advancing policy solutions.

When participants pitch for funding, we expect to see consideration of:

  • novel, highly interdisciplinary approaches, clearly reflecting the distinctive opportunity for creating such projects that the sandpit provides
  • clear evidence that the team has the capability to deliver their project as a high-quality multidisciplinary activity
  • clear relevance and the potential to provide high-quality research evidence to inform policy and practice in the delivery of the aims set out in the Levelling Up White Paper

Funding available

It is expected that up to £1.4 million (at 80% FEC) will be made available to fund research projects arising from this sandpit. UKRI will fund 80% of the full economic costs of successful projects.

Accommodation will be provided during the residential component of the sandpit. However, participants must make their own travel arrangements. Travel and subsistence costs will be reimbursed.

Since this sandpit is partially residential, and where employers cannot help, ESRC, in line with UKRI policy, will cover the costs of any additional childcare or caring responsibilities, which is deemed necessary during this period.

Attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UKRI funding.

How to apply

Applicants are asked to complete an expression of interest online survey to be considered for the sandpit.

Your expression of interest will be used to assess the suitability of your expertise, skills and attitude to participate in the sandpit. No further documentation will be accepted. Incomplete surveys will be rejected.

Please be advised that attendance for the full sandpit is mandatory. The expression of interest survey will require applicants to confirm their commitment to attend the entire sandpit, if selected.

We expect the sandpit to take place on the following dates:

  • Friday 12 January, in person – further details will be shared with selected participants
  • Tuesday 16 January, online
  • Wednesday 17 January, online
  • Thursday 25 January, online

The deadline for expression of interests is 27 November 2023. Please note that late submissions will not be considered.

ESRC will confirm selected participants by December 2023. Information about the venue and format of the sandpit will be provided to the successful participants.

We welcome applications and enquiries from individuals with additional needs for whom specific provisions may need to be made, for example, caring responsibilities and people with disabilities. We are committed to creating a more inclusive research base in line with our equality, diversity and inclusion action plan and encourage applications from underrepresented groups. Please contact us at to discuss any adjustments you might need.

Applicants are required to inform their university research office, in advance of submitting the expression of interest form, that they are going to apply to attend the sandpit. If participants are part of a successful project, their institutions will be required to fund 20% of the full economic project costs (as standard).

How we will assess your application

Assessment of applications to attend the sandpit

We will use the following selection criteria to assess applications to attend the sandpit:

  • suitability and fit to the sandpit process
  • relevant research expertise and experience
  • the ability to communicate and engage persuasively with decision-makers
  • the ability to work collaboratively and within interdisciplinary environments

Participant selection will be based solely on the information provided in the expression of interest survey.

Within the pool of applicants selected based on these assessment criteria, we will look to ensure a balance of different disciplines, career paths and backgrounds, career stages, geographic distribution and landscape diversity, such as the balance of organisations.

Achieving the sandpit aims will require participants from an appropriate mix of diverse backgrounds and relevant disciplines. Participants from a diverse range of disciplines from across the UKRI remit are therefore encouraged to apply to attend this sandpit.

These might include, but are not limited to:

  • productivity
  • economics
  • environment
  • management and business studies
  • social policy
  • health and wellbeing
  • education

Although we are not limiting the range of disciplines that should be represented, we ask you to indicate how your expertise can address the challenge of driving forward the levelling up agenda.

You need not have worked on the problem before. However, emphasis will be placed on working across disciplines and sectors to foster new collaborations and bring new thinking to the problem.

In the event of this funding opportunity being substantially oversubscribed as to be unmanageable, UKRI reserves the right to modify the assessment process.

Because of the large number of applications expected, we will not be able to give individual feedback to unsuccessful applicants.

Post-sandpit process

Following the sandpit, participants involved in the projects recommended for funding will be invited to write a full project proposal document detailing their intended activities as identified at the sandpit.

It is planned that participants involved in projects identified for funding will be informed within two weeks of the sandpit. Funding will be conditional on receipt of a full proposal.

The submissions should accurately represent projects or teams assembled at the sandpit. Researchers or other parties not involved in the sandpit cannot receive funding through the successful projects. Non-academic project partners can be added to successful projects after the sandpit process.

The deadline for submission of full proposals is expected to be April 2024 and the start date for the projects should be no later than 1 June 2024. Projects must be completed by 31 March 2025.

Proposals will be submitted through the UKRI Funding Service. Further guidance on this part of the process will be available to the successful project teams.

Contact details

Ask about this funding opportunity

Levelling Up sandpit mailbox


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