Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Sandpit: novel computing for UK defence and security

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Apply to attend a 5-day interactive interdisciplinary sandpit to develop novel low size, weight and power (SWaP) computing projects for UK defence and security applications. There will be a combination of days online and in-person.

Sandpits are predominantly residential and involve up to 30 participants. Participants selected to attend must do so for the full 5 days. We welcome contact from individuals with additional needs for whom specific provisions may need to be made.

You must be based at a UK research organisation eligible for EPSRC funding.

You must complete an expression of interest to apply.

Attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding.

Who can apply

Standard EPSRC eligibility rules apply. Research grants are open to:

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

Check if your institution is eligible for funding.

You can apply if you are a resident in the UK and meet at least 1 of these conditions:

  • are employed at the submitting research organisation at a level equivalent to lecturer or above
  • hold a fixed-term contract that extends beyond the duration of the proposed project, and the host research organisation is prepared to give you all the support normal for a permanent employee
  • hold an EPSRC, Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship aimed at later career stages
  • hold fellowships under other schemes (please contact EPSRC to check eligibility, which is considered on a case-by-case basis)

Holders of postdoctoral level fellowships are not eligible to apply for an EPSRC grant.

Expressions of interest for this sandpit will not count towards the EPSRC repeatedly unsuccessful applicants policy.

Please note that businesses are not eligible to apply for funding through this scheme. For information on the eligibility of organisations and individuals to receive EPSRC funding, read the EPSRC guidance for applicants.

What we're looking for

Background

The UK’s ability to produce novel and innovative computing is vital for providing solutions to challenges related to national security and defence. The needs of the UK government’s defence and security departments are detailed in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.

Delivery of this integrated review depends on the availability of people with the right skills, experience and security clearances to form flexible, diverse and multidisciplinary teams.

Consequently, UKRI and EPSRC, in collaboration with National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange and UK government partners, are inviting applications to attend a joint sandpit. This will deliver new, innovative, multidisciplinary and transformative approaches for low SWaP computing solutions.

While no prior involvement with the defence or national security sector is required, it is our intention that participants at the sandpit will be attracted to remain engaged with the defence and national security sectors. They will also be inspired to form longer term collaborations across UKRI remit.

Sandpit

The sandpit will be an intensive, inclusive, interactive, and creative environment, supporting a diverse group of participants from a range of disciplines and backgrounds from across UKRI’s remit, to work together for 5 days.

Participants for this sandpit will be invited from a broad range of disciplines including, but not limited to:

  • computer science
  • mathematics
  • engineering
  • physical sciences
  • social sciences
  • humanities

It is important that academics from a range of disciplines work together on the challenges being tackled, ensuring that adoption of these technologies is also a focus.

The aim of this sandpit is to generate research proposals that:

  • take into account the needs of UK defence and security stakeholders and consider co-design with end-users
  • form new collaborations between researchers, innovators and users in diverse research areas
  • create new and transformative research ideas in low SWaP computing, and allow researchers to pitch projects for seed funding to test and de-risk novel ideas
  • address the key research challenges that are identified
  • may be led by researchers who have not worked in this sector before

The sandpit will be led by a director, Professor Tony Kenyon (University College London), who will be supported by a team of mentors. The director, mentors and a small number of stakeholders will attend the sandpit but will not be eligible to receive research funding. Instead, their role will be to assist participants in defining and exploring challenges in this area.

The director and mentors will act as independent reviewers, making a funding recommendation on the emergent projects.

The sandpit process can be broken down into several stages:

  • defining the scope of the UK defence and security challenges
  • cultivating a common language and terminologies amongst people from a diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines
  • sharing understandings of the challenges, and the expertise brought by the participants to the sandpit, and perspectives from relevant stakeholders
  • immersing participants in collaborative thinking processes and ideas sharing to construct innovative approaches
  • capturing the outputs in the form of highly innovative research projects
  • a funding decision on those projects at the sandpit using ‘real-time’ peer review

Scope

As we move towards the end of Moore’s law and focus on reaching net zero emissions, as a society we need to find new approaches for increasingly powerful next-generation and generation-after-next computational tools and techniques.

One of the government’s key drivers is the need to tackle and reduce the environmental impact that will arise from computational power consumption. This consumption accounted for between 4 and 6% of the global electricity use in 2020, and is expected to increase further by 2030. Find out more about UK Parliament: energy consumption of information and communication technology.

Current technology trends see devices being connected to the cloud, with either a constant mains power supply or, if battery powered, optimised for daily recharging.

In critical computational systems, such as those used in defence and national security applications, it is not always possible for a device to be cloud connected or to receive a reliable, unconstrained supply of power. This leads to a loss in operative performance.

Communication with the cloud also introduces privacy risks with the potential for data interception. These challenges provide significant opportunities to develop new technologies for this sector.

This sandpit activity intends to bring together new collaborators from across a range of disciplines in UKRI’s remit to solve complex and evolving research challenges within low SWaP computing for defence and national security applications.

Alignment of technologies in computing, sensing and communications, has the potential to enhance functionality and performance whilst reducing resource usage to deliver against low SWaP objectives and net zero aspirations. This can be done by performing data processing, decision making and data storage at the site where decisions need to be made.

We are aiming to engage participants from a variety of disciplines to consider the algorithmic, software, architecture and hardware aspects required for these low SWaP novel computing applications. This includes, but is not limited to, those with expertise in the computer science domain and of:

  • decision making
  • embedded intelligence
  • ethics
  • ethnography
  • neuroscience
  • power electronics
  • psychology
  • responsible innovation

Participants at the sandpit will be introduced to a number of security and defence scenarios by government users of technology from across related government departments. A flavour of some of the key challenges which may be addressed at the sandpit include:

  • how can we deliver greater edge processing capability, while maintaining functionality and meeting our net zero and low SWaP aspirations in remote and challenging environments?
  • how can we maximise the information gained and processed by devices or sensors with limited processing capability, whilst potentially experiencing significant uncertainty and deception?
  • how can we ensure systems can adapt to changes in remote environments and aid dynamic risk identification, whilst remaining robust and operable with high performance?
  • how can we take inspiration from nature and biology to develop novel computing for low SWaP applications, which work in these scenarios?
  • what techniques can we use to preserve privacy whilst achieving robust and reliable data transmission in a complex scenarios?

Funding available

It is expected that 3 projects will be funded, sharing up to £3 million of total funding.

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, EPSRC, in line with UKRI policy, will cover the costs of any additional childcare or caring responsibilities, which is deemed necessary during this period.

How to apply

Applying to participate in the sandpit

Apply to this sandpit by completing an expression of interest via SmartSurvey.

The expression of interest survey will require applicants to confirm their commitment to attend the entire sandpit if shortlisted. Please be advised that attendance, both in person and virtually, for the full 5 days is mandatory.

Information about the venue and the exact format of the sandpit will be provided to the successful participants. Accommodation will be provided, however participants must make their own travel arrangements.

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 under-represented groups.

Individuals who have applied to or attended a sandpit previously are welcome to apply to this sandpit.

The deadline for expressions of interest is 4:00pm UK time on 28 February 2023. Please note that late submissions will not be considered. EPSRC will confirm selected participants and the sandpit schedule in March 2023.

Applicants who are selected to attend the sandpit will be asked to provide basic personal information directly to the National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange in order for mandatory security checks to be completed. Attendance at the sandpit will be subject to this security clearance.

Selected applicants will be required to inform their university research office, in advance of the event, that they will attend the sandpit. If funded through the sandpit, their institution will be required to fund 20% of the full economic project costs as standard.

How we will assess your application

Assessing applications to attend the sandpit

Applications to attend the sandpit will be assessed by a selection panel comprised of the sandpit director, mentors and UKRI staff. Participant selection will be based solely on the information provided in the expression of interest survey.

The assessment criteria are as follows:

  • the ability to develop innovative approaches to research
  • the ability to work collaboratively and within interdisciplinary environment
  • the ability to communicate and engage with diverse non-academic stakeholders
  • relevant research expertise and experience
  • the ability to explain research to non-experts

Participants will be selected primarily based on this assessment criteria. However, the panel will also look to ensure sandpit participants have expertise in a mix of disciplines.

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

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

Please note that attendance at the sandpit does not guarantee UKRI funding.

Full proposal assessment

Following the sandpit, investigators involved in those 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 2 weeks of the sandpit. Funding will be conditional on receipt of a full proposal.

The primary criteria used throughout the process of developing and assessing the final proposals will be how well proposals address the vision of the funding opportunity. Final proposals will also be subject to standard EPSRC assessment criteria.

Assessment criteria:

  • fit to call: we seek to support proposals that show:
    • novel, highly multidisciplinary research projects, 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, provided both through the presentation and their activity during the sandpit
    • clear relevance to and the potential to make a distinctive and novel contribution to addressing the research challenges in this area
  • quality
  • national importance
  • applicants and partnerships
  • resources and management

The deadline for submission of full proposals is expected to be June 2023.

Final funding decisions will be made in summer 2023.

Any collaborative project funded through this programme must have a signed collaborative agreement between the partners before the start of any grant.

We attach significant importance to the dissemination of research findings and the publishing of information about the research they support in the public domain. However, all dissemination and publication must be carried out in the manner agreed in the project’s collaboration agreement.

Read EPSRC requirements on collaboration agreements.

Please note, proposals which are funded via this funding opportunity will be made available to the National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange and relevant government partners.

Contact details

Get help with developing your proposal

For help and advice on costings and writing your proposal please contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

Ask about this funding opportunity

Email: ns-sandpit@epsrc.ukri.org

Additional info

National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange (NSTIx)

NSTIx is a government-led science, technology, and innovation (ST&I) partnership that enables coherent and agile delivery of innovative national security outcomes through a coordinated and systematic approach to research and capability development.

NSTIx engages with UK government organisations that require national security ST&I to identify and communicate cross-cutting areas for collaboration and co-creation. NSTIx also promotes engagement with providers and end users of ST&I, including with industry and academia, to enable better outcomes for all parties.

Find out more about NSTIx.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)

The long-term strength of the UK research base depends on harnessing all the available talent. UKRI expects that equality and diversity is embedded at all levels and in all aspects of research practice and funding policy.

We welcome applications from academics who job share, have a part-time contract, or need flexible working arrangements. We are committed to a policy of equal opportunities for our applicants for funding and encourage applications from those from under-represented groups.

Find out more about EDI at EPSRC.

Responsible innovation and trusted research

EPSRC is fully committed to developing and promoting responsible innovation and trusted research. Research can not only deliver shared understanding, knowledge, and value, but also unintended consequences, questions, ethical dilemmas and, at times, unexpected social transformations.

We recognise that we have a duty of care to:

  • promote approaches to responsible innovation that will initiate ongoing reflection about the potential ethical and societal implications of the research that we sponsor
  • encourage our research community to do likewise

Projects funded through this sandpit will be required to embed principles of responsible innovation and those of trusted research throughout their activities. They will also be expected to engage with the relevant regulatory bodies where concerns may arise under the National Security and Investment Act. Aspects of bias, privacy, security, and ethics should be considered where appropriate.

Ethical information

EPSRC will not fund a project if it believes that there are ethical concerns that have been overlooked or not appropriately accounted for. All relevant parts of the ‘ethical information’ section must be completed.

Guidance on completing ethical information on the Je-S form.

UKRI strategy: transforming tomorrow together: building a secure and resilient world strategic theme

The UKRI strategy for 2022 to 2027, transforming tomorrow together, outlines 5 strategic themes which look to harness the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to address major national and global challenges.

‘Building a secure and resilient world’ is 1 of the themes under the auspices of which UKRI will catalyse, convene and conduct research and innovation, through taking a systemic approach that is human-centred, aimed at strengthening societal and economic resilience.

The theme aims to enhance national security across virtual and physical environments, by improving awareness of risks and threats, preparedness, informed decision-making and response, and allowing change to be understood as a force for good.

‘Building a secure and resilient world’ directly tackles core methodologies for supporting a better and more robust approach to managing crisis from business to government to communities. A core focus of the theme is on supporting systems thinking and decision making to reduce risk and strengthen our security and resilience, and showing how this should support, and be implemented by, communities at every level, from local to international.

We have identified 5 inter-related sub-themes, through which UKRI will deliver a range of activities tailored to enable resilience to different risks in different systems. These are built on the strengths of our current economy and society, help reduce vulnerability, prepare for robust and rapid responses and enhance recovery, and encourage approaches which bring positive transformation. The 5 sub-themes are:

  • global order in a time of change: enable UK to take one of the leading positions in shaping an international order that is secure, resilient and just
  • technologies for resilience, security and defence: advance capacity of state defence and security, society and economy to reduce vulnerabilities, to respond to and recover from shocks through innovation and technological advancement
  • resilient and secure supply chains: increase the resilience of supply chains (food, critical materials, manufacturing, complex systems) to a wide variety to potentially interacting shocks
  • behavioural and cultural resilience: reduce the impact of shocks on individuals and communities through adaptation and embracing change, deployment of resources for personal resilience that is fair and just
  • strengthening resilience in natural and built environment: mitigate impact of natural and anthropogenic hazards and risks on wider societal processes and operations in rural and urban contexts being responsive to particular requirements of place

This funding opportunity speaks directly to the ‘technologies for resilience security and defence’ sub-theme.

Supporting documents

Equality impact assessment (PDF, 224KB)
SmartSurvey: expression of interest survey

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