Funding opportunity

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

Apply to attend a five-day interactive interdisciplinary sandpit to develop projects on novel sensing for UK defence and security applications. Participants selected to attend must do so for all online and in-person days.

Sandpits are predominantly residential and involve up to 30 participants. 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 one of the following conditions:

  • you are employed at the submitting research organisation at a level equivalent to lecturer or above
  • you 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
  • you hold an EPSRC, Royal Society or Royal Academy of Engineering fellowship aimed at later career stages
  • you 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.

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 sensing solutions is vital for responding to the challenges related to defence and security. 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 the National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange (NSTIx) and UK government partners, are inviting applications to attend a joint sandpit to deliver new, innovative, multidisciplinary and transformative approaches for solutions in novel sensing.

While no prior involvement with the defence or security sector is required, it is our intention that participants at the sandpit will be attracted to remain engaged with the defence and security sectors and 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 five days. Participants for this sandpit will be invited from a broad range of disciplines. It is important that academics collaborate outside their own discipline to address the challenges being tackled, ensuring the end user and mission of these technologies is 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 end-users
  • form new collaborations between researchers, innovators and end-users in diverse research areas
  • create new and transformative research ideas in novel sensing, 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, 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

The government and UKRI recognises that sensors and sensing technologies, as well as the communities that develop them, are key enablers for the UK. These technologies play a role across many industries and economic sectors, provide valuable insights for decision makers and give a competitive advantage.

The diverse and underpinning nature of these technologies means that novel research can play a pivotal role in enabling progress on a wide range of EPSRC’s current priorities including robotics, the internet of things, big data and ‘building a secure and resilient world’ which directly tackles core methodologies for supporting a more robust approach to crisis management.

Sensors and sensing technologies are crucial to the UK’s defence and security missions. Sensors in the environment detect threats to protect the public and our critical infrastructure. Defence and security operations are made more effective through improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

This sandpit intends to bring together new collaborators from across a range of disciplines in UKRI’s remit to solve complex and evolving research challenges within novel sensing for defence and security. User focused and novel interdisciplinary approaches to fundamental sensing technologies have the potential to develop new, and enhance existing, sensor functionalities and performance.

This sandpit has a broad remit, which will encompass the development of sensors, materials, software, hardware, signal processing, sensor fusion and supporting human or machine decision making. We are therefore aiming to engage sandpit participants from a variety of disciplines, including but not limited to:

  • materials sciences
  • engineering
  • computer sciences
  • mathematics
  • physics
  • quantum science and technologies
  • physical sciences
  • embedded intelligence
  • healthcare technologies
  • modelling
  • biology
  • human factors
  • ethics
  • responsible innovation
  • psychology
  • decision making

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

  • ensuring we can operate in high-threat environments, as well as the increasingly congested electromagnetic spectrum and beyond, while exploiting the latest advances
  • developing sensing technologies, which have the potential to be more cost-effective, portable, sensitive and efficient than current sensors
  • detect, track, recognise and identify threats
  • quantify threat material
  • support situational awareness
  • provide information to tactical and strategic decision-makers
  • integrating and consolidating data from multiple types of sensors to gain a precise and rapid understanding of surroundings

Funding available

It is expected that three 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 (EOI), through an expression of interest survey.

Please note that each question in this survey is accompanied by a specific word limit indicated at the end of each question. It is crucial to strictly adhere to the specified limit, as exceeding it by 10% will result in disqualification from the application process.

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 sandpit 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 on 3 October 2023.

Please note that late submissions will not be considered. EPSRC will confirm selected participants for the sandpit, subject to security checks week commencing 23 October 2023.

Applicants who are selected to attend the sandpit will be asked to provide basic personal information directly to 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 and backgrounds.

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 two weeks of the sandpit. Funding will be conditional on receipt of a full proposal. Staff recruited to funded projects will be required to undergo security checks.

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 opportunity, 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
  • vision of the project
  • approach to the project
  • capability of the applicant or applicants and the project team to deliver the project
  • resources requested to do the project
  • ethical and responsible research and innovation considerations of the project

The deadline for submission of full proposals is expected to be February 2024.

Final funding decisions will be made in spring 2024 following review of the full proposals by the sandpit mentors and director to ensure what is submitted is in keeping with what was presented at the sandpit.

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, applications which are funded via this funding opportunity will be made available to 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) is a government-led science, technology, and innovation (ST&I) partnership. It 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

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 equality, diversity, and inclusion 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 and will 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. Sandpit participants who are selected to submit a full proposal, will be required to detail ethical considerations in keeping with UKRI guidance under the Funding Service.

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

The UKRI strategy for 2022 to 2027, ‘transforming tomorrow together’, outlines five 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 one 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 five inter-related sub-themes, through which UKRI will deliver a range of activities tailored to enable resilience to different risks in different systems that is built on the strengths of our current economy and society, helps reduce vulnerability, prepares for robust and rapid responses and enhances recovery, and encourages approaches which bring positive transformation. The five sub-themes are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Useful government publications

The National Security Risk Register, updated in 2023, outlines the broad and diverse range of risks facing the UK. Please note that the defence and security sandpit focuses on the terrorism, cyber and state threat scenarios as defined by the risk register.

The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 outlines the government’s approach to generating strategic advantage through science and technology.

Supporting documents

Equality impact assessment (PDF, 219KB)

Expression of interest survey

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