The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) supports UK scientists to deliver the very best research and training across the physical sciences and provide an internationally competitive, balanced and engaged research portfolio to meet the UK’s needs.
The vision for the physical sciences theme is to maximise the physical sciences powerhouse through harnessing curiosity driven discovery with boundless potential for UK prosperity. To do so, we support UK physical scientists to deliver the very best research and training to meet the future scientific needs across the science base.
In terms of approaches to realise the powerhouse vision, the Physical Sciences team will:
- develop a local equality, diversity and inclusion strategy to embrace diversity and drive wider culture change to harness the best ideas, talent, and research
- support teams to deliver world-leading research and nurture talent through flexible and scalable investments, from new horizons to programme grants and open fellowships
- work with the community to develop a more compelling articulation of the value of discovery, from enabling new disciplines and schools of thought to emerge, through to creating economic and social outcomes
- establish new and strengthen existing stakeholder relationships to help foster new initiatives in partnership with the community, including developing new international initiatives
- define the future skills needs and requirements for the physical sciences, working with the wider community to understand these, from apprenticeships through to life-long learning and doctoral skills
- support and nurture opportunities at the interface with other councils, building on the success of our physics of life programme and scoping other areas
- develop new science-led focus areas of national and strategic importance in partnership with the community to enable future opportunities for world-class investigator-led research.
Theme strategy in relation to a balanced portfolio
Physical science enables a broad spectrum of activity across the EPSRC, industry and the wider scientific community. The vision of the physical sciences theme is to support UK physical scientists to deliver the very best research and training to provide an internationally competitive research portfolio, that is balanced and engaged, to meet the nation’s needs.
Key engagement activities
The EPSRC physical sciences theme works with its strategic advisory team, as well as stakeholders in academia, industry and the third sector, to establish a future direction for the theme. Opportunities to engage with this will be promoted throughout the year.
Chemical sciences and engineering grand challenges
In 2009, following consultation with the academic community and its strategic advisory teams, EPSRC highlighted four new grand challenges in chemical sciences and engineering.
The 2009 grand challenges were:
- dial-a-molecule – 100% efficient synthesis
- directed assembly of extended structures with targeted properties
- systems chemistry – exploring the chemical roots of biological organisation
- utilising carbon dioxide in synthesis and transforming the chemicals industry.
Grand challenges are defined as significant problems that need a long-term, coordinated approach from researchers to overcome. It is a mechanism being used by EPSRC in a number of different research areas.
The physical sciences theme will seek to update these challenges and evolve their focus, however the principles of the challenges identified in 2009 remain, and applicants to the theme may wish to consider them in light of contemporary research and state of the art.
A clear area of evolution is a systematic exploration of the role of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) within the content of the chemical sciences. The co-creation of research opportunities, with the AI/ML community and beyond, is encouraged, particularly with a view to augment and transform traditional discovery.
Physics grand challenges
What could be achieved in 20 to 40 years if physicists, from different research groups, disciplines or institutions, were to work in a coordinated way towards an established stimulating scientific goal?
EPSRC believes that by aiding the research community to work together we can accelerate progress towards major scientific breakthroughs. To this end, we selected representatives from the physics community to suggest possible stimulating scientific goals or grand challenges which could be used as the focal point for future research endeavours.
While these challenges are physics-centric they should not be exclusively for physics to address.
We would hope that research within these challenges would have the potential:
- for cutting edge world leading physics
- to enable the UK’s national capability to be used to best advantage
- to have a positive societal or economic impact
- for collaborations between researchers in disciplines beyond physics.
It is clear that physics research can contribute to many globally acknowledged challenges, such as providing fusion energy, improving healthcare technology and developing next generation communication systems. We hope the following list represents those that are, in general, not already being addressed by other initiatives.
We acknowledge that it is not always possible to identify the most important developments in advance, and that major breakthroughs will always continue to come from outside any agreed set of challenges. However, of the challenges identified here, hopefully some resonate with physicists, encouraging them to work together and with others to achieve significant scientific outputs.
Emergence and physics far from equilibrium
One of the key scientific advances of the latter part of the 20th century was the appreciation that dramatic collective behaviour can emerge unexpectedly in large complicated systems, in ways that could not have been predicted from even a detailed knowledge of their components.
Many of these ’emergent’ states arise very far from equilibrium – life itself being a prominent example – and their existence implies that nature employs subtle organising principles whose understanding will provide a central challenge for the coming decades.
Meeting this challenge will require work cutting across the traditional disciplinary boundaries in science and will involve combining experiments under extreme conditions with the development of entirely novel classes of theory. This fundamental work will be driven by the ever-present possibility that emergent states may provide the foundations for the technologies of the future.
Quantum physics for new quantum technologies
Next generation quantum technologies will rely on our understanding and exploitation of coherence and entanglement. Using properties beyond the classical limit will transform metrology, communication, imaging, the simulation of complex systems and, ultimately, computing.
Success requires a deeper understanding of quantum physics and a broad ranging development of the enabling tools and technologies.
Nanoscale design of functional materials
The systematic design and construction of materials and devices based on structure at the nanoscale is a major challenge. The ultimate aim is to be able to dial up a desired property using new principles rather than proceeding by trial and error, and to assemble targets cheaply in large quantities.
Realisation of this challenge will advance technologies in a wide range of fields, such as healthcare, sustainable materials, information handling, energy harvesting and storage.
Understanding the physics of life
The physics of biological systems and processes is not fully understood. A greater understanding of the physics of biological systems and processes would enable new arenas of experimentation, control and modelling. Physicists can learn from areas where nature has evolved a better way of doing things and exploit this knowledge in the development of new technologies.
In turn, they are uniquely placed to contribute innovative instrumentation and alternative approaches to research that has always driven the study of life sciences. A central challenge for physics is for this approach to be embedded into biology, and increase the involvement of physicists with biological and medical researchers in a broad range of relevant areas.
Building on the long standing collaboration in this space, we have established an ambitious cross-UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) programme that is seeking to understand the physics of life.
Established in 2018, this programme invests in multidisciplinary research that cuts across EPSRC, Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council remits, and brings together teams to address life sciences problems through the development of novel and ambitious physics solutions – such that there is an equitable balance across the disciplines.
We have supported the Physics of Life Network since 2012 and encourage interested stakeholders to engage with the opportunities afforded by that channel.
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