The vision for ICT capability is to support UK scientists to deliver the very best research and training to meet the future scientific needs across the science base. This needs to be set in the context of the national provision and also how the UK competes in these areas internationally.
To deliver our vision for information and communication technologies (ICT) capability in the UK and ensure that we will provide the flow of people needed to sustain capability at all career stages in areas of strategic importance, we have mapped the whole portfolio and highlighted those areas with strategies where we wish to encourage a shift in the current levels of investment.
Alongside the strategies for each research area, EPSRC has identified a number of cross-ICT priorities which researchers are asked to consider when preparing proposals. These are currently under review, with refreshed priorities expected in 2022. The widespread integration of responsible research and innovation and the improvement of equality and diversity across the portfolio are also priorities for the theme.
EPSRC cross-ICT priorities 2017 to 2020
EPSRC launched a set of cross-ICT priorities in 2012 which were successful in changing community behaviours and building critical mass in areas of national importance.
As part of the balancing capability exercise to refresh the research area rationales and trajectories, EPSRC developed a new set of priorities for ICT researchers to consider when applying for grants from early 2017. These priorities ran until 2021. A new set of priorities is in development for publication in 2022.
We wish to stimulate and encourage research that aims to address these priorities and recognise that researchers from many of the research areas in the landscape (including those beyond ICT) can and should contribute and work together to do so.
What is a cross-ICT priority?
We use a combination of strategies to deliver the ICT theme’s goals. Strategies have been developed at both the individual research area level and also as broader cross-ICT priorities. The priorities identified were developed following a series of community discussions, workshops and with input from the ICT Strategic Advisory Team.
Some funding schemes require applicants to consider one or all of the priorities specifically. More broadly however, applicants are asked to consider the different priorities and consider how they might be relevant to or impact on their research and how they might contribute to addressing them. Cross-ICT priorities will always:
- span and bring together multiple research areas or disciplines
- identify, describe and address challenges for the future which are exciting and inspirational
- be ICT-centric but not necessarily solely related to ICT
- be specific, understandable and actionable, aiming overall to guide the direction of research.
In addition, where appropriate, a cross-ICT priority may help to coordinate community-driven activities, building on distinct strengths and enabling diverse responses to a topical and time-bound challenge which may be unlikely to happen in the desired way, or at the right scale, without intervention.
Cross-disciplinarity and co-creation priority
This priority encourages collaboration between researchers working in different disciplines and with users of research. It recognises the benefits of cooperation and partnership during the development of research ideas as well as in the research process itself. The ICT landscape has rich opportunities for closer working between disciplines and many of the most exciting opportunities emerge at the interface between established areas. Cross-disciplinary research includes novel collaboration within the ICT community, with researchers across the EPSRC portfolio and with researchers funded by other research councils.
Co-creation identifies and creates a consensus before a project starts and so builds a stronger foundation to support novel research. This kind of active collaboration across disciplines can help ensure that problems being tackled and opportunities being explored within the EPSRC ICT portfolio, are well-framed and clearly understood. Co-creation can lead to innovative ways to approach a research challenge, including some that could not be devised by researchers working in one discipline alone.
Co-creation requires researchers to gain an understanding of each other’s science so that, for example, methodologies from one discipline can be applied in another. It is this level of cooperation that can enable active partnerships, rather than more passive supplier-client type relationships to develop. Developing this level of understanding takes time.
Implementation of the priority
This approach recognises that there can be barriers to achieving effective cross-disciplinary collaboration in research and aims to support researchers who would like to pursue more interactive collaborations across disciplines.
The ICT theme also aims to develop guidance for applicants and examples of good practice. EPSRC-funded networks will be encouraged to facilitate cross-disciplinary research.
The EPSRC peer review process will be monitored to identify if there is any bias against cross-disciplinary proposals. If necessary, measures (for example issuing guidance for reviewers) will be taken to ensure the process is as fair as possible.
This priority is about encouraging a long-term behavioural change in the community. Applicants are encouraged to consider this priority when submitting any proposal to the theme through the council’s standard schemes.
Long term behaviour change requires leadership. The ICT theme therefore expects all programme grant applicants to the ICT theme to align their proposals to the priority.
Established career fellowship applicants are also expected to align their proposals to this priority. It is felt that this would be an unreasonable expectation for early career researchers, for whom the priority is to establish themselves in one field.
What this means for applicants
Researchers interested in a cross-disciplinary approach should actively involve collaborators in the earliest stages of devising a proposal. Being able to demonstrate that the various collaborators can work together effectively will strengthen a proposal. Work plans should allow time for ideas to be shared in the early stages of a project.
When applying for a programme grant please detail in the proposal how you have addressed this priority. The fit to this priority will be queried by the office at the pre-outline stage and assessed by peer review as part of the interview stage.
Advice on cross-disciplinarity and co-creation
The following documents and videos have been produced to provide advice for anyone wanting to submit a cross-disciplinary proposal. This advice was collected from both panel members and grant holders of the 2017 funding opportunity, cross-disciplinarity and co-creation in ICT research. These documents collect the views of the participants in this funding opportunity, and are intended to provide useful ideas for researchers to consider when embarking on cross-disciplinary research. Interviews with some of the researchers about their approach are also included.
Watch these videos on YouTube
- Dr Sarah Newman from EPSRC explains what we mean by cross-disciplinarity and co-creation
- Professor Susan Stepney from the University of York discusses where to start with cross-disciplinary research and how to co-create
- Dr Miguel Rodrigues and Dr Catherine Higgitt talk about their cross-disciplinary research project, ARTICT – Art Through the ICT Lens: Big Data Processing Tools to Support the Technical Study, Preservation and Conservation of Old Master Paintings.
New and emerging areas in ICT
The new and emerging areas cross-theme priority is to encourage researchers to work on truly transformative concepts and technologies within and beyond currently recognisable ICT space. To be new and emerging an area needs to comprise something more than an advance, however significant, within an established field. It must be genuinely disruptive, offering real potential to significantly alter current practice in research or industry. Broadly speaking we might see new and emerging ideas in ICT arising in two ways: grown within the ICT research landscape or introduced into it from other themes.
Implementation of the priority
The new and emerging areas priority has been successful in the sense that it has led to the quantum technology theme and has informed the discussions currently underway on ‘human-like computing’. However, beyond this, the number of grants which address the aims of this priority are low and little comes forward in the way of applications.
We recognise that encouraging and facilitating the emergence of new areas is not straightforward and so we will be exploring this cross-ICT priority in more detail in order to improve our approach to how we work with researchers seeking to address this priority. This will include producing guidance for applicants, monitoring the development of the portfolio and engaging in discussions with the research community.
What does this mean for applicants?
In considering how to address this priority researchers should bear in mind the diversity of support mechanisms on offer. Support for a topic under this theme need not necessarily be project based. For example, the topic may need further exploration in order to determine what research is necessary. Under such circumstances rather than project support it might be more appropriate to seek funding for workshops or networks to explore the area in more detail and provide advice for the research community and EPSRC taking them forward.
People at the heart of ICT
The aim of the people at the heart of ICT priority is to encourage researchers to consider the relationship people have with ICT and ICT-enabled systems whilst developing and during their research proposals.
Aim of the priority
Research in ICT affects people daily, whether it is electronics, communication systems, computer science or many of the other types of ICT, people engage with ICT either as commissioners or as direct users and often without even knowing it.
The aim of the people at the heart of ICT priority is to encourage researchers to consider the relationship people have with ICT and ICT-enabled systems whilst developing and during their research proposals. This ranges from considering the needs of the user, through to the impact these technologies could have on people. We are asking researchers to acknowledge these relationships and explore ways to ensure that the role of people informs their research.
The priority encourages applicants to consider all stakeholders, and their needs, perception and experience of ICT, in their research. Researchers are asked to carry out research in a responsible manner, to produce technologies that are trusted, safe and ethical, as well as considering unintended impact.
Why we are doing it now
EPSRC have led a number of previous initiatives designed to encourage the consideration of people in ICT research and there are many examples of this approach in the current portfolio.
However, as information communication technologies continue to pervade our lives at an ever increasing pace, now more than ever there is a need for the whole ICT community to consider the needs of anyone who will interact with and be impacted by the technology throughout the research process.
Whilst many communities have an understanding of the importance of articulating the potential impact of a research proposal, people at the heart of ICT is aimed at designing all ICT research proposals with people in mind. The consideration of people before and throughout a research project can increase the richness of research leading to exciting challenges and opportunities and improved take-up of the results.
The aim of the people at the heart priority is to encourage researchers to move beyond abstract notions of the user and develop a more detailed and realistic understanding of the stakeholders in their research and thus design solutions with their specific needs in mind.
Researchers are asked to consider the implications of designing ICT systems which meet the different needs of a diverse range of people with varying degrees of expertise and which benefit a wider set of society. In addition, consideration of people should lead to a focus on responsible research and innovation and an exploration of the desired and undesired consequences of ICT research.
ICT research areas this applies to
This priority is about all researchers across the ICT landscape considering the potential impact of ICT systems on people throughout the lifetime of their research, as part of the core of their methodology, and changing their approach as necessary.
For some elements of the ICT portfolio considering the diverse range of people which are impacted by a given piece of research is a significant change. The ICT theme will continue to develop further guidance for applicants and examples of best practice as this becomes embedded practice.
How the priority is being used by EPSRC
This priority is primarily about encouraging a long term behavioural change in the community. Applicants are encouraged to consider the priority when submitting any proposal to the theme through the council’s schemes.
Long-term behaviour change requires leadership. The ICT theme therefore expects all applications for fellowships and programme grants to the ICT theme to address this priority within their proposals.
What this means for applicants
The people at the heart of ICT priority will mean different things for different research projects. For programme grants and fellowships there are specific requirements, detailed below. For other applicants we would hope to see reference to people at the heart of ICT within the case for support.
How and where to address your proposals
The role of people in informing a research proposal will vary across the portfolio and from project to project. Different areas of research can be considered to have different levels of impact on people and on different timescales. The level of consideration of the priority in the proposal writing and ultimately in a research project, should be proportionate to this; supporting high quality research is still EPSRC’s primary aim.
Where included in a proposal, alignment with people at the heart of ICT can be expressed within the national importance section alongside discussing alignment with other relevant EPSRC priorities or research areas. In the spirit of the priority, it is expected to influence the programme of work and outputs, and so could also feature in the research methodology or Pathways to Impact.
We have provided some examples of how to apply to people at the heart of ICT, alongside a framework of questions which may help applicants consider how this is relevant to their proposal.
When applying for a fellowship please include a cover letter, for EPSRC office staff, which details how you have addressed this priority; this should also be apparent in the proposal. You should address this in terms of your specific research but also in your role as a leader in the community.
When applying for a programme grant please detail in the proposal how you have addressed this priority. The fit to this priority will be queried by the office at the pre-outline stage, where further guidance will be given. You may then be required to articulate how you have addressed this priority in a cover letter at outline stage and only proposals that have made a suitable commitment will be invited to submit a full proposal. Interview panels will also be briefed on the requirement for applications to contribute to this priority and may question applicants as part of their assessment against the Importance assessment criteria.
What we mean by ‘people’
The priority asks researchers to consider the people who will be affected, positively or negatively, by the proposed research and the ICT or ICT-enabled systems that would be developed as a result. Research should be proposed with these people in mind. The priority is not about making sure that the outputs are disseminated to the appropriate audiences, rather it is about designing the research with people in mind.
There can be no definitive list of people to think about but applicants might want to consider:
- the general public, as users of ICT or ICT-enabled systems
- specific sub-groups of the general public, such as adults, women, minority groups, children, elderly people, rural communities, patients, disabled people
- expert and non-expert users
- government and government agencies
- service providers – for example city councils, NHS, telecommunications companies
- regulators and standards bodies
- manufacturers and those involved in maintenance
- people who could unintentionally be impacted by the research.
Researchers are asked to remember that multiple individuals and groups might interact with, have an interest in, or be affected by the research and are encouraged to think about the needs, perceptions and experiences of them all, not just a primary user or stakeholder.
How this priority might be addressed
How to apply to people at the heart of ICT – examples gives examples as to how this priority might be addressed. These are based on discussions with the community, and ideas that have come forward so far, but do not provide a checklist of what to do and are by no means a complete list of options. They are simply meant to help explain the priority further and give some initial guidance about how to align a proposal with it.
The people at the heart of ICT questions framework is a set of questions designed to help applicants explore the notion of people at the heart of ICT and how it applies to their proposal. This does not represent an exhaustive list of considerations, nor would every proposal require answers to all of these questions.
Safe and secure ICT
Modern society is increasingly dependent on information and communication technologies (ICT). Our dependence exposes us to risks at all levels, malicious or otherwise, affecting individuals, organisations and wider society. The safe and secure ICT priority encourages researchers across all aspects of ICT to consider how their work can reduce, manage or avoid this risk while still realising the benefits of such technologies. A mix of technical, socio-technical and human-centric approaches will be required to achieve this aim.
Researchers can address this priority by undertaking ICT-focused research which reduces long-term risks in the face of accidents, malice or unpredictable events. This priority will naturally involve a strong contribution from cybersecurity researchers, but also extends well beyond this dimension to encompass all aspects of safe and secure ICT – such as reliability, robustness and maintainability with a common goal of reducing long term risks associated with technology through ICT research.
A mix of technical, socio-technical and human-centric approaches will be required to achieve this aim. Successful implementation of this priority will mean that we will start to see the integration of safe and secure thinking into all areas of ICT, particularly those in which it has been less prominent. Consideration of aspects such as reliability or safety will start to become recognised as standard practice among UK ICT researchers throughout their research projects. In some cases, this will require researchers to build new collaborations. Making safe and secure ICT a reality will present new research opportunities and is expected to stimulate demand for expertise.
Implementation of the priority
The goal of this priority is to encourage a culture of safe and secure thinking among the ICT research communities. To enable this to happen, the ICT theme will be taking following actions:
- encourage applicants to address the safe and secure ICT priority in their proposals and increase awareness of the importance of this priority across the ICT portfolio
- raise the profile of the safe and secure ICT priority among all areas of the ICT portfolio by supporting leadership in this area
- provide case studies which demonstrate work which addresses this priority in an exemplary manner
- monitor the progress of this priority throughout the current delivery plan period and take appropriate action as required.
What this means for applicants
The socio-technical aspects of this priority are relevant to all applicants across the ICT portfolio. Applicants are expected to address this priority in a manner which is appropriate to their research. ICT researchers are encouraged to engage with peers and colleagues from other disciplines on this topic in order establish best practice and ensure that the research community is sensitised to this issue. Peer review will be a vital aspect of the successful implementation priority.
Interaction with other priorities
Applicants who are seeking to address this priority should be aware of the related priority of trust, identity, privacy and security (TIPS) within the digital economy theme. TIPS supports the creation of an ecosystem that protects the interests of the individual and builds confidence that digital economy services will use personal information responsibly while enabling new commercial and societal opportunities for innovation. TIPS may be of relevance for researchers addressing technological, economic, cultural, behavioural and political challenges in this area.
Applicants are also advised to be aware of the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS). It brings together various research activities which have an impact in the prediction, prevention and reduction of security threats. PaCCS includes cybersecurity as one of its three core themes, funded by EPSRC. The cybersecurity theme of PaCCS aims to develop a clearer understanding of current and future vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks, the threats and consequences that result from them and the inadequacies of current approaches.
It is anticipated that proposals may exist which fall on a continuum between all three of these priorities: safe and secure ICT, TIPS and PaCCS. Applicants should consider how their proposal might contribute to the objectives of any of these priorities in order to support the design of their research project and framing of their arguments for national importance.
Future intelligent technologies
The future intelligent technologies priority promotes research which aims to develop intelligent, adaptive or autonomous systems that can learn, adapt and make decisions without the need for human control.
Future intelligent technologies research will inform and contribute to a new level of smartness where, for example, systems exhibit a level of social intelligence, being able to both understand context and adapt accordingly. This is a high-ambition priority, where we can start to move towards the goal of computing with meaning, with computational systems able to interpret and make sense of information about the world around us in a manner that matches, or even exceeds, levels of human performance.
Implementation of the priority
A focus on highly ambitious, advanced and innovative research is key to the success of this priority. The core objectives to reach the goal of the future intelligent technologies priority seek to encourage cross-disciplinary action by identifying potential research areas of interest and bringing together relevant groups with disparate expertise. For example, it is not sufficient to only target the scientific and algorithmic challenges as seen in the robotics, automation and artificial intelligence strategic focus, but also the effects of social intelligence and societal challenges involved with an overarching acceptability of research developments within this area.
We envisage a range of activities being supported under this priority. These could include workshops or networks to develop ideas through to support for research projects. A common feature of all activities under this banner however will be cross-disciplinarity.
As an example of developing a future intelligent technology, take the case of human-like computing. This concept takes a different approach to artificial intelligence and machine learning with the development of machines with human-like perceptual, reasoning and learning abilities, which further support collaboration and communication with human beings.
Having been persuaded that this was an important topic to explore, EPSRC has supported two workshops bringing together computer and cognitive scientists to explore what human-like computing might mean and what research might need to be put in place that would eventually lead to the design of such systems. Future intelligent technologies support thus takes the form of initial workshops which will potentially lead to some form of networking activity to develop a roadmap setting out initial research priorities aimed at the eventual goal of human-like systems. A Strategy Roadmap for Research came out of these discussions.
Given the importance of public engagement and responsible research and innovation to this priority, these aspects could be given prominence through specific public engagement and responsible research and innovation focused awards. Alternatively, they could be embedded within any activities that are funded – for example, a requirement in fellowship and programme grant applications to address public engagement and responsible research and innovation).
What this means for applicants
Applicants should take under consideration that incremental advances to current technologies are not sufficient to engage with the scope of the future intelligent technologies priority and that a wider, cross-disciplinary approach will be required to meet the high level of ambition expected. The complexities and research challenges contained within the development of future intelligent technologies greatly reflect and encourage the need for cross-disciplinary interaction between fields with comparatively divergent interests, such as:
- computer science
- human and behavioural sciences.
Applicants should also consider responsible research and innovation and public engagement as high priorities for future intelligent technologies research. Other cross-ICT priorities are also closely related to this strategic priority, such as:
- Data enabled decision making
- People at the heart of ICT
- Cross-disciplinarity and co-creation.
Data enabled decision making
This priority focuses on new methods to help support people making decisions in a world that is becoming ever more data rich. This could be assisting a person in making a decision, providing a system that can make decisions autonomously (but with the full confidence of those affected by them), or a combination of the two. The data in question will often be complex, incomplete or mixed mode which introduces new challenges to decision making.
The priority requires researchers to take an integrated approach in which every element reflects the ultimate need for the outputs of that process to in some way benefit a person making a decision. This will include, but not be limited to, data wrangling, data analytics, interaction with data and data visualisation. There could also be opportunities for work on hardware and computer architectures for enabling faster, more efficient or even real-time decision making.
It is recognised that there are users in many parts of the data science ecosystem, both machine and human, expert or non-expert. Researchers are encouraged to consider these users from the outset, rather than in the final stages once a technique, approach or application has been developed. This should be in line with the people at the heart of ICT cross-ICT priority.
There will be many challenging research questions around the decision making aspect of this priority. How do we account for and incorporate uncertainty in these decisions? How can we minimise unintended bias being introduced into the decisions made, through the choice of data, methods and questions used? And more broadly, what does a good decision look like and how do we measure it? Alongside this, we expect researchers to consider responsible research and innovation in aspects of their work. For example, is there a need to devise means to make algorithms accountable for their behaviour? Does this accountability of algorithms (or lack thereof) affect how and where such systems can be implemented?
We recognise that work in this space often crosses into other research or user domains, but work funded under this priority should be primarily novel ICT and should therefore be generalisable to a degree.
Effective work in this area requires access to appropriate data sets and facilities, which is often challenging as this relies on open policies of domain or user partners. Appropriate access to data sets, users and decision makers will be essential to meet the aspirations of this priority. There are opportunities already available to researchers to generate or procure data as part of research grants, and examples of best practice of effective partnerships with data owners in current investments which they could emulate.
Implementation of the priority
The research landscape in this area is complex with many research communities and funders involved. For this reason, we will first set out the EPSRC portfolio in this area and work alongside other research councils and the Alan Turing Institute to articulate where the boundaries and opportunities are.
The new approaches to data science funding opportunity is a joint call led by the ICT, digital economy and mathematical sciences themes. It is expected to fund a number of proposals which will have strong relevance to this priority, although the decision making aspect may not be a feature of all.
It is recognised that there is high academic and industrial demand for skilled people in this area in the UK. This priority will therefore be a key influence on EPSRC strategy on any future student training priorities. In addition to this, applicants applying for large programmes in this area should articulate how they are contributing to the skills base. This could be through, for example, staff development, dissemination of techniques to a wider audience or public engagement.
We held an event in 2018 to showcase examples of best practice in this area and lessons learnt from working in this way. We will expect all researchers with projects directly relevant to this priority to present their progress so far and how they are meeting the aspirations set out above.
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