Imperial College London

The Faculty of Natural Sciences launches series of new research themes

by

Researcher in a Department of Life Sciences lab at Imperial College London

New FoNS research themes aim to get academics together to write strong proposals that address societal issues.

The Government this year announced a target of 2.4% GDP to be spent on research and development (R&D). A significant fraction of R&D funding is expected to address societal issues and there is increasing interest in ambitious, large-scale, multidisciplinary projects.

During his tenure as Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Professor Richard Craster aims to galvanise academic staff around a series of broad strategic areas, with a view towards submitting strong grant proposals that tap into funding outside the normal Research Council Responsive Mode.

The themes are designed to enable us to go for large programme grants and for bottom-up activities and coordination. Professor Richard Craster Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences

‘The way in which research grants are being distributed and administered by Government is evolving and we should adapt ourselves and play to our strengths,’ he says. ‘The organisation of funding nowadays is increasingly heading towards consortia and large-scale grants. Often the calls come at short notice, so making an effective bid involves us having to very quickly and efficiently pull together a multi-disciplinary team on a particular topic.’

Professor Craster is keen to emphasise that this project is not taking money away from existing research: ‘This is on top of, and not instead of – that’s a key point. There’s no intention here to divert all our resources onto these themes or refocus academics posts or hiring. Rather, they’re being designed to enable us to go for large programme grants and for bottom-up activities and coordination,’ he says.

FoNS Vice Dean (Research), Professor Paul French, agrees: ‘the themes we came up with are intended to represent strengths in the Faculty that address pressing societal issues. However, it’s important to understand this will not be all the research that the Faculty does. Rather these are specific areas where we think there are opportunities to develop major projects and activities.’

Professor French notes that some FoNS research won’t map neatly under any of the themes: ‘much of the science in FoNS is fundamental, rather than applied directly towards specific societal issues. We appreciate the value of curiosity-driven research, that all technologies and applications build on earlier fundamental science, so we do not want to do less of this.’

What are the FoNS research themes and who are the champions?

The Faculty’s Research Strategy team has been developing the idea over the past few months. Each theme provides a conceptual framework headed by two champions from across the Faculty:

The theme champions are working with the Research Strategy team on capability mapping across the Faculty – finding out who works in that broad area and more about their specific research. ‘Without that knowledge it can be difficult for the College to send the information to the right place,’ says Professor Craster. ‘If the Research Office knows a call is about to open, often we send a blanket email to everybody, but if we understood the relevant community it would help us to target this information more efficiently. The reality is that there’s funding we’re missing because it takes too long to find the right people and give them enough time to put together a strong proposal before the call closes.’

The point here is to stimulate activity: to encourage FoNS academics to come together, to build strong teams and research programmes that build on FoNS research strengths and address societal issues. Professor Paul French Vice Dean (Education), Faculty of Natural Sciences

The Faculty will also provide the theme champions with some funding to initiate activities that bring together academics from across the FoNS at varied career stages. ‘These will include workshops, hackathons, all sorts of activities and mentoring schemes related to a theme, that enable researchers to meet and gradually learn what each other does – so that when grant calls are announced, we can be prepared,’ says Professor Craster.

‘Furthermore, we want to enable a community built around a theme to proactively ask – what are the big challenges that Imperial wants to tackle? We want to proactively pitch those ideas to the funding bodies, not just to wait for them to tell us what they think is important. I don’t want us to get too strategic, but instead of sitting back and waiting to hear what the funding calls are, why don’t we say – this particular area is really important and here’s a unique collection of people who can tackle that problem?’ 

‘It’s not just about funding – funding is secondary to doing our research,’ says Professor French. ‘The point here is to stimulate activity: to encourage FoNS academics to come together, to build strong teams and research programmes that build on FoNS research strengths and address societal issues. Of course, this will help us to write strong proposals. We’re not trying to think about FoNS research differently, we’re simply trying to play to some of our strengths more effectively than we have done in the past.’

How are the themes positioned in relation to the College’s Networks, Centres and broader research strategy?

Professor French emphasises that although the theme activities will be FoNS-centric, ‘of course they overlap with and work with existing structures, such as the College-wide Networks. These themes have been created to explore addressing societal challenges using some of FoNS’ key research strengths.’

‘The themes will use FoNS resources to help stimulate projects from our academics to win funding which will benefit our Departments,’ Professor French continues. ‘However, we are members of the College, and all such projects are likely to be collaborative with other Faculties and to also benefit Departments outside FoNS.’

The themes have come about in parallel with the Provost’s announcement of the academic strategy. ‘As well as providing a means to generate “Big Ideas” for UKRI, these themes are also a way of generating ideas for the College’s academic strategy,’ says Professor French.

‘The themes are broader than the College’s Networks of Excellence – and will effectively be FoNS support for the relevant College Networks that our staff have joined. The themes can also evolve,’ says Professor Craster. ‘We might add to them over time. Initially we’ve chosen four areas that we care about and have expertise in, and our aim is to be more organised – including about how we approach the grant application process to support this research alongside all the existing fundamental and other applied research that we do.’

Upcoming opportunities: the first call for Expression of Interest in Quantitative Technologies

Over the coming months we’ll be talking to the champions to explore each theme in more detail and sharing upcoming opportunities for academics to find out more and get involved.

The first call for Expression of Interest is related to the theme of Quantitative Technologies, for large proposals (any funder) and EPSRC Big Ideas in the areas of (but not limited to):

  • Nanoscale/medical imaging
  • Biomolecular analysis
  • Ultrafast light sources and laser diagnostics
  • Quantum, Atomic, Molecular and Optical physics

Find out more about guidance and deadlines for this call (this PDF link is accessible to FoNS staff only).

One-page EoIs should be returned to the FoNS Strategic Research Manager, Dr Sophie Armstrong-Brown (s.armstrong-brown@imperial.ac.uk) by the 30 September CoB.

You can also let Sophie know if you would like to be added to the list of affiliates for any of the above themes in order to receive specific activities and funding calls announcements.

More about the Quantitative Technologies theme champions

Felice Torrisi and Jonathan Eastwood will lead the Quantitative Technologies theme and will develop research support strategies and opportunities for the academics in the Faculty of Natural Sciences to shape their research ideas into successful research proposals.

Dr Felice Torrisi is a Lecturer in 2D materials and Wearable Bioelectronics in the Department of Chemistry. His research interests span printed and flexible electronics to photonics with graphene and 2D materials, with particular focus on energy, sensing, wearable electronics and bioelectronics.

Dr jonathan Eastwood is a Senior Lecturer in the Space and Atmospheric Physics research group in the Department of Physics. He conducts research into space plasma physics and space weather with particular interest in a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection which occurs in the boundaries between different space plasmas.

Reporter

Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences