Expanding the potential for research excellence

Research England executive chair Jessica Corner launches the second wave of Expanding Excellence in England

Jessica Corner is Executive Chair of Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation. 

For years, England has had a policy of supporting areas of existing excellence – more funding for those who already have capacity and influence.

Of course, there are many parts of the system where there is potential to grow small research areas into significant areas of work

The Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund aims to build capacity and quality of research within departments and units in English higher education providers.

We are interested in nothing less than strengthening the work of universities to push the frontier of human knowledge, deliver economic impact, create social impact, and support our society and others to become enriched, healthier, more resilient, and more sustainable.

A history of expanding excellence

We are interested in novel areas with high potential where there may not be the underpinning infrastructure to expand research. To give only some examples the fund has supported Loughborough University’s new Centre for Mathematical Cognition to enhance their work on the design and evaluation of educational initiatives; we provided funding to the Natural Resources Institutes at the University of Greenwich to address food and nutrition security, particularly in Africa; and we funded the UWE’s Centre for Fine Print Research to solve real world problems through creating physical artefacts that live between art, science, and engineering.

Early indications are that these programmes are having a significant impact. The projects have led to at least 280 new academic appointments, and a plethora of partnerships with business, charities, and public and private sector organisations.

Overall external research income has doubled across the funded units as a whole. The web of effects spread beyond the centres themselves to the multiple interactions through their wider engagement. In total, the schemes appear to be reaching sustainability with permanent commitment by institutions. Indeed, some are moving to the next stage of development and are planning to scale, broaden their scope and are clear peaks of excellence.

Expanding excellence even further

REF 2021 indicated that there are many pockets of excellence across England where there is scope to expand. It is clear, if we are to increase the research and innovation footprint in the UK, and with a wider geographic distribution, the Expanding Excellence in England is an important vehicle.

With this in mind I am delighted to announce that today we are launching the second wave of Expanding Excellence in England.

We are allocating up to £180m over five years, drawn from Research England’s recurrent research and capital budgets, to support a second tranche of the most exciting and imaginative schemes coming out of universities. It is our view that while we are living through challenging economic times it is crucial that the sector does not scale back its ambition, or limit opportunity to generations of talent in key research areas. This is especially true in parts of the country where investment is needed most.

Expanding criteria

In 2018 decisions on allocating funds were largely place blind with the primary criteria centring on the size, excellence, novelty of the agenda and the plan for sustainable growth.

While these criteria remain important, for this round we will be placing greater emphasis on the regional context and how units can benefit local economies, society, and cultures. We will also consider location and the opportunity to build institutional collaboration where this can enhance capability or avoid duplication where facilities can be shared or enable complementarity. Furthermore, we will look at how institutions will build inclusive research cultures and support early career researchers in their plans for expansion.

While this fund is primarily aimed at those institutions that do not have substantial underpinning QR allocations, we continue to encourage joint applications that build on institutional collaborations where this can enhance local capabilities. To provide a better runway towards sustainability, we will also increase the length of the funding period available from three years to five years.

Successful units will start to receive their funding for the 2024/5 academic year; we aim to provide an 8-month notification period so that recruitment of staff can begin as early as possible.

Expanding our horizons

The features of a dynamic system should encompass diversity of setting, geography, type of institution and disciplines. Capability needs to be built in new and different fields, and capacity in underserved disciplines and new forms of interdisciplinary practice as well as support the development of technologies.

We need concerted, collaborative, and collective effort not just across disciplines but also institutions, sectors, and countries to address the many challenges faced by our society. We must foster agile and determined ways of working, new forms of leadership, a different understanding of how we value and assess research practice and new cultures. Research England is looking to use the levers at its disposal to support such direction and E3 is one of these.

In both our commitment to continuing Expanding Excellence in England and our change in emphasis in what we seek to fund, we signal future direction for our research system.

Information on Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund: round 2 can be found at UKRI’s website

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