Leading the way - Q&A with John Armitt

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2011
"Question mark" image courtesy of Chris Baker

An increase in R&D in the scientific community has been identified as a major way
of boosting manufacturing, and therefore the economy, in the UK. Martin Parley
talks to John Armitt, Chairman of The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research
Council (EPSRC) and the Olympic Delivery Authority, about the work being done to
encourage and promote the furthering of science.

Q: You are Chairman of two of the
largest organisations in their fields
– is it hard splitting your time
between them?

No, because ODA requires about three days a week,
and EPSRC two days a month. There are no direct
overlaps, and I have seen no conflicts of interest.
However, the EPSRC funds a broad range of
research that has pervasive impacts. There are,
therefore, many research projects in areas of sports
science or with benefit to sport. For example, a team
at the University of Sheffield is investigating the
traction between sports shoes and the surfaces
they come into contact with. This work has the
potential to lead to improving standard test
procedures for surfaces, which is integral to ensuring
a high level of performance and comfort (to
encourage participation), and to reduce the likelihood
of injury.

Q: You worked for John Laing for 27
years on various projects including
the Sizewell B nuclear power plant –
what areas of the construction
industry attracted you and why?

Civil engineering attracted me originally – in particular
the resources of nature for the benefit of mankind. In
my early days with Laing we had a very large R&D
department, which among other things, developed a
wave energy system. It was also constantly reviewing
construction systems and concrete mix designs, and
was a good example of how industry has a major part
to play in R&D.

Q: In your role with EPSRC, what are
you doing to promote scientific
research, and in what areas?

As Chair, primarily by using every opportunity
when speaking to or meeting politicians to emphasise
the importance of science to the UK economy.
There are a number of fora where this can happen. The Foundation for Science and Technology holds
regular meetings attended by policymakers on areas
of topical scientific interest, and I am also regularly
asked to attend breakfast briefing sessions.
I take every opportunity to remind the politicians
and policymakers I meet about the far-reaching
benefits of research.

Q: How do you choose which projects
you award funding to?

Projects are selected via a peer review
process. This involves those active in
research judging the merits of proposals from other
researchers. There is typically a two-stage process.
The first involves a structured assessment of an
individual bid by a number of reviewers working
independently. Then, in the second stage, a panel of
reviewers meets to consider a batch of proposals and
to place them in a prioritised list. We select most of
the reviewers and members of prioritisation panels
from a college of peer reviewers that is nominated by
the research community. The college is made up of
around 4,000 people. Following the panel, EPSRC
staff decide which proposals will be funded based on
the prioritised list produced by the panel and the
funding available.

Q: What are the main things you look
for in a funding application?

We expect reviewers to be looking for
excellence and the potential impact of the
results of the research in the longer term. There is
quite a structured way to apply for funding, and
academics should look carefully at the EPSRC
website before submitting their application to make
sure all the criteria are met. The Research Councils
describe impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution
that excellent research makes to society and the
economy’. Impact embraces all the extremely diverse
ways research-related knowledge and skills benefit
individuals, organisations and nations by –

  • Fostering global economic performance, and
    specifically the economic competitiveness of
    the UK.
  • Increasing the effectiveness of public services
    and policy.
  • Enhancing quality of life, health and creative output.

A good application will not only demonstrate the
international excellence of the research programme,
but also describe the pathways by which the impact
mentioned might be achieved.

Q: What are your research priorities
for your final year as EPSRC Chair?

To see the new delivery plan following the
Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR)
firmly in place. Following the science budget
allocations, EPSRC published a four-year delivery
plan setting out our priorities and strategies to 2013.
There are three strategic goals – shaping capability,
delivering impact and developing leaders. We
also have six global research challenges that we
aim to address, covering energy, digital economy,
manufacturing the future, healthcare technologies,
living with environmental change and global
uncertainties. We will encourage and work with
researchers to look at how their projects can
benefit these priority themes and contribute to UK
national need.

Q: What have you done to engage
public interest in research and the
importance of science?

We look for all researchers to include in their
programme how they will consider public engagement.
At a personal level, I use public speaking
opportunities, including Science Festivals. EPSRC
also funds a number of Senior Media Fellows, such
as Professor Jim Al-Khalili at the University of Surrey.
These people have a specific responsibility to explain
the contribution research makes to a wider audience.
I would also emphasise that events such as the
Olympics provide a unique opportunity to inspire and
excite the next generation of scientists and engineers
by demonstrating the far-reaching implications for
scientific research.

Q: What are the most important
research areas you and the council
see for the future and why?

EPSRC has identified a number of
priority themes – energy, digital economy, advanced
manufacturing and healthcare technologies, living
with environmental change and global uncertainties.
But we must also support the basic disciplines of
engineering, physical sciences and maths, and
ensure a flow-through of high quality researchers for
industry and academia. The priorities we have
identified deal with some of the major challenges
facing our society, whether that is preparing for a low carbon future or for an ageing population, or to
ensure increased success for our manufacturing
sector as part of a rebalanced economy. In setting
these priorities it is encouraging to note that we are
building upon a highly successful research base
where, despite increased international competition,
UK engineering and physical science researchers
are among the most productive in the G8. We can
therefore ensure the research we sponsor will be both
internationally excellent and deliver long-term impacts
for the health, prosperity and sustainability of the
nation and the globe.

Q: What have been the most
successful research projects
under your leadership?

There are so many and the full impact
may be years away, so it is hard to pick out one in
particular. But the award of the Nobel Prize for
Physics last October to EPSRC researcher Professor
Andre Geim and fellow Russian-born scientist
Konstantin Novoselov for their groundbreaking work
on graphene was very exciting.

What I have noticed in the last few years is the
growing recognition by politicians of all parties of the
importance of research to the UK’s future. There is an
increasing realisation that a large part of our future
competitiveness will be based on access to new ideas
and other intellectual capital, and on the availability
of highly talented people. Furthermore, achieving
success in sectors such as manufacturing will
necessarily form a critical part of the Government’s
economic growth strategy. EPSRC-sponsored
research that is focused, for example, on
sustainable, high-value manufacturing will be
integral to rebuilding the UK economy, and politicians
increasingly realise this.

Q: If money were no object, what kind
of research project would you spend
it on and why?

In addition to our own funding, it is
necessary to get more industry funding into basic
research, so we are less dependent on Government
support. Everyone has seen the need to adapt their
approach to spending – and industry is no exception.
Collaborations have become increasingly important
and that is one of the reasons we are investing in our
Centres for Doctoral Training. Sharing the support
between research council, university and industry
enables us to cost-effectively produce world-class
engineers with both academic and business skills.

Further information

EPSRC, Polaris House, North Star Avenue,
Swindon, SN2 1ET, UK. Tel: 01793 444000. Email:
infoline@epsrc.ac.uk Website: www.epsrc.ac.uk