by Charlie Dormer
A new set of research and innovation challenges has recently been announced through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), providing major opportunities for the social sciences to collaborate with other academic disciplines and businesses to solve specific economic and societal challenges.
ISCF is made up of major industrial and societal challenges in different areas of research, where academics work with businesses and other partners to find innovative solutions.
The challenges are being announced in batches each year known as ‘waves’. The latest batch – wave 2 – was announced in November 2017, and the first competitions for each challenge are now being launched.
The challenges in this new ‘wave’ offer a greater opportunity for researchers of all disciplines – including the social sciences – to collaborate with businesses.
There are eight challenges in wave 2 with a number of activities under each one:
- Transforming Construction
- Prospering from an Energy Revolution
- Transforming Food Production
- Healthy Ageing
- Data for Early Diagnosis and Precision Medicine
- Next Generation Services
- Audiences of the Future
- Quantum Technology
What’s different about ISCF?
These competitions are going to look very different to what social scientists would expect to see from ESRC.
You’ll see a mixture of different approaches – from large scale demonstrators to research programmes, and from individual grants for collaborative R&D to networks drawing on existing evidence. The approach will vary according to what each challenge needs.
This is new, additional UKRI cross-council funding, and will take new forms and entail some new ways of working. Each challenge is very specific in its focus, and all competitions will require collaborations with business or disciplines beyond the social sciences. We’re expecting these challenges to significantly transform industries, reflected in the substantial amounts of continued engagement – and funding – behind each challenge.
How social science can respond
There is enormous potential for the social sciences to make meaningful contributions to these challenges in ways that will help understand and shape the implications of what they achieve.
We know social science provides insights into many aspects of the business environment – including consumer behaviour and public attitudes; identifying opportunities for new goods, services and business models; improving supply chain relationships; maximising the value of consumer, health and other data, regulations; and understanding sector workforces and the capacity for transformation.
But social science also has a pivotal role to play in understanding the challenges themselves so that subsequent thinking about solutions takes the economic, psychological, social, legal, geographic and wider implications for people and communities into account.
For example, in the Healthy Ageing challenge, this may mean understanding how older people make choices about the things that they buy and how these things can be designed to be usable by them. It may also mean that in addressing the need for healthier ageing there is also deep awareness of the importance of social isolation and how new business models, community practices and services need to tackle loneliness. We can think in terms of social innovation as well as devices, and how new business models, financial models and models of engagement could be developed together to improve outcomes for older people.
For the Next Generation Services challenge, we need to understand how technology used extensively in some professional services can be adopted by other sectors in a way that improves the quality of that service and retains high-quality jobs.
It’s worth looking at all the challenges, because some of the research needs for each challenge might come in unexpected places. For example, the Transforming Construction challenge looks at how we could be more productive in creating homes and public buildings – such as schools and prisons – by using off-site manufacturing, digital technologies and energy generating technologies. As well as developing the technology, we also need to understand the impacts of these innovations on the users of the buildings – whether they be residents, teachers, students, inmates and prison officers – drawing on expertise from across and beyond the social sciences.
How to get involved
This is truly a cross-UKRI initiative, which means that there will be opportunities for social scientists in other places – a call may be led by Innovate UK or EPSRC but may still be relevant to social science disciplines.
We’ll be highlighting the competitions where there’s the greatest opportunity to get involved, but we also recommend keeping an eye on the UKRI website and the websites and social media of our sister councils as well. Most competitions will have consortium building events and brokerage being run by the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) so do keep an eye on their communications as well.
The short timescales involved, and the need for collaboration with businesses, means that it’s important to start building relationships now with organisations if you do research in an area which could be covered by the ISCF, and seeing if existing partners are interested in the challenge areas. This can include relationships directly with businesses and industry groups as well as with colleagues in other disciplines who might already have business connections.
What next for ISCF?
We hope to announce more challenges and competition in November 2018 under the next batch – wave 3. So if your existing connections are in a sector not covered by wave 2 then keep a look out for future challenges.
Charlie Dormer coordinates ESRC’s involvement in the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and works specifically on the Transforming Construction and Audiences of the Future challenge, as well as on promoting social science engagement with businesses more broadly.
The ISCF Next Generation Services Research Programme call is now open (closing date 18 July 2018).