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Technology Touching Life Networks

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Medical Research Council website

Outline call status: Closed
Full call opens (invite only): 12 September 2017
Full application deadline (invite only): 23 November 2017, 16:00

Summary

Technology Touching Life (TTL) is pleased to announce a £3 million call for Networks, jointly supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC). The aim of TTL is to foster interdisciplinary research into innovative, and potentially disruptive, technological capabilities that will drive world-leading discovery research in the health and life sciences.

Through these awards we aim to support networking activities that will identify research strategies and opportunities to address the vision of TTL, as well as building new collaborations across disciplines and organisations. The Research Councils will kick start these new research strategies by supporting preliminary or feasibility style research as part of the awards. TTL is a long-term strategic priority across BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC and we will seek to build on the ideas and collaborations that emerge through the Networks to understand the future needs and scale of opportunity for TTL.

Up to £3 million will be available to fund a balanced portfolio of awards across the scope of TTL; we anticipate funding 3-6 networks. Networks are intended to be UK-wide and be open to participants from different disciplines and institutions. It is essential that user engagement is considered in the wider network membership. Each proposal must explain the fit to the scope of Technology Touching Life and demonstrate evidence of how they will connect with on-going excellent research in the UK to grow and develop the network.

This is a two stage call; Outline applications will be assessed in September 2017, and full applications invited forward for assessment in February 2018. Networks will be expected to start June 2018.

Background

New technologies often have their origins in innovative research and development in the engineering and physical sciences and play a crucial role in advancing life sciences research. Particularly revolutionary past examples include Magnetic Resonance Imaging, DNA sequencing and super-resolution microscopy, each of which involved fundamental innovation in engineering and physical sciences (EPS) methods being integrated within a technological platform that opened up new opportunities for basic, discovery research.

Through Technology Touching Life (see external links) BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC are highlighting interdisciplinary technology research as a topic of mutual strategic importance. The TTL strategic framework (see external links) builds on recommendations from the Maxwell report and has been developed with input from members of the academic community through our collective advisory structures, engagement with the community via an e-consultation and an Expert Group. This is a long term commitment, aiming to nurture the adventurous research that leads to the discovery of ground-breaking technologies and technology-enabled research in the life sciences.

The research councils are uniquely positioned to stimulate this collaboration and develop strong working models across the disciplines. The TTL programme aims to build substantially upon our existing individual activities and enable interdisciplinary technology research to support basic 'discovery' science.

The current call seeks to widen the community able to respond to the opportunities presented by TTL, and in particular to increase collaborative relationships across the physical and life sciences. National networks will allow the community to foster a broader range of research ideas and build capacity at these key disciplinary interfaces to fully exploit existing funding opportunities and be able to respond to future ones.

Regional workshops (see related links) will be held during June 2017 to bring together researchers from across a broad range of relevant disciplines to discuss the research challenges and opportunities associated with Technology Touching Life. A list of attendees and summaries of the workshop discussions will be collated and made available to assist with the formation of community research networks; however attendance at the workshops is not a pre-requisite for applying to this call. We will host a webinar on 5 July 2017 10:00 to provide an opportunity for those not attending the TTL workshops to learn more about Technology Touching Life. Instructions on how to join the webinar will be published in due course (pre-registration is not required).

Scope

BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC intend to establish a number of research networks to help deliver the vision for Technology Touching Life. The networks will foster collaborative activities between academic researchers and end users at all levels to identify and develop new approaches to tackle key research challenges within the scope of TTL. The networks will be interdisciplinary, working across the engineering, physical, health and life sciences research communities.

The purpose of this call is:

  • To support a number of complementary community networks focused on TTL research challenges and opportunities.
  • To stimulate and grow interdisciplinary connections around different aspects of TTL, strengthening research capacity, capabilities and methodologies.
  • To provide, through the networks resources, funding for pump-priming research, collaboration building and skills development (especially for early career researchers).
  • To encourage interaction and engagement between researchers and potential end users in academia, industry, healthcare and other sectors.

Successful networks will:

  • focus on research into the development of novel techniques and technologies based on new advances in fundamental engineering and physical sciences.
  • clearly identify relevant and appropriate health and/or life sciences research challenges that the technology would help address in the short-medium term.
  • offer a series of structured activities that build bridges between disciplines and find creative ways to enable knowledge sharing, enabling co-development of ideas between physical science/engineering and life science researchers to deliver a step change in technology and research capabilities.
  • develop interdisciplinary research communities that are nationally and internationally connected.
  • deliver research agendas and strategies to address the challenges and opportunities presented by TTL. Working collaboratively – along with existing research groups - with Research Councils to identify the future needs and scale of opportunity for TTL.
  • pump-prime a range of innovative projects and collaborations identified by the networks and provide a forum to enable them to lead to more competitive, collaborative, and integrative research proposals.
  • communicate broadly and openly, promoting the research area, providing updates on developments and findings, and highlighting opportunities for engagement and support.
  • maximise impact through end user engagement, nurturing early career researchers and supporting the interdisciplinary skills sets needed pursue the identified research directions.

Scientific objectives

The complexity of biological systems means that life scientists need to look beyond the genome to determine how organisms function. To do so, they must perturb, measure, and increasingly integrate the analysis of many different parameters, at the molecule/cell/tissue/organism level, to derive overall understanding of the processes they are interested in. Furthermore, technologies that operate accurately, safely and effectively within or close to the living system will allow life science researchers to understand how biological processes operate 'as they are' in the organism i.e. under physiological or pathophysiological conditions. Current techniques are limited with respect to speed, resolution, invasiveness or integration, and the co-development of new techniques and technologies based on novel engineering and physical sciences will enable step changes in life sciences.

Figure 1. Scientific scope of Technology Touching Life.

The aim of TTL is to foster interdisciplinary research into innovative, and potentially disruptive, technological capabilities that will drive world-leading discovery research in the health and life sciences.

Networks will focus on areas of high potential that bridge the EPS and HLS research communities, identifying research strategies and building new collaborations across disciplines and organisations. The research focus of the networks will demonstrate strong relevance to the TTL Strategic Framework (i.e. research into advanced capabilities for biological perturbation, measurement and analysis).

Networks may emerge around technical challenges, life sciences drivers and developments from the engineering and physical sciences where there is demonstrable potential for application in the health and life sciences. Applicants will be expected to justify the overarching theme of the network in terms of importance and opportunity for step-change in capability through interdisciplinary research collaborations, including the breadth of the EPS and HLS communities that could be engaged relevant to the three participating Councils.

Exclusions

In defining the scope of TTL, we recognise that not all research to develop technologies for biological or biomedical applications falls within this space; much already has a clear home at one Research Council or with Innovate UK.

Examples of research that is embedded within other areas of the research councils' strategy, and therefore not in scope for this call, include:

  • Medical/clinical devices (in development for end-point clinical utility rather than basic research purposes) and healthcare technologies (including biomedical engineering for diagnostic or therapeutic application).
  • Research solely focusing on data analysis or mathematical/statistical approaches that are not integrated into a broader technology led project e.g. data mining/re-use, development of databases for sharing research data.
  • Large scale infrastructure, or direct application of off-the-shelf technology to research.
  • Incremental technology development that does not incorporate developments based on EPS approaches.

There are other avenues that support excellent science in these areas and the ambition of TTL is distinct, highly focused towards next generation technologies to transform research approaches in the health and life sciences.

Funding

MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC have jointly committed up to £3 million for this call, with a view to supporting up to six multidisciplinary networks. Proposals may range in scale but should not exceed £1 million. Awards will be between 36-48 months in duration to ensure that the funding for feasibility studies can be allocated and spent during the lifetime of the award.

We aim to fund a balanced portfolio of awards aligning to TTL.

Eligibility

MRC is administering this call on behalf of the three councils, but all three councils are equal partners in the initiative. As such, standard MRC eligibility criteria apply for Principal Investigators and Co-Investigators. The network Director (Principal Investigator) must be an eligible UK-based applicant from an institution eligible to receive research council funding. Information about eligibility criteria can be found in MRC's grants guide (see external links).

The network will be expected to have membership from a range of relevant academic disciplines and stakeholders (including end-users). It will be possible for interested parties to join networks at the outline stage, at the full application stage, and once networks have been established, for the duration of funding. Once funded, networks must be open to new value-adding members.

To support network formation and development, we will be publishing non-confidential details of successful outline stage submissions ahead of the full stage.

Proposals for this call must be for new networks, existing networks can not apply for additional funding.

How to apply

This call is closed to outline applications.

There is a two stage application and assessment process:

  1. Outline – offline, via email ttl@rcuk.ac.uk
  2. Full proposals – via Je-S

The template outline form is available from the application downloads below. Please complete all sections.

Proposals should include:

  • explanation of how the chosen area of focus fits to the aims of TTL, and how these aims will be furthered through the activities of the network. The scientific focus should be positioned clearly within the state of the art, be of importance and have the potential for high quality interdisciplinary research.
  • initial membership (including applicants) and their expected contributions, as well as anticipated involvement of other research communities and plans for encouraging and building wider membership.
  • clear objectives of the network and explanation of how network funding will enable those objectives to be met.
  • proposed range of specific activities the network will undertake in order to develop cross-disciplinary working and new research concepts.
  • description of how the network will support and enable early career researchers working at this interface and how relevant non-academic users and other stakeholders will be included within the network.
  • description of how funding for feasibility projects and collaborative interchange will be awarded.
  • details of network governance (e.g. through a steering group) and plans for knowledge dissemination and sustainability.

At outline stage, applicants must provide top level figures for funds required to support the network activities, but are not required to provide a detailed justification of resources. However, applicants should describe why a network of the proposed scale is justified. Increases to costs between outline and full stage exceeding 10% should be discussed with the research councils prior to submission. Applicants should ensure their Research Office is informed of their outline submission.

In addition, applicants must submit an amalgamated PDF of CVs for all named applicants (two page CV + one page publications). At a minimum, font size 11 in Arial should be used for the outline and CVs.

Principal Investigators should email completed forms to ttl@rcuk.ac.uk by 27 July 2017 17:00.

Only those who are invited to apply for full stage applications may do so.

Full applications should be submitted via Je-S. Full guidance on completing the full applications will be provided to applicants that are successful at the outline stage.

Application downloads (for reference only)

Technology Touching Life Networks: outline application form (DOCX 75KB)

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Technology Touching Life Networks: outline application form (ODT 48KB)

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Frequently asked questions (PDF 277KB)

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Eligible costs

Up to £3 million is available to support 3-6 network awards.

Funding is intended to cover the operating and supporting costs of the network as well as the feasibility studies. Funding can be requested to cover:

  • Organisation of activities - Funding can be requested for costs involved in running activities including networking or brokering events, working groups, lectures, seminars, symposia, hackathons, summer schools, short term placements and visits, or people exchange. Applicants are encouraged to think creatively about proposing a range of activities which would stimulate knowledge sharing and collaboration building across departments, organisations, and disciplines.
  • Travel and subsistence - travel and subsistence enabling members of the network to meet together around the aims of the network to exchange ideas and expertise, potentially including visits to or by overseas experts and industry partners. Where possible industrial collaborators should meet their own travel costs.
  • Investigators salaries - The network Director and one co-Director can request funds to cover their salary costs for the time spent setting up and administering the network, however these costs should be reasonable and not constitute a significant proportion of the costs of the network. Further co-investigators may be included in the application where individuals will have a clearly definable leadership role within the network; however no contribution to their salary should be requested.
  • Administrative support - we strongly recommend that dedicated resource for a network manager is integrated into the network and funding for administration support can be requested to support the coordination of the network. Costs should be reasonable and not a significant proportion of the total requested resource. Reasonable costs for monitoring and dissemination of the network output can also be included.
  • Research - Pump-priming innovative research that addresses key TTL research challenges/opportunities identified by the network. Funds can be requested for PDRA staff, consumables, travel and subsistence and any other costs usually under ‘Directly Incurred’ headings. We would expect some examples of the types of projects at the application stage, but the research challenges should be developed during the course of the network activities and should be collaborative in nature.

Requests for funding to support standalone research projects are not eligible.

Assessment criteria

Applicants should consider carefully the following criteria which will be taken into account by the panel when assessing the Outlines.

  • Fit of network focus and vision to the aims of TTL i.e.
    • a clear focus on technology for discovery science.
    • multidisciplinary approach, incorporating emerging, innovative EPS and how this will address important research drivers in the health and life sciences.
  • Scientific importance and potential for enabling high quality interdisciplinary research, including:
    • opportunity for step-change in capability through interdisciplinary research collaborations.
    • demonstrating the high scientific potential of exemplar projects to be supported through proof-of-concept funds.
  • Appropriateness and breadth of proposed approach and activities to further the aims of TTL, including:
    • demonstrating the potential of the network to lead to new and sustainable cross-disciplinary collaborations, new avenues of research, and follow-on research.
    • how the participation and development of Early Career Researchers will be supported.
    • engagement of broader non-academic users and stakeholders e.g. industry, clinicians.
  • Opportunities for broad impact, including:
    • plans for dissemination of outputs.
    • wider community engagement, including internationally, across disciplines, research organisations and other key stakeholders.
    • articulating how the network will remain ‘open’ and engage new membership over the duration of the network.
    • contribution to skills development and training.
  • Network organisation and management:
    • justification of resources requested.
    • appropriateness of the leadership, expertise of the network core team and  effectiveness of proposed management plans.
    • suitability of governance structure to manage the network resources, and the planned approach to their deployment including awarding of the proof of concept funding.
    • plans for network sustainability after the lifetime of the grant.

We will prioritise building networks in areas that would derive the most benefit from this mode of funding, widening the pool of ideas for TTL, adding value to existing activities and generating new connections across disciplinary interfaces.

Network proposals in similar areas may be encouraged to combine after the outline stage, as the research councils are unlikely to fund more than one network in closely related research areas due to the initiative’s aims around broad community building.

Additional grant conditions

In addition to the standard terms and conditions for grants, successful applicants will be required to provide a report after the first 24 months.

Peer review

The call will be assessed via a two stage process, and by a multidisciplinary panel, including representation from across the engineering, physical, health and life sciences, as well as researchers experienced in running community research networks. In the first stage, outlines will be considered against the criteria below at an initial expert panel meeting in September 2017. A number will then be invited through to the second stage.

At the second stage applicants will need to submit full proposals, the deadline for which will be November 2017. Full proposals will be assessed at an interview panel in early February 2018 using the assessment criteria. It is expected that the Principal Investigator will be available to attend this interview panel with up to two other members of their team.

Timetable

Activity Date
Open date: Outlines 24 May 2017
Workshop events June 2017
Application deadline: Outlines 27 July 2017
Outline panel September 2017
Open date full application (invite only, via Je-S) 12 September 2017
Application deadline full application (invite only) 23 November 2017, 16:00
Application assessment (interview) February 2018

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