Usher Institute

BLOG: A Research Manager's View of EPSRC's Approach to Place

Senior Research Strategy Manager, Alex Peden, reflects on her secondment at EPSRC

By Alex Peden | Senior Research Strategy Manger, Usher Institute

Alex Peden and EPSRC logo

I’ve just returned to the Usher Institute after my secondment to EPSRC as Head of Regional Engagement Scotland.  The secondment was an enjoyable experience for me and I certainly think similar roles would be useful in improving UKRI’s engagement approach across all councils.  The role is effectively a stakeholder management position, helping EPSRC understand the research and innovation landscape in various nations and regions in the UK and helping the nations and regions engage with EPSRC to realise their priorities.  I was working with a team of 7 other regional managers based across the UK.

The secondment has demonstrated to me the value of EPSRC (and UKRI) employing staff that are based across the UK who are focused on understanding the nuances of the local context, and developing both broader and deeper relationships with local stakeholders than EPSRC has historically been able to. 

Each of the Regional Engagement roles are shaped by the context of the nation or regional area they work in, with each of my colleagues undertaking the role with a slightly different focus.  In Scotland there are 19 Universities and therefore much of my time has been spent connecting more closely with researchers and management in both EPSRC’s core university stakeholders and those Institutions that haven’t historically engaged with EPSRC but none the less contribute to research and innovation. There are also several research and innovation structures funded by the Scottish Government that are unique to Scotland such as research pools and innovation centres that I’ve connected with.

As I live and work in Scotland (all the Head of Regional Engagement roles are based in the area they represent) I’ve been able to attend events and meetings that EPSRC colleagues based in Swindon may not have been able to attend, this has allowed me to provide additional detailed information back to EPSRC teams and support more of the researchers we fund in their successes in person. As researchers in Scotland may observe, it is much easier to get from Scotland to Swindon, than it can appear to get from Swindon to Scotland (!) and I believe these regional engagement posts are a key route to much closer and broader collaboration as well as a deeper understanding of the needs and constraints on EPSRC’s research community.

While my colleagues in English regions are focused on building relationships with local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships in their regions, I continued to develop EPSRC links with the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council, as well as with the UK Government Scotland Office. As Higher Education is a devolved matter in Scotland, while research project funding is reserved by the UK Government, Universities in Scotland, as well as EPSRC, have to navigate both UK and Scottish Government policies and strategies – there is huge potential for EPSRC researchers across the UK to contribute to Scottish Government strategies alongside UK Government priorities, and vice versa. 

The UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper was published as I started my secondment, and understanding and developing EPSRC reaction to this policy was the responsibility of the University and Regional Engagement teams. Although the contribution of most individual research projects to levelling up is likely to be minimal there is a challenge to research funders to interrogate the balance of their portfolio and think about how the impact of research can be more fully realised in the areas of the UK where it can support the largest improvement in living standards. City Region deals are an important part of both the Scottish and UK Government’s investment in places across Scotland and Scottish Universities are key partners in these investments, with EPS research making a huge contribution to the outcomes.

This secondment has allowed me, as a member of University staff, to see how EPSRC and UKRI work, and to be involved in policy analysis around Levelling Up and Place while EPSRC was preparing its delivery plan. Personally, as I had previously worked at EPSRC, it’s also been great to work with my old colleagues and to network across Scotland. I’m looking forward to bringing this new funder insight back into the Usher Institute and University of Edinburgh.