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Rising to the challenge

Research to power the global clean-energy transition

UK Research and Innovation’s Ayrton Challenge programme is now open, with a total of
£25 million to disburse to research projects supporting the transition to low-carbon energy in developing countries.

One collaborating co-lead partner in each bid must be based in a country on the list of Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipient countries. About 10 projects will receive funding of between £2m and £3m for up to three years. The deadline for outline applications is 9 April and for full applications it is 6 August.

Matthew Scott, UKRI’s head of international funds, development, outlines the important elements. 

Can you give a summary of the Ayrton Challenge programme?

The money comes from the government’s wider £1 billion Ayrton Fund, which is dedicated to supporting the clean-energy transition in developing countries. 

The Ayrton Challenge is a research programme to fund interdisciplinary, challenge-led research to enable delivery of those technologies in those places. Hopefully, the UKRI programme will link up with the wider government effort to deliver meaningful change.

Interdisciplinarity is clearly important—do you have any advice on that element?

The Ayrton Challenge is quite a tech-heavy fund but it is bigger than new tech. New tech on its own does not deliver change. 

Potential applicants need to think about outcomes rather than immediately thinking about who you need to partner with. What we want to see is research projects that can lead to real impact in developing countries. 

When you start to think about what you need to make a change in society, that leads you to who you need to work with to get there. Think pull rather than push.

Would your advice for applicants be similar for finding international partners?

I would add a couple of things. If they are not aware of it, there are new institutional ODA support grants via the International Science Partnerships Fund. 

They are delivered by Research England and the other devolved administrations. This means there is funding available in universities that researchers can use to do things like travel and engage with partners.

The successful applicants in the Ayrton Challenge will be the ones for whom international partners are not just there as a tick box to get through the eligibility requirements. What we want to see is work that is co-created. Find a way to let your partners be part of developing the programme. Your partners’ needs and research ideas should be at the forefront.

How will applications be assessed?

It is a two-stage process. There is a relatively short outline phase at first and a panel makes judgements on these outlines. That panel will be made up of experts in the challenge areas, which are listed on the call. 

We will also have experts in the local context of the delivery of change and energy systems in developing countries, including people from overseas and with experience in local policymaking and engagement. 

This will mean the proposals are assessed as much on the new technology as on the delivery of sustainable change in the country.

What else would make a proposal successful?

For me, a marker of success for this call will be the projects linking into the other £900m that the government is investing through the wider Ayrton Fund. Where those projects can come together, we think there is the potential for greater impact. 

The problem is that details of what else is going on in the Ayrton Fund are not that widely known. 

It is hard for us to help make the connections until we have funded the grants. I do not want to say the best applications will be the ones that are well connected with the wider Ayrton portfolio, although it will clearly help if they take that into account. 

What ODA elements should applicants pay particular attention to?

As an ODA call, we are focused on equality, diversity and inclusion, particularly gender equality. 

We will be expecting gender-equality statements in the final applications that will ensure people have thought about
this aspect. 

One mistake that we see quite commonly is a focus on gender equality only within the research team, which is not really the point.

What is the point?

What is important is whether the outcomes are thought of in a gender-equality context. 

Are you making technology that is going to free the time of men but not women or enrich men but not women? A good gender-equality statement will demonstrate having thought about these issues. Working in interdisciplinary teams tends to improve performance here, compared with when it is a UK-led team of engineers, for  example.

Do you have any other advice for applicants?

These grants are quite brief. They only run for three years. That means moving forwards rapidly and thinking about that translation part. The applications that are aware of the scale and size, and that have a plan to fit it, will shine through with the panel. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com