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National security knowledge is not needed for intelligence fellowships

Managed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the UK Intelligence Community Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Programme is an annual scheme funded by the Government Office for Science.

The fellowships aim to promote unclassified basic research on topics drawn up by members of the intelligence, security and defence communities. This year, there are 23 topics to choose from and the deadline for applications is 23 April.

The fellowships are aimed at early career researchers from science and engineering who have up to five years of postdoctoral experience. Fellowships provide up to £250,000 at 80 per cent of full economic cost over two years.

No previous experience of state security concerns is necessary. Indeed, Alessia Noccaro, a lecturer in robotics and mechatronics at Newcastle University, only mentioned possible relevance to intelligence matters once in her successful bid last year, as she tells us here.

What does your fellowship involve?

My fellowship is on how humans can learn to control a third robotic arm. The field is human augmentation, so how robots could augment human skills so that you can not only move your arms but also add an additional one to perform a task that cannot be done with just two. This is a relatively new topic in research.

There are a few groups that work on it but what is different in my fellowship is the focus on the human skills. Many groups have developed the robots to be used as arms so we have that technology, but very few people focus on how a human’s mind can control these technologies. Is the brain able to learn how to control them like natural arms? 

How does that tie in with the intelligence community?

Human augmentation was one of the topics highlighted by the intelligence community. One of the future applications of my research could be in defence but I did not target my proposal at defence. The application of the technology is very broad and I focused more on the everyday use of these devices. It is more about bringing them to market and to real-life use. 

It could also be used for surgical robotics, for example. Of course, once you have the technology, it can be applied to different contexts.  

Did you have any prior engagement with the intelligence community or do any research relevant to intelligence? 

No. This is a first for me. It’s not necessary to have worked in or around intelligence before the fellowship. What is more relevant is that your research idea matches one of the topics of interest to the intelligence community that the Royal Academy of Engineering releases as part of the call. Luckily, human augmentation was one of the topics.

Did you say much in your proposal about how your research would apply to the intelligence community?

The only reference to the intelligence community in my proposal was exactly one sentence in the impact section, in which I spoke about the different applications of the research. I named defence applications of the technology being used in search and rescue operations.

Did you come up with your idea after seeing the priority points for the fellowship, or did you already have the idea and the call happened to match?

I already had the idea because I started working in the field of human augmentation a few years ago. I have been working on a European project called Nima on human augmentation.

What do you think made your proposal stand out? 

I think it was that strong match with the topic field. Also, it was good that I went to a few workshops at my university where they gave me tips on how to draft a successful proposal. I spoke with other awardees, not from this specific call but from others. I tried to write the proposal in lay words as best I could and provide real-life examples to which everyone can relate.

What other advice would you give to people thinking of applying?

It was useful to brainstorm with colleagues. Talking things through out loud with others helps in formulating the idea better. The help of the university’s research office was also very valuable. 

The Royal Academy of Engineering provides a template for the application. The template is very helpful. Some people go through the template too quickly and just read the subtitles of different sections and go straight to writing it, but there are specific instructions on how to fill each section, with tips on what the reviewers are looking for.

What was the best piece of advice you received? 

It was during one of the workshops I attended. It was to be passionate about your research and put this passion into your proposal. This will make the reviewers more likely to be interested in it and you will have more chance of being successful. 

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