Helping researchers break into SBRI calls

Helping researchers break into SBRI calls

By Dr Tristram Riley-Smith

Last week I visited Whitehall for a meeting with the Home Office and InnovateUK, where we discussed the frustrations frequently expressed by academic researchers about one of the schemes used by Government to stimulate innovation: the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI).

This discussion was prompted by the recent SBRI call for Digital Forensics, issued by the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism. The aim of the call is to improve the speed, efficiency and effectiveness of the recovery and analysis of data from digital devices seized in an investigation, and is likely to be of interest to many researchers in the Partnership. Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 13.14.45

Phase 1 proposals for proof-of-concept projects are due on Wednesday 7 October 2015. Under this phase, each project will have a nominal maximum value of £40,000 and is likely to last for four months with projects concluding by the end of March 2016. 

In our experience, academics frequently object to this, suggesting that neither the amount of funding nor the timescale is sufficient to attract serious researchers. This does not, for instance, allow enough time for a Principal Investigator to engage a Research Assistant and one highly-respected and senior professor reacted as follows: 

“You need at least £120,000 per Post-Doctoral researcher per annum to do anything worthwhile. Industrialists say they could pay academics as consultants. Rubbish! Academics would then be just support staff and not be there to be creative and generate new ideas.”

When I presented these challenges to the Home Office and InnovateUK, the following points were made which focus on improving opportunities for academics:

  • The SBRI scheme is closer to applied than fundamental research, however, applications from academic researchers are welcomed and currently secure 7% of all SBRI grants;
  • SBRI calls emphasise the maximum value of funds available for Phase 1 projects, in reality, an academic researcher could bid to write a paper for, say, £2,000 (or even for free) representing an exercise that proves a concept with potential for a Phase 2 grant (when much larger sums would be available);
  • An academic researcher may play a small support role to a company in a Phase 1 bid, providing academic advice on a consultancy basis, but this can lead to an enhanced advisory role and a substantial funded research programme under Phase 2.
  • It is important for us to recognise that for a relatively small effort, an academic researcher can take extant research knowledge and demonstrate how it could deliver innovation, translating ideas or inventions into goods or services that create new value.

We have agreed that efforts will be made to start changing the language used in SBRI calls to reflect these points.

My advice to researchers is to not be put off by the letters ‘SB’ (for Small Business) in SBRI. There are opportunities for you to make a difference here.

There are still spaces available for the Digital Forensics briefing event which will be held on Monday 14 September in London. Go along and give it a go!

Dr Tristram Riley-Smith is the External Champion to the Partnership. He was appointed to the role in April 2013. He is also Director of Research at the University of Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies and a Fellow at the Centre for Science and Policy.