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Dr Cat Ball introduces the new Alliances for Research Challenges (ARCs) – a new way of supporting research collaboration.

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The critical opportunities and challenges facing us as a society demand focus from the research community – I have no doubt that everyone reading this will recognise that. From the Covid-19 recovery, to the climate emergency, and the necessary just and fair societal transformation that will be required to ensure everyone can prosper, it is more important than ever before that research plays its full role in contributing to our society and economy. 

Accordingly, the research funding system, both in the UK and internationally, is shifting towards challenge-led and mission-oriented approaches. Scotland has historically been very good at leveraging in available funding from this system, a fact that we’re rightly proud of. This has been driven by our world-class universities and our distinctive collaborative ethos, supported by structures including research pools and others.  

Introducing SFC Alliances for Research Challenges  

In this context, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is taking a new and exciting direction in how we support research collaboration with the launch of new Alliances for Research Challenges (ARCs). ARCs will span the research landscape making connections and encompassing different disciplines, sectors, and places to boost Scotland’s research funding leverage and pursue big societal challenges. Their introduction is part of the continuing implementation of the recommendations within our Review of Tertiary Education and Research.   

We’re focusing on societal challenges, where research has a key role to play, and harnessing Scotland’s research excellence and collaborative ethos to facilitate multidisciplinary and multi-institutional connections and collaborations that support and develop highly competitive Scottish-led bids for challenge-led research funding. 

Fostering coordination and connection to boost Scotland’s research funding leverage  

ARCs will be led by our world-class universities and involve cross-sector partners including Scottish innovation centres, colleges and research institutes as well as industry and policy-makers where appropriate. We also anticipate that some research pools, given the role they have played in delivering high levels of collaboration within the Scottish research system, are likely to be involved in the leadership and delivery of ARCs as they transition to become fully university ‘owned’. Although our focus is very much on Scotland’s research landscape (the clue’s in the name – the Scottish Funding Council), we want ARCs to involve organisations from other parts of the UK and internationally, where it means that Scotland’s opportunities are boosted.  

Defining the challenge areas is critical for success and so we want to hear ideas in response to this first stage of development. We’ll then identify up to four challenge areas before we issue a full call for proposals in the summer. It’s hard to imagine that net zero won’t be a key feature of the challenges that we take forward, and we explicitly want to draw on Scotland’s strengths in the arts, humanities and social sciences.  

Connecting to SFC’s wider ambitions and the way ahead  

In promoting research connections, ARCs will play a role in linking to our knowledge exchange and innovation investments, themselves also undergoing development. We recently consulted on these investments, exploring how we can look through a lens of national challenges to better support ideas into impact through knowledge exchange. With a focus on top priorities of a green recovery, a well-being economy and transition to a net-zero carbon society, our KE&I portfolio will be working with and alongside ARCs to help make real the contributions of research to our lives.  

But, behind all the acronyms, initiatives and infrastructures, we know that it’s the people in our system who drive research and make impact happen. So, we also have ambitions to do to more to support inclusive research culture in Scotland, as was outlined in our Review. This extends to the development of ARCs which will include a focus on supporting early career researchers.  

This is a first call for ARCs and, depending on their success and the future fiscal situation, we may develop more in additional challenge areas. But, for now, we look forward to working with the sector to harness the opportunities brought by the changing research landscape and this new direction in SFC’s support for research collaboration.