Positive outlook for stats research funding: EPSRC and ERC

Could statistics in academic research in the UK finally get the funding it needs? Here we outline some positive recent developments concerning two major programmes offering statistics-related grants, fellowships and studentships.

The funding outlook for statistics research is more positive entering 2021 than it has been for a number of years. EPSRC is into the second year of implementing a programme to deliver an additional £300 million for mathematical sciences research, which includes research in theoretical and methodological statistics and in probability.

EPSRC is now working on the implementation of this programme and has announced a new small grants scheme and increased funding for larger grants, fellowships and PhD studentships. The programme will also support enhanced activities of national institutes, the Isaac Newton Institute and the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences.

Furthermore, the future trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the European Union, announced at the end of 2020, included the UK’s commitment to associate to the European Union’s €95.5 billion research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. Association will mean that UK-based researchers can have access to most of the programme, including importantly the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, on the same basis as when we were a member state of the EU.

As soon as the first calls are open for applications, UK researchers will be in a position to apply (subject to ratification of the regulation by member states and the EU institutions, scheduled to be completed in Q1 2021). The ERC starter and consolidator calls for earlier career researchers will be some of the first calls to open under Horizon Europe with closing dates expected in March and April.

A separate important development concerns how statistics proposals submitted to ERC are considered. The scientific council of ERC has agreed to broaden the references to statistics (and also operational research) within the PE1 (Mathematics) descriptors which apply to starter, consolidator and advanced grants, to more appropriately recognise the breadth of statistics research. The former 'statistics' descriptor has been renamed as 'mathematical statistics', a new descriptor has been added on 'generic statistical methodology and modelling' and the descriptor on 'control theory and optimisation' now also includes 'operational research'.

While this does not, at present, change the process for assessment of statistics proposals, it does signal that methodological statistics and statistical modelling research proposals are encouraged by ERC and expected to be assessed by reference to relevant standards of those areas.

RSS vice-president for academic affairs, Jon Forster, commented: 'We have entered a rare period of opportunity for researchers in statistics and probability. Credit and thanks are due to many RSS fellows who have been active behind the scenes, both in assisting EPSRC to develop their implementation plans and in lobbying ERC for a more equitable treatment of statistics as a discipline. It is now down to the statistics research community to take advantage of these opportunities. It will not be easy in this pandemic-affected period, but the potential rewards for our discipline make it an imperative.'

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