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BBSRC Supports Call for Multi-Disciplinary Research Centres in Synthetic Biology

Published: Friday, May 03, 2013
Last Updated: Friday, May 03, 2013
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Up to six centres will be funded in two phases; three in this financial year and three next financial year.

The call is expected to launch in June, preceded by an 'Expression of Interest' (EoI) stage to which interested parties must submit a short application. The 'Expression of Interest' stage will be launching early May.

Following the announcement of £600M capital investment for Research Councils in the autumn 2012 statement, a joint call will shortly be launched for multidisciplinary research centres in synthetic biology.

The call has been developed by the RCUK Synthetic Biology Working Group, and will be supported by BBSRC and EPSRC, with BBSRC administering the call.

Summary

BBSRC and EPSRC will announce a joint call for proposals in the coming months (anticipated June).

Up to six centres will be funded in two phases:
1.    Three in the 2013/14 financial year
2.    Three in the 2014/15 financial year

The full call will be preceded by an 'Expression of Interest' (EoI) stage where interested parties must submit a short application. The EoI (maximum 3 sides) will outline:

•    initial information about potential partners
•    scientific scope
•    management arrangements
•    funding demand (capital and recurrent)
•    institutional support

Potential applicants will be invited to a workshop hosted by the funders that will provide full details of the call, application and assessment procedures. The EoI will enable the funders to gauge interest in the call and to tailor the information workshop accordingly.

This preannouncement is to provide eligible investigators with additional time to consider the details of a proposal and to begin the process of identifying potential partners.

A further announcement with additional details will be published for the EoI.

Background

Synthetic biology can be defined as 'the design and engineering of biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as the re-design of existing natural biological systems.'

In 2012, there were a number of important developments of direct relevance to synthetic biology research in the UK including:

•    the publication of 'A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK' which contained key recommendations to support and develop the UK research and industrial communities
•    the establishment of the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council (bringing together stakeholders from government, funding agencies, academia and industry)
•    the announcement of significant government investment in synthetic biology in the 2012 autumn statement

To implement the roadmap recommendations, deliver on the investment from government and taking heed of the advice from the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, BBSRC and EPSRC, together with input from ESRC, MRC and the TSB, have come together to establish multidisciplinary research centres for synthetic biology, in partnership with relevant higher education institutions. This is part of a larger "Synthetic Biology for Growth Programme", which also includes provision for training cohorts of skilled researchers, enhancing the UK's gene synthesis capability and accelerating the route to market for innovative synthetic biology research.

Scope

The multidisciplinary Synthetic Biology Research Centres (SBRCs) will possess the vision, breadth of intellectual leadership and research resources required to integrate disciplines including bioscience, engineering, chemistry and IT into programmes of synthetic biology research of the highest international quality. They will also integrate the research activities of experimental scientists with those working on ethical, legal, societal and other issues within the context of responsible innovation.

The UK roadmap recognised that SBRCs are necessary to build on the UK's strong research foundations in order to create bioengineered solutions to underpin the UK bioeconomy.

The SBRCs will focus on strategic areas relevant to one or more key industrial sectors that could include:

•    fine and speciality chemicals
•    life science technologies
•    energy
•    environment
•    sensors (including diagnostics)
•    agriculture and food
•    medicines and healthcare

Once established the SBRCs, working with the Research Councils, will form a coordinated programme of investment providing 'one-stop' access to resources and expertise, enhancing developmental opportunities for academia and industry alike.

Aims and purpose

The UK synthetic biology roadmap recognised a need to establish SBRCs to boost the national research capacity and diversify UK expertise, stimulating innovation and facilitating interfaces with industry and other key stakeholders.

It is envisaged that there will be a two-phase call for proposals, one in 2013 and the second in 2014, each establishing up to three SBRCs. Each phase will have a total of £10M capital funding available and each centre would receive additional recurrent funding (up to £2M per annum for five years).

The purpose of the SBRC's is to:

•    develop and sustain a programme of internationally competitive synthetic biology research focused on strategic areas relevant to one or more industry sectors
•    provide a strong collaborative culture and supportive physical environment to attract excellent scientists and engineers in the collective endeavour of multidisciplinary research relevant to synthetic biology
•    drive advancement in modern research techniques to underpin synthetic biology
•    lead the development of new technologies and methodologies
•    provide the essential equipment and facilities required to enable adoption and uptake of synthetic biology approaches and, where appropriate, make this available to the wider community
•    recognising the specific purpose and position of the SBRC's, and avoiding overlaps with other funded initiatives, contribute to an overall synthetic biology UK network that acts to integrate the full breadth of UK synthetic biology and offers outreach and exchange opportunities for academia and industry alike
•    enhance the output of trained postdoctoral researchers and specialised technical staff

To achieve the above, the SBRCs will require:

•    a clear vision and strategy for undertaking world-class synthetic biology research
•    strong and empowered leadership and direction
•    robust project management
•    meaningful engagement with industry and understanding of sector needs
•    long-term support and commitment from the host institution(s) to space, research facilities and staff
•    a concentration of relevant research facilities to enable the cutting edge research
•    the necessary multidisciplinary blend of the best researchers
•    the capability and motivation to develop and advance new technologies and methodologies and meet the needs of the broader research community
•    a commitment to outreach, wider researcher engagement, and training
•    flexibility in the deployment of funds
•    adherence to current appropriate international standards and contribute to the further development of these

Each centre will need to demonstrate an awareness of other relevant activities, initiatives and groupings in the synthetic biology landscape. These include, but are not limited to, the forthcoming Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) in Synthetic Biology, established research groups in academia and industry, the synthetic biology networks, the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, the TSB Special Interest Group and others. They must consider how best to integrate with the other stakeholders in terms of sharing of information and resources, building on complementarities and exploiting synergies, whilst avoiding duplication of effort.


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