BBSRC’s Big Ideas Pipeline: what makes an idea compelling?

Loop da loop with a pair of light sticks while walking backwards in the pitch black of the underground storm

BBSRC piloted the Big Ideas Pipeline in 2019 to identify future research and innovation priorities. We reflect and provide insights on this exciting new mechanism.

Aspirations behind the pipeline and outcomes of the pilot

Reflections from Dr Stephanie Williams-Blackwell

In 2019, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) launched a pilot ‘Bioscience Big Ideas Pipeline’. We invited the research and innovation community (and beyond!) to submit exciting, novel and transformational ideas that could help to inform the development of future research and innovation strategy.

A new approach

This was a new approach for us. It didn’t have any direct funding associated or a direct route to a delivery mechanism. We weren’t sure how our community would respond when asked to submit ideas to a mechanism that promised nothing in return.

However, BBSRC is committed to finding ways to hear the views of its stakeholders, ensuring that its future direction is inclusive, innovative and in touch with your interests and priorities. Our community did not disappoint with their response…

Over 50 ideas

We were delighted to receive over 50 ideas from a wide range of originators around the globe including:

  • academics
  • industrialists
  • colleagues in the third sector
  • inspired members of the public.

Ideas spanned BBSRC’s remit and interfaces with other councils and sought to address a range of challenges, such as:

  • climate and land proofing food systems
  • management of bioscience digital information
  • how to deliver sustainable functional plastics
  • harnessing the multifunctional benefits of soils
  • mitigation of environmental impacts of agriculture, to name but a few!

11 ideas were considered to be high priority either as standalone concepts or drawn together with other ideas.

Developments informed and shaped by ideas

The global pandemic has impacted BBSRC’s ability to take forward ideas. But, there are currently two cross-council programmes and a BBSRC call under development which have been informed and shaped by ideas submitted to the pilot.

In addition, BBSRC, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust have provided funding to further scope and test the feasibility of an idea. The idea was submitted by a group of originators looking to develop a FAIR digital object commons for data-driven bioscience.

Shaping corporate thinking

Themes arising from the submissions have revealed evolutions of focus for our communities that have shaped corporate thinking and have helped articulate areas of focus in cross-council discussions relating to the spending review.

A further benefit consisted of new connections and networks that have developed between originators. A strength of the pipeline being the ability to bring together ideas and originators to develop, build upon, broaden, and strengthen concepts.

For those ideas not immediately considered high priority, it’s not the end of the line.  BBSRC regularly reviews the long list of all ideas as new opportunities arise.

Positive engagement

Thanks to the positive engagement of our community and the wide-ranging and impactful ideas submitted, BBSRC council endorsed relaunching the pipeline as a standing programme. It will help identify and develop thinking about the difficult scientific challenges that lie before us.

We have now relaunched the pipeline, evolving ways of working to utilise additional layers of advice, and to provide originators with further feedback on ideas, their prioritisation and outputs.

Check back to this blog and our social media channels where updates will be posted.

What makes a fantastic big idea?

Reflections from Professor Ewan Birney

So, what makes a really compelling big idea?

I think we are always hoping to see something truly novel, an unforeseen challenge or opportunity. Big ideas are not necessarily driven by scale; we are looking for a level of ambition and transformational potential embedded within the idea.

Across the pilot, we certainly received exciting and transformative ideas. But the innovation presented was often around the collaborative approach, or the way of tackling the question, rather than the challenge proposed having novelty.

Be bold

I’d like to encourage originators to be bold and submit ground-breaking, high-risk, adventurous concepts.

Recognising that great ideas often span disciplines, a cross-UKRI forum has been convened. It will consider and support ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries, ensuring that there is no barrier to the progression of transformative new ideas. From discovery science through to ideas addressing issues affecting society and the world in which we live, the pipeline is open to all.

Assessing potential ideas

As a member of BBSRC’s council, I oversaw ideas submitted to the pilot and helped prioritise the most compelling for further investigation and development.  When reviewing ideas, BBSRC asks us to consider a number of elements. These include:

  • the idea’s potential to deliver a ‘step change’ in knowledge or research and innovation capability
  • the potential of an idea to deliver significant economic or social benefits
  • whether there is a risk associated with not pursuing an idea at this time
  • the extent to which the idea could contribute to the realisation of BBSRC, UKRI or government research and innovation objectives.

Excite, inspire, and appeal

But ultimately, we are looking for an idea that will excite, inspire, and appeal to the research and innovation communities that would be expected to play a central role in realising their potential.

When looking back across the pilot exercise, it was evident that ideas submitted by groups of originators from multiple organisations across institutes, networks, academia, and industry were particularly successful. Often pitching ideas of the appropriate scope, articulating how their concepts could engage and impact the wider value chain.

A common pitfall identified as ideas being too narrow or extensions of the originator’s personal area of interest and essentially bids for funding. If an idea can be submitted through another mechanism, it is not suitable for the ideas pipeline!

Do you have a big idea?

If you have an exciting new idea, we’d encourage you to find out more about the programme and complete and submit the form.

Top image:  Credit: Photo by darkday, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

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