The National Telford Institute was established in 2007 by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), to raise the international profile and reputation of engineering research across the Scottish university sector and enhance the position of Scotland as a world class centre for engineering research. The initiative formed part of a national research strategy in engineering based around three interdisciplinary, regional Research Partnerships, namely the Edinburgh Research Partnership in Engineering and Mathematics (ERPeM), the Glasgow Research Partnership (GRP) and the Northern Research Partnership (NRP) supported by an investment of over £26.5 million from the SFC (with a further £100 million co-invested over five years by the 10 collaborating universities).

The National Telford Institute plays a key role in achieving this goal by providing a coordinating structure to integrate individual and joint research activities within the Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering components of the regional Research Partnerships. It facilitates joint research activities at inter-Partnership and national scale, in order to identify outstanding research problems in Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering that can be tackled on a pan-Scottish basis. The Institute represents a national research resource that provides expertise to Government and industry, as well as to the wider international research community.

The National Telford Institute is named in honour of Thomas Telford, widely recognised as Scotland's greatest civil engineer, whose innovative achievements spanned bridge, canal, road, harbour and public health construction of unparalleled benefit to society.