Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Rip EPSRC Equation Up and Start Again

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Rip EPSRC Equation Up and Start Again

Article excerpt

An open letter to David Willetts

We the undersigned are writing to you in your capacity as the minister of state for universities and science to again ask you to initiate an inquiry into the role and mode of operations of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as a funder of physical sciences and mathematics research in the UK.

Many of us have been galvanised into making strong public statements because of the EPSRC's "shaping capability" policy as applied to organic synthesis, cold atom physics, and plasma and lasers. One has to ask why these areas were chosen for selective reductions in funding before the entire portfolio of EPSRC physical sciences had been evaluated.

The procedure followed by the research council in assessing, for example, organic synthesis seems to have been based on the flawed evaluation and/or prejudice of a few of its staff, whose findings are completely contrary to the 2009 International Review of UK Chemistry Research (commissioned by the EPSRC) and the 2008 research assessment exercise. Moreover, the council claimed to have consulted widely over this issue when it did not and stated, falsely, that international reviews supported its case that synthetic organic chemistry in the UK is not first class, when even a cursory look at the reports mentioned above shows this to be untrue.

But our concerns relate to the entire physical sciences and mathematics portfolio, not just organic chemistry. Over the past few years, the EPSRC has implemented the following actions in defiance of the scientific community's advice and requests:

No resubmissions of unsuccessful grant applications, even if they were deemed "fundable" by a panel and so were not financed simply because of a lack of money. Hence, a scientist could be in the top 10 per cent of applicants yet could never reapply for the project. This kills off often brilliant and creative scientific ideas for no good reason.

No project studentships. PhD students are now deemed by the EPSRC not to add significant value to scientific research. It clearly does not know what happens in university chemical research laboratories.

Fellowship applications limited to a few areas chosen by EPSRC bureaucrats. This is preventing our best and most talented young scientists and mathematicians from taking their first steps on the academic ladder unless their interests and backgrounds happen to fit the particular niches chosen by civil servants who, for the most part, have little or no experience of research in academia beyond being students themselves.

"Shaping capability". This is ill-considered, flawed and may lead to EPSRC staff overruling panel rankings - yet another example of council policy undermining the peer-review system.

Ten- to 50-year "impact" being considered in tandem with scientific quality to judge proposals. This flies in the face of so many fundamental scientific discoveries, as has been pointed out to the research council by every professional scientific society in the UK on numerous occasions, both publicly and privately. It is incomprehensible that the EPSRC can be so short-sighted as to believe that this policy somehow has merit.

In our view each of these policies is indefensible, yet they have been introduced by the EPSRC despite the views of the scientific community. This top-down approach is eroding the UK's scientific excellence. Applications of science are downfield of original scientific discovery, not drivers of it. By not supporting the best, most original and most creative experiments that UK scientists can conceive, these policies will result in the decline of the UK as a leading scientific nation and the loss of our science-based industries. …

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