Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Loud and Clear

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Loud and Clear

Article excerpt

Researchers didn't hold back when EPSRC head Paul Golby asked for feedback on the council's workings. Things will improve, he vows.

In April, I became chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at a time when some members of the research community had expressed concerns about the way the council was working.

In my first six months, the EPSRC has announced investments that will help the UK to deliver its industrial strategy and to keep us at the forefront of global research: five new doctoral training centres in innovative manufacturing and a joint initiative with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to create the UK's first institute for the science of cyber security.

During the summer I visited universities and met researchers including some of the EPSRC's most vocal critics. The strongest feelings were that the EPSRC is putting short-term impact ahead of academic excellence, that we were micromanaging the grant portfolio to achieve this, and not taking sufficient advice from active researchers.

With a real-term budget cut of 12-14 per cent, the EPSRC has had to make difficult choices to ensure that the UK's research base remains internationally competitive; but there are things we could have done better.

We know that if we want to make the UK the best place in the world to do science and engineering, we must make sure we fund only the best-quality research. While peer review determines which research to fund, the EPSRC is responsible for creating the right environment for this to happen, and our communications about this have not been crystal clear.

Academic excellence is our number one priority and always will be. Let's shout that from the rooftops so no one can doubt our commitment to it. From now on, we need to send a clear signal that this takes priority over all other considerations.

Many are also worried that the EPSRC is trying to micromanage the research landscape using the 113 research areas described as "grow/maintain/reduce". I want to reassure people that there is no intention to micromanage and we will continue to manage our budget through 10 large research themes. With less funding available, however, it is important that we give clear signals about priority areas based on the best evidence and advice.

Another controversial issue concerns the social and economic impact of research. We must make sure that taxpayers' money is spent in a way that maximises the potential benefit to the nation, but we must be careful that funding decisions aren't made with too narrow a view of impact. …

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