Embracing impact (seduced by the Dark Side?)

After years of refusing to make or review grant applications, Philip Moriarty had a change of heart, but he still has mixed feelings about the UK research councils

January 9, 2016
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Some of you who have been reading my posts on the University of Nottingham’s Making Science Public blog may know that I’ve been an irritatingly vocal and tediously persistent critic of the so-called impact agenda for research funding.

The Pathways to Impact statement required by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been a particular bugbear. When it became a requirement for all EPSRC proposals in 2009, I stopped submitting grant applications to, and reviewing for, the EPSRC. Since then, I have had many discussions and debates with representatives of the EPSRC (and Research Councils UK) about the extent to which the impact agenda has the potential to damage the ethos of fundamental science.

Rest easy, I’m not going to rehearse all my issues with impact here. What I will highlight, however, is that my concerns have always focused on the extent to which commercial/corporate imperatives can influence and, at worst, distort (or even pervert) science and the scientific method. The Stern review of the research excellence framework (REF) is very likely to up the ante when it comes to research impact. That the Treasury wants a quid pro quo for its “protection” of the science budget in the most recent spending review should hardly come as a huge surprise…

The point of this post, however, is not to pillory, but rather to praise, the EPSRC for its stance on impact. (Yes, you read that correctly). A year ago, I did a U-turn on my boycott of submitting/reviewing EPSRC proposals, for the reasons discussed in this Physics World article:

“Some of these discussions [with various research council representatives] were helpful and constructive; others rather less so. However, time and again the same message came back to me and other researchers who had voiced concern. ‘You misunderstand us. It’s not about commercial impact,’ they say. ‘It’s not even about predicting what the impact of your research will be – even if you are doing esoteric, fundamental science, your proposal won’t be disadvantaged by the requirement for impact.’

“So, I am doing an experiment (otherwise known as an embarrassing U-turn). I am taking EPSRC at its word and am about to submit a grant application to them. A key component of that application is, of course, the Pathways to Impact case, which I am trying so desperately hard to avoid writing at the moment. In line with EPSRC’s often-stated commitments to fundamental, non-commercial research, the impact statement I am writing focuses solely on public engagement.”

The proposal in question was submitted in January last year. The first submission was ranked highly but fell just below the cut-off for funding. The EPSRC invited a resubmission, and my colleagues and I were delighted to find out late last month that this time round the proposal had been funded.

For both the original version of the proposal and the resubmission, our Pathways to Impact case was very well received by the referees and the panel. The EPSRC asked that I not make the referees’ reports publicly available, but it was happy for me to upload a summary of the feedback. I’ve therefore uploaded our response to the referees.

Having spent a great deal of time criticising the EPSRC (and the other research councils and Hefce) on the question of impact, it’s only fair that I now give credit where credit’s due. The EPSRC told me (and others) many times that fundamental research that was not motivated by application and/or commercial impact would not be disadvantaged when it came to peer review of grant applications. I perhaps should have taken them at their word rather sooner. We stated explicitly in our resubmitted proposal that the research was not motivated by application:

“The research we propose is unashamedly curiosity-driven fundamental science. As such, it is motivated not by the potential for direct short-term economic impact (via, for example, spin-off technology) – and it would be disingenuous of us to suggest otherwise – but by the fascination, importance, and challenges of the underlying science.”

…and yet the proposal was well received by the panel and the referees, and funded by the EPSRC.

Of course I remain very concerned about the extent to which the growing focus on near-term return on investment could potentially skew and distort the research done in our universities (both in the UK and internationally), but it is clear that entirely fundamental science, when coupled to a strong outreach and public engagement programme, continues to be supported by the EPSRC. This came as a very welcome early Christmas present.

Philip Moriarty is a professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, and this post originally appeared on the Making Science Public blog.

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