Blue skies turn grey

April 3, 2008

Philip Esler laudably stresses the importance of "impact in its broadest sense" and argues that Research Councils UK wants to see much more than just "narrow monetary impact" from the research it funds.

Esler should ensure that all research councils are singing from the same hymn sheet, however. At a recent open meeting, John Armitt, the chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, was asked whether the EPSRC considered the terms "economic benefit" and "societal benefit" to be effectively synonymous. (Video footage of the meeting is available at www.epsrc.ac.uk.) Clearly bemused, Armitt argued that he saw no distinction and dismissed the issue as a "non-question". Perhaps one should expect little more from an ex-chief executive of Network Rail, but in future it might be helpful if Esler makes sure that Armitt stays "on message".

Esler goes on to state that "blue-skies, pioneering research must be at the heart of what we do". This is a remarkable statement given that EPSRC has very recently cut up to 15 per cent from the responsive mode budget to support its new top-down managed "mission programmes" ("EPSRC cuts to blue-skies funding raise concern", 20 March).

In what sense does this place blue-skies research at the heart of the RCUK's mission?

Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham.

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