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.
These deluded policies frighten the physical sciences and mathematical communities. They must be immediately revoked and rethought. In turn, this must result in a complete rethink of the EPSRC's structure and decision-making processes.
Specifically, we ask that the following policies be introduced forthwith:
• The prime EPSRC funding mode for physical sciences has to be responsive-mode funding of blue-skies research. Such innovative science - led by scientists, not planned by bureaucrats - lies at the heart of the UK's past and (we believe) future industries and technologies. It must account for 80 per cent of the £700 million to £800 million annual spend on research funded through the EPSRC.
• An immediate suspension of the no-resubmission policy for all unsuccessful grant applications. If an application is deemed fundable by a panel but is not funded because of a shortage of cash, then the applicant should be free to reapply.
• Restoration of the freedom of applicants to apply for PhD studentships on project grants.
• Restoration of the freedom of any promising scientist to compete for a fellowship in any scientific or mathematical area.
• Ramping-down of top-down programmes instigated from EPSRC headquarters in Swindon. If a scientist thinks of the next big breakthrough, they should be free to apply for a grant to pursue it, not have to wait for non-scientists at Swindon to realise what is going on.
• Reversion to the committee structure for reviewing grant applications as practised by the old Science and Engineering Research Council (or the National Science Foundation in the US), ie, a committee of, for example, chemists reviewing chemistry, each member serving for three years. The chairman and one or two others should help the EPSRC programme managers appoint referees for grant applications and plan the assignment of duties at committee meetings. Responsibility should be restored to committee members. The power of programme managers to dictate the direction of funding should be removed.
• The idea of 10- to 50-year "impact" should be abandoned. Applicants could instead insert a short paragraph linking research to broader issues, but no more than that. This paragraph would not be an important factor in evaluating applications: it would only be used if an application is funded to indicate to the public how research may help society in the future.
• Changes in policy suggested by the EPSRC council should be openly discussed with representatives of senior scientists, ie, the Royal Society and the professional scientific institutions, before being implemented.
• The research council's management structures should be reviewed by external consultants and changed to reflect the new committee structure and reduction in directed research. This would result in fewer senior managers being employed by the EPSRC. The main function of those remaining would be to support the subject committees, not direct policy.
It has to be accepted that we are in a period of change. There will be winners and losers. It is just that the main loser of current EPSRC policy is innovative science and the future economic viability of the UK.
William B. Motherwell, University College London
Tom Simpson, University of Bristol
David A. Leigh, University of Edinburgh
Ronald Grigg, University of Leeds
Gerry Pattenden, University of Nottingham
Philip J. Kocienski, University of Leeds
Ian Paterson, University of Cambridge
David O'Hagan, University of St Andrews
J. Stephen Clark, University of Glasgow
E. James Thomas, University of Manchester
Stephen G. Davies, University of Oxford
P. Andrew Evans, University of Liverpool
Christopher J. Moody, University of Nottingham
Kenneth R. Seddon, Queen’s University Belfast
Richard J. Taylor, University of York
Philip Parsons, University of Sussex
Karl J. Hale, Queen’s University Belfast
Timothy J. Donohoe, University of Oxford
Christopher J. Schofield, University of Oxford
Thomas Wirth, Cardiff University
David Knight, Cardiff University
Keith Jones, Institute of Cancer Research
Varinder Aggarwal, University of Bristol
Alan Armstrong, Imperial College London
Donald Craig, Imperial College London
David J. Procter, University of Manchester
Jonathan Clayden, University of Manchester
Henry S. Rzepa, Imperial College London
Paul A. Clarke, University of York
Alan C. Spivey, Imperial College London
Donald W. Braben, University College London
James Ladyman, University of Bristol
Philip Moriarty, University of Nottingham
Richard Thomas, Imperial College London
Martin R. S. McCoustra, Heriot-Watt University
Alan J. Welch, Heriot-Watt University
Harry Heaney, Loughborough University
Claire Vallance, University of Oxford
Sarah E. O'Connor, University of East Anglia
Frank J.M. Rutten, Keele University
Jonathan M Percy, University of Strathclyde
David Lindsay, University of Glasgow
Bernard J. Rawlings, University of Leicester
Andy Whiting, Durham University
Christopher Exley, Keele University
Phil Page, University of East Anglia
Nigel Simpkins, University of Birmingham
William J Kerr, University of Strathclyde
Robert A. Stockman, University of Nottingham
Ray C F Jones, Loughborough University
Gus Hancock, University of Oxford
Susan E. Gibson, Imperial College London
Matthew Fuchter, Imperial College London
Benjamin R. Buckley, Loughborough University
B. W. Hoogenboom, University College London
John Platner, University of Aberdeen
Peter Karadakov, University of York
Martin Bates, University of York
James Brannigan, University of York
Mario De Bruyn, University of York
Verena Görtz, University of York
Victor Chechik, University of York
Mike Gillan, University College London
E. A. Anderson, University of Oxford
A.M. Glazer, University of Oxford
Phil Allport, University of Liverpool
Amalia Patane, University of Nottingham
Kevin Prior, Heriot-Watt University
James H Cameron, Heriot Watt University
Georg Held, University of Reading
R A Jackson, Keele University
Lev Kantorovich, King's College London
Eric O. Aboagye, Imperial College London
Saiful Islam, University of Bath
Michael Hill, University of Bath
Michael Duff, Imperial College London
R Charles Coombes, Imperial College London
Jerome Gauntlett, Imperial College London
Christopher J. Hayes, University of Nottingham
Simak Ali, Imperial College London
Arkady Tseytlin, Imperial College London
Ian A. O’Neil, University of Liverpool
Kellogg Stelle, Imperial College London
Ray J Rivers, Imperial College London
James Dowden, University of Nottingham
J. Grant Hill, University of Glasgow
Lasse Rempe, University of Liverpool
Vadim Biktashev, University of Liverpool
Jonathan Burton, University of Oxford
C.T.C. (Terry) Wall, University of Liverpool
Thomas Eckl, University of Liverpool
Joëlle Prunet, University of Glasgow
Thomas Mohaupt, University of Liverpool
Nick Westwood, University of St Andrews
Rudolf K. Allemann, Cardiff University
Peter G. Edwards, Cardiff University
Chris Gilmore, University of Glasgow
Robert M. Adlington, University of Oxford
Paul D. Lickiss, Imperial College London