Rip EPSRC equation up and start again

January 5, 2012

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.

Anthony G.M. Barrett, Imperial College London

Steven V. Ley, University of Cambridge

Sir Harry Kroto, Florida State University

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

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