Applied goals also tackle the basics

May 24, 1996

The 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential set the United Kingdom's science and engineering base a new challenge - to maintain world-class excellence in research, while giving increased attention to its potential relevance to the industrial competitiveness of the UK and to the quality of life of its citizens.

here was nothing Q and nothing has been said by any research council subsequently - that would reduce the commitment to excellence. In fact the White Paper states: "Second-rate research is a poor buy." The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to supporting the very best research, where excellence is judged through competitive peer review. While nobody would claim that peer review is perfect, no one has yet been able to devise a better way to assess excellence.

All those submitting research proposals to the EPSRC are asked to identify potential beneficiaries for their work to ensure its relevance (and by inference, where appropriate, to satisfy the White Paper objectives of industrial competitiveness and quality of life). Since research is about the pursuit of the unknown, the answers, and even the existence of such answers, cannot be determined in advance. However, in putting forward proposals, scientists are implicitly trying to extend a particular field of knowledge Q for reasons that should be known to the proposer.

A request for a beneficiary to be identified can therefore be just as pertinent a question for the theoretical physicist (where the beneficiaries may be experimental colleagues) as for the engineer (where the beneficiaries may be in industry). Excellence is not compromised - but excellence can sit comfortably with the provision of benefit to other participants, in the science, engineering, industrial or indeed wider communities.

Concern has been expressed that the inclusion of relevance as a criterion restricts a scientist's or engineer's freedom of choice and leads to a diminution of quality and imagination. It has been said that Faraday, had he been confronted by the modern system, would have failed to win support. In fact, Faraday represents a splendid role model for the researcher of today. He was able to draw on experience in applied research to generate creative ideas and to produce an expanded understanding of the physical world.

Academic colleagues working with industry enjoy that same opportunity today - to think about the needs of industry and to treat these needs as one part of the overall framework that shapes their creative thinking on basic research challenges.

Chris Harris of Southampton University is one of those realising this opportunity. He works with industry in control systems, feeding these industrial challenges back into his internationally acclaimed basic research on neural networks. Another is Steve Davies who has set up a successful company, Oxford Asymmetry, that produces pure left-handed or right-handed (chiral) forms of organic molecules. In his academic laboratory he pursues fundamental research on the nature of this chirality. And Bill Bonfield of Queen Mary and Westfield College synthesises the artificial bone implant material HAPEX in his laboratory, while seeking fundamental understanding of biomedical materials.

There are many such examples of academic success where individuals have ignored the polarities of applied and basic research and are working comfortably with industry while remaining at the forefront of their research disciplines. Informed industrial comment emphasises the need for researchers to concentrate on long-term ideas - albeit in areas of potential relevance to future competence. The EPSRC consequently puts more funds into unconditional responsive mode grants, the main source of support for such long-term research, than into any other activity - and this will remain the case.

The White Paper made it clear that "the United Kingdom cannot hope to stretch its intellectual or financial resources in an attempt to support work over the entire area of every research field". Funding decisions still have to be made. In making those decisions, the EPSRC will ensure the relentless pursuit of excellence. At the same time relevance, as defined by Foresight, by industrial users, and by learned societies and professional organisations must be recognised and appreciated as a criterion of high legitimacy. There is little evidence that it ever gave Faraday cause for embarrassment or distaste.

Richard Brook is chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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