Campaign launched to challenge EPSRC 'diktats'

The head of a new protest group campaigning for reform of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has called for its chief executive, David Delpy, to take action or step down

May 15, 2012

Source: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“If he will not change, he must go,” Tony Barrett, Glaxo professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College London, told journalists at a demonstration outside Parliament to launch Science for the Future.

The campaign has been launched in response to the EPSRC’s “shaping capability” exercise, which sought to align the council’s funding portfolio according to “national importance”.

Professor Barrett said the group wanted to see not only a reversal of the project, but an inquiry by MPs into the council’s behaviour and a review of its work by international experts.

In a colourful address in Westminster, Professor Barrett lamented the “vile nonsense emanating from Swindon”, where the research councils are based.

“I don’t want more money for science,” he said. “I just don’t want taxpayers’ money to be spent on a top-down diktat programme emblematic of what went on in East Germany.”

University of Manchester chemist Jim Thomas acknowledged it may be dangerous for scientists to be seen to dissent in a time of cutbacks, but called for them to unite behind the campaign.

“Why aren’t more here?” he asked. “One reason is that some are being served by the strategy the EPSRC has…[and] don’t want to rock the boat.”

At the event campaigners paraded a coffin and horse-drawn hearse from outside the House of Commons to Downing Street proclaiming “the death of British science”, a publicity stunt that drew criticism from some commentators.

Protesters also met with MPs to argue their case, including George Freeman, adviser on the life sciences to David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

The EPSRC released a statement in response to the campaign launch saying that scientific excellence remained the number one criterion for peer review in selecting which projects to fund.

“But, if we are to continue to excel in areas of strength, we must take a strategic approach in how we invest – so we have the right balance of funding between different research areas, making sure the UK has the right national capability in core disciplines and is addressing major societal and economic challenges.”

An EPSRC spokesman also said there was “a danger in thinking this group is representative of the whole country”.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, added that the campaign should not draw attention away from the bigger point of cuts to science budgets.

“We’re not sure all avenues have been explored here, and we’d urge EPSRC and Science for the Future to engage constructively over these issues,” he said.

“Having lobbyists proclaim the ‘death of British science’ over a dispute involving one research council is distracting from the wider challenges facing publicly funded research – challenges which we’ll need a united front in order to meet.”

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