Chemical 'overreaction' as boiling point nears over cuts

EPSRC chief provokes ire by saying scientists' views are not supported by evidence. Simon Baker writes

September 22, 2011

The chief executive of a research council has risked inflaming a row over the council's decision to reduce funding to particular fields by accusing protesting academics of an "overreaction".

David Delpy, head of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, told a Science and Technology Committee hearing last week that there had been "a lot of opinion" expressed on its plans but "relatively little" evidence that would prompt a reassessment.

It follows protests from chemists over the EPSRC's decision to earmark synthetic organic chemistry for a reduction as part of a "shaping capability" programme.

Last month, a group of 30 researchers led by Anthony Barrett of Imperial College London wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron to warn that the cuts would "seriously injure an invaluable section of the UK economy".

Additional letters organised by Paul Clarke, a senior lecturer in organic chemistry at the University of York, and signed by around 100 academics from various fields, have been sent to David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

They claim that the wider EPSRC process has breached the Haldane principle, as decisions on funding were effectively being made by administrators rather than scientists.

The letters also attack other EPSRC plans, including a proposal to cut the number of PhD studentships it funds by a third.

"It is hard not to come to the conclusion that Professor Delpy and the EPSRC are making decisions on the direction of UK scientific research that they are simply not competent to make," says the latest letter to Mr Willetts, sent on 13 September.

Professor Delpy, who will be hoping that an EPSRC "town hall" meeting on 26 September will allay concerns, said that while "a lot of attention" had been drawn to the synthetic organic chemistry decision, "we've had far less of a response in other areas".

"I think it is an overreaction...The implication from reading many of the letters is that overnight we're going to halve the funding in an area," Professor Delpy said.

Responding specifically to claims that the EPSRC had failed to properly consult groups such as the Royal Society of Chemistry, he said: "The discussions with them were to seek evidence, not to ask them to give us a prioritised list."

He added: "I don't think that the RSC, and it would admit so, can provide us with a priority of one area of chemistry over another. It is a membership organisation."

Professor Delpy said that since the initial announcements on the exercise "we've had a lot of opinion, but in terms of evidence that would influence a decision we've seen relatively little".

Mr Willetts told the committee that his understanding was that the EPSRC had "widely consulted" before taking decisions. However, he added that he was keen to avoid any situation "where it was thought that there was a bureaucracy (at the EPSRC offices) in Swindon detached from the concerns of the mainstream science community".

Dr Clarke told Times Higher Education that the EPSRC still had to answer the charge that its administrative staff were making funding decisions rather than scientists.

"It is not the job of the EPSRC to decide what science is worth funding or not, it is the job of peer reviewers," he said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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