Council chief calls for more risk-takers

November 9, 2006

Academics should keep making bids for "risky" blue-skies research, the outgoing chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council said at the council's annual conference last week, writes Anthea Lipsett.

John O'Reilly, who is leaving the top position at the EPSRC to take up the post of vice-chancellor at Cranfield University, told delegates that the research council's peer-review processes - which are under consultation until January - needed to be revamped to encourage scientists to undertake more risky research.

He said: "Peer review isn't broken, but it's seriously challenged with high-risk research, particularly in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary areas. It's important that we put the spotlight on that to make sure that those types of research are supported."

Judith Howard, head of chemistry at Durham University, said there was a tendency among young academics to put in safer, more conservative research proposals in the hope of getting funded because they needed support to get their careers started.

"There are philosophies here that need to be challenged, both at peer review and at panel level. Not everyone has the character to stand at a precipice and jump into risky research; but we do need to encourage more fundamental 'blue-skies' adventure, and maybe we'll have a few more mountain climbers," she said.

Trevor Page, pro vice-chancellor for external relations and research liaison at Newcastle University, said: "There's a balance to be struck if you're distributing tax money between safe, guaranteed-outcome research and risky research that can make a real impact if it delivers.

"(EPSRC research) is still too conservative. If you've never failed, you haven't aimed high enough. It's reassuring that (that attitude) is now back on the agenda."

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