Council hits back at criticism of grants

November 7, 2003

The Engineering and Physical Science Research Council has rejected criticism this week that it is denying career opportunities to scientists by refusing to allow contract researchers to bid for grants, writes Martin Ince.

In a report published on Monday, the House of Commons science and technology committee says that the EPSRC "had failed to provide a coherent explanation for not allowing them to apply for its grants". It urges the council to consider a change.

The select committee says that the EPSRC is "increasingly isolated" in refusing to fund postdoctoral applicants and that its chief executive, John O'Reilly, seems "determined to ignore the views of the thousands of postdocs who, by now, have given up on the hope that their position will be a precursor to anything".

But Professor O'Reilly said that allowing researchers in engineering and the physical sciences to obtain grants at the start of their careers would be hazardous for the EPSRC.

He said: "In some areas of science we see researchers living for long periods on a succession of short-term contracts. But in engineering and physical sciences there is no shortage of career opportunities in industry or universities."

Professor O'Reilly said contract researchers could be co-authors of a bid so their contribution to research was recognised. They could also apply for EPSRC fellowships after working at postdoctoral level for a few years.

He said the EPSRC was keeping its policy under review because of changes that would give contract researchers more of the rights of full university employees.

But he added: "The reality on the ground is that people do flow into established careers by the routes we use today and we would not want to disrupt them."

He said about 40 per cent of EPSRC awards had some industrial involvement and the council favoured encouraging routes into universities and industry.

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