Council refusals spur legal threat

February 21, 2003

An Oxford University professor is to seek a judicial review of a decision not to fund his pioneering work in atomic physics by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. He believes his case could have repercussions for the entire system of research funding in Britain.

Joshua Silver, a professor of physics, claims the EPSRC panel lacked the expertise to assess his two grant applications and wrongly penalised him for being retired, when, at 57, he is research active. He said the decision could damage the field at a time when the government has pledged support for atomic physics.

"My belief is that the system does not work any more, as we can most probably demonstrate in the High Court, and it must be replaced with one that works and is demonstrably open, fair and reasonable. If it falls to me to try to initiate this process, then so be it." He is consulting lawyers.

Professor Silver made two separate grant proposals, which are worth about £500,000 in total and would support a number of postdoctoral students.

One proposal - to make precise X-ray spectrums of highly charged ions, designed to test the basic principles of quantum electrodynamics - was judged to be outstanding in four references seen by The THES . One referee said that it was of the "highest quality", while another called Professor Silver "a world-class scholar".

Professor Silver said that one panel member told him that the panel had not been comfortable with his employment status. He struck a deal with his department when he was 55 to take early retirement, so he could concentrate on his research. "I am very research active but the panel seems to have been wrongly prejudiced against me," he said.

His proposal was backed by a letter from Oxford's chairman of physics, Keith Burnett, which confirmed that "all support and facilities will be provided by this department during the duration of the grant applied for".

The second proposal was a "world unique" plan to use lasers to measure more precisely than ever the activity levels of atoms, in an attempt to test the theory of quantum electrodynamics. Referees called it "outstanding", but one who said that Professor Silver's group belonged "no doubt to the leading ones in the world" cast doubt on whether it could achieve the accuracy it planned.

Professor Silver said it was clear from other comments by this referee that he or she had failed to understand the proposal. He said the panel lacked the necessary expertise to make a valid assessment of the work and gave undue significance to this erroneous reference. He said there was only one atomic physicist among the 12 panel members.

A spokesman for the EPSRC said: "The peer-review panel to which Professor Silver takes exception was drawn largely from the College of Peers, established by nominations from the research community - and the panel was guided by written comments from referees, drawn both from the college and from those identified by Professor Silver himself."

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