Critics sceptical that EPSRC will act on review findings

Report calls for a more ‘transparent and inclusive’ structure, but scientists await council’s response

July 25, 2013

Funereal atmosphere: discontent with council strategy fed into last year’s proclamation of ‘the death of British science’

Critics of recent policy shifts at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council remain sceptical about whether recommendations in a high-profile review will lead to significant changes.

The review into how the EPSRC obtains and uses advice in its decision-making, led by the former president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Suzanne Fortier, has called for the structure to become more “transparent and inclusive”.

Published on 12 July, it recommends that in making major strategic decisions, the council’s consultation and communication plans should be “inclusive, involving two-way engagement both before and after decision making with the broader communities of researchers and institutions – universities, learned societies [and] industry”.

It adds that members of the council’s strategic advisory teams and networks should be appointed in a transparent way, with minutes of both groups published online and members able to see how their advice has been presented to council.

The report is one of two initiated by EPSRC chairman Paul Golby in the wake of stern criticism of the council’s “shaping capabilities” programme, which sought to align the council’s funding portfolio according to “national importance” and led the council to cut project studentships on research grants.

Anthony Barrett, Glaxo professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College London, said the report laid out in more political language what many critics had claimed – that there had not been sufficient consultation with the community over changes.

Professor Barrett, who organised the Science for the Future campaign that famously paraded a coffin and hearse to Downing Street proclaiming “the death of British science”, said he felt that Dr Golby’s appointment in April last year had been a “step in the right direction”.

However the group would await the response of the council and “take prompt action” if the recommendations were watered down, he said.

Michael Duff, Abdus Salam chair of theoretical physics at Imperial College London, said a real test would be whether decisions already made would be reversed.

“The committee found flaws in the way decisions were taken, which inevitably means poor decisions were taken. The test of Golby’s sincerity will be whether he reverses the bad decisions,” he said.

The EPSRC said that it welcomed the review’s recommendations and would publish a detailed response in the autumn.

Dr Golby said that the council valued the “additional insight” that the review brought and that he was confident that “building on the recommendations we can further improve our engagement with the community as we strive to keep the UK at the heart of global research and innovation”.

Sir Harry Kroto, Nobel laureate and Francis Eppes professor of chemistry at Florida State University, told Times Higher Education that he did not believe the review would change anything.

“The people involved [at the council] are far out from the sort of attitudes that were there in the 1960s, when I was able to carry out research almost completely freely,” he said.

He added that the research that led to his Nobel Prize in Chemistry would at the time have been “of no strategic significance at all”.

Last straw: EPSRC stalwart resigns over ‘nonsensical’ online peer review training

A member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Peer Review College has resigned citing a culture change that has led the council to have “lost sight of what should be its principal objectives”.

Ian Sommerville, professor of computer science at the University of St Andrews, said his resignation was prompted by “the straw that has broken the camel’s back” – a requirement to complete an online generic training course in peer review that he felt was unlikely to achieve anything and that to his mind suggested that reviews should take council priorities into account.

Writing on his blog, Professor Sommerville, who has a 25-year history with the council, said this was the “latest nonsense” in a stream of changes that he believed would disadvantage younger academics and those returning after a career break, such as bans on resubmission of rejected proposals and a focus on fewer, larger grants.

He said that the council had told members of the college that it believed the training “provides valuable information on EPSRC and our strategies and priorities, and essential guidance on best practice on reviewing proposals as well as training on roles and responsibilities for being part of an EPSRC peer review panel”.

In a statement to Times Higher Education, the council added that it believed the training would “help reviewers keep up to date with changes to review methods and, most importantly, help provide assurance about the consistency and fairness of the process to those applying for EPSRC funding”.

The council has commissioned a review of its peer review process, chaired by the vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, Dame Julia Goodfellow. The review, which began on 19 July, aims to make recommendations to the council by the year’s end.

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