Discovery and impact: no conflict in twin aims, EPSRC chief insists

Controversial capabilities policy retained as one of three strands in research council’s new plan

December 4, 2014

There is no tension between pushing researchers to pursue both excellence and impact, the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has insisted.

Philip Nelson made the remark to Times Higher Education in connection with the research council’s new strategic plan, which was published on 2 December. It says the EPSRC has twin goals to ensure that the UK remains “an international research leader, where discovery thrives and our support generates the highest quality research”, and that researchers “work with us to accelerate innovation for the benefit of society and the economy”.

Opponents of the impact agenda claim that researchers incentivised to maximise impact will shy away from risky research. But Professor Nelson, a former pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Southampton, said his own experience had been borne out by his examination of Southampton’s research portfolio, which had revealed a strong correlation between excellent research and impact.

“You don’t get impact without the solid underpinning science, and it would be a big mistake to put too much emphasis on the pursuit of impact at the expense of the fundamental science, but clearly a balance must be struck,” he said.

The EPSRC’s strategic plan updates its predecessor, published in 2010, in light of the government’s industrial strategy, to which it says more than £1.65 billion of its currently committed grant spending is directly relevant. But the document does not signal a radical departure from the policies of Professor Nelson’s predecessor, David Delpy.

Indeed, Professor Delpy’s most controversial policy, shaping capability, has been retained as one of three “strategies” (alongside “building leadership” and “accelerating impact”). The policy, announced in 2011, saw the organisation decide whether to grow, shrink or maintain funding in each discipline. It drew heckles both about the decisions themselves and the alleged lack of consultation with which they were made. But Professor Nelson said he had “taken a careful look” at the policy and concluded that “we are in a very sensible place”. However, the policy has been renamed “balancing capabilities”, since this better captures the “gentle steering” (often through targeted fellowship calls) used to drive it.

Professor Nelson said the overall “vision” set out in the strategic plan – “to make the UK the best place in the world to research, discover and innovate” – was indicative of the simplicity he had sought, and he was encouraged that there had been no major objections to the draft of the strategy, published in August.

The finalised version, he said, merely contained some “subtle changes on emphasis” in areas such as diversity. It would be followed up next spring with a delivery plan that would set out more “nuts and bolts”. Together, he hoped the documents would allow him to make a “compelling” case to government ahead of the next spending review.

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