Don't throw bridges, says EPSRC chair

Paul Golby pledges a more conciliatory approach to 'shaping capability' agenda, reports Paul Jump

March 15, 2012

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council needs to get closer to its "customers" if it is to avoid a repeat of the recent period where "people have been throwing stones over a wall at each other, as opposed to really engaging and trying to find common ground".

This is the view of the former UK chairman and chief executive of E.ON, Paul Golby, whose four-year appointment as the EPSRC's next chair was approved last week by MPs.

As the government's preferred candidate for the post, Dr Golby was summoned to a hearing before the Commons Science and Technology Committee. Questions focused on the recent controversy surrounding the EPSRC's "shaping capability" agenda, which will see funding levels for different fields informed by their national importance, as well as existing UK capacity and excellence.

Dr Golby attributed the controversy, which has been marked by several open letters to the prime minister from researchers, to a "perceived lack of engagement" by the EPSRC.

He said large recent cuts in the research council's administrative budget were not an excuse and that it needed to ensure that decisions were based on consultation and evidence.

"If we can prove we have listened, followed open and transparent process, collected the right evidence and used the appropriate experts to judge that evidence, it [will be] very difficult for opinion to outweigh [that] evidence," he said.

But improving relationships would take consistent effort from both the EPSRC and researchers.

"Once letters start appearing in national newspapers it is quite difficult to retract positions," he told the MPs.

Dr Golby, who is also chair of Engineering UK as well as chair of council and pro-chancellor of Aston University, said it would be "arrogant" to assert any personal vision for the EPSRC before engaging in "a lot of listening and understanding".

He admitted that there would "inevitably" be increased pressure from government for the research council to fund more applied research. "But we aren't an arm of government and we can come to our own independent view," he added.

"We will reflect back to government if we think the pressure is too strong or inappropriately applied."

He also pledged that any changes would be gradual and well thought through, rather than being "knee-jerk" responses to current problems.

Acknowledging that the 50 per cent cut to the EPSRC's capital budget in the current spending period was a serious issue, he said that part of his job would be to communicate to government the "concrete economic case" for capital spending in areas "where we see the need for it".

Although the position as chair pays £16,430 for an annual commitment of 24 days, Dr Golby said he was not looking for a sinecure and expected, in reality, to have to commit more time than that.

Noting that his own PhD in mechanical engineering was funded by the EPSRC, he said: "Science and technology is critical to the future economy of this country so I want to put something back ... in a space where I think I could make a contribution."

In their report, the MPs said they were "reassured that Dr Golby understood the internal and external challenges facing the EPSRC".

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