EPSRC chief wants words of advice from critical voices

But extant strategic decisions will not be revisited, Paul Golby says

October 31, 2013

Source: Rex Features

Transparent: Paul Golby promises more openness in the making of appointments and decisions affecting strategy

Critics of controversial decisions made by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council should join one of its advisory groups, according to the body’s chair, Paul Golby.

Dr Golby was speaking in relation to the publication on 29 October of the EPSRC’s response to an independent review of the way it receives advice.

The review was one of two that Dr Golby commissioned last December in response to widespread concerns that the body had not consulted widely enough before making controversial decisions.

The review, led by Suzanne Fortier, former president of Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, reported in July and set out a series of recommendations relating to transparency and inclusiveness.

The EPSRC’s governing council has now set out how it will implement the recommendations.

It has pledged to publish terms of reference for the research council’s strategic advisory teams and networks, including specifying the process for identifying and appointing their academic members.

Appointments to the advisory bodies, which will no longer be chaired by members of the EPSRC executive, will be overseen by a sub-committee of the EPSRC council.

Notes and theories

Dr Golby, who is the former UK chairman and chief executive of the energy firm E.ON, said the EPSRC would also publish “full and appropriate” minutes from advisory group meetings so that “the community can see the nature of the advice we are receiving, and…whether we have accepted or rejected that advice, and the reasons why”.

However, the council will stop short of publishing minutes of advisory group meetings because their members indicated that such a move would inhibit their willingness to speak frankly, he added.

The decisions by the EPSRC that have angered critics include demand management, the abolition of project studentships and the “shaping capability agenda”, which links choices about funding for specific areas to their national importance as well as their existing excellence and capacity.

Dr Golby hoped that the EPSRC’s critics would be satisfied when they saw it “doing exactly what we are saying we will do”, but he insisted that major strategic decisions would not be revisited.

“We are not about to throw all the cards up in the air and repeat what caused all the problems in the first place,” he said.

But he emphasised that EPSRC policy was always evolving alongside the UK’s scientific and funding environments. He saw “no reason” why critics would not be recruited if they put themselves forward to the advisory bodies, where they could “have their say” on future developments.

“Having a diversity of view is a good thing. The last thing I want is a group of people who agree with everything: that is not how you get results,” Dr Golby said.

The other independent review he commissioned, on peer review, will be delivered and published in December, he added.


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