EPSRC fails to placate critics of its effort to 'shape' research capability

Funding council chief's no-show to defend policy 'beggared belief'. Paul Jump reports

October 6, 2011

Attempts by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to quell the rebellion over its "shaping capability" agenda appear to be failing.

The council held a "town hall" meeting last week to explain the policy, under which it will expand or shrink funding for particular fields on the basis of national importance and existing excellence.

Since the council announced its first tranche of decisions in July, it has endured sustained criticism over its perceived failure to consult the academic community, particularly over its plans to cut funding for synthetic organic chemistry and to confine current studentship applications in mathematics to statistics and applied probability.

Neville Reed, managing director of science, education and industry at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the council appeared to take on board some of the criticisms at the meeting but had failed to dispel the uneasiness stemming from the lack of clarity about how the shaping capability programme would be implemented.

He also criticised the council's approach. "If they had come in and said, 'We are really sorry people are upset, we realise we haven't done as well as we should: can we work together going forward?' (it would have been better) but they didn't do that," he said.

Anthony Barrett, professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College London, said the absence of EPSRC chief executive David Delpy at the meeting "beggared belief".

"Does he now have regrets about starting the ill-conceived shaping capability exercise and is he now unwilling to personally mount a public defence?" he asked.

A spokeswoman for the EPSRC said that Professor Delpy had had long-standing commitments elsewhere but also felt that since the meeting was arranged to discuss the details of shaping capability in the physical sciences he was not the most appropriate person to lead the discussion.

Professor Barrett, who organised a letter to the prime minister last month signed by 30 prominent chemists, said a Freedom of Information request to the council for the evidence on which it based its decision to cut synthetic organic chemistry had yielded "utterly no proof" of any external consultation.

In a letter to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, Michael Singer, professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, says the EPSRC has shown "contemptuous disregard" for the International Review of Mathematical Sciences, which it commissioned last year and which called for the "diversity and distributedness of the mathematical sciences research community" to be funded, and for enhanced communication between the council and researchers.

Professor Singer also claims that several other recent decisions taken by the EPSRC, such as the move to larger, longer grants and the introduction of centres for doctoral training, lack "the support of the mainstream science community".

The EPSRC council will this month consider a call from leading national academies, including the Royal Society, for the postponement of the introduction of shaping capability.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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