A controversial requirement for grant applicants to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to identify the national importance of their proposal over a 10- to 50-year time frame has been dropped by its new chair, Paul Golby.
The requirement was announced last year as part of changes to the EPSRC’s peer-review processes in line with the research council’s “shaping capability” agenda to grow, maintain or shrink subject areas based on their perceived strategic importance and existing excellence and capacity.
EPSRC guidance said grant applicants should explain the national importance of their proposal, defined as “the extent to which, over the long term, for example 10-50 years”, it dovetailed with the council’s shaping agenda, addressed social challenges, boosted UK economic success or maintained world-leading research activity.
National importance was originally billed as a new “primary assessment criterion” of applications, alongside research quality. But even after it was quickly downgraded to a secondary criterion, opponents remained bitterly critical of what they saw as its requirement for academics to predict the distant future.
Dr Golby, who was appointed EPSRC chair in April, agreed that such a requirement would be “ridiculous” and insisted that the research council had only meant to encourage applicants to “think from the outset about where their research fits into a national and international context, and where it might ultimately lead in terms of a financial, economic or societal benefit”.
He said that after six months of discussions with both supporters and denigrators of shaping capability, he had concluded that the “misleading” reference to the 10- to 50-year time frame had been a major reason for the misunderstanding.
Communication failures, in his view, were also to blame for the false impression among EPSRC critics that it intended to micromanage spending on each subject area.
Rather, he said, its shaping capability agenda would be implemented by sending “transparent signals” about its priorities - to which, he said, there was already evidence that researchers were responding.
Dr Golby said that the EPSRC had also fallen short on the extent to which it consulted the researchers before taking key decisions, and he has announced independent reviews of the methods by which it obtains strategic advice and of its peer-review processes.
“In both areas the EPSRC has made changes over the last number of years. I’m not necessarily saying there is anything major wrong with them but they need to be robust and we need to demonstrate that to ourselves and to the community.”
The EPSRC’s senior managers were “open” to being challenged, he said, and were in full agreement with his decisions, having already noted before his appointment that “maybe our engagement and communications had not been as good as they could be”.
“I am pushing at an open door. I don’t want anybody to think this is a new chair coming in and saying we are now going to do things differently,” Dr Golby said.