EPSRC: keeping science healthy

November 20, 1998

'There should be some failure. It means you are learning more,' Richard Brook tells Natasha Loder.

As chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the United Kingdom's largest research council, Richard Brook oversees an annual budget that is Pounds 100 million higher than that of the massive Medical Research Council. And having about Pounds 400 million a year for the next three years, The EPSRC gets as much money as the third and fourth largest councils put together.

The EPSRC is unique among the research councils in the type of research it funds and the way it does it. It has responsibility for the basic science and engineering on which many of the other research councils depend: chemistry, mathematics, the mainstream engineering disciplines, information technology, materials and conventional physics.

"These are enabling disciplines, or fundamental disciplines," explains Brook. "You require skill in those if you are going to operate in any other branch of science or engineering. This council has responsibility for ensuring the health of disciplines in the university sector. It's therefore different from other councils in having no institutes of its own (see box). We've some relatively applied programmes directly involving industry but the majority of mainstream expenditure goes to university researchers."

Brook welcomes the comprehensive spending review: "It confirms that the government has recognised science and engineering as crucial elements in national life. They give us a good steer when they say 'emphasise basic science and engineering, emphasise strength and knowledge in these fundamental subjects, so you can develop into a much broader span of activity with confidence'. We have the basic subjects, and the crucial technologies, like IT and materials, which are the keys that open doors. A lot of oncoming challenges, like the health of the environment, will require solutions of imaginative engineering."

The EPSRC is still deciding how to spend money from the CSR, and Brook is reluctant to "second guess how it will turn out". But the money will prevent success rates of grant proposals from dropping below 30 per cent. Brook says money will be deployed "around different subject areas following indications about which ones are going to be the most rewarding".

He hints at the cross-subject activities that may gain: "At the outset we had 20 advanced fellowships per annum, and now 32. One possibility is to raise this again." The fellowships help young researchers establish a reputation.

The EPSRC has also focused on improving its internal systems. In formulating policy, the EPSRC receives advice from two panels, the technical opportunities panel (TOP), representing the views of research providers, and the user panel (UP), which represents the requirements of users.

TOP is a group of 12 academics, whilst the UP includes industrial colleagues and a vice-chancellor. Both "influential" panels advise the council about which programmes should get what, based on the business plans from the programme areas, guidance from Foresight, and wide consultation.

"The user panel gives the longest-sighted advice. Industrial colleagues say 'don't look at this problem, it's too close to application, we're doing that. Your job is to ensure mathematics is in great shape in ten to 20 years'. This year they advised that peer review can be conservative, and brave research proposals should be encouraged."

EPSRC has yet to decide precisely how they are going to react to this but Brook argues: "There should be some (research) failures -where the problem turned out to be more difficult than anticipated, or nature was different to how it had been imagined. That's a respectable failure. It means you're learning more."

By contrast the old system was closed - the committee that wrote often elaborate strategy also judged proposals against that strategy. Now the EPSRC only puts out the annual Landscape document following consultation, giving a general outline of the EPSRC's priorities, opportunities and where the shape of the subject is going.

Instead of 30 pages of strategic statement, researchers write their proposal against a relatively lightly indicated background. Proposals then come into peer review, into a system that has been working towards greater transparency.

The EPSRC has created peer-review colleges representing people within a subject area nominated by the applying community. Proposals are now reviewed by two names from a college, and one name nominated by the proposer. "People can see how the system works, and the people who are going to be acting as their reviewers, and they can have a part in choosing them," says Brook.

Like other research councils the EPSRC was restructured after 1993. "The fear of the academic community on reading the white paper was that government-supported research would become short-term applied. For the EPSRC the argument can be made that the responsible role in selecting which research should be done has been returned to the researcher." This emphasis on the imagination of the researcher is likely to remain in the future, and Brook hopes to advance the peer-review process.

He says: "Other councils are either operating through institutes or on a more focused set of objectives. But we have this very broad objective across all of these disciplines, so we must make sure the applying community is stimulated and encouraged, to be as bright and creative as it can be - and you want it to happen in the context of the UK's national needs."

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