EPSRC rolls out 31 shapes but puts off decisions on the difficult subjects

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has deferred until the end of March more decisions on which areas of mathematics and physical sciences will grow or shrink.

February 16, 2012

The disciplines have been excluded entirely from the long-awaited second tranche of decisions in the research council's controversial "shaping capability" programme. The second stage, released this week, indicates just two out of 31 energy, ICT and engineering subject areas will be reduced.

The council has divided its portfolio into 111 subject areas and is mulling over whether to increase, maintain or reduce funding for each of them according to their research excellence and existing capacity, as well as their national importance.

The first decisions, announced last July, were heavily criticised by academics in mathematics and physical sciences, who complained of a lack of consultation.

The EPSRC promised in October to consult more widely and postponed its second tranche of decisions, which had been scheduled for November. But it now says that the extra work involved makes it impossible to release any more decisions in maths and physical sciences until the final tranche, which is due at the end of March.

The second tranche is confined to energy, ICT and engineering. Most areas will be maintained, but seven will grow. The only reductions are in biological informatics, and in hydrogen and alternative energy.

David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, denied that reductions had been minimised to avoid further controversy.

He said both subjects set to shrink had "matured" to such an extent that they were largely now in the era of application - biological informatics by the biological research councils, and hydrogen and alternative energy by the Technology Strategy Board or by industry.

The decisions indicated only a "vector of change", Professor Delpy said, and he stressed that precise funding levels for each subject area would depend on the volume and quality of applications.

Admitting that a large number of decisions, 51, remained to be made, he said that most would draw on evidence that had already been gathered and was now being tested in consultation with figures suggested by learned societies.

"Our consultation in the first tranche was very extensive, but we have increased the number and range of engagement quite dramatically [this time]," Professor Delpy said. "We have engaged additionally with 46 people suggested by the Royal Society of Chemistry and 31 by the Institute of Physics alone."

Tom Melham, professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, said the EPSRC's ICT Strategic Advisory Team, of which he is a member, had a "wonderfully constructive" relationship with research council staff.

"The EPSRC is definitely listening," he said. "Our views, and those of others, have made a real difference to the decisions made."

David Payne, director of the University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre, was consulted over the latest decisions. He said it was "hard to argue" that the EPSRC had made bad judgements.

He said decisions on shaping capability were necessarily imperfect and contentious but denied that the exercise led to short-termism or an erosion of blue-skies research. He also noted that the research councils were under political pressure to demonstrate that their investments were in the national interest.

Atti Emecz, the EPSRC's director of communications, said a recent town-hall meeting with energy researchers had indicated support for the EPSRC's latest decisions. "But you can't ever guarantee that there won't be people who feel aggrieved," he said. "The whole nature of the process is that there are winners and losers."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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