False economies

The EPSRC's funding shift from investigator-driven work to application-driven R&D is misguided, says Philip Moriarty

August 4, 2011

From its inception in 1994, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has considered investigator-driven, exploratory ("responsive mode") research to be the bedrock of its funding programmes. It even described this funding stream as its "essential platform" just a few years ago.

No longer. The EPSRC has rebranded itself as a sponsor, rather than a funder, of research, and is now in the business of "shaping capability" to ensure that "its investments efficiently deliver high-quality research and training focused on the strategic needs of the nation".

In practice, this means the council will prioritise research areas on the basis of their perceived impact on the economy, their potential to contribute to emerging industries and their relevance to other disciplines. It has split its funding portfolio into 111 subfields and has decided whether to increase, reduce or "maintain" funding on the basis of these criteria. The first 29 subfields were recently named and, in some cases, shamed.

This is but the latest stage in the EPSRC's development of a "command economy" approach to science funding. Phil Willis, then chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee, claimed in 2008 that a strategy of this type would "sound the death knell for British research". When coupled with recent changes to its funding policies - including the loss of project studentships; the requirement that all grant applicants second-guess the impact of their proposed research; and a focus on selecting "leaders", as opposed to funding the best ideas - the EPSRC will significantly weaken the UK's capability and reputation for fundamental science. Willis' prediction was spot on; the bell indeed tolls for UK research that is not focused on near-term impact.

There is an intrinsic, non-utilitarian and cultural value to exploratory research. It would take a high degree of philistinism to argue that the discovery of the structure of DNA was worthless to society until it was exploited in biotechnology, or that Einstein's general theory of relativity required the development of the global positioning system for its value to be realised.

And yet this is precisely what the EPSRC is promoting, biasing research funding heavily towards science that will demonstrate near-term applications. The creative and serendipitous research that has produced world-changing insights is squeezed out.

EPSRC representatives at this point typically raise their eyes to heaven and put forward a counter-argument that runs something like: "It's fine to have high-minded ideals about the intrinsic worth of research, but the UK economy is not particularly healthy and we are having to absorb large real-terms cuts. A key reason science funding was largely preserved was because we made the economic impact case to government."

The case the research councils made - and the flawed assumption underlying many of the EPSRC's new policies - is that academic research has a direct, short-term effect on the economy. The fundamental economic rationale for state support of research, however, is not to fund near-market R&D. It is instead to provide funding for research that is so far from commercialisation that the market sees insufficient return on investment.

Should all academic research be fundamental, esoteric and far-from-market? Of course not. But by the same token, the EPSRC's commitment to skewing the balance of funding towards application-driven R&D is a polarised approach that will damage the health of UK academia and our science base. The 23 per cent rise in the European Research Council's budget for fundamental ("frontier") research, reported last week in Times Higher Education, stands in stark and refreshing contrast.

J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron, said of the value of fundamental research almost a century ago: "Suppose that government laboratories had been operating in the stone age. Then we would have had wonderful stone axes but no one would have discovered metallurgy. Research in pure science is made without any idea of application to industrial matters, but solely with the view of extending our knowledge of the laws of Nature."

It's a shame that Thomson's insights, no less valid today, appear to have made so little impression on our national research councils.

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