Let's keep it simple

July 18, 2003

Britain needs to roll four research councils into one national body, says David Giachardi

Albert Einstein said: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."

If Einstein were here now, scanning the UK horizon for research funding and guidance, he would find things far from simple. There is a daunting array of bodies with which scientists and scientific organisations have to deal.

Although each one is helpful and supportive, the overall picture is too complex.

The time has come to consider simplifying the situation, and we at the Royal Society of Chemistry would support any move to examine the current funding structure to see how its energies could be better focused.

Under current arrangements, support for the chemical sciences, for instance, is dispersed across four research councils, each with its own programme areas, application processes, vetting procedures and priorities.

For the researcher seeking support, it can be a vexing task working out which programme within which research council is most applicable for a particular project.

These issues are serious in both interdisciplinary research and the chemical sciences, where the frontiers have moved on since 1994, when the current funding structure was decided. The compartmentalisation of research funding that seemed sensible a decade ago is no longer the best way to serve the scientific community, advance science or support government policies.

I believe that the chemical sciences would benefit from having a body that focuses on a broader remit than the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Now may be the time for the UK to move to the US model with the creation of a "National Science Foundation" responsible for the work that now falls under the four research councils covering engineering and physical sciences, biotechnology and biological sciences, particle physics and astronomy, and the natural environment. This could fund research alongside the Medical Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

Such an approach would capture the best of the current systems. It would seek out and support excellent and internationally competitive research; promote interdisciplinarity; provide a one-stop shop for researchers and companies; streamline application procedures and remove duplication in administration, thereby freeing more resources for world-class science for the benefit of the UK.

I think that moving to a US model could dramatically improve support for the chemical sciences and allow the UK scientific community to better respond to the challenges that it faces today. The RSC would support moves to explore the opportunities this might bring.

The RSC certainly values the support of the research councils and has welcomed the increased resources from the two recent comprehensive spending reviews after many years of underinvestment. We are pleased with the move away from "managed" programmes to the responsive mode that better meets the needs of the researchers.

In the ten years since the EPSRC was set up, the financial landscape has changed dramatically. The increased funding for science builds on the government's commitment to develop a high value-added economy that focuses on utilising science and technology married to a highly skilled workforce.

In this way, the UK economy will underpin sustainable advances in the health, wealth and wellbeing of the population.

The scientific landscape has also changed in the past ten years. Within the chemical sciences, major advances have been made. The information provided by the sequencing of the human genome can be translated into better healthcare, new medicines and improved disease control. New materials are being developed, and new technologies at the "nano" level explored. A better understanding of natural processes and the impact of human activity will help protect the environment for future generations.

The changing world in which science and the research councils operate should be reflected on. It is critical that science be supported in the most advantageous manner. In particular, resources should be focused on advancing the science, not on unnecessary bureaucracy. Organisational structures should not put up barriers to this.

We recognise that our proposals require extensive thought and reflection and that there is no overnight solution to the problems that we face. But the situation definitely needs assessing. Let us at least agree that things have changed for the better in the past decade and see how we can take the best of the present structure and apply it to a new one for the next ten years.

The RSC would be delighted to be part of any examination of the structure and the ways in which it could be improved and enhanced to the benefit of the entire UK science community.

David Giachardi is chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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