Loud and clear

Researchers didn't hold back when EPSRC head Paul Golby asked for feedback on the council's workings. Things will improve, he vows

November 29, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

In April, I became chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at a time when some members of the research community had expressed concerns about the way the council was working.

In my first six months, the EPSRC has announced investments that will help the UK to deliver its industrial strategy and to keep us at the forefront of global research: five new doctoral training centres in innovative manufacturing and a joint initiative with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to create the UK's first institute for the science of cyber security.

During the summer I visited universities and met researchers including some of the EPSRC's most vocal critics. The strongest feelings were that the EPSRC is putting short-term impact ahead of academic excellence, that we were micromanaging the grant portfolio to achieve this, and not taking sufficient advice from active researchers.

With a real-term budget cut of 12-14 per cent, the EPSRC has had to make difficult choices to ensure that the UK's research base remains internationally competitive; but there are things we could have done better.

We know that if we want to make the UK the best place in the world to do science and engineering, we must make sure we fund only the best-quality research. While peer review determines which research to fund, the EPSRC is responsible for creating the right environment for this to happen, and our communications about this have not been crystal clear.

Academic excellence is our number one priority and always will be. Let's shout that from the rooftops so no one can doubt our commitment to it. From now on, we need to send a clear signal that this takes priority over all other considerations.

Many are also worried that the EPSRC is trying to micromanage the research landscape using the 113 research areas described as "grow/maintain/reduce". I want to reassure people that there is no intention to micromanage and we will continue to manage our budget through 10 large research themes. With less funding available, however, it is important that we give clear signals about priority areas based on the best evidence and advice.

Another controversial issue concerns the social and economic impact of research. We must make sure that taxpayers' money is spent in a way that maximises the potential benefit to the nation, but we must be careful that funding decisions aren't made with too narrow a view of impact. Asking researchers to identify the national importance of their research "over a 10-50 year time-frame" has caused most angst. We recognise that impact doesn't happen overnight and can be difficult to predict. This phrase was misleading so we will no longer use it and give clearer guidance to our peer reviewers. What we do want to do is encourage researchers to think, from the outset, about the national and international context of their work and consider the potential long-term benefits to society - whatever they might be.

We have also heard concerns about PhD studentships, particularly the problems that young academics have in securing funding for students. We are addressing this through the doctoral training grants awarded to universities, and will be encouraging them to use those grants strategically including in support of their early-career appointments.

We have been criticised for not doing enough to consult with researchers in the development of major projects and policy changes. We plan to do much more to involve and engage the community in future. I would like to create more opportunities for people to meet and discuss issues with members of EPSRC Council, as well as our advisers and staff, so that we increase the transparency of what we do and give everyone greater access to those responsible for making decisions.

To make sure we are doing enough in these areas, we are commissioning two independent reviews: one to look at how the EPSRC obtains strategic advice to help it develop effective policies, and one to evaluate our overall peer-review processes. The first will report back to EPSRC's governing council in six months and the second a few months later and they will both be made public.

The research councils are part of the research community itself: our staff, many of whom have PhDs, care passionately about science. The past two years, with budgets being increasingly squeezed, have been hard for us all. We must work more closely together in the future, and some of the changes I've described above will help us to do that and keep UK science world-leading.

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