Majority unscarred by EPSRC's final cuts

'Shaping capability' plan proceeds cautiously, with reductions in just 14 fields overall. Paul Jump writes

March 29, 2012

Credit: Science Photo Library
Sharp focus: scientists have been keeping a close eye on the EPSRC since the start of its shaping capability programme

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has denied that its decision to confine cuts to just five of 52 subjects in the final tranche of its controversial shaping capability programme relates to criticism of its previous decisions.

The research council has divided the fields it funds into 113 different areas and has now completed its review of whether to grow, maintain or reduce funding levels for each.

The first tranche of decisions, announced last July, saw seven of 29 subjects slated to be reduced and six to be expanded.

However, the decisions were heavily criticised by academics, particularly in the physical sciences. Mathematicians also complained that postdoctoral fellowships were being confined to a single subject area.

The decisions have been particularly controversial since they are based not just on the excellence of UK researchers in the various fields but also on their existing capacity, their importance to cross-council initiatives and priorities and their perceived national importance over a 10- to 50-year timescale.

The EPSRC responded to complaints about its perceived lack of engagement by postponing the second tranche of decisions to allow more time for further consultation. That tranche, announced in February, saw just two of 31 subjects slated for reductions.

Decisions in mathematics and physical sciences were deferred until this week's third and final tranche. In the event, just one field (mathematical physics) of 11 in mathematics and one (surface science) of 22 in the physical sciences will face reductions.

One of 11 subjects in information and communications technology and two of eight in engineering will also be reduced. One field in physical sciences, two in ICT and two in engineering will be grown.

David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, denied that the earlier controversy had made the research council more cautious about slating fields for reduction or growth.

He said the EPSRC's scientific advisory teams had made decisions objectively, based on the evidence and data they had collected.

Atti Emecz, the research council's director of communications, information and strategy, added that the area of physical science singled out to be reduced - surface science - was a very large field, which "hints that it is not just about the volume of voices that decided if [a field] should go up or down".

Across the three tranches, 14 of 113 fields will be reduced, and 18 grown. Professor Delpy said this was "in line" with what he had anticipated. "If we had been successful in managing our portfolio over the past 20 years - and international comparators suggest we have - you wouldn't expect enormous change.

"The idea there would be large, violent swings and that 'reduce' meant stop [funding] is not a message we have ever sent out."

But he pointed out that many fields to be maintained will nevertheless be reprioritised, meaning it would not be "business as usual" for researchers in those areas. Also, given the cash freeze on the EPSRC's budget, maintaining funding as a proportion of overall spending still meant a real-terms reduction.

Shaping capability will also herald changes to the EPSRC's peer-review processes. Peer-review panels are already expected to consider how grant applications contribute to national importance.

From next month, applicants and reviewers both will be expected to consider proposals in the context of the EPSRC's shaping capability agenda.

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