No regrets, says outgoing EPSRC chief David Delpy

‘Thick skin’ helped research council boss take the flak for controversial shaping capability measures

April 17, 2014

Source: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

When a lobby group paraded a coffin outside Parliament in 2012 proclaiming the “death of British science”, the alleged executioner, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council chief executive David Delpy, could have been forgiven for looking forward to the end of last month, when his seven years in charge of the organisation came to an end.

The immediate cause of the protest was the research council’s “shaping capability” exercise, introduced the previous year, in which the council prioritised its funding for grants, studentships and fellowships according to national importance and existing capacity and excellence.

This decision incensed many scientists, particularly those whose fields were slated to be “reduced”. But the strength of feeling was also the culmination of frustration with a succession of controversial decisions by the EPSRC, including the introduction of demand management for grants, an end to project PhD studentships and the embracing of the impact agenda.

Shaping capability also prompted angry letters to universities and science minister David Willetts and prime minister David Cameron, and an open letter to the EPSRC from six national academies, including the Royal Society, calling for a halt to the programme pending further consultation.

But in an interview conducted in the final month of his tenure, Professor Delpy expressed no regrets about any of the measures he had implemented, and said his “thick skin” had enabled him to endure with equanimity the sometimes personal criticism over shaping capability.

He accepted that his position made him a “fair target” even though the EPSRC executive was rarely responsible for initiating policy. Typically, this was proposed by its subject-specific advisory teams and cross-disciplinary advisory networks (both made up of academics) and decided by its governing council.

“I had no problems with being seen as representative of what was being done,” he told Times Higher Education.

“I strongly backed it and [I admired] council for being brave in pushing it forward. But I objected to the way criticisms were targeted at other, more junior members of staff who went out to the universities trying to explain what we had decided to do. They got blamed for all ailments and people asked whether they were the right people to make the decisions [on which subjects to grow]. But they weren’t the ones making the decisions.”

In fact, the decisions were made by the EPSRC’s council on the advice of its advisory networks, informed by evidence the EPSRC executive had gathered.

Professor Delpy said that while academies such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics had advised on priority areas in their subjects, they had been unwilling, given their remits, to take a view on what areas should be cut to pay for their expansion.

Grasping the nettle of funding cuts

Nor were such subject-specific bodies in a position to advise on whether a certain branch of physics was more or less of a priority than a certain branch of chemistry. That decision could be made only by the EPSRC, and its willingness to grasp that nettle is the measure Professor Delpy said he was most proud of overseeing.

“With a flat-cash budget, we could cut everything, meaning the UK is no longer internationally competitive in any area. Or we could say: ‘These are areas where the UK is internationally leading or which are important for our industrial strategy, and if we are going to maintain them in real terms, that means a 15 per cent increase over the spending period given inflation. If you want to grow them you have to up it by 20 per cent.’ So you have to say what will no longer be your priorities in order to pay for the new ones.”

Although the relationship between the EPSRC and “certain parts of the community” became “increasingly difficult” during the shaping capability fallout, it was only ever a vocal minority, Professor Delpy insisted. He accepted that the policy’s implementation could have been better handled, especially given that engagement and communication with the research base is crucial for the EPSRC, given its lack of its own institutes through which to channel its priorities.

But asked whether he accepted the criticisms of its mechanisms for taking advice that were contained in a report commissioned in 2012 by incoming EPSRC chair Paul Golby, Professor Delpy said the organisation had consulted as widely as it could given the brief window it had to implement shaping capability for the current spending period, which began in 2011.

“We got our budget for 2011-12 on 22 December 2010. It was due to start on 1 April. Given the Christmas break, that in effect gave us three months to plan. In an ideal world we would have had three years to prepare and consult,” he said.

Professor Delpy’s status as Research Councils UK’s impact champion has also made him a target for opponents of that agenda, but he was equally happy to take on this role, given the EPSRC’s deep links with industry and the requirement in its charter to use research outputs “for the benefit of UK plc”. He was frustrated that the Treasury had initially insisted on using the term “economic impact” even though the research councils had always defined impact more broadly, but he said there was no evidence that the scare stories about grant applications becoming more applied and less boundary-pushing had come to pass.

Quest for more cash continues

Professor Delpy believes that the big challenge for his successor, Philip Nelson (who before his secondment was pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Southampton), will be to convince the government to increase the EPSRC’s funding preferentially in the next spending period.

He said that between 1996 and 2010, public funding alone for life and clinical science had grown by 40 per cent in real terms.

“Funding for every other area went down by 10 per cent and by even more in engineering and physical science,” he said. “Our major competitors, such as China, Japan and Brazil, are putting their money into engineering, maths, physics and ICT. I’m not saying that funding for [these subjects] should come out of life science, but you can’t do life science without the underpinning engineering and physical science.”

As for his own future, having spent seven years as vice-provost for research at University College London prior to taking the EPSRC job, Professor Delpy said he has no appetite to return to university management. Instead, he is launching a portfolio career, beginning with the chairmanships of both the Ministry of Defence’s scientific advisory council and the strategic advisory board of the EPSRC’s national quantum technologies programme, which received a £0 million boost in last December’s Autumn Statement.

“I have enjoyed every minute of [running the EPSRC],” he said. “It has been a great organisation to work for. But it will be nice to not have to commute from London to Swindon every morning.”

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