Physicists gain stronger voice

April 5, 1996

A deal thrashed out between the Institute of Physics and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council means that physicists should have a greater say in the way the council funds research, writes Kam Patel.

The council recently cut its Pounds 20 million budget for physics research by 3.8 per cent and was accused by physicists of making the reduction on the basis of inappropriate assessment methods and in secrecy.

The agreement drawn up by the two parties will mean that for the first time the Institute of Physics will be able to make comments on the council's annual business plan for its physics programme.

In an effort to counter accusations of secrecy, the EPSRC has agreed to publish the membership of its peer review panels in physics together with details of successful grant proposals shortly after the panels have met.

Philip Diamond, manager for higher education research at the institute, said that the EPSRC had been "very positive" and that the measures should significantly improve interactions between physicists and the council.

The institute will also be able to suggest to the council "additional criteria" for assessing the merits of the council programmes across the board. The criteria have yet to be formulated but Mr Diamond says they will stress the long-term benefits to wealth creation of basic research. The institute will also highlight burgeoning areas of research.

David Clarke, head of planning and communication at the council, says it is actively seeking the guidance of other learned bodies - including the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society of Chemistry - on the future needs of their disciplines. He rejected the charge by physicists that the council's recent handling of the physics programme "lacked transparency", but added: "We welcome the prospect of hearing the views of the physics community and the IOP before we make final future decisions on funding and strategy for the discipline."

The agreement between the two bodies follows fierce criticism from physicists of the way the EPSRC's Technical Opportunities Panel (TOP) carried out a recent review of the council's physics programme as part of a wider scrutiny of future research priorities. Physics finished second from bottom in a grading of the council's 14 programme areas.

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