Pressure on EPSRC mounts over ‘shaping capabilities’ programme

Six leading scientific bodies, including the Royal Society, have urged the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to reconsider its controversial “shaping capability” measures.

The presidents of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, as well as the deputy president of the Institute of Engineering and Technology, have written to EPSRC chief executive David Delpy urging him to delay the introduction of the measures to allow time for “wider consultation”. They have also asked him “to consider further the implications of these policy changes on UK research”.

Shaping capability would see the EPSRC deciding to raise, maintain or decrease funding levels for specific subjects on the basis of considerations of that subject’s national importance, as well as the UK’s existing excellence and capacity.

Since the first tranche of decisions was announced in July, several complaints have been aired about how certain disciplines have been treated, as well as a perceived failure by the EPSRC to consult the academic community meaningfully over the changes.

In a hearing of the Commons Science and Technology Committee hearing last week Professor Delpy said the complaints were an “overreaction”, backed up by “relatively little” evidence.

The letter to Professor Delpy from the six academies acknowledges that the EPSRC has a “significant challenge” to decide how to spend its budget, which will see a cash-terms reduction of around 3 per cent over the current four-year spending period.

But it says that, in the light of the concerns, the research council should put its current proposals on hold.

The academies will be “looking afresh at the broader principles behind the prioritisation of research council funding”, and would be happy to share the results with the EPSRC to help it identify “how research can bring the greatest long-term benefits to our economy”.

Earlier this week, 25 eminent mathematicians, including four Fields medallists, wrote to the Prime Minister David Cameron describing the EPSRC as an “unaccountable quango” intent on “picking winners”.

Its “bureaucratic fiat” to confine mathematics fellowships to the areas of statistics and applied probability would see British mathematics “face mediocrity in a decade”, the letter said.

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