EPSRC starts to impose order on its universe

Some fields gain, some lose as council adjusts funding to ‘shape capability’. Paul Jump reports

July 28, 2011

Source: Science Photo Library

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has furthered its reputation for blazing controversial new trails with the release of its decisions on whether to maintain, expand or shrink a raft of the fields it funds.

The announcement is the latest staging post in the EPSRC’s self-proclaimed metamorphosis from a funder to a “sponsor” of research that, among other things, works actively to “shape capability”.

According to David Delpy, the body’s chief executive, the move stems from the EPSRC council’s view that trimming funding uniformly across the board would not be the best response to the 3 per cent fall in the EPSRC’s resource budget and the 30 per cent cut in its capital budget over four years. Rather, it should protect or even increase funding for internationally excellent or nationally important areas at the expense of others.

Digging around the fields

The EPSRC has carved up its portfolio into four broad sections containing 111 subfields. For each subfield, it has collected information about existing levels of coverage, numbers of academics and levels of funding by the EPSRC and others. It has also asked universities where they plan to invest.

The quality of each subfield has been evaluated using citation and research assessment exercise scores, international reviews and other indicators of international excellence and “transformative potential”.

Acknowledging that the decision to consider national importance will upset some, Professor Delpy insisted that research councils’ remits required them to treat it as a “major criterion”.

The criteria for assessing importance include impact on the economy, potential to foster new industries, contributions to solving social problems and value to other disciplines.

After 18 months of work, the council last week announced its decisions on a batch of 29 subfields where the case was clear: seven will be reduced and seven expanded. The council has not revealed details of the funding change, but it will be no more than “10 or 20 per cent”, according to John Fisher, chair of the EPSRC’s Technical Opportunities Panel. Forty other subfields will learn their fate in November, and the rest by next April. The results and rationales have been published in a section of the EPSRC’s website.

The research council also lists which groups have received big investments. Professor Delpy hopes the information will help universities to find partners, as well as aid grant applicants to meet the requirement, from this autumn, to explain how their research fits strategically into the EPSRC’s portfolio.

On grant application forms, researchers will also have to describe their work’s national importance. The existing “pathways to impact” section will remain.

When assessing applications, peer review panels will be asked to give equal weight to importance and excellence. However, Professor Delpy argued that they had always done so.

He said their only genuinely new task would be to comment on the EPSRC’s views about the strategic fit between applications and the EPSRC’s portfolio. Such considerations might lead the council to fund some applications at the expense of others ranked more highly as long as they met a quality threshold, Professor Delpy admitted.

Confidence in question

The EPSRC is building a reputation for being the research council that pioneers new, sometimes contentious, practices. As “impact champion” for Research Councils UK, Professor Delpy has been a vocal defender of the impact agenda. The EPSRC was also the first research council to respond to falling grant application success rates by introducing measures to limit demand.

However, according to David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, the EPSRC’s “relatively indiscriminate” use of demand management and the subsequent damage this has caused to its credibility among researchers could come back to haunt it.

“I don’t think the community has sufficient confidence in (the EPSRC) to embrace its attempts to formulate the research landscape - to some extent, it has claimed a leadership role without having earned it.”

Professor Price described the EPSRC’s conceptions of quality and importance as “rather ill-defined” and lacking “proven robustness”. He also questioned its use of information on current funding levels given that grants were awarded on the basis of predictions of excellence that were less reliable than retrospective assessments such as the RAE - especially when very low success rates rendered the application process a “lottery”.

He said the EPSRC would be better advised to fund the best researchers regardless of their fields. “No great breakthrough has ever come from horizon-scanning and foresight committees. They come from the serendipitous discoveries of talented researchers,” he said.

Sir Peter Knight, incoming president of the Institute of Physics and former deputy rector for research at Imperial College London, said members of the physics community feared that the excellence of UK science would be “jeopardised by too strong a focus on short-term gains”.

But Professor Fisher, who is also pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Leeds, said the UK did not need multiple research groups working in the same area.

He hoped that the EPSRC’s move would encourage universities to “shape their own capability” - something that, he argued, the EPSRC had always done, although in times of expanding research budgets the question had always been where to invest extra funds.

“The community has helped define (the changes) through consultation and will help to implement it through peer review,” he added.

But Sir Peter countered that the IoP had not been consulted, and he expressed concern about “the introduction of a new approach without broadly based consultation”.

Not everyone will be consulted

Professor Delpy insisted that an “iterative” process of consultation had been conducted with groups including learned societies, industrialists and pro vice-chancellors about what should constitute the criteria for quality and importance.

The EPSRC had also sought evidence from such bodies about subjects’ importance, he added. But he admitted that the council neither had the capacity nor saw the need to consult subject groups on whether specific areas should be maintained, expanded or reduced.

“If I go to a department of chemistry, they tell me about chemistry. What could they tell me about the relative importance of chemistry? Our unique strength is in understanding the whole landscape.”

He also stressed that the government had had no input into decisions. “In many other countries, research councils set strategic priorities in the context of a national strategic plan. There isn’t a UK strategic plan for science, so we are trying to set a strategic direction for our part of the portfolio.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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