Research intelligence - Juggling act earns EPSRC mixed reviews

'Shaping capability' resulted in few changes but doubts linger about its agenda, Paul Jump writes

April 5, 2012

Credit: Getty
Finely balanced: the research council is trying to manage a flat-rate budget settlement and factors such as national priority

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council may have finished deciding which subjects it wants to grow, reduce or maintain, but the controversy surrounding its "shaping capability" agenda seems unlikely to die down any time soon.

The research council kept changes to a minimum in its third tranche of funding decisions, published last week, with just five out of 52 subjects slated for reduction and another five marked for growth. Overall, 14 of the 113 subjects the EPSRC funds will be reduced, and 17 grown.

Attention has inevitably focused on the reductions. Opposition to the cuts announced in the first tranche of decisions, published last July, were particularly strong among mathematicians and physical scientists.

The only mathematical subject slated for reduction in the third tranche is mathematical physics, on the grounds that its capacity has grown so much over the past decade that "continuing support at current levels risks undermining support for capacity in other important areas".

But mathematicians appear unimpressed. Michael Duff, Abdus Salam chair of theoretical physics at Imperial College London, described the decision as a "spectacular own goal" that flew in the face of the high marks given to UK expertise in the subject by the EPSRC's own international review of mathematics.

Frank Kelly, chair of the Council for the Mathematical Sciences, also criticised the EPSRC's continuing "strategic failure" to invest sufficiently in postdoctoral fellowships in mathematics, which left UK universities dependent on mathematicians trained abroad to fill vacancies.

Out of 22 physical science subjects ruled on in the third tranche, only surface science will be reduced. The EPSRC hopes this will encourage the discipline to "transition away" from its traditional focus and "make significant contributions to other disciplines and key societal challenges".

But Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, criticised the decision to cut both mathematical physics and surface science "despite the advice of identified experts". He also expressed concern that researchers in these areas might be unable to find alternative funding.

Consultation frustration

It wasn't meant to be like this. After last year's controversy, the research council publicly pledged to make no more decisions before consulting experts nominated by learned societies.

Both Sir Peter and David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, did praise the EPSRC for its efforts at engagement.

However, Paul Clarke, a senior lecturer in organic chemistry at the University of York, said chemists were "deeply uneasy" that the EPSRC had, in reality, consulted only a "select few" of the experts nominated by the RSC. Others were told there was no time to consult them personally and were asked to fill in a short questionnaire instead.

"It seems once again [that the EPSRC] was paying only lip service to the idea of consultation," he said.

Shaping capability decisions have been especially controversial because they have been based not merely on the fields' research excellence but also on their current capacity and their perceived national importance over the next 10 to 50 years.

The research council quickly amended guidance on changes to its peer review processes, posted last November, that said national importance - which includes contributions to other disciplines, societal challenges and UK economic success - would become a "primary assessment criterion alongside research quality". The guidance now states it will only be a "major secondary criterion".

Nor will applicants be expected to make the case for the national importance of their research beyond its fit with the EPSRC's shaping capability intentions. However, Atti Emecz, the research council's director of communications, information and strategy, urged applicants to do so wherever possible.

Meanwhile, the EPSRC will charge three panellists rather than two with leading the discussion on each proposal, and will also brief panels on how it sees a proposal fitting in with its shaping agenda. However, funding decisions will continue to be based solely on a single ranking produced by the panels.

Radical thoughts

Steve McLaughlin, head of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, said the panels had tested more radical changes, such as producing different rankings for excellence, national importance and other criteria before combining them into an overall ranking.

But it had become apparent, he continued, that panellists already considered all essential factors when making their primary ranking. It had also been the "unanimous view" of those consulted that major changes to peer review would be "unwise".

According to Mr Emecz, the research council had "every confidence" that the announced measures - plus the message that they had sent to universities and researchers - would be sufficient to nudge funding levels in the directions it wanted.

"We are not minded to introduce very dirigiste processes to achieve our objectives," he said.

But David Delpy, the EPSRC's chief executive, admitted that if planned six-monthly reviews indicated that its goals were not being met, the research council might have to look again at more radical options.

The EPSRC embarked on shaping capability out of a perceived necessity to reprioritise its spending in light of its flat-cash budget settlement.

But Professor Delpy denied that this rationale was belied by the small number of changes it had settled upon, arguing instead that it confirmed that the EPSRC had already been managing its portfolio effectively.

Time to make the best of things

Steve Howdle, professor of chemistry at the University of Nottingham, added that the EPSRC's physical sciences strategic advisory team, of which he was a member, had challenged the research council "quite hard" on its ability to predict which subjects would be important in the future.

He said the team had disagreed with the EPSRC on several occasions but was satisfied with the opportunities the advisers had been given to have their say and believed that the research council had "done its best to make the best it can" of shaping capability.

Professor Delpy said shaping capability had given the EPSRC an unprecedentedly clear picture of its portfolio, which would allow it to maintain areas where the UK was "really internationally leading" even if its budget continued to be flat.

The research council would also be able to "see much more clearly how our research base will feed into what sounds like an industrial policy that the government is developing" - a particularly important advance since the EPSRC, unlike other science research councils, cannot promote national priorities through its own institutes.

However, some academics remain scornful of the EPSRC's claim to be able to make well-informed decisions about the national picture. Dr Clarke, for instance, asked why catalysis had been slated to grow "when the two areas it depends on" - synthesis and surface science - will be reduced.

"There is no joined-up thinking. It smacks of administrators with preconceptions doing the minimum they can get away with in terms of consultation," he said.

But Professor Howdle urged academics not to criticise the EPSRC, but instead to turn their attention to providing it with the "bullets" to gun for an increased science budget.

"It really annoys me that we have people shouting about what bad people the EPSRC are, when the problem is actually that we have a lot less funding to play with and we need to work out what the hell we are going to do," he said.

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