Research intelligence - Message from our sponsor: time to 'shape' UK research

Budget restrictions mean the EPSRC has to prioritise, its chief tells Paul Jump

March 3, 2011

Credit: Philippe Psaila/Science Photo Library
Source of illumination? EPSRC says research 'is only valuable in so far as it generates economic and social value'

In an online talk marking the publication of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's delivery plan last December, David Delpy, the council's chief executive, claimed that the government's recognition of its "transformative agenda" had helped to secure the "better than expected" flat-cash research budget.

That agenda included delivering "greater impact than ever before", backed by a belief that "a world-class research base is valuable only in so far as it generates economic and social value". It added that "anything that is excellent will have impact if the pathways are right".

The impact agenda troubles some researchers, but in an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Delpy insisted that this emphasis on impact "writ large" was merely the "continuation of a direction of travel" that had begun in the previous spending round and was a step that EPSRC-funded scientists had largely taken in their stride.

"Why would you want to be an engineer if you didn't want your research to be out there delivering impact?" he asked. "This is probably true of all the sciences, but it is easier to point to the examples in engineering."

Professor Delpy also denied that other headline aspects of the delivery plan, such as the EPSRC's shift from being a "funder" to a "sponsor" of research, were entirely unheralded: "We are just trying to be open and honest about what we are trying to do - and what we won't, therefore, be doing."

Being a sponsor of research, he said, meant moving from being merely a "source of funding" that paid little attention to applicants after giving out grants to working much more closely with researchers to "achieve our targets".

This was particularly crucial for the EPSRC, Professor Delpy said, because it did not have any institutes of its own.

The targets include making sure that research, training, public engagement and knowledge transfer are closely integrated. A series of "checkpoints" with principal investigators will ensure that any promising novel avenues of research can be passed quickly on to other appropriate funders such as the Technology Strategy Board, government departments or one of the 2,300 companies that currently work with the EPSRC research base.

Principal investigators will not find such close attention overbearing, Professor Delpy said, because of the council's decision to give out longer, larger grants. This will allow outstanding individuals more scope to "go off-piste" and pursue their work wherever it leads, without having to apply for another grant or being obliged to deliver an agreed outcome by a certain date. He also insisted that principal investigators had never been penalised for changing direction mid-grant.

The council aims to maintain the UK's supply of young researchers with the skills to compete for large grants by ending project-based PhD studentships and "prioritising the quality of the PhD experience in a broader environment across disciplines".

A funding stream dedicated to "developing leaders" will be introduced to help outstanding young researchers establish their careers. However, Professor Delpy added that he hoped that the "pretty powerful individuals" awarded large grants would nurture "significant newcomers" in their own teams.

Sculpting the sector

As part of its sponsorship role, the EPSRC will seek to "shape" the UK's research capability.

Among other things, this will involve promoting more collaboration between top researchers because it made sense for a "large proportion" of research in the EPSRC area to be carried out in big teams, he said.

It also entailed facing up to the need to cut funding to some parts of the research portfolio. This was necessary to protect priority areas over four years in which the EPSRC's resource budget will shrink by about 12 per cent in real terms and be further drained by capital expenses, the budget for which has been slashed by about 50 per cent in real terms.

Among the protected areas will be those in which the UK leads the world. The country was too small to aspire to global excellence across the board, Professor Delpy said, even if it spent the 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product on research that it "ought to".

"There are only two countries that can afford to do that - the US and China," he added.

Funding will also be protected for areas in which the state or industry perceives a national need. These include the "pretty obvious" cross-council "grand challenges" on which the EPSRC leads - energy and the digital economy - as well as "manufacturing for the future" and "healthcare technologies".

Overconcentration would be avoided by preserving a 60/40 split between "discovery-led" and "challenge-led" research, he said.

"All research is curiosity-led," Professor Delpy added. "It drives me wild if people say we are cutting curiosity-driven research. Every researcher I've ever known is curious: that is why they do it."

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