Research intelligence - Old hand aims to guide Nerc ship to shore

Chief executive tells Paul Jump how he plans to keep council afloat amid choppy financial waters

March 1, 2012

Credit: Nerc
Heading for international waters: collaborating with other nations on the funding of big-ticket items such as research ships may be on the agenda for Nerc

When Duncan Wingham's appointment as chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council was announced in November, he received an email from a colleague asking whether he could deliver one last seminar "before you abandon science entirely".

But although the former head of University College London's department of earth sciences will not follow in the footsteps of other research council heads who preserve one day a week for their own research, he insisted that he was still doing science "in a way".

"Put it this way: if this job was done badly then it could damage science," he told Times Higher Education. "I am often called upon to make judgements that are informed by my understanding and experience of science."

His use of satellites to study the Earth's poles "inevitably" meant that he had already migrated into "organising things on a large scale where other people actually do the science" - most recently as lead investigator on the European Space Agency's CryoSat satellite missions. "So in some ways [heading Nerc] was a not unnatural progression."

Professor Wingham also has two decades of experience on Nerc committees - including chairing its Science and Innovation Strategy Board for the past five years, which had led him to "form some opinion" about how to lead the council.

In his opinion, UK environmental science is the best in the world, meaning "we are obviously doing something right". But the budget cuts imposed by the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review - unprecedented "for any scientist under 60" - meant Nerc had no choice but to "concentrate our resource where we can get the most effective science".

Professor Wingham was grateful that Nerc's major capital priority, the replacement for RRS Discovery, was agreed before the CSR. Its other facilities - which account for around half its budget - are in good condition thanks to the "generous capital environment" of the past two decades. But the reversion of that environment to "the other extreme", with cuts of more than 50 per cent to capital spending in the four years to 2014-15, threatened a "gradual degradation".

Professor Wingham said there was some recognition of this within government. But he was clear that the abundance of large draws on Nerc's capital budget, such as ships and bases, needed to be reduced in a "ramped way": "Otherwise we will end up in the military's situation of having aircraft carriers with no planes - except, in our case, the planes will be the scientists."

One solution would be to make Nerc assets available for charter for some of the year. Another would be to fund large items in collaboration with other countries. Professor Wingham said that negotiating international arrangements beyond bartering access to national facilities had historically proved difficult. But, citing the success of pan-European collaboration in particle physics and space science, he observed that if ever there were another kind of scientific asset it made sense to fund collaboratively, "it is ships".

"I am in no doubt you get more out per unit of resource by working that way, and we will be talking to other nations to see whether they have similar problems to us - which is likely - to see if we can work out an effective arrangement," he said.

Political capital

The dearth of capital cash inevitably made the issue of where it was spent more political, Professor Wingham said. But the days had already gone when "the government handed money to a research council and said: 'You guys have your Haldane principle: go away and spend it on something.'"

He freely admitted that the impact agenda was a government idea, noting that most Western funders were "having greater demand placed on them to show their science is relevant to the wider world". However, this did not trouble him unduly since, for him, environmental science is an applied discipline directly related to the most pressing human-focused problems, such as food security, water scarcity and climate change.

But Professor Wingham said that the success of UK science depended on "an approach that doesn't attempt to overspecify at the outset what we get back for the money". And he insisted that the impact agenda does not entail spending a greater proportion of Nerc's budget on directed research.

For this reason, the council has pledged to continue dedicating most of its PhD studentships to researcher-initiated projects. The only change - announced last month - is that eligible principal investigators will be confined to up to 20 "doctoral training partnerships".

"Focused" (directed) studentships will also be concentrated in specific centres, though not necessarily the same ones. For Professor Wingham, such an approach will provide doctoral students with a broader education and make it economically viable for UK universities to emulate their best US peers by providing specific classes for them.

A decision on whether to continue to fund project studentships - only 12 of which were awarded last year - has yet to be made. "But if the object of the exercise is to concentrate studentships, it would be odd to have another mode that wasn't concentrated," he remarked.

Larger cohorts inevitably meant fewer locations, and he expected this to generate some "heat" among higher education institutions that had been encouraged by Nerc's traditional hands-off approach to regard its studentships as their "property".

But although "the loss of the odd student in [small] departments doesn't weigh that heavily in comparison with what we think is the gain", Professor Wingham was conscious of the need to give institutions a fair chance to argue their ability to meet Nerc's criteria.

He said the council would also be scrupulously fair in introducing demand-management measures, announced in January, which will see it meeting each institution to agree targets to reduce unsuccessful responsive-mode grant applications. The drive for such measures, once again, had come from the Treasury, which is puzzled about why "the public sector is funding all this activity that doesn't have successful outcomes".

Nerc's threat of as yet unspecified sanctions for failure to meet application success rate targets was intended to concentrate minds, Professor Wingham said. But sanctions would apply to institutions, as the solution lies with heads of departments and deans, rather than individual researchers. He also feared that researcher-focused sanctions - as adopted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - could penalise young academics.

He confirmed the success target would be common to all institutions, and cited a National Science Foundation study's conclusion that 25 per cent was a sensible aspiration.

"Whether we could make that I doubt," he admitted. "But...around half the grant proposals we get are structurally flawed either scientifically or programmatically, so there is a lot institutions could do to help themselves."

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