Scientists call for repeal of 'deluded' EPSRC measures

Willetts receives demand for ‘complete rethink’ of council’s structure and policies. Paul Jump reports

January 5, 2012

Source: Science Photo Library

More than 100 senior chemists, physicists and mathematicians have written to David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to demand the repeal of a raft of recent policy initiatives by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The signatories to the letter - led by Anthony Barrett, Glaxo professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College London, and including Nobel prizewinner Sir Harry Kroto - say they have been “galvanised” by the EPSRC’s introduction of its shaping capability policy last year.

This will see the EPSRC growing or shrinking research fields according to their national importance and existing capacity, as well as current UK excellence. The letter says a cut to synthetic organic chemistry, announced as part of a first tranche of decisions in July, “seems to have been based on the flawed evaluation and/or prejudice of a few [EPSRC] staff”.

The signatories call for a “complete rethink of the EPSRC’s structure and decision-making processes” and the repeal of several “deluded” measures introduced in recent years “in defiance of the scientific community’s advice and requests”.

These include the abolition of project studentships, the limiting of fellowship applications to specific fields, and the ban on the resubmission of grant applications even if they have been deemed fundable.

The letter criticises a new requirement for grant applicants to set out the “national importance”, referred to as “impact”, of their research over a 10- to 50-year time frame.

This “flies in the face of so many fundamental scientific discoveries…it is incomprehensible that the EPSRC can be so short-sighted as to believe that this policy somehow has merit”, the letter says.

The signatories also call for responsive-mode funding to account for 80 per cent of EPSRC spending. According to an analysis of EPSRC figures, the number of funded responsive-mode grants has fallen by 50 per cent, and their total value by 35 per cent, since 2008.

Professor Barrett, who organised the letter, said he would engage professional lobbyists to press the case against shaping capability in Parliament if he could raise the necessary funds from industry and wealthy individuals.

He said several MPs had pledged to press Mr Willetts to answer questions in Parliament about the EPSRC, and he also hoped to convince the Commons Science and Technology Committee to launch an inquiry.

He argued that political intervention would not breach the Haldane principle because the EPSRC’s policies had been determined by “civil servants in Swindon” rather than scientists.

“They have little or no experience of research in academia beyond being students themselves, yet they believe they alone are entitled to decide the future directions of research in the physical sciences and mathematics,” he said.

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