“… the attitude that professional administrators with little scientific knowledge can arbitrarily decide the fate of UK science is arrogant, contemptuous of the scientific community and just wrong.” A storm is indeed brewing in the scientific circles of the UK against the current leadership of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
The background: First, the EPRSC announced a new policy that allows principal investigators to pay only postdocs from EPSRC research grants—and not Ph.D. students. Then, it declared that, on the basis of its prioritization procedures, the agency would reduce funding for synthetic organic chemistry, but will increase funding to the area of catalysis. Mathematics’ share from the EPSRC was an edict stating that “applied probability” will be “grown” and all remaining areas of mathematics are to be “under review”.
Add this to the EPSRC’s recent requirement that applicants list the expected impact (on society) of their proposed research, and one could see that an academic equivalent of the London riots is currently rocking science departments across the U.K.
Unlike other granting agencies, which –if not run by chemists– are too careful to cross the chemists’ line, the EPSRC paid no heed and is now facing a revolt … starting with the front pages of the Guardian. (Alas, we don’t have anything close to that decent newspaper in Canada!) Two groups of irate U.K.-based chemists are now protesting loudly: One is objecting to the agency’s overall strategy and the other is crying foul over the specific cuts to synthetic organic chemistry.
The first letter, signed by more than 100 chemists, takes issue with policies that “prioritize arbitrary areas for research based on their perceived economic value.” The letter calls on Minister of State for Universities & Science David Willetts to “initiate an inquiry into the role and mode of operations of the EPSRC.”
The second letter, addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, was signed by some 100 international chemists, including six Nobel Laureates. It warns of the impact of proposed cuts in funding for scientific research essential to industries ranging from biotechnology to agriculture.
When asked how the council made the decisions to increase funding for catalysis and reduce it for synthetic organic chemistry, the reply was that the “EPSRC consulted widely with stakeholders and strategic advisory teams, learned societies, and industry partners in developing the approach to making decisions about shaping our portfolio.”
But many members of those sectors, such as the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry say that his organization was not consulted, but just “informed” of EPSRC’s new plans only two days prior to the announcement.
The leaders of the campaign eventually challenged the EPSRC to provide a list and details of all the agencies, learned societies, stakeholders, international reviewers and industrial partners which were consulted before making the decision to reduce funding to synthetic organic chemistry.
“We would also like to know at which meetings these policy decisions were discussed and made, who was present at them and, in the interests of transparency, to be given copies of the minutes of these meetings. We would also appreciate the EPSRC providing information as to how these stakeholders will be consulted when the rest of the “shaping” exercise is being carried out.”
The EPSRC staff eventually admitted that their use of the word “consultation” was perhaps different from the norm. They also made it clear that decisions about EPSRC policies and funding were made by the EPSRC staff and not by committees that included academics or industrialists.
Sounds familiar? We surely have lots to learn from the Chemists … of the UK.