EPSRC Blues

I woke up this morning to find via Twitter an interesting blog post about a demonstration in London against the policies of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

For those of you not up with the ins and outs of the UK science funding regime, EPSRC is the agency that funds the more mainstream areas of physics (as well as chemistry, engineering and some mathematics) while the more exotic bits (particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy) are the responsibility of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The current protest seems to be lead by a number of eminent chemists, including Prof. Sir Harry Kroto, Prof. Sir John Cadogan and Prof. Anthony Barrett.

Almost five years ago – was it really so long? – owing to a mixture of funding cuts and incompetent management, STFC was born into a financial crisis that made many of us doing astronomy and particle physics wish that we also were protected by the friendly hands of EPSRC rather than left out in the cold as we felt we were at STFC. Things have slowly improved at STFC, which now has an executive team that actually seems to listen to its community as well as speaking the language that Whitehall wants to hear. Funding is still tight, but STFC is a noticeably happier ship now than it was it first launched.

In the meantime, any envy we might have had about our colleagues in, e.g., condensed matter physics being safer in the EPSRC stable has now well and truly evaporated. Their strategy, “Shaping Capability“, expressed in dreadful management-speak, involves the imposition of arbitrary priorities such as the restriction of fellowship applications to certain areas chosen by The Management. Worse, its new funding rules attempt to target funding at commercially-driven research. Dark clouds are gathering in the “blue skies” under which UK science has hitherto flourished.

The unresponsive top-down character of EPSRC has strengthened under the leadership of David Delpy who must have been made in the same factory as Keith Mason, former Chief Executive of STFC, whose diplomatic skills were similarly remarkable by their absence.

For some reason, this reminds me of the following quote from Smiley’s People

In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity.

I’ve argued before that I think EPSRC’s approach is fundamentally wrong. When taxpayers’ money used is used to generate immediate commercial returns, it ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs when the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has effectively been wasted. Commercial Impact should not be a factor in awarding public funding, because it is perfectly suited as a criterion for attracting private funding. This is why we have a national fiscal policy: the only justification for levying taxation is to fund projects which will not yield short-term economic returns. There is no reason to spend public money on commercial projects: we need to justify pure research by a non-economic valuation.

This morning EPSRC have issued a press release calling upon scientists to work together ahead of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. It doesn’t mention the demonstration, or other manifestations of unrest within the EPSRC community, but instead re-asserts the need for its so-called strategy, with a clear message not to rock the boat ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

I’ve heard that argument many times in the context of STFC during its crisis period. I firmly believe that rocking the boat in that case helped it get off the rocks. It remains to be seen whether the EPSRC protest, which is currently rather small, will gather enough momentum to make a difference. It all depends on what fraction of EPSRC scientists have actually signed up to the Delpy Agenda. Is the new campaign representative of the views of the EPSRC community? No doubt many research groups will be prospering under the new regime, at least in the short term. Time alone will tell what the long-term impact of short-termism will be.

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3 Responses to “EPSRC Blues”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I do wonder what is the source of repeated failures in British science policy. It is very easy to blame research councils and their chief executives. However, there may also be an unseen hand behind the STFC and, now, the EPSRC mess. Is it possible that some of the problems lie in the central government ministries, within now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? Is the problem at the level of the senior civil service, at a level more senior than the research councils, but below ministers?

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