Archive for Research Councils

Why EU funding is so important for UK science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by telescoper

One of the figures bandied about by the Leave campaign and in particular by the strangely litigious group  that calls itself “Scientists for Britain” (which has only six members that I know of, not all of them scientists) is that the EU is not important for British science because it only funded 3% of UK R&D between 2007 and 2013). They’ve even supplied a helpful graphic:

UK_RD_2007-2013

The figures are taken from a Royal Society report and are, as far as I’m aware, accurate. It’s worth noting however that the level of funding  under the FP7 “Framework Programme” which funds research is much smaller than the current Horizon2020 programme.

However, as Stephen Curry has pointed out in a typically balanced and reasonable blog post, the impact of a BrExit on UK science is much more complex than this picture would suggest. I want to add just a few  points from my specific perspective as a university-based researcher.

First, the 3% figure is arrived at by a tried-and-tested technique of finding the smallest possible numerator and dividing it by the lowest possible denominator. A fairer comparison, in my view, would just look at research funded by the taxpayer (either directly from the UK or via the EU). For one thing we don’t know how much of the research funded by businesses in the UK is funded by businesses which are only here in the UK because we’re part of the European Union. For another these figures are taken over the whole R&D effort and they hide huge differences from discipline to discipline.

From my perspective as an astrophysicist – and this is true of many researchers in “blue skies” areas – most of the pie chart is simply not relevant. The main sources of funding that we can attempt to tap are the UK Research Councils (chiefly STFC and EPSRC) and EU programmes; we also get a small amount of research income from charities, chiefly the Leverhulme Trust. The situation is different in other fields: medical research, for example, has much greater access to charitable funding.

As it happens I’ve just received the monthly research report of the School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences at the University of Sussex (of which I am currently Head) and I can tell you the EU counts not for 3% of our  income but 21% (which is in line with the proportions) above; most of that comes from the European Research Council. The possibility of losing access to EU funding  alarms me greatly as it would mean the loss of about one-fifth of our research base. I know that figure is much higher in some other institutions and departments.

But it’s not just the money that’s important, it’s also the kind of programmes that the EU funds. These are often to do with mobility of researchers, especially those early in their careers (including PhD students), grants that allow us to exploit facilities that we would otherwise not be able to access, and those that sustain large collaborations. It’s not just the level of cash that matters but the fact that what it funds is nicely complementary to the UK’s own programmes. The combination of UK and EU actually provides a much better form of “dual funding” than the UK can achieve on its own.

Some say that BrExit would not change our access to EU funding, but I maintain there’s a huge risk that this will be the case. The loss of the UK’s input into the overall EU budget will almost certainly lead to a revision of the ability of non-member states to access these programmes. The best that even BrExit campaigners argue for is that access to EU funding will not change. There is therefore, from a science perspective, there is no chance of a gain and a large risk of a loss. For me, that kind of a decision is a no-brainer. I’m not the only one who thinks that either: 150 Fellows of the Royal Society agree with me, as do the vast majority of scientists surveyed in a poll conducted by Nature magazine.

Of course there will be some who will argue that this “blue skies” academic research in universities isn’t important and we should be spending more money on stuff that leads to wealth creation. I can think of many arguments against that, but for the purposes of this post I’ll just remind you that 45% of UK research is done in industry and commercial businesses of various kinds. Where do you think the supply of science graduates come from, what kind of research draws students into science courses in the first place, and where do the teachers come from that educate the next generations?

As a scientist who cares passionately about the sustainability of Britain’s research base, I think we should definitely remain in the European Union.

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Nurse Review Published

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on November 19, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been busy all day so unable to join in the deluge of comment and reaction to the Review of the Research Councils carried out by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, which was published today. I’ve only just had time to skim through it, so I won’t comment in detail, but it does seem to me that the main points are:

  1. The review does not call for a reduction in the current number of seven research councils (STFC, EPSRC, ESRC, AHRC, NERC, BBSRC and MRC); mergers were thought by many to be possible outcomes of this review.
  2. There is a proposal to set up an overarching structure, called Research UK (RUK), which is a beefed-up version of the current RCUK, one of the aims of which would be to provide better coordination between the Research Councils.
  3. It is proposed that RUK should liaise directly with a committee of government ministers who would have significant influence over the way funding was distributed to the Research Councils. It’s not clear to me how this squares with the Haldane Principle.
  4. It is also proposed that RUK might take over the distribution of QR funding (currently done by HEFCE), but that this should be done in such a way as to preserve the idea of “dual funding”.

There are other points of course, but these seemed to me to be the most significant. It remains to see how many of the proposals are implemented and how they will be made to fit into the framework of the Higher Education Green Paper published last week. Of more immediate concern to many researchers will be how much funding there will be to be distributed by any new organization if the Comprehensive Spending Review announced next week results in big cuts to the science budget, as many fear it will.

Comments are welcome through the box!

Presentation by the CEO of STFC at the IOP

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on February 13, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday the Supreme Leader Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Professor John Womersley, gave a presentation to the assembled masses of the Institute of Physics in London, followed by a discussion at the RAS Astronomy Forum. Topics he covered, including the Triennial Review of the Research Councils, which is seeking evidence via an open consultation exercise. Contributions are invited by the end of February.

I was planning to attend both sessions, but had pressing matters to attend to here in Sussex so wasn’t able to make it in the end. However, owing to a miracle of technology I’ve been furnished with the slides used in the presentation and, with his permission, am sharing them here as a service to the community because,as you will see,  there is a lot at stake for all of us…