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The EPSRC Reform

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has established a series of reforms to its funding policy, causing a backlash among members of the scientific community. The EPSRC is the public body responsible for funding research in the Physical Sciences, such as Maths and Chemistry, as well as in Engineering. With this year’s budget at £950 million, approximately £130 million of which goes to grants at this University, the EPSRC has a significant impact on studies under its remit.

The changes made by the EPSRC include a ban on almost all post-doctoral fellowships, limited funds for PhD students, and a criteria of funding allocation based on ‘National Importance’ and ‘impact’ criteria – whereby research funds will be given based on how the research will affect society in the short term.

In a recent letter to David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister, over 100 senior chemists, physicists and mathematicians argue that fellowship grants limited to a few areas prevents “our best and most talented young scientists and mathematicians from taking their first steps on the academic ladder”. The EPSRC’s Philippa Hemmings wrote to heads of UK mathematics departments explaining that changes to mathematics fellowships will no longer be “universally available in all areas … but that priorities will be identified”. This was deemed “incompatible with the intention to attract the best researchers in all fields” by over 300 mathematical researchers in a letter to David Cameron.

Not only are the changes said to disadvantage potential research, but a recent motion passed in SU council also outlines their effect on minorities. Reuben Kirkham, SU Disabled Officer, argues that “the changes will almost certainly particularly disadvantage protected groups… this is contrary to [the EPSRC’s] obligations”. The motion, proposed by Kirkham, states that this is “simply unacceptable”.

Funding allocation itself is both a delicate and complex process. The justification for research grants is inherently ambiguous due to the nature of scientific research as a form of ‘intellectual curiosity’. Doctoral student at Nottingham University, Laurence E. Day, told Impact that the introduction of a new set of criteria do not allow for the “speculative probing” that is a crucial part of most scientific endeavours. Day argues that changes will be “short-term savings with long-term losses in intellectual capital”. An outspoken critic of the EPSRC changes is the University’s Dr Philip Moriarty, who says that the ‘impact’ criteria demonstrate that “exploratory scientific research is no longer ‘good enough’. A scientist must be driven not by a quest for knowledge alone but by anticipating the impact of the work”.

However there is no consensus in the scientific community as to how funding can be justified, with academics such as Athena Donald from Cambridge University rejecting the “overly dramatic” reaction against the importance of ‘impact’ as a criteria for funding allocation. There is a more fundamental disagreement against these reforms from the foreign scientific community in the UK, which rejects the central feature of the EPSRC changes in their attention to ‘National Importance’, in light of a growing intensification of competition with countries such as China. Imperial College mathematician Alessio Corti complained in a letter to the House of Lords that “science research is an international endeavour… many scientists who work in the UK are foreign nationals who may have the interests of their home country very much in their hearts”. Corti told Impact that the EPSRC is governed by the “strangely old-fashioned bizarre view” that “we live in a world of competing nation-states with well defined national interests”.

This ties in to one of the overarching fears of the consequences of the changes; that it will push students and researchers to go abroad. Thomas Oliver, research student at Nottingham University, says that he “will have to look to other countries for post-doctoral research” with the EPSRC changes resulting in a “general decline in the significance of UK mathematics based research”. This pattern is likely to have a negative impact on the UK economy and quality of education.

Complaints against the changes themselves are manifold, if lacking in consensus. However a common concern seems to be about how these decisions were made. Kirkham says “judgements properly in the domain of science are being made by bureaucrats in the EPSRC on the basis of non-scientific criteria… without notifying or consulting Student Organisations”. Although Day acknowledges these decisions have been made with “nothing but noble intention”, ignoring the role of “gambles” as a part of scientific research “embodies the very antithesis of science”. The motion passed at SU council further criticises the “lack of satisfactory consultation with academics and other stakeholders”, and condemns its “failure to conduct a competent Equality Impact Assessment, as well as consult with the NUS and Student Unions about the reforms”.

The motion passed in SU council is a part of a growing reaction against the EPSRC from those that it is designed to protect. In May of this year 100 scientists, members of the group Science for the Future, marched to Downing Street holding a coffin to represent the death of science. This of course is not representative of the opinion of all scientists, however it does mark growing dissent in the professional field against the government’s policies on research and education.

Emily Tripp

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One Comment
  • Su Councillor
    29 June 2012 at 21:28
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    Awesome article. Really glad that Impact are holding the EPSRC to account. I doubt this article will be the last everyone will hear of this.

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