Why Science Funding Matters To Us All

Nearly every student is aware of the debate and protest that unfolded when David Willetts introduced £9000 tuition fees. Yet, a great portion of the income provided for our university and many others comes not from students, but from the Research Councils.

One of these, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), currently the provider of around £130 million of research funding to our university, has recently engaged in reforms more sweeping, fundamental and arguably more damaging than those which Willetts is known for. However, until very recently, there was little visible protest. This changed when Science for the Future supported by a wide range of distinguished scientists, including several Nobel Prize Winners, delivered a coffin to the gates of Westminster, proclaiming the “death of British science”.

The complaints from a substantial portion of the scientific community predate this protest; a series of letters from mathematicians across the UK highlighted their concerns with the decision to constrain postdoctoral fellowships to just one out of twelve areas within Mathematics. Those graduating with a PhD in the wrong area (namely the other eleven) have suddenly found that they have a difficult decision facing them: leave the UK, or face substantially diminished career prospects. At the same time, the EPRSC has cut the number of PhD studentships designated for UK students by over 40% in the space of a single year.

The essence of the concern, and perhaps the most damning charge from the scientists, is that managers, administrators, and bureaucrats within the EPSRC, have seriously undermined the role of scientists in determining the quality of proposed science in their place. In addition to the structural reforms, they have introduced fellowships schemes, such as the interestingly titled Dream Fellowships, for favoured individuals to apply for outside of normal peer review. Another, perhaps more troubling concern, is the requirement that every grant applicant must now supply a detailed document entitled “Pathways to Impact”, which specifies the expected outcomes of the research. This has been heavily criticised, with a House of Lord’s Select Committee directed by eminent scientists describing it as “crystal-ball gazing” and “sophistry”.

Further criticism is more fundamental, and highlights the transformation in focus from Blue Sky’s research genuinely aimed at understanding nature in its broadest sense, to short term commercially driven research and development. Perhaps most worrying is the insistence to scientists that “Pathways to Impact” should “inform the design of your research”. Whilst the EPSRC might not have this intention, it has the appearance of encouraging the intended results to drive the science, akin to say Andrew Wakefield’s study in relation to Autism and MMR or Satoshi Kanazawa’s “racist” study into the attractiveness of females.

The undercurrent of this is that the EPSRC appears unable to understand, project, or abide by, scientific norms, let alone those expected of a country with a world leading reputation for its science. It is little wonder that the scientific community are very concerned with the conduct of the EPSRC.

Whilst these reforms will ultimately damage UK science, this is not the main reason that I proposed a motion to our Student’s Union, nor why it passed into becoming part of our Union’s official policy. The core reason is the serious impact that these changes will have upon students, be they undergraduate or postgraduates.

Undergraduates will find that their departments do not have the full range of expertise to cover their subject appropriately, nor the necessary attached resources. Coincidentally, this is at the same time undergraduates are expected to pay nearly three times more for their education.

In the meantime, postgraduates aspiring towards a research career will lose both opportunity and much of their academic freedom. Not only will the inevitable sharp cut in funding outside of arbitrarily protected areas seriously damage those careers, but those applying for posts will have far less freedom as to what research they do. In other words, unless they are lucky enough to find themselves in the right Doctoral Training Centre, PhD students will most likely have very limited choice as to the type of research that they are able to undertake, with the traditional collegial relationship between student and supervisor morphing into one of manager and employee.

Another serious concern is the demonstrated ignorance of Equality Concerns, despite them stemming from the legal Public Sector Equality Duty. For instance, these reforms are likely to heavily penalise many disabled people, given the way that academic departments are being ultimately pressured. Similarly, they are effectively creating a class divide, where only the wealthy or the exceptionally lucky will be given true freedom in the research that they can conduct. This further underscores the nature of these reforms.

Most troubling is how these changes ultimately came about. They were not properly consulted upon, even amongst the scientific community. No legitimate student representatives, or student unions, to anyone’s knowledge, were consulted, or even notified of these changes. Despite being heavily criticised and derided, the Willett’s reforms did at least use reasonable evidence and follow legally expected due process (although even these were declared illegal by a High Court Judge [Hurley and Moore vs the Secretary of State]). By contrast, the EPSRC’s reforms, led by David Delpy, do not appear to abide by the norms of public decision making and certainly do not abide by the norms of accountability, due process and consultation which we must insist upon as a student movement in order to ensure that Delpy’s approach does not become a norm in this sector.

For all those reasons, your union has decided to request that these reforms be overturned and any future decisions be taken with the engagement and due process that all of us in the university sector fully deserve.

Reuben Kirkham

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  • Science funding matters to us all | Ones to Watch
    2 July 2012 at 13:14
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