Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A Case for "Blue Sky" Research 

As the research councils start planning for a new spending review after the general election, they will undoubtedly come under pressure from government paymasters to ensure that the UK science base delivers on the promises made by the research councils to do science which will benefit UK GDP and have identifiable impact. Readers of this blog will know that I am a fierce opponent of top down directed research of the type now favoured by the research councils. Readers will also know how much I ridicule the idea of predicting impact or the national importance of any one piece of scientific research. I was therefore heartened to discover a brilliant assessment of these very issues by Sir John Cadogan and the responses he received from a large number of eminent scientists. His paper and the responses can be read at
http://bit.ly/lswbluesky. I hope that a copy of this finds its way on to the desks of the government ministers, treasury officials the the senior management teams of the research councils.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Independant Review of EPSRC Consultation Published

In response to the pressure put on the EPSRC by groups like Science for the Future and the learned Societies (RSC, IoP, etc), the new Chairman of the EPSRC, Dr. Paul Golby, initiated a review of how EPSRC has consulted with and sought the opinions and advice from the research community when developing policy. This review ran for several months and took evidence from EPSRC staff, the learned societies, individuals and campaign groups such as Science for the Future and Council for the Defence of British Universities. 

The report was published a few weeks ago and can be read here http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/SiteCollectionDocuments/press-release-documents/ReviewOfAdviceStreamsFinalReport.pdf

In it the committee pretty much back up the assertions of the community in that the mechanisms used for consultation, seeking opinions and feeding back to the community were opaque and lacking: pretty much what we had been saying for the last few years. The EPSRC has said that they will respond to the points raised in the review in September. I sincerely hope that they take notice of what the review says and use this as an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to rebuild bridges with the community and change the way they seek advice from, and consult with the community.

I for one will await their response and applaud any genuine desire to change their modus operandi. However, if the EPSRC arrogantly squander this opportunity I will continue to be one of its harshest critics.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

"Death of Science"

At it's launch earlier in the month Science for the Future proclaimed the "Death of UK Science" and had a coffin with a floral wreath with the word "Science" delivered, along with a petition, to 10 Downing Street. Over the subsequent two weeks several people have complained that this launch was "divisive", "misguided", "risible hyperbole". However, the EPSRC's own data show that all is not as rosy as they would have everyone believe. 

To put this in context let's review the argument that EPSRC use which explains it's current "demand management" policy on the back of falling success rates. This was discussed in a Nature News Blog http://blogs.nature.com/news/2011/09/amid_falling_success_rates_one.html

The first graph in the one EPSRC want you to see as it shows increasing success rates compared to other research councils. 
(graph 1)
The second graph shows the true picture, which EPSRC fail to address and that is the fall in applications is happening faster than the fall in funding.
(graph 2)
In order to determine whether the accusation of "risible hyperbole" is valid let's look at the data for physical sciences. This data is taken from the EPSRC's own website, and I thank Prof. Chris Hayes for providing this analysis.

2004-2005 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Chem 184 526 40.5 35%
Phys 126 332 37.8 38%
Mat 210 677 47.9 31%

520 1500 126.2 35%

2005-2006 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Chem 174 600 49.2 29%
Phys 113 290 37.8 39%
Mat 171 814 47.1 21%

458 1544 134.1 30%

2006-2007 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Chem 193 603 49.2 32%
Phys 125 329 46.6 38%
Mat 156 624 53.2 25%

474 1497 149 32%

2007-2008 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Chem 149 552 42.4 27%
Phys 108 338 33.7 32%
Mat 201 543 58.3 37%

458 1431 134.4 32%

2008-2009 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Phys Sci 230 1045 100.4 22%

2009-2010 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Phys Sci 217 804 88 27%

2010-2011 Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Value £M Success
Phys Sci 151 503 85.8 30%

Proposals Funded Proposals Submitted Funded Grant Value £M
2004-2005 520 1500 126.2
2005-2006 458 1544 134.1
2006-2007 474 1497 149
2007-2008 458 1431 134.4
2008-2009 230 1045 100.4
2009-2010 217 804 88
2010-2011 151 503 85.8

A number of conclusions can be drawn: 

1) In physical sciences the pre-demand management success was for the most part above 30%.

2) Total EPSRC funded activity has decreased. In 2004-5; 520 proposals were funded, but this dropped to 151 by 2010-11, when the total number submitted was only 503! The introduction of FEC does not account for this fall as the 2005-8 period, when FEC was working through the system, is pretty stable.

3) The biggest change happened in 2008-9, when a single physical sciences panel (which operates as 3 tensioned panels) was introduced.

4) Since demand management was introduced in 2008-9, the number of grant applications had fallen sharply. To get some idea how catastrophic the situation is 1150 chemists, 1700 physicist and 500 material scientists were returned in the 2008 RAE, which makes 3350 scientists who could apply for EPSRC funding. Only 151 proposals were actually funded! What is very worrying is that we know scientists are being excluded from applying to EPSRC due to blacklisting and now shaping capability restrictions on areas that will be considered for funding.

5) It is important to note that the money spent by EPSRC in physical sciences is being eroded over time to £85.5M, but the decline in money is nowhere near as great as the decline in proposals being submitted.

This can be visually represented as graph 3.

 (graph 3)

Just so that we are under no illusions, the EPSRC's own data supports the warning of Science for the Future at its launch this month. The "Death of UK Science" (or the physical and mathematical parts of it) will occur in under 2 years if the current policies are maintained!

I would therefore suggest that those who labelled Science for the Future as peddling "risible hyperbole" are the "misguided ones" and are themselves guilty of the scientific equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Science for the Future Launch

Yesterday saw the launch of Science for the Future and it certainly did what it was intended to: make a splash! The launch got a large amount of media coverage on the mainstream media, and on the blogosphere and twittersphere. However, a lot of what was reported was reported second or third hand by people who weren’t actually there. 

Below I summarise what Science for the Future is actually concerned about. Essentially the way EPSRC has forced through policies that we believe to be damaging the ability to conduct scientific research in the UK, without the full, proper and transparent consultation with academics, professional bodies and industry. These policies are:

1) The move away from investigator driven research to directed research portfolios. No evidence has been supplied by EPSRC to suggest that directed research portfolios produce better science.

2) The collectivisation of PhD studentships into DTCs which has led to the reduction in DTA funding and the banning of project studentships on responsive mode grants. A total reduction of 33% has occurred. This is contrary to the EPSRC's own commissioned review of studentships, and EPSRC has not provided evidence that DTCs produce higher quality PhDs that have done higher quality research.

3) The increasing amounts of money which are allocated in an opaque manner on the whim of EPSRC which completely circumvents proper peer review. For example £10M made available by EPSRC without peer review and without publishing the names of the “expert panel” that advised them.

4) The downgrading of peer review in the grant assessment process and the introduction of non-scientific and subjective criteria such as "importance" and "impact" to determine funding. As well as “guidance” being given to panel members as to which proposals have best fit with EPSRC priorities, regardless of scientific excellence.

5)  The non-resubmission of all non-funded research grants, even if deemed excellent by peer review and fundable by panel, but were not funded due to budgetary constraints.

6) The limitation of fellowship applications to certain areas within the EPSRC remit for funding. These areas are decided by administrators and means that an excellent proposal will not be considered if it falls within EPSRC remit, but outside these arbitrary areas. 

Science for the Future is not calling for more taxpayer's money to be wasted by EPSRC. We are not calling for political intervention into which science gets funded. We are calling for Parliament to investigate the operations of EPSRC and to decide whether their current policies and methods for funding science are in the best interest of the UK.

Science for the Future is made up of scientists and mathematicians from all branches of the scientific community, from all universities/institutes and from all age/career demographics. It is made up of academics who have good track records at getting EPSRC funding, including a number of prominent Leadership Fellows; young researchers who see their chance of doing science in the UK being eroded by these policies; established researchers who see how these policies are reducing their ability to do science; and by senior members of the community (Nobel Laureates, FRSs, etc) who are worried about the state UK science will be left in. 

Yesterday's launch and parliamentary lobby day got Science for the Future noticed. Our interactions with MPs have been uniformly positive and we will now try to progress our campaign through these avenues.

The scientific community via the professional bodies, individuals and lobby groups such as Science for the Future are more than willing to engage with EPSRC to try and work through these difficulties. However, so far EPSRC has ignored offers to engage and hold a meaningful dialogue to discuss these concerns. I hope that EPSRC change their attitude and sit down with the community to work these problems out.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

My Meeting with David Willetts

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Willetts the Minister of State for Science and Universities at the Apeldoorn Conference 2012, a Bilateral High-Level Anglo-Dutch Dialogue on Higher Education. Our converstion focused on the Haldane Principle and how it is applied by both goverment and the research councils. After the meeting I followed up on our conversation with the letter below:

Rt. Hon. David Willetts,
Minister of State for Universities and Science,
Department for Business, Innovation & Skills,
1 Victoria Street,
London, SW1H 0ET.

                                                                                                                               March 19th, 2012

Dear Mr Willetts,

The Haldane Principle

It was a pleasure to meet you at the Apeldoorn conference in Manchester on 11th March, and to briefly discuss the Government’s views on the Haldane Principle. I am glad that we hold the same view that it is imperative that the criteria for deciding which scientific research projects are funded is based upon expert scientific peer review and not by Government. Perhaps you are unaware that while ministers themselves are rightly not involved in the grant awarding process, administrators and civil servants at the research councils are, and their decisions are eroding the Haldane Principle. The prime example of this is at the EPSRC, where the decision has been taken to ban Fellowship applications in certain areas within the EPSRC remit. This means that no matter how good the idea or the applicant, the proposal will be rejected outright without any peer review taking place. Similar policies are in place which limits the number of grant proposals which can be submitted in other EPSRC areas. Applicants who submit more grant applications than they are ‘allowed to’ will have their applications rejected without any peer review. All scientists have suffered the disappointment of having a grant application rejected, however, until recently it was always at the hands of expert peer reviewers, and there was some comfort in that. Oftentimes, if the expert reviewers’ comments were encouraging, scientists reworked the proposal in light of these insightful comments as well as including any new data gathered in the intervening period and then resubmitted the proposal. Indeed, this is how the system operates in the USA, Japan and in EU countries. It operated this way in the UK until EPSRC decided to ban all resubmissions. This policy is completely contrary to the nature of scientific research and acts to discourage scientists from submitting truly innovative research ideas, and hence leads to incremental or ‘safe’ research. With these policies taken together I can think of a no more efficient way to stifle ideas and reduce the chance of the next paradigm shifting research being discovered in the UK. The theme of the Apeldoorn conference was “Higher Education at the Heart of Growth” and I am sure we will both accept the need to nurture and encourage innovation and excellence in our Universities. However, this goal is being compromised by the disregard of the Haldane Principle being shown by EPSRC and other research councils. I would ask you to urge the research councils to seriously reconsider their current strategy and to allow funding decisions for all proposals submitted regardless of subject area or applicant to be determined by expert peer review.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

 Paul A. Clarke, Ph.D., BSc(Hons), CChem, FRSC, PGCAP.

 Today I received a reply from David Willetts and it is posted below.  

It is clear from his response that he has little idea of what the actual policies are of EPSRC and how they affect science funding in the UK. It would seem that he takes at face value the propaganda that EPSRC tell him. That is why it is so important that as many of us make an effort to attend the "Science for the Future" lobby day at Westminster on the 15th May. We will get the chance to engage with members of both the House of Commons and Lords committee on Science and Technology and our constituency MPs to explain to them the damage EPSRC are doing to scientific research in the UK. For more info on this parliamentary event please contact me directly.