Wednesday, 22 December 2010

EPSRC delivery plan 2011-2015

Yesterday the EPSRC hammered the final nail in the coffin of hypothesis driven blue sky scientific research in the UK, with the publication of its delivery plan for 2011-15 (http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/plans/approach/deliveryplan/Pages/default.aspx). In this the David Delpy, the EPSRC's CEO, announced several worrying policy changes. These were:
  • The EPSRC would become a 'sponsor' of research rather than a funder.
  • The EPSRC would champion the impact agenda.
  • The EPSRC would focus funds at individuals and institutions with good track records.
  • The EPSRC would stop funding PhD students through the responsive mode.
By themselves each of these announcements is a cause of concern, together they ammount to the biggest attack on hypothesis driven blue sky scientific research in the UK for more than a generation. I shall attempt to explain why we should all be worried about this announcement.


A sponsor of research: Delpy says that grants will be awarded as a strategic investment and not a straight forward transfer of funds without responsibility. Investors expect a return on their investments and so must the EPSRC. However, what is the timeframe for these returns? 5 years as in the stock market? Or decades as is most often the case with a new scientific discovery? One has a feeling with the current financial situation and the timeframe of the report that we are looking at shorter rather than longer return periods. Simply put this is not how scientific research works. It can take many years for the 'value' of a discovery to be realised and many more before it can reach the market or generate tax revenue for the exchequer. Focusing on getting a return in the short term will limit the the type of research to that where you certain of achieving a result and hence a return on the EPSRC's investment. One must argue that if the outcome of the research is this certain, whether it can be classified as research at all? 

Delpy also says that the EPSRC will take an active role in shaping the research agenda. What this really means is that the EPSRC will tell the community what it considers to be worthwhile subjects for research. Well, if the EPSRC can see the future this clearly it is indeed run by visionaries! Why would a bunch of pen-pushing beaurocrats have any idea what is a worthwhile research topic is? And will these decisions be made purely on a percieved financial returns basis? Sheer lunacy indeed!


Impact agenda: The EPSRC wants  applicants to focus on projects wich can deliver 'impact'. To demonstrate this applicants need to submit 2 sides of an impact plan, stating the impact their research will have and how they will go about maximising the impact. To be blunt EPSRC: If I knew the impact my research would have, I wouldn't have to do the research! To gague impact one must predict the results of research and if you can predict the results of research to that level of accuracy, can you call what you are doing research? This is not the deffinition of any research I am aware of, this sounds to me like development. The whole point of research is to ask questions we don't know the answer to and to try and find the answers to those questions. In the process scientists discover new laws of nature and gaina  greater understanding into how the universe works. Once these fundamental discoveries have been made then you can develop them. The development (or impact) of these fundamental discoveries may take years or decades to realise. Does that make the reaearch any less valid? The answer of course sould be no. However, with its focus on the impact agenda I feel that this will drive research in the direction of safe, derivate development-type, new widgets projects rather than the fundamental, awe inspiring paradigm shifting research that would have the potential to make a very real impact to humanity in the grand scheme of things. Sheer lunacy!


Focusing on individuals and institutions with good track records: This may seem like a no-brainer but past performance is no guarentee of future success. Just because someone has had a good idea at a particular institute in the past, does not mean that all other ideas from that individual or institute will be equally as good. This policy concentrates funding and hence research ability into a minority of anointed individuals at the expense of the everyone else. Young researchers at the start of their careers will find it increasingly difficult to get funding for their ideas, and excellent research at institutions which do not have a 'critical mass' or track record in a particular area will be suffocated. The best way to ensure that the best research ideas get funded is not to place preconcieved artificial geographical or historical constraints upon the community, but to welcome ideas from everyone and ensure that they are scrutinised by a robust peer review process, where each idea is assessed soley on its own merit. Its just sheer lunacy!


No more PhD students through responsive mode: Delpy says that the EPSRC wants to shape capability by having the right people, with the right skills in the right places. Now this really does fly in the face of his actions. By stopping PhD studentships being funded via the responsive mode you stop all of the above. PhD students are the life blood of UK research. 90% of all research publications (in chemistry) have PhD student authors on them. If we are not generating skilled PhDs where will all the postdocs come from? Will they get delivered to needy research groups by storks? Sometimes a PhD student is the unit of resource appropriate for a particular project, to remove this resource both short sighted and damaging. Of course Delpy claims that PhD students willbe funded in other ways through the DTC, etc., however, this is just a further example of the concentration of research resources into the few, rather than where the science dictates. This policy will mean an end to the ability of a large number of excellent researchers to continue their world class work and it will reduce the diversity and number of PhD students in the UK. Sheer lunacy!

It is about time the  academic scientific community woke up and spoke out against the harm these policies will do to UK science before it is too late.