Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A Critique of the EPSRC's response to our Letters to David Willetts and the Prime Minister

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has recently announced worrying new policies, which many scientists believe will “sound the death knell for fundamental scientific research in the UK”. One of the first two to be arbitrarily targeted with reduced funding is synthetic organic chemistry: a subject which is crucial for solving problems in healthcare, food security, energy, electronic devices, materials and crime prevention. Two groups of scientists have written letters to the government trying to raise politicians’ awareness of these important issues and the consequences of the EPSRC’s new policies. An account of these letters can be found in the Guardian 15th Aug, 2011 and Chemical and Engineering News 22nd Aug, 2011 (web posted http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/89/i34/8934news3.html ). In response, the EPSRC issued a press release on their web site late yesterday afternoon, which amounts to an “everything is fine, we know best attitude”. 
In its press release on the 15th Aug 2011, the EPSRC has stated that “Decisions about EPSRC’s portfolio are based on a comprehensive knowledge of the whole UK landscape, the best available information (such as EPSRC data on Grants on the Web, RAE, funding from other bodies, international reviews and other reports), and advice from key groups and individuals (such as our strategic advisory teams, learned societies and industry partners). EPSRC consulted widely with stakeholders and strategic advisory teams in developing the approach to making decisions about shaping our portfolio.” 
We do not believe that there has been any meaningful consultation with agencies, stakeholders or learned societies. The President of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has gone on record saying that the RSC was not consulted and was only informed of the reduction in funding to synthetic organic chemistry two days before the EPSRC press announcement. A meeting on the 9th Aug, between Anthony Barrett (Imperial College), Jim Thomas (University of Manchester) and several administrators from the EPSRC shed some light on the disturbing modus operandi of the EPSRC. EPSRC administrators claimed that full consultation processes had been followed but then admitted that their use of the word “consultation” was perhaps different from the norm. They also made it explicitly clear that decisions about EPSRC policies and funding were made by the EPSRC staff and not by committees that included academics or industrialists. We therefore challenge the EPSRC to provide a list and details of all the agencies, learned societies, stakeholders, international reviewers and industrial partners which were consulted before making the decision to reduce funding to synthetic organic chemistry. We would also like to know at which meetings these policy decisions were discussed and made, who was present at them and, in the interests of transparency, to be given copies of the minutes of these meetings. We would also appreciate the EPSRC providing information as to how these stakeholders will be consulted when the rest of the “shaping” exercise is being carried out.
Bizarrely, in the same document the EPSRC directly contradicts itself: “Whilst we did not carry out a formal consultation, we shared our plans as they developed and asked for any additional evidence or information that should be taken into account. This process could not have been done by holding a formal consultation process and lobbying by specific interest groups is not helpful in making strategic decisions within the whole physical sciences portfolio or about the balance between physical sciences and the rest of our portfolio” Did the EPSRC consult or didn’t it? If, as we suspect, it did not, the attitude that professional administrators with little scientific knowledge can arbitrarily decide the fate of UK science is arrogant, contemptuous of the scientific community and just wrong. The idea that a complete change in how scientific research is funded in the UK can be imposed on the scientific community without full, proper and transparent discussion with all stakeholders is extremely worrying, and potentially a recipe for disaster. The whole of the EPSRC’s new policies are seriously flawed and can be demonstrated by the following analogy. Just because a secretary in a GP’s surgery has an overview of all the illnesses, conditions and medication the GP sees and prescribes over the year, that secretary is still not qualified to decide the course of treatments for patients using that surgery (and a patient would need to be seriously misled to accept such treatment). 

Anthony G. M. Barrett (Imperial College), Paul A. Clarke (University of York)

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