Friday, 11 November 2011

Scientists or Mystics?

The latest “great” idea to come out of EPSRC is that grant applicants should now have to write a couple of pages on the national importance of their work in 50 years time ( Yes, you read that correctly. Scientists are now expected to supply details of how nationally important their work will be perceived in 50 years time. What were Delpy, Bourne and their cronies thinking when they came up with this wheeze; and were EPSRC council sedated when it was discussed?

All research scientists know it is impossible to predict importance of a result within a project from one day to the next, let alone to the whole nation over the next 50 years. Does EPSRC really think that before determining the structure of DNA nearly 60 years ago, Watson and Crick sat down and planned out the genomic revolution of the last 10 years, or that such a development even crossed their minds? Research scientists understand the futility in attempting to do this. Predicting the results and significance of them before actually doing the experiment is sheer folly. On a day-to-day in-the-lab basis this attitude can prejudice your interpretation of results and blind you to the real serendipitous discoveries that couldn’t be predicted. In the longer term it encourages safe research as scientists will move towards doing incremental research that they can predict the outcome of. This is important as your future grant success is increasingly reliant on you achieving the “deliverables” outline in your application. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, pointed this out in a recent lecture: “The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s injunction that grant applicants should think about the impact statement while framing a proposal will surely promote conventional thinking over boldness and thereby have a negative effect…Even the wizards of venture capital have a hard job assessing the commercial impact of a discovery. To expect a researcher, or a research council committee, to make any worthwhile judgement - and make it before the work has even been done - is surely absurd.” ( Another consequence of this approach is that some members of the research community will play EPSRC’s game. Project ideas will be submitted which will promise untold riches, miracle cures and world-changing widgets, wrapped in a thin veneer of pseudoscience. Of course nothing will come of these projects, tax payers’ money will have been wasted and these individuals will get promotions on the back of their increased grant income. And who is going to be around in 50 years time to hold these vainglorious career builders to account? All of this will be made even more likely as EPSRC seek to dilute the influence of the scientific peer review process. I have discussed this in earlier blogs so I won’t repeat myself. But worryingly EPSRC have decreed that the couple of pages on the national importance of the proposed work in 50 years time will carry equal weighting to the actual scientific case for support! This coupled with EPSRC leapfrogging proposals in perceived areas of national importance over more scientifically excellent projects is a recipe for dishonesty, corruption, scientific stagnation and wasting money.

But why are these demands being placed on researchers? Well, EPSRC feels the need to justify its flat budget when every other area of UK government spend bar one has been cut. EPSRC hierarchy need to show the treasury that the government is getting something out of its “investment”. Hence the misguided attempt to direct and centrally control the UK’s physical sciences research. Delpy, Bourne and their cronies in Swindon are not research scientists; they do not understand how scientific discovery and progress are made. They are all career administrators. At best they may have a PhD in a science subject; at worse they hold a degree in tourism management. Even if they do hold a PhD, they moved directly into admin upon graduation, and hence have not had any relevant hands-on experience of doing independent scientific research. As such, their ilk think that research can be directed and managed as you would a business, with targets, goals, milestones, deliverables and a bottom line all predictably achievable in a defined timeframe. Research is unpredictable; it simply doesn’t operate that way. The scientific community from the Royal Society to the RSC, IoP, and LMS, as well as individuals have all tried to engage EPSRC, to warn them of their folly. EPSRC simply do not listen. Because the people in charge there have no experience of scientific research they simply don’t understand the problem or the consequences of their actions.

So if EPSRC seriously want us to be able to predict the national importance of our work over 50 years then I have the following request.  Please can they start allowing for grant applicants to apply for 100% of the cost of a crystal ball under the equipment section of the grant, because the only way EPSRC will get anything out of this exercise is by turning scientists into fortune tellers. But then again, that might actually be the aim of the whole damn stupid policy.


  1. Paul,
    You are factually incorrect when you state that Delpy is a "career administrator" who "moved directly into admin upon graduation". Far from it - he was a medical physicist at UCL for many years, and head of the department of Medical Physics and Bioengineering for 8 years. He has >200 research publications and an h-index (whatever that's worth) of >50.

    Of course, this just makes it even more baffling that he seems now to be ignoring his detailed knowledge of how research actually works!

  2. Thanks for pointing that out. That gives him no excuse for his current actions and I would suggest makes his position untenable. He should know better. Given his actions I would argue that he is a career administrator now.

  3. The reason these measures where taken is because the face of theoretical physics (String Theory) is a joke. The once proud tradition of theoretical physics that once supported the applied physics or engineering community is gone. Don't blame the response blame the cause (STring Theory)