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)

Friday, 12 August 2011

Letter to David Willetts

Over 100 chemistry academics from all over the UK and from all branches of chemistry have sent a letter to David Willetts, the Minister for Science; the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology asking them to investigate the new funding and peer review policies being enacted by the EPSRC. We believe that these policies will do incalculable harm to the UK's ability to conduct fundamental science. The full text of the letter is given below:

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

                                                                                                                                    Aug 10th, 2011

Dear Mr Willetts,

The Role of the EPSRC in Funding Physical Science Research in the UK

We the undersigned are writing to you in your capacity as the Minister of State for Universities and Science, to ask you to initiate an inquiry into the role and mode of operations of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) as a funder of physical sciences research in the UK. 
We are very concerned that the EPSRC is moving away from its key role as a funder of investigator-proposed exploratory scientific research projects to being a ‘sponsor’ and commissioner of them. The mechanism for this investigator-proposed exploratory research (the ‘responsive mode’) was, by the EPSRC’s own admission, ‘essential, and ‘the primary mechanism’ by which it funded research.  This is not the case anymore.  In order to achieve its new aim of being a ‘sponsor’ of research, the EPSRC is prioritising arbitrary areas for research based on their perceived economic value. To this end it has divided its portfolio into 111 areas and plans to decide whether to increase, maintain or decrease funding in each of these areas based on its evaluation of whether they are valuable areas to the economy. Such an approach has already been discredited several times over. Most recently in 2008 by Phil Willis, then Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, who said that ‘this will sound the death knell for British research’, and again in 2009 when Brian Iddon, then a member of the Commons IUSS Select Committee and a Vice-President of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee wrote an article (Future Med. Chem. 2009, 1, 427.) which warned ‘There is a real concern that fundamental (or ‘blue skies’) research is being sacrificed because of an increasing emphasis on directed programs aimed at the commercialisation of science.’ When this move is coupled to the other recent changes to its funding policies, which include: the savage reduction in PhD student numbers by 30%; the refusal to fund project studentships (PhD students to research on specific projects via the responsive mode); the blacklisting of academics; a focus on funding perceived ‘leaders’, rather than the best ideas; and the requirement that all grant applicants predict the impact of their proposed research before undertaking that research, it is clear that the EPSRC has the potential to do significant and lasting damage to the UK’s capability for fundamental scientific research. This drive to predict ‘impact’ is completely counter to the scientific method and has been consistently discredited. A particularly damming indictment on the ‘impact’ agenda was recently delivered by Sir Alex Jefferys, the discoverer of DNA fingerprinting, in a recent interview see: http://biochemicalsociety.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/sir-alec-jeffreys-and-john-armour-in-the-golden-age-of-genetics/   
The EPSRC intends to carry this top-down micromanaging even further. In a recent strategy document issued by them (College News Letter, July 2011), they state that a responsive mode proposal will now be judged on its fit with EPSRC priority areas rather than on the excellence of the science alone, and that a project with ‘better fit’ could leapfrog over a more ‘scientifically excellent’ one if a choice between the two had to be made at a funding panel. The EPSRC have also said that the people who provide critical peer review of the proposals submitted will change. Currently the peer review process is carried out by the peer review college, which is made up of academics (both UK and international) and industrialists who are elected to the college by the vote of all academics conducting research in EPSRC fundable areas. The college is elected once every 4 or 5 years making it accountable to the research base in the UK. The EPSRC intends to change this so that members of the college are appointed by the EPSRC in perpetuity. The college will be populated to reflect the EPSRC’s priority areas. This top-down, hands-on management of research has been discredited by previous governments: in the 1960’s Lord Hailsham, then Quintin Hogg, Minster for Technology supported the ‘Haldane Principle’ which states that ‘decisions about specific research topics to be pursued using public funding, should be made by the research community and not by politicians’ and I would add, by administrators. This current government on 20 December 2010 stated that ‘Under the Haldane Principle, reaffirmed by the Government, decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves under peer review. Ministers should not decide which individual projects should be funded nor which researcher should receive money. This has been crucial to the international success of British science.’ We acknowledge that while ministers are not directly deciding on the funding of research projects, under the EPSRC’s new procedures the administrators at the EPSRC, not the scientific peer review process, will be doing exactly that. This approach will, however, ultimately lead to failure as pointed out by Tim Hartford, the ‘Undercover Economist’ in his book ‘Adapt’ which explains why the ‘top-down management of research rarely works and cannot provide solutions to complex problems’.
The consequence of these actions is that the EPSRC’s research portfolio will be heavily biased towards science that can deliver near-term, close to market applications which fall into the areas with perceived economic value, rather than the creative, exploratory and serendipitous research that has produced world-changing insights. 
For example: few would argue that the discovery of electromagnetism, the structure of DNA, the invention of the laser or liquid crystals were worthless, even though it took between 20 and 50 years for their values to society to be realised and exploited. Yet it is this philistinism which the EPSRC are actively promoting. By contrast the European Research Council’s budget for fundamental ‘frontier’ research has been increased by 23%. We believe that a better strategy, and one that would be guaranteed to support the highest quality science, would be to put the EPSRC’s budget into responsive mode and let the best science irrespective of discipline, as determined by peer review, be supported. Only in this way can the tax payer be sure that the best, highest quality, highest impact science will be supported.
In closing we would ask, to what or who is the EPSRC accountable? When the future of UK science is at stake, do they have the authority to unilaterally decide the fate and direction of UK physical science research? Surely the actions and policies of the EPSRC should be scrutinised as thoroughly as the research proposals submitted to it? It is time to call the EPSRC to account for its actions and policies which many in the scientific community believe will sound the ‘death knell for British science’.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,

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

Co-signatories (alphabetical):
Prof. Varinder Aggarwal (University of Bristol)
Dr. Christophe Aissa (University of Liverpool)
Dr. Alan Aitken (University of St. Andrews)
Prof. Steve Allin (University of Keele)
Dr. Edward. A. Anderson (University of Oxford)
Dr. Paul Anderson (University of Birmingham)
Prof. David L. Andrews (University of East Anglia)
Dr. Steve J. Archibald (University of Hull)
Prof. Alan Armstrong (Imperial College, London)
Dr. Heike Arnolds (University of Liverpool)
Dr. William Barford (University of Oxford)
Dr. Claudia Blindauer (University of Warwick)
Dr. John Bower (University of Bristol)
Dr. James A. Brannigan (University of York)
Dr. Benjamin Buckley (Loughborough University)
Prof. Michael Buehl (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Martin Buzza (University of Hull)
Dr. Peter Cameron (University of Bath)
Dr. Jason E. Camp (University of Nottingham)
Dr Victor Chechik (University of York)
Dr. Matt Clarke (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Martin Cockett (University of York)
Dr. Warren B. Cross (University of Leicester)
Dr. Edmund Cussen (University of Strathclyde)
Dr. Ross Denton (University of Nottingham)
Dr. Adrian Dobbs (Queen Mary College, London)
Dr. Richard Douthwaite (University of York)
Dr. James Dowden (University of Nottingham)
Dr. Jason Eames (University of Hull)
Dr. Mark R. J. Elsegood (Loughborough University)
Dr. Corey J. Evans (University of Leicester)
Dr. Christopher Exley (University of Keele)
Dr. John Fossey (University of Birmingham)
Dr. Grazia Francesconi (University of Hull)
Dr. Herbert Fruchtl (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Matthew Fuchter (Imperial College, London)
Prof. Sue Gibson (Imperial College, London)
Prof. John Goodby, FRS (University of York)
Dr Verena Görtz (University of York)
Dr. Richard S. Grainger (University of Birmingham)
Dr. Chris Hamilton (University of East Anglia)
Prof. Gus Hancock (University of Oxford)
Prof. Joe Harrity (University of Sheffield)
Dr. Katherine J. Haxton (University of Keele)
Prof. Christopher J. Hayes (University of Nottingham)
Dr. Mike Hayward (University of Oxford)
Prof. Harry Heaney (Loughborough University)
Dr. Simon Higgins (University of Liverpool)
Dr. Michael Hill (University of Bath)
Dr. Annie B. Hodgson (University of York)
Prof. Hicham Idriss (University of Aberdeen)
Prof. Saiful Islam (University of Bath)
Dr. Rob Jackson (University of Keele)
Prof. Tony James (University of Bath)
Dr. Andrew Jamieson (University of Leicester)
Dr. Jas Jayasooriya (University of East Anglia)
Prof. Ray Jones (Loughborough University)
Prof. William Kerr (University of Strathclyde)
Dr. Hon Wai Lam (University of Edinburgh)
Prof. Philip Lightfoot (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Peter B. Karadakov (University of York)
Dr. Philipp Kukura (University of Oxford)
Dr. David M. Lindsay (University of Glasgow)
Dr. Nigel Lowe (University of York)
Prof. David E. Manolopoulos, FRS (University of Oxford)
Prof Vickie McKee (Loughborough University)
Dr. Abbie McLaughlin (University of Aberdeen)
Prof. Georg H. Mehl (University of Hull)
Dr. Peter Milligan (University of Nottingham)
Prof. Russell Morris (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Tanja van Mourik (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Patrick Murphy (University of Bangor)
Dr. Sarah O’Connor (University of East Anglia)
Prof. David O’Hagan (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Ian A. O’Neil (University of Liverpool)
Prof. Phil Page (University of East Anglia)
Dr. Andrew Parsons (University of York)
Prof. Jonathan Percy (University of Strathclyde)
Dr. John Plater (University of Aberdeen)
Prof. Paul Pringle (University of Bristol)
Dr. Gareth Pritchard (Loughborough University)
Prof. Emma Raven (University of Leicester)
Dr. Bernard Rawlings (University of Leicester)
Prof. Neville Richardson (University of St. Andrews)
Dr. Anne Routledge (University of York)
Dr Frank Rutten (University of Keele)
Dr. Angelika Sebald (University of York)
Prof. Nigel Simpkins (University of Birmingham)
Prof. Tom J. Simpson, FRS (University of Bristol)
Prof. Alan C. Spivey (Imperial College, London)
Dr. Robert Stockman (University of Nottingham)
Dr. Alison M. Stuart (University of Leicester)
Dr. Andrew Sutherland (University of Glasgow)
Dr Nguyen T. K. Thanh (University College London)
Prof. Jane Thomas-Oates (University of York)
Dr. Claire Vallance (University of Oxford)
Dr. Tiff Walsh (University of Warwick)
Dr. Nick Westwood (University of St. Andrews)
Prof. Andrew Whiting (University of Durham)
Dr. Michael Whittlesey (University of Bath)
Dr. Gregory Wildgoose (University of East Anglia)
Prof. Ian Williams (University of Bath)
Dr. Julie Wilson (University of York)