Friday, 25 November 2011

Freedom of Information Data

All the data we have recieved from EPSRC in relation to our Freedom of Information requests can be downloaded from http://tinyurl.com/cfj3m9w   
It makes very interesting reading.

RSC Sets Course for Appeasment and Abandons its Role as a Campainger for all the Chemical Sciences

In another act of appeasment the RSC has agreed to work with EPSRC on downgrading certain areas of the chemical sciences. See http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/News/PressReleases/2011/DelpyLetter.asp
As I consider this a betrayal of their founding principles and of their membership, I wrote a strongly worded letter to chief quizling Neville Reed and the "Neville Chamberlain-esque" figure of the RSC President David Phillips. Both of whom seem unable to gasp or deal with the magnitude of the situation.

Dear Neville and David,

I must say that once again the leadership of the RSC has disappointed me. In this letter the RSC effectively gives the green light for EPSRC to sacrifice areas of chemistry based on how 'important' they are perceived by EPSRC mandarins, providing they first get the nod from the RSC. Congratulations, I hope that you are both proud that the RSC surrendered its role as a promoter for all of the chemical sciences on your watch. The only thing we have to look forward to I suppose is a more robust response when EPSRC start downgrading physical chemistry. Sadly by that time it will be too late and the damage done.

The RSC seems intent on concentrating on the minutiae of the 'procedure' used in 'shaping capability' rather than the end goal EPSRC has in mind. The argument has moved on, it is no longer about the procedure used, it is about the end goals. No matter what procedures are used the end goal is fundamentally flawed. The other learned societies have realised this, why hasn't the RSC? Naive, ignorant, incompetent or malicious intent against one area of chemistry? RSC needs to join with the other learned societies and take this campaign to the media, rather than taking stories about toast sandwiches or making Sherlock Holmes FRSC!

There are very serious consequences of the shaping capability exercise for the whole of the physical sciences, which the RSC is not demanding answers to:

1) With PhD students now only effectively being funded via a few DTCs, where are the majority of the scientific community going to get the PhD students needed to carry out the research? In chemistry over 75% of the papers returned in the last RAE had PhD students as their authors. Within 3 years most research groups in the UK will be down to 1 PhD student. Laboratory 'wet' chemistry research will effectively cease.

2) With fellowship applications being restricted to certain areas the other areas will wither due to a dearth of new talent coming through. These areas are completely arbitrary and based on prejudices of EPSRC mandarins.

3) With the lack of PhD numbers where will the PDRAs come from? Not the UK. This means that we will train PDRAs from the far east and India who will then return to those countries with the skills we have taught them. Within a generation they will be training themselves and we will have no PDRAs either.

4) With only 50% EPSRC contribution, where will the big equipment come from? I'm not sure the majority of universities can afford to subsidise that research to the tune of 50%. Equipment will get old, fail and not be replaced or repaired. Those areas of research shall cease too.

5) There should be only one criterion for funding a research proposal and that is the excellence of the science as judged by a number of expert peers. Considering anything else risks petty interests, subjective opinion and flights fantasy taking a role in what gets funded.

I attach a document obtained under one of our FoI requests where EPSRC clearly demonstrate their overall plan and modus operandi. http://www.york.ac.uk/res/pac/researchweb/annexD1.pdf
You will see how completely the RSC has fallen into their trap and played along with the whole sorry debacle. On page 22-23 points 4, 9 and 10 where EPSRC admit they have no evidence for the process, and they effectively promote a divide and conquer approach. It can be seen from this document that their main concern is to 'look good' and paint the research community as a bunch of parochial minority groups who are being unreasonable.

For the love of chemistry, stand up and be counted for what you claim to be passionate about. At least try to save UK science rather than condemn it to the dustbin of history by your attempts at appeasement.

Regards,
Paul



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 (http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/apprev/Pages/peerreview.aspx). 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.” (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=418079&c=1). 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.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

EPSRC: Arrogant, Dishonest, Secretive, Out of Touch and still a Danger to UK Science.

On 8th Nov, EPSRC claimed that after a meeting with the scientific learned societies on 19th Oct everyone was now on board with their ‘shaping capability’ exercise (http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/newsevents/news/2011/Pages/support.aspx). They also claim that EPSRC council where encouraged by this development. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The learned societies in the form of the Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), Institute of Physics (IoP) and London Mathematical Society (LMS) are still very much concerned about current direction of EPSRC. The RSC are against the unjustified cuts to organic chemistry and the savage reduction in PhD student numbers, the IoP are against the arbitrary 50% upper limit funding of equipment and the LMS are fundamentally opposed to the diktats from Swindon on what areas fellowship applications can be in. And they are all absolutely opposed to the new EPSRC flagship policy of eroding the peer review process: the suggestion that administrators will have the ability to override the expert scientific peer review. The learned societies are also baffled by the latest demands from the administrators in Swindon that applicants now have to detail the possible importance of their work to the nation over a 50 year time period, and that this will carry equal weighting to the scientific case for support at funding panels (http://tinyurl.com/bv9dgoo). Battles rage even within EPSRC itself. At the most recent council meeting, where the Sir Paul Nurse letter was discussed, several members told Delpy and his cronies most vocally to pause the process and engage with the community, the council was divided. However, EPSRC in its arrogance decided to carry on regardless. It must be stressed that the scientific community are aware of the need for financial savings to be made across the board (including in science funding), but it is completely baffled and angered by the arbitrary, disproportionate and needlessly destructive manner in which EPSRC are carrying out those cuts.
EPSRC is arrogant in continuing to believe that it knows best in the face of all of the scientific evidence. EPSRC is dishonest in its claims to consult and in its reporting of key meetings (both internal and external). EPSRC is secretive as it fights tooth-and-nail to withhold information about how decisions were made and who made them. EPSRC is out of touch with the strength of feeling within the UK scientific community, which are universally opposed to its policies. As such if EPSRC continues to disregard its core stakeholders and carry on with the folly of its current policy it will be the greatest danger to scientific research the UK has ever faced.