Thursday, 22 December 2011

Campaign for RSC Organic Division President


I have been persuaded to stand for president of the RSC organic division in the elections in the New Year. My candidate statement is given below. For my name to be included on the ballot I require 10 organic division members to nominate me. If you believe in the fight to #saveUKscience and to get the RSC supporting all of its members then please e-mail election@rsc.org stating the my name and that you nominate me for the position of president of the organic division and giving your own full name and RSC membership number.

Statement:

Chemistry is the science of making things and then analysing them, and nowhere is this truer than in the discipline of organic chemistry. New pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, paints, plastics, fibres, optical displays, etc., all have their genesis in organic chemistry: yet this is unappreciated by the public, government, the funding agencies; and now seems to have been forgotten by industry.  If elected president of the organic division I shall work tirelessly to raise the profile of organic chemistry with these groups and to explain to them the socio-economic benefits of organic chemistry. I shall continue to strenuously campaign and lobby government and the funding agencies in order to reverse policies that damage organic chemistry, including the savage reduction in PhD funding, and the ‘downgrading’ of organic synthesis by EPSRC. I shall engage with industry to remind them that investment in organic chemistry research will provide them with their products of the future. I shall promote and encourage outreach activities locally, nationally and in the broadcast media. This way we can give the public a greater appreciation of the benefits organic chemistry brings. Targeting outreach activities at schools so that we might enthuse new generations of young minds to take up the excitement and challenge of a career in organic chemistry will be a high priority. The RSC is a membership driven professional body and it must hold the interests of all of its members at heart, not just those working in areas which are in favour with EPSRC. It is therefore important that organic chemists provide a strong steer on RSC policy and public pronouncements. The only way we can do this is by electing representatives that are passionate about organic chemistry and willing to serve the community. I believe that I can bring these qualities to the position of president of the organic division and that is why I am standing for that position and asking for your support.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

3rd Letter to Willetts warns of disastrous consequences if scientists are ignored by EPSRC

Earlier this week I posted an analysis of EPSRC responsive mode funding for the whole of chemistry (http://tinyurl.com/cfj3m9w). The figures were so shocking I once again wrote to David Willetts the Minister of State for Science and Universities to warn him of the damage current EPSRC policies were doing to the UK science base. That letter is reproduced below.



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

                                                                                                                                    Dec 6th, 2011

Dear Mr Willetts,

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

I have written to you on two previous occasions to alert you to the dangers that EPSRC’s ‘shaping capability’ process will have on physical sciences research in the UK. I am not alone in my concerns as a group of eminent chemists, and separately, eminent mathematicians, have written to the Prime Minister expressing similar concerns. A public letter to Prof. Delpy, the chief executive of EPSRC, was also written by Sir Paul Nurse in his capacity as the president of the Royal Society, asking EPSRC to halt the ‘shaping capability’ exercise. This letter from Sir Paul Nurse was signed by the presidents of all of the learned societies which have a stake in the areas funded by EPSRC. Our concerns are not just a knee-jerk reaction to change. They are supported by the information gained through several requests under the Freedom of Information Act for the data and procedures used by EPSRC in its ‘shaping capability’ exercise. The information released to us shows clearly that there is no data whatsoever to support either the goals or procedures used in EPSRC’s ‘shaping capability’ program. It is clear that a decision to embark upon ‘shaping capability’ was made by EPSRC management without consultation either internally or externally, and then pushed through EPSRC council and SATS committees with no debate. With the lack of relevant data to support their ‘shaping capability’ goals, or a willingness to listen it is not surprising that the scientific community has no confidence in the ability of administrators at EPSRC to decide which areas of research are of ‘national importance’.

Even more worryingly new procedures for applying for EPSRC funding which became active on 15th November 2011, mean those researchers now have to predict the 50 year importance of their research, and that this criterion will be used to decide which proposals will be funded. Such a development has been criticised not only by the scientific community, but also by prominent members of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on 29th November 2011, when they took evidence from Prof. Delpy and Mr. Armitt (http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/science-and-technology-committee/publications/). From the answers both Prof. Delpy and Mr. Armitt gave it was clear that neither of them had any real understanding of what this policy was asking or the consequences of it. On several occasions they were unable to give satisfactory answers to the noble Lords’ questions. I can highlight the farcical nature of the new policy with two historical examples:
1) The ruby laser patent (enclosed) took 6 years to be issued, it was submitted in 1961 and issued in 1967, so clearly the patent lawyer did not think much of it. The inventors suggest that it may be of some use "in the investigation of the basic properties of mater (sic), as well as in medicine where objects or very minute portions thereof can be selectively sterilized or vaporized." See column 9, line 14 onwards. The ruby laser is now ubiquitous in optical reading, imaging and measuring devices as well as medical equipment and changed the face of the late 20th century. Yet the inventors were unable to predict that.
2) Charles Goodyear invented vulcanised rubber in 1843. As the first car was not invented until 1885 and not manufactured until the turn of the 19th century, how could anyone have predicted the impact vulcanised rubber would have made on the world?
However, the physical sciences community are being asked to do exactly that. The acid test for the validity of this approach is can anyone explain which major scientific discoveries were predicted in 1960 and by whom and are now major active and successful sectors of UK industry?

The physical science community are now beginning to understand the blinkered vision driving these changes. Both Prof. Delpy and Mr. Armitt, the Chair of EPSRC council, are engineers by training and they are applying engineering methods and criteria to funding physical science. Why would anyone think that the methods, which may be useful in deciding which areas and which proposals to support in engineering (which is a development and application driven pursuit) should be appropriate for mathematics, chemistry and physics, which are by definition exploratory and discovery driven endeavours? We believe that it is their fundamental lack of understanding of how physical science research works that is driving these ‘one-size-fits-all’ changes.

I would like to make one further point from my own field of expertise, which illustrates the harm EPSRC policies are doing. An analysis of responsive mode funding data available from EPSRC website (enclosed) gives lie to their reassurances about the future funding of physical sciences research. These data shows that since EPSRC introduced its policy of no resubmissions and blacklisting academics that the number of grant applications in chemistry has dropped from 300 in 2008 to 80 in 2011; that the number of grants funded has dropped to 35% of the 2008 level; that the success rate is only 21%; and the total cash value of grants awarded has dropped from £18.6M in 2008 to £7.5M in 2011. I must stress that innovative research comes out of responsive mode funding and that the chemical industry in the UK is worth billions of pounds each year to the UK economy. So the funding allocated to chemistry by EPSRC is derisory. I should also add that the decision to selectively reduce funding for synthetic chemistry (within that overall budget of £7.5M), the area of chemistry which directly underpins drug discovery does contradict the announcement made by the Prime Minister and yourself yesterday regarding the future of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-16041611). If the EPSRC continues along its chosen path then there will be no future and no synthetic chemists left in the UK to make the medicines of tomorrow. This situation is currently being replicated in the large majority of physical science funding areas, and highlights the very real concerns of scientists from all disciplines across the EPSRC funding remit in the UK.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,

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