Wednesday, 11 April 2012

My Meeting with David Willetts

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Willetts the Minister of State for Science and Universities at the Apeldoorn Conference 2012, a Bilateral High-Level Anglo-Dutch Dialogue on Higher Education. Our converstion focused on the Haldane Principle and how it is applied by both goverment and the research councils. After the meeting I followed up on our conversation with the letter below:

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

                                                                                                                               March 19th, 2012

Dear Mr Willetts,

The Haldane Principle

It was a pleasure to meet you at the Apeldoorn conference in Manchester on 11th March, and to briefly discuss the Government’s views on the Haldane Principle. I am glad that we hold the same view that it is imperative that the criteria for deciding which scientific research projects are funded is based upon expert scientific peer review and not by Government. Perhaps you are unaware that while ministers themselves are rightly not involved in the grant awarding process, administrators and civil servants at the research councils are, and their decisions are eroding the Haldane Principle. The prime example of this is at the EPSRC, where the decision has been taken to ban Fellowship applications in certain areas within the EPSRC remit. This means that no matter how good the idea or the applicant, the proposal will be rejected outright without any peer review taking place. Similar policies are in place which limits the number of grant proposals which can be submitted in other EPSRC areas. Applicants who submit more grant applications than they are ‘allowed to’ will have their applications rejected without any peer review. All scientists have suffered the disappointment of having a grant application rejected, however, until recently it was always at the hands of expert peer reviewers, and there was some comfort in that. Oftentimes, if the expert reviewers’ comments were encouraging, scientists reworked the proposal in light of these insightful comments as well as including any new data gathered in the intervening period and then resubmitted the proposal. Indeed, this is how the system operates in the USA, Japan and in EU countries. It operated this way in the UK until EPSRC decided to ban all resubmissions. This policy is completely contrary to the nature of scientific research and acts to discourage scientists from submitting truly innovative research ideas, and hence leads to incremental or ‘safe’ research. With these policies taken together I can think of a no more efficient way to stifle ideas and reduce the chance of the next paradigm shifting research being discovered in the UK. The theme of the Apeldoorn conference was “Higher Education at the Heart of Growth” and I am sure we will both accept the need to nurture and encourage innovation and excellence in our Universities. However, this goal is being compromised by the disregard of the Haldane Principle being shown by EPSRC and other research councils. I would ask you to urge the research councils to seriously reconsider their current strategy and to allow funding decisions for all proposals submitted regardless of subject area or applicant to be determined by expert peer review.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

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

 Today I received a reply from David Willetts and it is posted below.  

It is clear from his response that he has little idea of what the actual policies are of EPSRC and how they affect science funding in the UK. It would seem that he takes at face value the propaganda that EPSRC tell him. That is why it is so important that as many of us make an effort to attend the "Science for the Future" lobby day at Westminster on the 15th May. We will get the chance to engage with members of both the House of Commons and Lords committee on Science and Technology and our constituency MPs to explain to them the damage EPSRC are doing to scientific research in the UK. For more info on this parliamentary event please contact me directly.