Monday, 3 October 2011

There's a Battle Outside and It's Raging

There's a fascinating storm raging at the moment around the walls of the EPSRC citadel. Some of you outside the Engineering and Physical Sciences might not be aware of it, but it has the potential to affect all of your disciplines, because what EPSRC does first, the other Research Councils tend to follow.

This time the EPSRC is 'engineering' their sector. Or, as they would have it, 'shaping our portfolio.' Basically, through their 'Shaping Capability' agenda, they've had a good look at the disciplines within their remit and have decided which should be backed, and which should be quietly shelved.
Now in some ways you can see the logic of this. In strained financial times it may be better to prioritise the important, high quality work that has the potential to make a difference to science globally, as well as nationally bolstering the UK's competitiveness.
However, as you can imagine, those who are adversely affected by this prioritisation are angry about what they see as the fairly arbitrary algorithm by which it has been decided. Have a look at the sub-GCSE graph above. This is known as the 'Bourne Graph'. It is a visual representation of how EPSRC see the relative value of subjects within its remit.
But how were these relative positions decided? What scale is being used along the X and Y axes? Hmm. It's not clear, and EPSRC's reticence on this is not helping. People are thinking the worst. As a York-based organic chemist comments on his blog, 'if one didn't know better you may be forgiven for thinking it had been thought up on the back of a fag packet over a pint in the pub after work.'
Helpfully, he provides a similarly inane graph for his relationship with fruit and vegetables, as follows:

I think the methodology's clear, don't you?
Prof Timothy Gower, another blogger, has tried to work out where they're coming from by deconstructing the newspeak pronouncements to come out of EPSRC.
More seriously, the sector's disquiet has resulted in letters from the chemists, statements from the mathematicians, and articles from the physicists, as well as a call from, well, everybody (in the shape of the Royal Society) to 'pause' the strategy. David 'Smalls' Delpy responded, specifically to the chemists, saying that he felt their pain, but ultimately it was their own fault for getting too much of the budget recently. Or words to that effect. Elsewhere he's poured oil on the troubled waters by saying that the complaints were an 'overreaction', backed up by 'relatively little' evidence.
The storm has been rumbling on since July, and there's no sign of it abating any time soon. If anything, it's growing in strength, and there's hope that, as Dylan said, 'the loser now will be later to win.' Whilst I have sympathy for EPSRC, and believe it acted in good faith, I think this kind of engineering is dangerous and ultimately fruitless.
Remember Robert Edwards, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine this time last year? He had developed in vitro fertilisation, which has led, since 1978, to millions of 'test tube babies.' Well, when he turned to his sector's funder, the MRC, in 1971 they turned him down. At the time his discipline wasn't of interest, as the politics of the day suggested the world was heading for malthusian destruction. If there hadn't been a private funder on hand his research may well have withered on the vine.
His is a cautionary tale. The allocation of research funding shouldn't be left up to politicians and apparatchiks (like me): it should be up to peers and contemporaries to decide what should be prioritised. Only then will the best, bravest and brightest have an equal chance - from whatever discipline.


  1. that looks scary. And if this kind of thing can't even support potentially Nobel winning work (and I love that you have an actual example), there really is a problem. We need more funding for the whole research ecology not more targeting. Unfortunately, we don't have governments that are interested in that kind of broad based support.

  2. Thanks Jo. Yes, ideally more funding, but don't hold your breath. As I say in the post, I think EPSRC were acting in good faith and were trying to do the best for the sector. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and EPSRC are well on the way to damnation in the eyes of many chemists, physicists and mathematicians. I don't think such engineering is really fruitful, and it should be up to the scientists themselves to decide how to divvy up the depleted pot.