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Chemists reject research council appeasement

Imperial College chemist Anthony Barrett has rejected an attempt by the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to explain how and why the council decided to cut funding for synthetic organic chemistry.

In a letter to Barrett and colleagues on 25 August, David Delpy sought to justify the council’s re-drawing of its research portfolio according to new criteria, published last month.

Delpy said the letter was drafted “given the strength of concerns” expressed by Barrett and more than 100 colleagues in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this month.

But talking to Research Fortnight Today, Barrett said Delpy’s response did not give the evidence of consultation or methods of prioritisation which the group had called for.

Barrett asked Delpy to provide the evidence in a letter on 23 August, after both the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics said they had not been consulted.

“He has not yet answered these key points and we will press him to answer,” Barrett told Research Fortnight Today. “As a former scientist, he should know to share data with colleagues, when he makes statements.”

Although the letter, published on the EPSRC website on 25 August, listed the types of sources called on it did not provide the supporting documents requested by Barrett and colleagues.

Barrett said his group would respond with “a total rejection of his statement” in the next few days, adding that there was “utterly no evidence whatsoever” that the EPSRC consulted anyone outside its own ranks.

Delpy’s letter defended the council’s ability to make such decisions.

“While I stand by the way EPSRC has used external evidence and advice to inform our decision making, I would also like to stress the expertise and knowledge of our staff in managing research funding and portfolios,” he said.

Delpy added that he was concerned that the decision over synthetic organic chemistry had been misinterpreted. Reductions in funding would take place over time and not be dramatic, he said.

“We need … to identify areas where the UK has unique capabilities and strengths that other countries do not have, where in addition to academic excellence there are significant opportunities for existing industry or to grow new industries,” said Delpy. “This is not about setting budgets for individual research areas.”

Delpy also called for the UK research base to work together on the issue.

“If you have important information or evidence that you think EPSRC should be considering about the quality and importance of areas of UK research then please do feed this back through your university,” he said.