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Pressure on cuts pushed up the chemistry pipeline

David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has written to David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, outlining the society’s concerns over the council’s recently published funding portfolio.

In his 22 August letter, Phillips asks what evidence the council used in deciding to cut funding for synthetic organic chemistry and what decisions have been made in the remaining funding areas.

He also says that the RSC was not consulted on the changes to the portfolio, published on 20 July, but was merely asked to comment.

The letter follows mounting pressure on the RSC to react.

Paul Clarke, a chemist at the University of York who has previously asked the science minister, David Willetts, for an inquiry into how the EPSRC works, told Research Fortnight Today this week that several RSC members were upset about the society’s lack of support.

He said there had even been talk about mass resignations from the RSC in the absence of a robust response.

“I’m glad they’ve done it [written the letter] but I would have liked to see this letter three weeks ago,” he said. “If they had done so, then I think they would have headed off an awful lot of discontent with RSC members.

“The key point is that the RSC was exceedingly slow off the mark in challenging the EPSRC and condemning the fact that the EPSRC was targeting a branch of chemistry without providing any evidence for it,” he said.

In an article in Nature News on 20 July, Delpy claimed that the RSC, the Institute of Physics and other organisations had been consulted on the research portfolio. The IoP immediately called for a correction and subsequently issued a news release. In a statement on 26 July, Phillips described the EPSRC’s decision to reduce funding for synthetic organic chemistry as “objective” and did not call for a correction until 8 August.

In another letter, published in The Guardian on 15 August, some 100 chemists warned Prime Minister David Cameron that the EPSRC’s decision to reduce funding for synthetic organic chemistry would “injure” the UK economy.

This week, a spokesman for the RSC told Research Fortnight Today that the organisation had previously raised concerns about the EPSRC funding portfolio “in private”, but that it had now recognised the need to make their discussions public.

“There are some very vocal members that have taken a response to the EPSRC funding portfolio reflecting their interests, which is understandable,” he said.

“We have asked for more information to come in from the EPSRC—we are having ongoing meetings with them—and we did not want to comment in full until we knew the details behind their decisions,” he added.

In his letter to Delpy, Phillips said he welcomed plans for a town meeting for the physical sciences on the 26 September, but also said he would like a response before then.

“I hope you can address these points before the town hall meeting, so that I may give some much needed reassurance to our community,” he wrote.

Clarke, however, said that he would “still like a statement to say that the cutting of funding from any branch of chemistry is fundamentally wrong”.

The EPSRC has announced funding decisions for only 29 out of 111 research areas. The remaining decisions will be announced in early autumn or early 2012.