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EPSRC avoids uproar in latest funding move

Extra engagement ‘helpful’ in testing evidence, says Delpy

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council could dodge another backlash for the time being following a decision to announce major funding plans in March rather than this week.

The council reveals today that it will cut funding for two fields in its portfolio—research on energy from hydrogen and biological informatics—in a second round of investment decisions.

The long-awaited second tranche of the EPSRC’s research strategy, Shaping Capability, includes decisions on energy, engineering and ICT. In addition to the two reduced fields, five research areas will get a boost in investment while 24 fields, 11 in engineering, will see their funding kept steady. But the council has made no announcements about physical sciences or maths in this round and will leave decisions on 52 of the 111 research areas it funds until next month.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, says he would have liked to divide the funding portfolio into three equal tranches and announce decisions on roughly the same number of areas at each stage. However, it has been more straightforward to make decisions on energy, engineering and ICT “because we’ve been shaping the agenda with the community for a long time”, he says. While initial decisions about physical sciences have also been made, they are still being looked over by advisers.

Meanwhile, David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the organisation had re-commended the EPSRC should make all decisions on chemistry areas in one go. “And they are doing that, so that has been successful,” he says.

In February, 77 scientists—including Nobel laureate Harry Kroto—signed an open letter saying the EPSRC was making “disastrous errors” and should be replaced or overhauled. They claimed “unqualified EPSRC staff” were making decisions on research funding without consulting researchers.

Delpy says the decision to delay the second tranche of decisions—originally due in October—is solely due to this “feedback” from researchers. Following the tension that arose after the initial funding announcements, the EPSRC asked learned societies to nominate individuals to “give valuable input” to the decision-making process. However, the societies were not asked to provide direct input on the fate of individual research fields. “This is not a referendum,” Delpy adds.

The information from these discussions, along with other evidence, was then gathered and “interpreted” by EPSRC staff. It was then sent to strategic advisory teams of academics to consider and amend, he says.

Meanwhile, the EPSRC council was called on to check the evidence behind the decisions, but not to make calls on individual research areas. Ultimately, adds Delpy, EPSRC staff are accountable for the decisions.

David Payne, director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton, says he has had open discussions with the EPSRC on the shaping exercise and has had a “close relationship” with EPSRC officials for years. However, he adds, he has made an effort to nurture the relationship: “Putting it bluntly, if you haven’t engaged, then stop complaining.”

The shrinking area “hydrogen and alternative energy vectors”, accounts for £17.4 million from the EPSRC budget and includes research on the safe storage of hydrogen, the conversion of hydrogen into fuel cells, and the economics of a hydrogen energy system.

Delpy says much research in the area has reached a mature stage and industry and the Technology Strategy Board have picked up the baton on many of the technologies it covers. “What we try to do is to refocus academics working in that area of energy to look at some specific new materials in both storage and very-efficient hydrogen generation,” he says.

In biological informatics, he adds, basic ICT techniques are translating into the remit of the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.