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EPSRC unveils second round of funding decisions

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is to cut funding for energy research on hydrogen and biological informatics, reveals its latest round of funding decisions.

However, the two areas stand alone in facing reduced funding. Another five research areas will get a boost in investment while 24 fields, of which 11 are in engineering, will be maintained at current levels.

The long-awaited second tranche of the council’s research strategy, ‘Shaping Capability’, was published on 15 February and includes funding decisions on 31 research fields in energy, engineering and ICT.

The council, having taken extra time to “engage” with academics on the decisions, has not disclosed by how much it is planning to grow or shrink the fields.

Areas the EPSRC intends to grow are energy storage, energy efficiency, whole systems, and research on devices and communications for microwave and radio frequency. Of these fields, the biggest is energy efficiency, on which the council spends £31 million on 204 grants. For energy, the EPSRC has now made decisions on all areas except its magnetic-fusion programme.

The reducing area “hydrogen and alternative energy vectors”, which gets a £17.4m investment in 34 grants, includes research on safe storage of hydrogen, the conversion of hydrogen into fuel cells, and the economics of a hydrogen energy system.

In an interview with Research Fortnight Today, the EPSRC’s chief executive, David Delpy, says research in both hydrogen energy and biological informatics has reached a relatively mature and applied stage, translating into the remits of the Technology Strategy Board and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council respectively.

However, Neal Skipper, a physicist at the University College London who has a £162,400 EPSRC grant on hydrogen storage, says he’s worried about the plans.

“I don’t think the TSB will pick up all of the research in this area,” he told Research Fortnight Today. “I would say particularly hydrogen economy is worthy of support.

“Unless there is some sort of formal arrangement for making sure that somebody else picks up the initiative then I think it is likely to be problematic in that area,” he adds.

Nigel Brandon, director of the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London and a senior fellow of the Research Councils UK’s energy programme, has had discussions with the EPSRC about the exercise. He says that although more research is needed in the hydrogen field, he agrees that the technologies are beginning to “gain some traction”.

“In the context of energy … I’ve had the opportunity to view the [EPSRC’s] consultation process from the inside and I think they’ve done a good job taking advice. Of course it’s not possible to consult everybody,” he adds.

The document follows a first tranche of decisions released in July 2011, in which the council revealed the faith of 28 of the 111 research areas it funds—including cuts to synthetic organic chemistry.

The second round was originally intended for October last year but was delayed following a plea by six learned societies to pause the exercise and take more time for wider consultation.

There was also vocal opposition from a group of academics protesting against the cuts and the EPSRC decision-making process. In a February open letter in the Daily Telegraph, 77 scientists including Imperial College chemist Anthony Barrett and Nobel laureate Harry Kroto said the EPSRC was making “disastrous errors” and should be replaced or overhauled.

It claimed “unqualified EPSRC staff” were making decisions on research funding without consultation with researchers.

As a result of the criticism, the council has held phone and email conversations with some 46 researchers nominated by the Royal Society of Chemistry and 31 put forward by the Institute of Physics—a process it says has been “helpful” in testing the evidence.

The information, along with other evidence, was compiled and “interpreted” by EPSRC staff and fed to strategic advisory teams of academics to consider and amend.

“In the light of the feedback from the first round we’ve adapted it and tried to … make sure that the academic community is happy with the way this is carried out,” says Delpy. However, he adds, the learned societies were not invited to provide direct feedback into whether research areas should grow or reduce: “This is not a referendum.”

In March, the council will publish its biggest and last tranche of decisions—52 out of 111 areas—including the fate of its mathematical and physical sciences areas.