A war has erupted between senior research scientists and their main funding body over who decides which projects to support – and how
If you thought scientists were quiet types who pulled their lab coats over their heads at the first whiff of confrontation, try saying five letters out loud in a university near you this summer – EPSRC. Leading chemists, physicists and mathematicians are at war with their major funder, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. They accuse the council of being out of touch and arrogant, ignoring scientific expertise and fostering mediocre science.
With a government spending review widely expected next year, and academics close to Westminster warning that science cannot expect the cushioning it was given in the 2010 settlement, the rebellion is causing serious waves. Ministers are said to be exasperated that this has exploded on to the public stage, and influential figures including Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, are battling behind the scenes to encourage a resolution.
The vice-chancellor of one research university sums up the anger in the sector: “The EPSRC is a mess. It is perfectly reasonable that it has to take measures to deal with reduced funding. But there is a much wider concern that it has lost touch with the scientists. I know of several examples of council staff saying that something is too important to be left to the academics.”
This is not small fry. The council gives around £950m of critical research funding to chemists, physicists, mathematicians and engineers a year, making it the biggest player in this area in the UK.
At the heart of the controversy is the EPSRC’s “shaping capability” agenda, which aims to refocus the council’s tight budget on areas of excellence and national importance. Overall, 14 of the 113 subjects the council funds have been marked for reduced funding, including synthetic organic chemistry and mathematical physics, with 17 areas flagged for growth.
The community was quick to mobilise its big guns when the first cuts were announced last summer. David Cameron received a letter from 25 famous mathematicians slamming the “unaccountable quango”, followed closely by another from 100 big-name chemists. In May this year, a group of academics parked a hearse outside parliament to mourn the death of science at the hands of the EPSRC. And more protests are on the cards.
Yet they insist that this is not mere flouncing about reduced budgets.