Before the British government decided to cut science funding, researchers rallied in protest. Now that research funding agencies are deciding how to parcel out the government cuts, the protests have shifted down to the level of affected individual disciplines. Today, some 100 senior chemists around the world – including six Nobel Laureates – have sprung to the defence of synthetic organic chemistry in the United Kingdom, which is to be selectively squeezed of funding by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Writing collectively in a letter [pdf] to British prime minister David Cameron, 27 UK chemists say that the proposed cuts would “injure an invaluable section of the UK economy” and would also disadvantage biomedical research and innovation. Some 72 separate letters from very eminent industrial and academic chemists across the world have also been sent to Cameron today. The letters were coordinated by Anthony Barrett, head of synthesis in the chemistry department at Imperial College London. The Guardian carried the story. [Update: EPSRC ’s response, reiterating the necessity to reduce funding, is here].
The warnings come in response to plans laid out by EPSRC in July, when it started to reveal the research fields for which it would selectively reduce funding as a result of government budget restrictions. (For details, see Nature’s initial coverage: “Budget cuts bite for UK physical sciences”). EPSRC have decided on a slow reveal for their cuts: we are about a third of the way through the decision-making process, and synthetic organic chemistry is an early casualty. There are no details on how much funding will be reduced.
The chemists’ letters today continue recent strained relations between EPSRC and its researchers. Two years ago, scientists protested about an exercise in ‘demand management’ that involved preventing repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants from continuing to apply. (After those protests, the agency revised its policy).
Those complaints share two common themes with today’s discontent. Both argue that EPSRC did not consult its research base adequately. And both cast doubt on the evidence EPSRC used internally to justify its judgements. As David Price, vice-provost of research at University College London, put it in Nature‘s 20 July report about the EPSRC cuts: “There may well be a case, but it’s not proven that investment in synthetic organic chemistry hasn’t been value for money… but that’s not what [EPSRC are] saying – they’re saying, ‘we’ve done a lot of it and we need to reduce that funding’”.
“We await the Prime Minister’s response and we very much hope that David Delpy [chief executive of EPSRC] will be questioned by the House Commons Science and Technology Committee,” says Barrett. He points out that a 2009 international review of chemistry, commissioned by EPSRC, judged synthetic organic chemistry to be a notable strength in the UK.