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Vagueness reigns as UK science agency defends cuts

The tensions and protests have been sparking since July — but there were few fireworks at a meeting today in London, where more than a hundred senior researchers gathered to quiz officials at the United Kingdom’s physical sciences grant-funding agency about controversial changes to its strategy.

For months, scientists have been protesting the policies of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which in July started to reveal the research fields — such as synthetic organic chemistry — for which it would reduce funding as a result of government budget restrictions. Scientists complain that the agency has not consulted them adequately, and say it has not used rigorous evidence to reach its conclusions. Chemists and mathematicians wrote to prime minister David Cameron to protest the cuts, and last week, the Royal Society joined the political wrangling, writing to the agency (together with other learned societies) to tell it to “pause” its exercise and consult more widely.

As expected then, the mood at the meeting today — which journalists were not permitted to attend — was “a little bit uncomfortable,” says Daren Caruana, an electrochemist at University College London, although “there weren’t any punch-ups,” he says.


Though EPSRC restated the details of its figures, the over-riding feeling from those present was frustration at the vague nature of the new policy: what cuts would the agency actually implement, and how would it go about them? Andrew Bourne, presenting EPSRC’s strategy, said the agency wouldn’t present its full physical sciences decisions until November, and wouldn’t get to the nitty-gritty of winnowing out grant applications in particular areas until April 2012 — and that it was still wondering how best to do it.

“They gave the impression that they had started on a journey, didn’t know where they were going to end up, and were just hopeful they were going to get there,” says the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Neville Reed. Many researchers are sympathetic to the need for change: a show-of-hands vote suggested that 90% of those at the meeting appreciated the importance of demonstrating the ‘impact’ of their research, for example. But it’s unclear how this should be done in practice.

Chemists at the meeting attacked the details of one thing that EPSRC seems certain about — that synthetic organic chemistry is getting too much money — and protested that it wasn’t clear to reduce support for an entire discipline while also growing funding for topics that partially fall within that discipline, such as catalysis.

“They really didn’t seem to give ground that they’d done anything wrong or could do better,” said Reed. On the plus side, he said, the meeting was a start to better engagement. “We are not actually asking EPSRC to reverse its decisions, just for better engagement and dialogue,” he said.

Ultimately, the meeting gave little indication that EPSRC would end up forced to change course, attendees said. Eyes now turn to a council meeting sometime in October, at which chief executive David Delpy — who did not attend today’s meeting — will review criticisms made in the letter from the Royal Society and other UK learned societies.

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