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Cuts completed for UK physical sciences

It’s been a tough year for David Delpy as chief executive of the United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the nation’s main physical sciences funding agency. In response to government cuts last year, the agency decided to rethink its research-funding strategy. It sliced up its pie into 113 different fields, and then slowly unveiled judgements about what it would support and what it would cut back. The process began last July and immediately ran into complaints from scientists about arbitrary decision-making and insufficient consultation.

Today, EPSRC published decisions on a final 52 fields, including cuts for surface science, mathematical physics and sustainable land management, and gains for software engineering and metamaterials. Overall, the agency wants to increase funding for 17 fields, reduce it for 14 and maintain it for 82. That is a relative balance; even ‘maintain’ fields will lose funding, because over the next four years the agency will see its £830-million (US$1.3-billion) 2010–11 research budget cut by around 12–15% in real terms.

There’s apparent transparency and precision here (113 categories!), but even after nine months it is still unclear what EPSRC’s strategy will mean in practice.

The fields themselves have fuzzy boundaries: for example, the agency wants to reduce surface science but put more money into metamaterials and catalysis (both of which involve a lot of surface science). And there is still no guidance about how much money any of the areas will gain or lose; Delpy says that the priorities are ‘just directions of travel’ and that no area will be entirely cut.

Paul Nurse, president of the UK Royal Society, shows how he and many other scientists are finding it hard to read EPSRC’s message, telling policy magazine Research Fortnight that he would find it hard to make an analogous case in biology that “this discipline dealing with protein synthesis needs, say, 15 per cent more funding whereas this discipline dealing with RNA synthesis needs 5 per cent less”. That sort of statement is precisely what EPSRC has avoided.

Some scientists have also chafed at EPSRC asking them to predict their work’s national importance in research-grant proposals. The agency is not rowing back on that, but has repeatedly assured scientists since July that quality is still the main factor for research grant decisions. Today it makes clear again that national importance will be a ‘major secondary criterion’, not a ‘major criterion’ in grant proposals.

Delpy says that the agency has “a responsibility to shape the overall UK research base”, and there’s a danger of individual universities taking local decisions that add up to the wrong national path — which is why EPSRC has to set out its priorities like this and keep national importance in mind.

After initial complaints about lack of consultation, EPSRC did spend time talking to scientists hand-selected by UK learned societies such as the Royal Society of Chemistry (ROC) and the Institute of Physics (IOP). The RSC’s president David Phillips seemed happy today, saying that the agency had committed to engaging with scientists more clearly. But IOP president Peter Knight was a little more circumspect: “We remain concerned about the rationale for some of the individual decisions made and about the long-term impact on this country’s research base, which will only become clear when we have seen how EPSRC’s new system works in practice,” he said.

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