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Protesting scientists deliver coffin to Downing Street

Scientists carried a coffin containing a petition from scientists protesting against EPSRC policies to Downing Street.

AP Photo/Sang Tan

Physicists and chemists in the United Kingdom have staged an unusual protest against their research funder: carrying a coffin down London’s Whitehall to Downing Street.

The stunt marks the start of a campaign pressing for reform of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPSRC), which has introduced a number of policies that, according to the protestors, result in more money being allocated to the council’s strategic priorities rather than blue-skies research. One of the organizers of the Science for the Future campaign, synthetic–organic chemist Tony Barrett of Imperial College London, described the trend as a “Stalinist collectivization of science” that he says has placed British research in mortal danger.

Unpopular policies include the council’s decision last year to stop funding PhD studentships on research grants, limiting fellowships to specific subjects, a ban on the resubmission of most rejected grant proposals and a cooling-off period for “repeatedly unsuccessful” grant applicants (see ‘Fixing a grant system in crisis‘). New funding schemes such as the Dream Fellowships mean that more money is being allocated by EPSRC staff, rather than through proper peer-review of proposals, the protestors argue. The EPSRC’s ‘National importance‘ criterion for grant proposals, which asks researchers to outline how their work might meet ‘national strategic needs’ over 10–50 years, has also drawn fire.

Rebecca Goss (with daughter)

“I’m absolutely appalled with the unscientific way in which funds are being allocated,” says bio-organic chemist Rebecca Goss of the University of East Anglia, one of around 80 scientists who attended a briefing meeting before the protest. “One of the things that worries me most is that you have to predict what the impact of your research might be — that way, you’re funding just incremental research.”

The campaign won the backing of nine Nobel laureates, who called for the EPSRC to be reformed in a letter to the Telegraph today. Barrett also squared off with the EPSRC’s chief executive, bioengineer David Delpy, on the BBC’s Today programme earlier in the day (from 47 mins).

The EPSRC said the protesters were a small, vocal minority of the scientific community.

“Supporting scientific excellence — the very best ideas — is at the heart of all that we do and this remains the number one criterion for peer review in selecting research projects to fund,” said Delpy in a statement. “With a tough spending review likely in 2013, it is vital for the research community to work together to make the best possible case for the public funding of science and engineering.”

AP Photo/Sang Tan

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