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Factions. Probably not the future of science

May 15, 2012

Funeral for science: EPSRC protest, 15 May 2012The scientists who rallied around a coffin today to proclaim the death of British science are pretty pleased with their stunt.

All day there’s been a surreal blend of funeral rites and jovial camaraderie in the face of an evil monolith based in Swindon.

There is apparently no limit to the number of faults the protestors can find with how the EPSRC allocates funds – from the “circumvention” of peer review to the allegation that excellence is no longer a funding criterion (both denied by the EPSRC).

And almost everyone I’ve spoken to is optimistic that they’ll be able to bring down the EPSRC. Or, at least, convince enough MPs to sign an Early Day Motion. They need around 40. I just heard that Menzies Campbell confirmed that he would put his name to it.

But I feel that regardless of how much enthusiasm bonded all these chemists together today, their protest won’t make much of an impact. The EPSRC’s controversial Shaping Capability plan, the subject of today’s protest, was agreed with government and signed off by its own council of senior scientists and engineers. If David Willetts responds at all to today’s stunt, he’s likely to scream “Haldane!” and run away from all this mess.

But the biggest thing standing in the way of the 100 people today are, well, all the other scientists out there. I believe today’s protestors when they tell me that they’ve received many emails of support from colleagues who are not prepared to risk funding or reputation by making a stand. And they did manage to mobilise more than just chemists – I found physicists and mathematicians here too.

But I’ve also heard a lot of very sensible arguments from beyond today’s group that what science needs right now is unity.

In the run up to the next spending review, which could be as little as one year away, scientists need to make evidence-based arguments for science as a whole. This is what the Science is Vital movement achieved in 2010. Now we’re in 2012 and science is splitting into factions.

James Wilsdon, professor in science and democracy at SPRU, puts it thus:

Rather than continuing to escalate this row (most of which is motivated by sour grapes from a few research groups who consider themselves to have lost out) we need to draw a line under all this and focus attention instead on the real battle, which is maintaining, and ideally increasing, overall public investment in research next time around.

Today also marks the launch of Science for the Future, which states its aims as broader than just this EPSRC issue. But it is not yet clear whether the group’s leadership will be able to rely on today’s protestors in the bigger fight that is sure to come.

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35 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2012 6:26 am

    Hi, Adam.

    It was a pleasure to meet you at the event yesterday.

    I find it remarkable that James Wilsdon’s argument appears to be that as long as the overall settlement for science is fine, then we shouldn’t be concerned if the methods used by EPSRC/RCUK for disbursing public funds are entirely flawed.

    I, for one, think that a cut in the overall budget for EPSRC would be less damaging for the long-term health of science in the UK than the policies that the Council have introduced over the last three to four years. Indeed, we at Science for the Future could think of many ways of introducing efficiency savings to EPSRC. Adrian Smith and/or David WIlletts only have to give us a call…

    Moreover, where is James’ evidence that the protest is motivated by “sour grapes”? I can give him a list of those who attended yesterday which he can cross-reference against EPSRC’s “Grants on the Web” utility to check the current grant income of those involved in the protest. For example, and as you know, I currently hold an EPSRC fellowship. Details of this are easily found on the web.

    This has very little to do with sour grapes. As Tony Barrett pointed out yesterday, this is about the future of science and the research environment for the next generation of scientists. Not all of us are entirely self-motivated and self-obsessed…

    As I mentioned, I’d be more than happy to debate with James re. the motivations for the protest yesterday and, more broadly, the variety of very worrying problems with EPSRC’s funding policies. Perhaps you’d be willing to host a ‘spat’ at your blog?

    Best wishes,

    Philip

    • May 16, 2012 7:38 am

      Hi Philip,

      Thanks for the comments. I’m sure that James will have a response.

      I’d be more than happy to host a kind of debate here, focusing on the various strategies with which researchers can object to and help form funding decisions. Let me give it some thought about how we could do it (ideas welcome!).

  2. Michael Duff FRS permalink
    May 16, 2012 6:49 am

    With his title ”professor of science and democracy”, your readers might be forgiven for thinking that James Wilsdon is scientist, experienced in conducting scientific research. In fact none of his degrees are in science (unless you count theology). Curious that you (and the BBC) quoted his opinions re EPSRC but not those of the Nobel Laureates.

    • May 16, 2012 7:42 am

      Hi Michael,

      I quoted James here because his point supported mine, which itself was based on having been there yesterday and speaking to scientists regularly who are not part of Science for the Future.

      I accept that there is the chance that SFFT will continue to grow its membership beyond those represented yesterday and in yesterday’s petition. That appears to me to be SFFT’s challenge: starting the bigger debate that fully includes all researchers and goes beyond the issues with the EPSRC.

      I’m looking forward to seeing SFFT’s ideas on how it will do this.

  3. May 16, 2012 7:56 am

    Whatever the merits or demerits of EPSRC action, only if scientists and those who work with scientists and have influence (don’t decry all James Wilsdon has done for science over the years just because of his degree subject) pull together with a single voice that the government can understand will any headway be made. That was why Science is Vital was so successful. It wasn’t about factions, or specific policies made by one research council or another. It was about the fundamental importance of science to everyone. The SFFT group may or may not suffer from sour grapes, but they are representing a small minority of people with specific gripes. Furthermore, the very fact the word ‘faction’ can be raised in the context of their actions means they have failed. They are not representing all of ‘us’ and many of ‘us’ do not agree with their stunt yesterday. It is, as has been said, damaging and divisive instead of moving the dialogue forward, for all it got plenty of media attention.

    • May 16, 2012 10:45 pm

      Athene,

      You haven’t addressed the point I make above.

      What you want us to do is to ignore what many see as the mismanagement of science funding solely so we can present a united front to BIS/the Treasury. You might be comfortable with that. Many would see this stance as rather supine and, I’ll say it again, unethical behaviour. ‘Pragmatism’ can be taken too far.

      Is your response that, regardless of what flaws we see in the research councils, we should keep our heads well below the parapet and not ‘rock the boat’? Is this really the message you want to send the next generation of scientists?

      Philip

  4. May 16, 2012 5:30 pm

    To add to Athene’s comments, I think it’s unfortunate that Michael Duff takes that personal line of attack on James Wilsdon. There’s a curious kind of anti-intellectualism that discounts the opinions of someone who makes a living doing serious academic studies of science policy simply because their degree isn’t in a science subject. And, as Athene says, James has done a great deal for science. As director of science policy at the Royal Society, he was one of the main driving forces for the Scientific Century report, which many think was a very significant factor contributing to the fact that the science budget settlement was not as bad as people were expecting. And we should recall what might have happened – if the science budget had been cut in proportion to the rest of the BIS budget we wouldn’t have been worrying that you can’t put PhD students on grants – universities would have been making postdocs redundant before the ends of their contracts as live grants were rescinded. Having been on the Scientific Century working group, I saw the thoroughness with which the science policy team went through all the evidence to make the best possible case for science, informed by heavyweight group members like Paul Nurse, Mark Walport, Richard Friend and David Sainsbury. So I think we can be confident that James understands the issues in depth, and just as importantly he understands the politics.

    On the substance of the complaints of the SFFT group, there’s a big issue and lots of little issues. The big issue is whether scientists should have the license to work in isolation from the society that funds them, or whether they should accept that society should have a say in their priorities. This is an old argument, of course, going back to Michael Polanyi’s Hayekian argument for an “independent republic of science”. We can have views about whether such as state has ever existed in the past (I don’t think so) or whether it would be desirable in principle, but what’s most pressing now is whether this is an argument that will politically fly. At a time of economic slump, with public spending on causes much closer to the public’s heart is being very visibly cut, I don’t think so. The only argument we can make for funding science is that it is vital for society, not just in generating economic growth but in many other aspects of public value.

    I have to regret the way the protest unfolded – the degree of hyperbole was just risible. My understanding is that Stalin was too busy organising large scale arbitrary executions to concern himself with specifying subject areas in which fellowships might and might not be held. This kind of thing just makes us look ridiculous, and amounts to a squandering of media and political attention which could have been used for making a positive case for science.

    • May 16, 2012 10:54 pm

      Richard,

      “The big issue is whether scientists should have the license to work in isolation from the society that funds them, or whether they should accept that society should have a say in their priorities”

      Sorry, but this rather misrepresents the issues:

      It’s a question of (to list but three points):

      (i) the use of appropriately transparent and sound mechanisms to disburse public funds,

      (ii) the ‘public good’ character of scientific research (have you read Philip Mirowski’s “Science Mart” yet? You’ll enjoy this),

      (iii) the erosion of the fundamental ethos of science and the scientific method. Any research council that states that potential impact should “inform the direction of your research” is distorting and perverting the disinterested character of basic science. We wouldn’t tell 1st year undergrads that they should design an experiment so that it gave the results we ‘expected’, would we?

      You, Athene and others are seemingly happy that the character of basic scientific research in UK universities can be eroded, as long as the cash keeps flowing. The disinterested, independent qualities of science – and the importance of those qualities for society at large – should not be bargained away in order to secure short term ‘gains’ in funding.

      Philip

    • May 16, 2012 10:58 pm

      By the way, see here for a perspective from an STFC-funded researcher. It’s worth reading many (all!) of Peter’s other blog posts. He talks a lot of sense.

      Philip

    • May 24, 2012 6:42 pm

      “My understanding is that Stalin was too busy organising large scale arbitrary executions to concern himself with specifying subject areas in which fellowships might and might not be held.” This is wrong. Stalin took an active and personal interest in promoting Lysenko’s ideas (for example). We know the result. Do we want the same sort of thing to happen in the UK? Science for the Future is trying to prevent that.

  5. May 16, 2012 8:13 pm

    Richard, I am entirely with you when you state that “The only argument we can make for funding science is that it is vital for society, not just in generating economic growth but in many other aspects of public value” It seems entirely reasonable to me, in these straitened times, that the public should seek comfort that research funding, which is, and always has been, a scarce resource, is being applied to those areas of research which have been assessed to be of greatest importance to society at large.
    The implication of SFTF’s position seems to be that the EPSRC, by nailing its colours to particular research themes, is imposing an unjustified constraint on researchers’ freedom to investigate. This is clearly not so, as very significant scope remains within those broad areas for researchers to pursue their particular specialisms and areas of interest. The real issue for some, I suspect, is the realisation that if they are to succeed in securing grant funding in future their funding applications will have to show due consideration to impact factors that, hitherto, have played second, if not third, fiddle to those of pure scientific merit. This is far from trivial, and one can understand why the required mindset change is likely to be a challenge for some.
    As Britt Holbrook comments at http://cas-csid.cas.unt.edu/ “If scientists and science funders don’t work together, politicians are likely to react by cutting science budgets. That’s an outcome no one in the scientific community (including funding agency officials) wants.” I could not agree more.

  6. May 17, 2012 8:14 am

    Philip
    I don’t see that accusing me of being supine and unethical is particularly helpful. Very few people would recognize me in that characterisation I think, particularly as – behind the scenes – EPSRC would definitely regard me as one who frequently challenges their actions on many fronts. I just don’t need to use Parliament Square as a place for grandstanding.

    So what point would you like me to answer? That you believe a cut in EPSRC funding is preferable to what they are doing now? Well I don’t believe that. Furthermore by making remarks like that in a public sphere you merely damage the prospects for everyone’s science in the future (and beyond the EPSRC) by throwing a lifeline to those politicians who feel there are more votes in other issues such as health or policing. That I think their process lack transparency? – I don’t believe that either, it is simply that you don’t like the criteria they use however transparent they are. You have been arguing – with consistency I’ll grant – that the impact agenda is a BAD THING ever since it was introduced. I happen to agree with Richard that “The only argument we can make for funding science is that it is vital for society, not just in generating economic growth but in many other aspects of public value”. I have very recently served on an EPSRC panel when the grant which came top was undeniably blue skies research in the way you mean it. But the authors could and did still write an excellent Pathways to Impact Statement covering broad justification for their work. But their work would have got funded even if this statement had been less excellent. You always portray the world as black and white, the evils of impact against the purity of blue skies. It ain’t like that.

    As for your claim in your response to Richard that ‘the erosion of the fundamental ethos of science and the scientific method’, it is just another example of that ‘risible hyperbole’ he has mentioned. If you and your colleagues are going to rely on arguments about Stalin, the death of science and the erosion of the scientific method you are not going to convince many people of the strength of your case. Personally I prefer to engage with EPSRC out of the public eye and with hard evidence not grandiose exaggerations. Pragmatic I may be, supine I am not. It’s a shame you and your colleagues descend to the personal.

    • May 17, 2012 1:07 pm

      Athene,

      When did I mention Stalin? When have I ever mentioned Stalin in any of my exchanges with you, Richard, James Wilsdon, Jack Stilgoe, EPSRC/RCUK etc…? Please don’t put words in my mouth. (Note that you said “You and your colleagues…”).

      But, nonetheless, my apologies for lapsing into what looks very much like an ad hominem/personal attack. That really wasn’t my intention and it’ll teach me to try to rush a response out at 23:00 after a three hour train journey. I’ll try to make the point again.

      Are you suggesting that if academics are not satisfied with EPSRC funding policies that we should keep our mouths shut simply so that we do not bite the hand that feeds?

      Apologies if this is not your argument but it certainly looks like it. If this truly is the argument you and others are putting forward then I am afraid that even a disinterested observer would classify it as a supine, weak, and, yes, unethical *argument*. Don’t rock the boat in case you compromise the potential funding stream…

      If this is not your argument please explain why you are asking a major section of the EPSRC-funded scientific community to stay schtum and not upset the apple cart despite major concerns. [Apologies for the plethora of mixed metaphors. I’m particularly proud, however, of “keep our heads below the parapet and not rock the boat” in one of my previous posts].

      And please don’t tell us to ‘engage’ with EPSRC in a less public forum. We’ve tried. Repeatedly. And been ignored. Repeatedly.

      In any case, and as I said a while ago at your blog, whatever happened to the idea that academics should speak truth to power?

      Finally (for now), in what sense is it a grandiose exaggeration to state that EPSRC is eroding the scientific method? RCUK’s top ten hints for completing a Je-S application are here .

      How is tip #1, viz. “Draft the Impact Summary very early in your preparation, so that it informs the design of your research” not an erosion of the scientific method? This is a recipe for R&D, not exploratory research.

      It may be that, as you say, grant prioritisation panels are intelligent enough to circumvent this piece of advice from EPSRC/RCUK. But that entirely misses the point. They are *circumventing* the advice. Other panels may not be so canny.

      And I certainly do not perceive the world as black and white, as you put it. I’ve recently, for example, had a 20 partner Marie Curie training network funded which includes 9 partners from not only private industry but other “socioeconomic actors” (to use the Commission’s preferred terminology) including the IoP, the Royal Society Science Policy Centre, and Scientists for Global Responsibilty. I am fully aware of the benefits of interacting with beneficiaries and users of research.

      It is no exaggeration at all to state that EPSRC is gradually eroding the ethos of scientific research in the UK. And if academics are not going to do exploratory, curiosity-driven, and most importantly independent research free of market concerns, then who will?

      Philip

      • May 17, 2012 1:21 pm

        Philip
        I accept your apology, but feel that you do need to be careful in tossing such remarks about. I don’t have time to respond properly today, but I will merely say that my use of the word ‘and’ means you and your colleagues collectively not each and every one of you individually referring to Stalin. If you are a collective group, doing a collective stunt, then you should expect to be held collectively responsible for the messages you give out, particularly when they are intended to be eye- (or ear-) catching. So much would seem more probable than assuming that I am misquoting you as individual.

        Furthermore, as regards tip #1, I still don’t see that as erosion of the scientific method. It merely suggests that PIs should think about what sort of ‘impact’ might be associated with the work they want to do at an early stage not, as so often the statements look like, leave it to the last moment just before they press the submit button. It does not require you amend what you plan to do and how you plan on doing it so you can come up with something plausibly like impact.

        When I have time I will respond more at length here or elsewhere.

  7. Paul permalink
    May 17, 2012 11:57 am

    I think the exaggerated and inflammatory nature by which science4thefuture have launched with a tabloidesque publicity stunt has only succeeded in driving a deep divide between researchers. Most of the statements from science4thefuture about EPSRC policy are, in my opinion, heavily over-exaggerated or just plain incorrect. While many may not agree with some of EPSRC’s recent policies (e.g. attempts to predict future impact of a project (although considering how to maximise the impact of a project is a very useful exercise), the rich-poor divide created by CDT studentship cohorts, inability to reformulate and resubmit good ideas for funding that didn’t make the cut in the first instance), most do not see EPSRC as the enemy. I personally feel that EPSRC is doing its best to maximise its available funding during challenging times. It is up to the community to engage with EPSRC in reasoned diplomatic discussions to work together to resolve the issues that we feel need to be looked at further.

    Blowing these issues out of all proportion and trying to create scandalous press headlines about mismanagement of public funds etc. etc. can, in my view, only damage the reputation and image of academic science in the public eye and lead to bigger future problems such as a cut in public funds for research.

    • May 17, 2012 1:23 pm

      Paul,

      The same question to you as to Athene…

      Very many of us do not think that the issues are being “blown out of all proportion”. By moving from a funder to a sponsor of research (so that the Council clairvoyantly selects “winners” in a blatantly unfair and biased distribution of public funds) and by attempting to embed a strongly entrepreneurial character in academic research so as to “shorten the innovation chain” (David Delpy, 2009), EPSRC is distorting/perverting the character of publicly-funded science in the UK.

      This might not be a big issue for you. It’s a huge issue for very many EPSRC-funded scientists.

      “I personally feel that EPSRC is doing its best to maximise its available funding during challenging times.”

      And therein lies the rub. Is maximisation of funding for research the only thing we should be concerned about? As long as we secure a flat cash settlement for science overall in the next CSR are you saying that we need not be concerned with how EPSRC decides to distribute that funding?

      Philip

      • Paul permalink
        May 17, 2012 1:39 pm

        Philip,
        As I said, the community needs to work with EPSRC to resolve any issues (dipomatically, through reasoned dialogue). However there doesn’t appear to be consensus as to what these issues are, which is a problem. If we don’t speak with one voice then the message won’t be heard.

        However, I believe (and hope!) that most researchers in the EPSRC-funded fields don’t want to associate themselves with school-boy pranks like mock funerals and ridiculous reactionary claims comparing EPSRC to Stalin’s dictatorship. The whole stunt was embarassingly unintellectual and shamefully misjudged. Therefore most researchers are distancing themselves from science4thefuture as much as possible.

  8. May 17, 2012 1:38 pm

    @ Athene, May 17 1:21 pm.

    It merely suggests that PIs should think about what sort of ‘impact’ might be associated with the work they want to do at an early stage not, as so often the statements look like, leave it to the last moment just before they press the submit button. It does not require you amend what you plan to do and how you plan on doing it so you can come up with something plausibly like impact….

    Sorry, Athene, can’t let this go because, for me, it’s absolutely central to the argument.

    RCUK states quite explicitly that “Impact” should “inform the direction of your research”. It’s much, much more than, as you suggest, “think about what sort of impact you might want”. It’s that potential impact should influence the direction of your research.

    Now, you or a panel might not interpret it like this but that’s not the point. RCUK clearly states that to have a successful grant application, exploratory (basic/blue skies/fundamental – whatever you want to call it) research is not enough. Impact must define your approach to science.

    That is quite simply a sea change in the process – and, indeed, socioeconomic role – of academic research in the UK. You and Richard may class this as ‘risible hyperbole’ if you like. Many of us who are concerned about the integrity of the scientific method don’t quite see it like that.

    Philip

  9. May 17, 2012 1:45 pm

    @ Athene (again!).

    Athene, you still haven’t addressed the point I raised at the start. I’m going to doggedly pursue this, I’m afraid.

    Here’s the question again:

    Is your response that, regardless of what flaws we see in the research councils, we should keep our heads well below the parapet and not ‘rock the boat’? Is this really the message you want to send the next generation of scientists?

    I’d very much appreciate a response.

    How do you think we should go about raising our concerns about the flawed and unscientific distribution of public funds resulting from the policies introduced by EPSRC? There have been a variety of meetings of various groups with Delpy et al., the Science and Tech. Select Committee has taken EPSRC to task (and prompted what was a farcical performance from Delpy and Armitt), and the learned societies/professional bodies have also brought pressure to bear.

    All to no avail.

    What do you suggest we do to effect change?

    Philip

    • May 18, 2012 8:57 am

      Philip
      I did answer the question. I told you I challenged EPSRC on many fronts but not in Parliament Square.

      • May 18, 2012 12:02 pm

        Athene.

        No, you didn’t answer the question.

        The point is this. When our challenges to EPSRC ‘behind closed doors’ lead us nowhere (and they haven’t over the course of roughly four years), what do you suggest we do then? Meekly accept that the Council can do whatever it pleases with regard to how it allocates funding because we’re too scared to challenge it publicly in case it sends out the wrong message to the Treasury?

        I am genuinely interested in the alternative strategy you would apply to bring pressure to bear on EPSRC. For example, the only reason they did a partial U-turn on the entirely underhand original (i.e. retrospective) version of the blacklisting scheme was due to the application of very public pressure.

        Philip

  10. May 17, 2012 1:50 pm

    @Paul.

    And your evidence that “most researchers are distancing themselves from Science for the Future” is…?

    As I said, the community needs to work with EPSRC to resolve any issues (dipomatically, through reasoned dialogue).

    And if that reasoned dialogue gets us nowhere (and it hasn’t), then what? Simply accept that we can’t effect change?

    Philip

  11. May 17, 2012 1:53 pm

    @Paul.

    By the way, if you could point me to where Science for the Future has made an incorrect statement, as you suggest in your comment above, I’d appreciate it. I’ll pass on the corrections to those running the campaign.

    Thanks.

    Philip

    • Paul permalink
      May 17, 2012 2:01 pm

      Well you could always start with the proclaiming of the death of British science!

      I don’t have time to disect the many statements that have been made as there are so many because the campaign doesn’t seem to have a single message (except perhaps that EPSRC is evil). Most of these individual comments seem to revolve around personal gripes related to their pet projects rather than the bigger picture of EPSRC’s strategy. The campaign needs a major PR face-lift if it wants to be taken seriously.

  12. mark permalink
    May 17, 2012 3:20 pm

    In what context is ‘Impact’ being considered? I think that this is a much more fundamental question than whether or not there should be an Impact Report. The existence of impact reports seems to just be a tick mark, who’s proponents have figured out, or have a predisposed ability on, how to draw the correct parallels with what is ‘fashionable’ wrt actually acquiring funding. For example, green energy, climate control, nano-tech, and, I am sure there are others, seem to be good boxes to tick right now.

    Economic concerns seem to be guiding science, and that is what I am concerned with, how the boxes are ticked makes no difference to me, it is what those boxes represent which causes the discord in the scientific community, and this comes right down to personal political opinion. No wonder there is a divide over this.

    Surely proclaiming the ‘Death of British Science’ was a publicity stunt, strangely, the general public is interested in science as far as ‘So what do we get out of your research?’. So, stunts like this could be perceived as a way of dragging public interest into the debate and producing interactions with scientists on the real issues in what research should be ongoing, from a public and scientific perspective.

    Attacking a group which holds some opinion and expresses it in a way in which they feel they should express it completely misses the point. So what if you feel embarrassed with the behaviour of some of your peers? Should you not actually debate the issue rather than the means. I mean, it’s not as if the tactics were particularly abhorrent…public dissent should be completely acceptable in a free society. No?

    I am convinced that the people talking to each other in this forum are doing so with the best intentions to get their ideas across. Taking personal offence at how something is worded seems a little unscientific. Now. I have obviously not added anything to the debate with this post, however, I would have liked to learn something other than even scientists can mistake dissent for communism whilst reading it.

    • May 17, 2012 3:39 pm

      Mark.

      “Now. I have obviously not added anything to the debate with this post….”

      To the contrary, you’ve added a great deal to the debate. Great post.

      Philip

  13. Michael Merrifield permalink
    May 17, 2012 5:02 pm

    I happen to agree with Richard that “The only argument we can make for funding science is that it is vital for society, not just in generating economic growth but in many other aspects of public value”

    That is a sufficiently general statement that pretty much everyone would sign up to it, as long as you are prepared to accept that cultural enrichment is a “vital aspect of public value” — perhaps a tough case to make when weighing it up against ensuring that everyone gets fed this month.

    However, it is entirely a top-level argument, that science in general is worth doing because it is a net benefit to society. It does not make sense to make the argument on a proposal-by-proposal basis, because the benefit is only a net one, not one that can, or should, be argued for any individual worthwhile piece of original science.

    Look at the historical precedents: when bidding for funding for CERN in the 1980s, no-one would have put the world-wide web in an impact statement because no-one had thought of it. The true impact case is the entirely general one that if you put clever people together to do a number of interesting things, then there will be huge spin-offs from some (but certainly not all) of them. The most interesting spin-offs will be the ones like the WWW that are entirely unpredictable because they are entirely new, so, by definition, cannot be put in an impact statement.

    So, make the top-level argument: we certainly have enough track record to show that it is true that funding science research is a net huge benefit to society. But stop crippling innovative science by trying to make a case at individual proposal level that only makes sense at subject level.

  14. Steve Hawkins (@Spamlet47) permalink
    May 17, 2012 8:06 pm

    All this reminds me of early days of environmental campaigning when stunts like the one Science for the Future pulled this week were common. Personally as a shrinking violet I found them cringemaking and it put me off joining the groups for years, but truth has to be told that this is what got the public and media attention that was needed, and the debate has rolled on ever since.

    You – scientists – now embark on a similar course and it will probably take both the stunt approach and the softly softly technique to keep the ball rolling. I’m sure we will all be the better for it in the end. Good luck to both sides.

  15. May 17, 2012 8:41 pm

    To move this fascinating and useful debate on, I’ve started a new post here: http://wp.me/p1UThR-cw

    Let’s discuss the future of Science for the Future.

    Adam

  16. Paul permalink
    May 18, 2012 10:02 am

    @Paul Clarke. Thanks for the link.

    With regards point 1. Do s4tf have evidence that portfolio driven research produces inferior science?

    For point 2, I do think a better balance between DTC studentships and other studentship schemes needs to be found so to prevent unfair rich – poor divides in the community based on having access to DTC students or not.

    I have little knowledge of the schemes you refer to in point 3 so cannot comment.

    I’m not convinced by point 4. Do s4tf have evidence contrary to EPSRC’s claim that excellence is not the primary criteria for funding and that impact is being given undue waiting? Or even that peer reviewers are being coerced in this way?

    I’m not happy about point 5 either. I think EPSRC are trying to find a balance for reasonable admin and peer review work loads. This is perhaps an area where the community can find a compromise with EPSRC, such as agreed criteria a grant must meet for it to be resubmitable if unfunded.

    Point 6. Maybe this could be resolved with a mixture of directed fellowship schemes and a small number reserved for applications that fall outwith these target fields.

    As I said, I don’t think EPSRC schemes are perfect but I think over-exaggeration, e.g. stating that excellence is no longer a primary criteria for funding, is not helpful. The valid points then get lost as EPSRC can simply respond to the invalid points to make your protests as a whole seem weak and unfounded. I think the moderate, middle ground is the better stance to take.

    I have no issue with EPSRC trying to target its portfolio to try to make best use of its funds. For example, without looking the data up, I would guess that every chemistry department in the country has synthetic organic chemistry groups. Has this lead to a disproportionate amount of funding given to this field compared to what might be expected as world class research outputs? Would UK academic competitiveness be improved if some of these groupings considered applying their skills to other key scientific challenges? Or to encourage more interdisciplinary collaboration? It has not been said the synthetic organic chemistry will no longer be funded, so truly excellent and innovative work in this field should still receive funding. Funding will just be more competitive in these areas for purely blue skies ideas.

Trackbacks

  1. Science funding review – Telegraph | csid
  2. The future of Science for the Future. Discuss. « Purse String Theory
  3. Science Funding: Too Complex for MPs? | I, Science
  4. Science funding: too complex for MPs? « Josh Howgego

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