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“Absurd” EPSRC grant metric turns scientists into fortune-tellers

November 19, 2011

Earlier this week, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) implemented the second phase of its controversial Shaping Capability plan: from 15 November, all submitted grant applications will have to describe the project’s impact up to 50 years into the future. And this “national importance” metric will carry equal weight to the scientific merit of the project in determining whether it will be funded.

“All research scientists know it is impossible to predict importance of a result within a project from one day to the next, let alone to the whole nation over the next 50 years,” writes Dr Paul Clarke, a synthetic organic chemist at the University of York. Clarke has been an outspoken critic of the EPSRC’s programme on his blog Sheer Lunacy.

As an example of how imperfect foresight is, Clarke says, consider the molecule buckminsterfullerene.

“The amount of money that’s been piled into buckminsterfullerene over the years – what have we actually got out of it? Pretty much nothing,” Clarke told me. “Is the same going to happen with graphene, which they’re pumping money into? I hope not; I hope it’s a big success. But you can’t predict; you shouldn’t strangle some areas of science on essentially an uneducated whim.”

Sir Martin Rees, astronomer royal, has expressed similar misgivings. “The EPSRC’s injunction that grant applicants should think about the impact statement while framing a proposal will surely promote conventional thinking over boldness and thereby have a negative effect… To expect a researcher, or a research council committee, to make any worthwhile judgement – and make it before the work has even been done – is surely absurd.”

Retrenchment risks

The Shaping Capability plan is a direct result of the EPSRC’s budget reductions, as acknowledged in a letter to the council (pdf) from presidents of the various learned societies. Like most of the other research councils, the EPSRC is suffering a three per cent cut (pdf) in its budget over the next three years. Accounting for inflation, this may be nearer to 17 per cent, according to calculations done by CaSE.

In these straitened times, the goals of the new plan sound reasonable. They strongly borrow from the kind of retrenchment happening in the private sector: focus on areas of strength, invest more in proven researchers and pick research projects that will pay a dividend.

But the problem is that science doesn’t operate like business. The fundamental research that will open up new lines of inquiry comes in all sorts of fields, all the time – not just the ‘high impact’ ones.

Even more problematic is the issue of how this new metric might tilt the balance of what gets funded by the EPSRC. If, for instance, a mediocre proposal on graphene (already deemed to be an area of national importance and given a load of cash by George Osborne) is up against a scientifically watertight proposal on biochemistry, ‘national importance’ may be the thing that tips the scales toward the former. Unfortunately, it’s the former that is likely to be outstripped by the UK’s research competitors, who represent a growing share of the world’s science funding. The latter is more likely the research no one else is doing.

Assessment based on national importance will certainly help civil servants justify science spend to the government when the next Spending Review comes around (which is almost certainly why it’s being done). But it won’t necessarily help the state of UK science – and may wholly backfire, stifling discovery and innovation just when we need them for economic recovery.

From funder to sponsor

The new requirement is a prime demonstration of the shift from ‘funder’ to ‘sponsor’ mentality within public science funding. The EPSRC itself, at the end of 2010, stated its intention to shift toward being a sponsor of research. Its means of doing so all sound innocuous enough, but the worrisome implications are all there in the word ‘sponsor’ – it connotes a return on investment that is ill at ease with science.

In the Dragons’ Den, sponsorship makes perfect sense. No serious venture capitalist would invest without thinking of return on investment.

But I seriously doubt whether you could walk into any research lab in the UK and corner the head investigator to tell you how far from market their product was, what the profit margins would be, how widely it would be adopted and how many lives it would change. And for most, I imagine, the answer would be “What product?”

This isn’t because scientists live in an ivory tower. It’s because the process of science exists to find things out about the world – and, sometimes, this leads to something of economic and social import – but that’s not the end goal of the scientific process.

Blazing a trail?

EPSRC has a reputation for being something of a trailblazer of new funding policies. And, as the largest of the research councils by budget, it has a fair amount of weight. So, will the other research councils follow its lead down this slippery path?

At a hearing before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, that question was asked of chief executives of the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The STFC executive stated no interest in revising its guidelines, while the chief executive of the MRC stated: “It is an interesting initiative that we will watch and see how it develops.”

(Image courtesy of meeni2010)

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