Archive for the ‘policy’ Category

A different way

Like many physicists, I suspect, I grew up gripped by the developments in quantum mechanics that happened at the start of the 20th century. This is often portrayed as the work of lone geniuses: Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and the rest. That this work was carried out in isolation is to some extent true, but there was a surprising amount of collaboration and certainly discussion between the big hitters of the time. This work, and related studies in areas such as radioactivity, ultimately led to one of the biggest scientific collaborations that had ever existed – the Manhattan Project. This was an altogether different beast: one goal, build a bomb. Many of the brightest minds, engineers, physicists and chemists came together to work out how to achieve what they viewed as something that could help to win the war.

In modern times we have our own parallels of such large scale collaborations, CERN being the most obvious example. These mainly occur because of the huge scale and expense of the projects under consideration. I do often wonder though if we wouldn’t be much better placed to carried out nearly all scientific research through such large ‘crowdsourced’ efforts.

I have a small research group, too small to easily carry out the various ideas that I might have, too small to have the resources to fund all the experiments I’d like to try. It may be that I can persuade a funding council to give me money for these ideas, but the odds are against me. I can then wait and see if we can do them on the fly somehow, or find, depressingly, that someone beaten us to it, a few years after my original thought. I suspect nearly every scientist has similar thoughts about work that just never gets done.

But there are lots of groups out there, lots of talented people, lots of equipment going spare – lots of slack at certain times within any research group, big or small – why don’t I just publicly lists all my ideas and hope someone else runs with it and sees if it’ll work or not? It doesn’t work like that of course. We are precious with our ideas as they define our careers, the funding that we do get, which in turn allows us to build our groups and justify the continued need to employ us. Even collaborations, which are a way to help realise ideas that often we can’t do ourselves can be difficult, time consuming and often not quite what you need if you team up with the wrong group.

This does, I suspect, also have the problem of massively slowing down progress. We all want to win the prize, get the plaudits, get the pay rise, and this stems from doing the work and having your name in the right place on the author list. In this day and age of open access publishing, open data and near instantaneous access to all knowledge it does seem that if the end goal, the experiments, the finding things out is what we want to achieve , that our current way of ‘doing’ science seems increasingly outdated.

Could we do things differently? Would it be possible simply to fund research teams that can then respond to new ideas – take the very best ideas and see them through – have secure funding for staffing and equipment at certain Universities and then let academics the world over provide them with the ideas? This would provide much greater focus and possibly much greater efficiency in how we spend research money. An example would be, say, a centre for optical microscopy in the life sciences, based, for arguments sake at Dundee. We fill it with 100 staff and then throw open to the world the idea to present us with the most pressing problems in the area. It may be that these ideas receive some peer review to set priorities and then we task the centre with solving the problems. The originator of the idea gets appropriate credit, and the centre works collaboratively with the research community to help it make progress. We set up these little ‘Manhattan Projects’ with stability for staff, enhanced training for students, and better opportunities to exploit the research through critical mass. In a sense it centralises the experimental skills and distributes the ideas. It is a model that appears to work for very large scale experimental work, but would it be more efficient than our current massive distribution of experimental skills?

As it happens I am reading J. Craig Venter’s most recent book ‘Life at the speed of light‘ which in a way promotes this idea – a highly skilled, well funded lab pushing for a clear and ambitious research goal. Admittedly he was (and is) in competition with other groups, but if that funding was more concentrated and the initial thinking open and free for wider input and discussion to happen, could things have gone even more quickly? Do we want to see the results and the progress and quickly as we can or keep all the glory for ourselves?

The answer is that I am not sure – the model would seem to work in some cases, but clearly has problems, and would more than likely have to be globally accepted to work in the way I think it could. But with new paradigms appearing in the field of ‘open’ academia very rapidly, maybe there is a different way that we could do science, and actually see more of the collective ideas of the research community come to light and bear fruit.


The Geek Manifesto

May 30, 2012 1 comment

It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error,’ he said. ‘It is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.’

So (more or less) ends the Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson, with a quote from Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court Justice. I don’t think I am giving anything away though when I say that this is the core message of the book.  This is the crux of the book, the idea that in all spheres of life, from the media to government and the healthcare to the environment, science is misunderstood and misrepresented. This is often unintentional, but sometimes is willful. The clarion call is that those of a scientific bent need to stand up to those who would use scientific evidence in inappropriate ways, or indeed to simply ignore it, and to try and correct mistakes and lack of understanding.

There are numerous clear examples in the book, covering all walks of public life, of how scientific evidence has been used and misused over the past decade or two – most of these, I suspect will be very familiar to the intended readership – MMR, evidence on drugs, nuclear power etc, but the narrative flows well, and the argument largely hangs togther in a cohesive manner.

My only major criticism is that some of the argument makes thigns a bit too black and white, and at the end of the day, making decisions at a societal level is statistics based, and that can be tough politically, not to mention disenfranchising for many. For example, it may well be that one way of teaching reading is better than another, and national policy can take that into account, but what if the evidence is that it is only better for 60% of pupils (I am making these numbers up)? That’s clear cut – the majority would benefit, but the reality not picked up in that type of ‘only look at the numbers’ geekfest, is that you may end up damaging the other 40% more than if you stayed with the ‘worse’ methodology. You could then argue hybrid systems could be brought in, but that makes things so much more complicated and leads to extra testing to find out what is optimal for each child. This sounds ideal, but probably isn’t realistic. So we have to be mindful of how data is interpreted and made use of, but we also have to be sensitive to a large number of other factors that shape government decisions. I think the book is not so great on dealing with nuance. Where there is clear cut evidence that policies are nuts, we should complain and demonstrate why, but sensitivty to broader issues and concerns is needed too, else the clinical ‘geeks’ come across as arrogant and patronising.

And we want science and critical thinking to become central to the national conversation. We want as many people as possible to appreciate not only what science achieves, but how it achieves it. We know that that has to start at school.

I think this idea is important, and I give a school’s talk myself on why I think learning science for it’s own sake is important, even if you never go on to work in a science or engineering field, but I do wonder sometimes if the idea is oversold. The book tells the great story about the school kids from Blackawton Primary School who undertook original work in studying how bumble bees decide which colour of flower to get nectar from. The children designed an experiment and then went through the scientific process of iterating the experiment to try to prove and improve their hypotheses over what was happening. My question is, that having down this once, have they learned their lesson over how science works? Clearly we should try and encourage this type of thinking in school kids, but beyond a certain introductory nature will kids not understand how an experiment works, how science works? A different question is: do kids actually know how science works when they leave school, but when they get to the real world they just forget or ignore it, as it seems far removed from what they do on a day to day basis? I’m all for a better science educated population, I’m just not completely sold it makes that much difference in the types of decisions discussed in the book.

Another of the arguments of the book is that it appears that scientists and engineers are under represented among MPs. I’m not entirely sure on the stats here, but it may just be that people like lawyers and doctors are over represented. I suspect more people work on shop tills that as bench scientists, but there is no big call for more of them to be elected as MPs. I suspect that getting certain types of people into politics will be difficult – my general impression, at least among my online contacts, is that often scientists align with political factions that tend to lose elections ;-). I also think, at the end of the day, politics is about going out and talking to people and persuading them about why they should vote for you – and to do this, your have to have much further motivations than the deisre to see evidence win out.

I really liked the Geek Manifesto, I took much of it to heart, but maybe I’m just pessimistic that it will result in much, but maybe there are signs that the geeks (which I find an ugly word) are really starting to find a voice. Alternatively maybe I should just chuck all this academia in and go and get elected or become a teacher. Do something more directly meaningful. You should all read this book.

PhD Visa rules

May 21, 2012 7 comments

Last year I had an enquiry from a prospective PhD canidate, from Libya. He seems like a decent enough bet: he had a MSc from Cardiff, and his references from there were fine – so there were no major concerns with his English or his general background knowledge. His MSc project was in an area relevant to my own work. So, it looked like his could make a go of a PhD. The basic paperwork was in place for him to come, he just needed to acquire a visa. Then the revolution started. Communications went down, and there was no way to know what was really happening. Thankfully, sometime after things had settled down I got an email to say my applicant was OK, and was the offer for the PhD still open? So we sorted the paperwork out again and an application was made for a visa. Note that the Libyan Government would pay the overseas fees (>£12k per year) and that his stipend would be around £1900 per month (much more than the EPSRc stipend of around £1150 per month). The visa request was turned down – the reason given was the monthly income was less than £2400! If one includes the fees and stipend, the Libyan Government was prepared to pay more than £3000 per month to fund this student.

In the Sunday Times this weekend there is an article [paywalled] about Indian students ‘shunning’ the UK as visa regulations get tougher and courses increasingly expensive. Damian Green, the immigration minister is quoted as saying:

There is no limit on the number of genuine students who can come to the UK and our reforms are not stopping them.

Well Mr Green, in this case they clearly are, unless of course you are coming from a country that is prepared to pay, not only 3-4 times the fees of a UK/EU student, but also more than twice what the UK Government is prepared to pay it’s own physics and engineering PhD students. It seems we are quite happy to support regime change in Libyan, but not quite so forthcoming in helping to educate their students.

I don’t really understand the decision making process here, but if this is the general rule for overseas PhD applicants relating to visas, then I think UK Higher Education may have a very serious problem, which is not just brewing, but well underway. ‘Cos clearly we can afford to turn away decent students with the money to finance their studies behind them.

I’m reading Mark Henderson‘s ‘Geek Manifesto‘ at the moment, and clearly it has had some effect, as I now need to take this up with my MP.

What did EPSRC do? Part 4: Impact, Importance and the Shape of Capability

I think the most contentious things that the EPSRC has done in it recent structural changes relate around the RCUK Impact agenda, common across all research councils, and its implementation of a a ‘shaping capability’ program, looking at focussing research funding to research areas of particular need or importance.

In my opinion these changes aren’t such a huge deal but the way in which they have been communicated has been poor, and I’m not really completely sold on the specifics on the implementation.

Pathways to Impact

Pathways to Impact is a RCUK mandated change to grant proposals, and as it has been communicated to me, the idea is that in order to justify what research scientists get money for then we have to give some indication as to what use that research is to be put to. The big initial issue with this was the assumption that ‘impact’ meant economic impact – and this has resonances with problems with the introduction of a measure of impact within the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment process that all Universities are currently preparing for. However, I think it is clear now that, while I’m sure RCUK would be happy if every grant was going to spawn a spin-out company, impact has a much broader scope. It includes ways in which your research will underpin other research areas and developments, how it might be used by other researchers and how it can impact on the wider community, for example.

The practical consequence of this is that it forces you to think about the utility of what you are asking the taxpayer for money to do, and to think about the non-economic benefits as well as economic benefits of the proposed research. I don’t really think that anyone can have any significant objection to this process. There are issues however. Firstly, most people did this anyway. You’d be daft to write a proposal which did not have some form of justification as to why you needed the funding. This would be taken into account by reviewers, and the strength of your science would then be the major factor in reviewers comments. What is now asked for, is a two page discussion of your proposed pathways to impact. For a NERC ‘Small Grant’ which is only two pages long, and even for a standard six page EPSRC grant, this seems somewhat excessive.

More generally, with the idea of justifying what your impact might be, the question is: who am I justifying it to? The idea that has come from EPSRC, and I think I’ve heard David Delpy discuss it in these terms, is that in order to maintain science budget spending, work has to be justified to Whitehall and the Government. But I very much doubt that anyone other than the referees and maybe someone at EPSRC will ever read the statements. They are not published. So it just feels like a lighter touch could have been employed; that the extra burden on the grant writer could have been minimised, and impact could have been folded into the structure of a grant in a more seemless way. At the end of the day what it means is more work for grant writers and reviewers, for which I see no real need. The usefulness, or lack thereof, of such statements is also touched on by Athene Donald in a blogpost from last year: “Very few referees comment specifically on the mandatory (for UK research councils) ‘pathways to impact’ statement”. Maybe this has changed, but that is how I tend to deal with them, when I review, so it does beg the question, why do we go to so much effort?

The other complaint about the Pathways to Impact statements was that they are an invitation for hyperbole and exaggeration about the significance of your work. I think this is a legitimate concern – I have seen many grant applications prior to the Impact statements that were very good at promoting their work in unrealistic ways, and that by flagging up some big numbers from international reports and market surveys made their end goal look far more impressive than it really was. The issue here, I feel, is that weight is given to the statements when reviewing, and while most reviewers are canny enough to spot this type of stuff, it can lodge subconsciously in the brain, and maybe you rate a ‘full-on’ impact statement grant a little bit better than a more sober and realistic one.

When writing an EPSRC grant application, one has to write a short ‘impact statement’ on the submission form (on JeS), and accompany this with a full up to two page ‘Pathways to Impact’ statement as part of the grant. My solution would be to stick with the short form version, have some consideration of it in reviewing to make sure the applicants are taking it seriously and then publish it if the grant is awarded for all to see. This would satisfy all the points I think that RCUK want to make, and would reduce the overall burden on applicants and reviewers.

National Importance

I have yet to write a grant making use of the newly required ‘national importance’ statement. I have been to an EPSRC workshop on the issue, and am not entirely sure I am much clearer about what they really mean. This in part is perhaps because EPSRC don’t seem to really know what they mean either. This statement within a grant is a short form, perhaps a few paragraphs (so light touch), and “reviewers will be asked to consider national importance as a major secondary criterion, after research quality, in their assessment.” So it would seem to be important in terms of your funding success. So what is it? The controversy comes form the fact that it is a prediction looking forward to the next 10-50 years…which seems a recipe for hyperbole and spin. From the EPSRC webpage on National Importance:

National Importance is the extent, over the long term, for example 10-50 years, to which the research proposed:

  • contributes to, or helps maintain the health of other research disciplines contributes to addressing key UK societal challenges, contributes to current or future UK economic success and/or enables future development of key emerging industry(s)
  • meets national strategic needs by establishing or maintaining a unique world leading research activity (including areas of niche capability)
  • fits with and complements other UK research already funded in the area or related areas, including the relationship to the EPSRC portfolio and our stated strategy set out in “Our Portfolio”

The problem here is that the language is unclear. How can one predict over a 10-50 year timescale how your work “contributes to current or future UK economic success” ?- that doesn’t really make sense to me, or how can it “fit with and complement other UK research already funded in the area”? The language seems confused.

More confusing are the suggestions made by various senior researchers giving their views on what should be in such a statement, and how they would review them. These all seem to take slightly different viewpoints, and it is clear there is no real coherent idea of what such a statement should be. I mean how can there be? What will be of national interest/importance in 10 years time is very difficult to guage. If I went back thirty years and I was developing new mathematical models for financial derivative analysis, I could probably make a good case for making someone lots of money ten or twenty years hence. Pushing it to thirty, and I’m not sure that provoking a world wide financial meltdown would have been something I’d strongly want to advocate. To me, and to many others, this is just a silly inclusion.

But the thing that annoys me here, is again the question of ‘why?’ I have no truck with making suggestions about the impact of my work, or how I can seeing it playing out in the future. But why give these things such weight, and why the need to drill down and specify them in some a niche way without seeming to have a clear idea about what they mean. Who is this stuff for?

I note that the EPSRC Council have a letter in the Telegraph today, in which they say, “With a spending review possible in 2013, this is a time for the research community to work together to explain why science and engineering is so important for the UK”. I think that the Pathways to Impact and National Importance statements are at the heart of this. The problem is, that unless David Delpy is literally going to copy and paste these components into a report for Ministers, then this seems a poor way of going about telling a coherent and upbeat story.

Shaping Capability

EPSRC have undertaken a shaping capability exercise recently, which was designed to try and align the funding portfolio more close with areas of ‘national importance’ (whatever taty may be) and UK strength. This could have been a fairly radical change, and EPSRC has come under a lot of flack for how it has gone about its ‘grow, reduce, maintain’ program of reviewing different portfolio areas. The outcomes for physical sciences can be found here. [As a side note, finding stuff on the EPSRC website can be a real pain]. Most things stay the same, a few grow and reduce. Clearly those in an area of reduction may feel angry/worried. EPSRC’s failing here has come in how it has communicated how it has come to these decisions. The suspicion has been that in many cases decisions has been taken by non-expert EPSRC staff, and that consolations have not been taken as widely as they should. Some of this criticism seems justified, although some smacks of, ‘well they didn’t ask me!’

Once again I would ask whether these changes really serve anyone well. What appears to have happened is that small group of areas will have funding cut, but I question what the real practical consequences of this will be, as the area definitions are often quite woolly, and most grants span more than one. When we hear of a grant being returned due to its subject area being in a reduced topic, or when a panel is directed to fund a grant in a ‘maintain’ or ‘grow’ topic over one in the ‘reduce’ pile then we should get angry. EPSRC could have cut many more things, and really shaped the portfolio, but it seems to chickened out. My opinion here is that we should fund good stuff equally, but if a decision was made to shape, then, had I been in charge, I think I would have been more aggressive. So maybe it’s just as well I’m no where near the reigns of power.


So to end this little summary of what EPSRC has been up to (I will omit detailed discussion of some of the other minor points I raised in the first article), my personal belief is that EPSRC is doing a tough job, and is having to make tough decisions. I think the current disgruntlement with this process will pass in due course, but it would be nice to have clearer information about why the specific details around some of the implementations have been the way they have. I see no issue with discussions of impact, am skeptical about national importance, will lament the loss of grant funded PhD students and think the limited submission policy could be improved. Aside from that I think that EPSRCs community needs to try and keep communicating the issues we have in a sensible way, and that EPSRC needs to learn how to communicate more effectively.

What would happen if we didn’t fund University research?

Could this post do me out of a job? I worry about the value of what I, and many of my colleagues, do. I have benefited from a long tax-payer funded education, and am now a well paid academic (certainly compared to teachers, for example, who have a much tougher job than I do). I teach (which I care about) and do research, or at least try and acquire money for my lab minions to do research, and do a bit of admin on the side. If you are a prospective undergraduate, it should suffice to say that I enjoy teaching, put effort into it, and try and will try my best to help you understand new material and develop your subject knowledge and new skills. You might also think it’s cool that I dabble with lasers as a sideline to the teaching role you see me the most in. For the general public, I also think that ‘lecturer’ is associated mostly with teaching, and the occasional news item reminds them that we do other stuff as well. Equally though, those news items might just as well be about people carrying out research in the States, in Germany, in China, in anywhere else but here.

The argument for investing in British science and engineering is that it helps to develop economic output, that some of the weird stuff that we do bleeds into making money for the country at some point. What if we didn’t invest though, or at least didn’t fund research through Universities? What if we took the billions of pounds that we pay out for research through University grants, University direct research funding and staff salaries and funneled it through directly funded industrial research programs and a few select basic research (only) centres, with perhaps greater critical mass than at present? We could then leave Universities to get on with teaching.

In this model, advanced training such as PhDs would be carried out in industry. Blue Skies projects would be allowed, and block funding could be used to establish permanent positions – think of something like the old BT labs, but funded by the tax payer. One of my current postdocs is about to leave my group to join a small start-up – there is private equity money for this, but why couldn’t the company get an independent grant to pay for him to do research, if that is what they wanted? Why can this only happen fully in academia? If the emphasis is for impact beyond an invited to talk to a few hundred of our friends, why not fund it directly?

Clearly there are lots of issues with this, associated with the commercial nature of how such money was used and the more fragile nature of companies in the private sector. Maybe it would promote inward investment though? Also the argument for doing stuff for its own sake to see where it takes us is strong among academia, but a serious question is: would we, the public, notice any real difference?

I debate this with myself quite a lot – if all the research currently funded in the UK University sector was to disappear tomorrow, would we really notice? If discovery X was made in France, would it change how I view the world? Would it make any huge difference to the public services I receive? I’ve yet to see a really convincing argument of the direct correlation between the output of Universities in terms of their research and direct economic benefit.

Obviously what we do is not simply for economics (there is the pleasure of finding things out), but is the way we approach science and engineering in the UK really the optimal way to strike a balance in generating new knowledge, providing UK plc with some new stuff to play with, and teaching new generations of scientists and engineers about how stuff works?

What did EPSRC do? Part 3: Changes to PhD studentships

May 16, 2012 2 comments

Once upon a time, about 15 years ago I embarked on my PhD, paid for by an EPSRC grant. I was what was called an ’embedded student’, and without this grant funding I wouldn’t have been able to carry out the project I wanted to do. Undoubtedly the work would still have gone ahead, but mostly likely with a postdoc doing it, rather than a PhD student. So the changes that EPSRC made recently to embedded studentships cut close to home.

You can no longer apply for a PhD studentship as part of an EPSRC grant submission. This, as I understand it, is broadly in line with other research councils, and means that the allocation of EPSRC studentship is dealt with through a quota allocation to the University using a ‘Doctoral Training Account’ (DTA) or through the funding of a thematic Doctoral Training Centre.

The reasoning behind this change is, I think, that a research grant should focus on a research problem, rather than be a training mechanism for a PhD student, and also that by trying to collate students around training centres, a bigger critical mass of expertise is built up. The University quota system has been in place for as long as I can remember, and this enables people without specific research funding to still be in with a chance of having someone to work on a project, or people with funding to try and work on something different. One of my students is currently funded through this type of scheme and this has enabled us to start up a new physics/life science interface project, which will hopefully lead to formal funding in the future.

This sounds OK, right? Well, the issues with this are that the quota DTA funding is limited, and is linked to the number of grants that a University has. At Dundee, with relatively limited funding, compared to many of the bigger departments/universities, we don’t get much of this type of money and getting a student can be difficult – EPSRC leaves the allocation, and the allocation process, up to individual Universities. Even in more successful places, which tend to be bigger, your odds of getting such a student can be slim. When I was at St. Andrews, it worked out as something like one student per PI every three years – assuming an equitable share (which in my experience would be rare). If you work in a department with a DTC then your chances improve in getting a student, but as, I think I am right in saying, a DTC typically has about 10 students per year to hand out, if you happen to be in one of the limited group of Universities that have these you are still limited in your chance of getting one. Because the DTCs are discipline specific, if you fall outside the discipline, you can’t get one, and even within the discipline, in larger interdisciplinary settings you are still going to struggle.

What this tells you is that if you are in a well funded, DTC holding department, your odds of getting a student are higher than if you are in a smaller, less well funded department. And this is probably as it has ever been – but the removal of PhD students on grants has then two big effects on the active researcher at a smaller department:

  1. I am dependent, to a large extent, not only on how well I do at getting grants, but also on how well everyone else is. So even if I were to have a great run of luck and bag a few grants in the next few years, there is still no real guarantee that I’ll get a PhD student, with the low numbers of DTA positions, and the lack of a DTC. Further, while there are some areas where I could see us bidding for a DTC in, realistically our chances of getting one aren’t great.
  2. Grants where you would have applied for a PhD student and no postdoc become much more expensive. I’d argue that anybody applying before the change for a three year PhD position will now just apply for a three year postdoc, regardless of whether they really need three years of postdoc time. A PhD student costs around £60k, a postdoc well over £100k for the same period. So I think that this does end up taking money away from the overall research grants budget. I can sort of see the argument for “efficient research = postdoc”, but practically I don’t think people shorten grant lengths because of it.

The consequence of this will be some withering of smaller departments where there are fewer big names and fewer big grants. It means I need to work harder to gain funding. The DTCs should improve student training and develop critical mass, and provided they are reviewed appropriately (which I think they are), there should be no abuse of the system. But I am curious that if we had some sort of half way house – say a grant could have a PhD student or a postdoc, but not both on it, then financially this might be better, or at least more transparent.

To finish this tale, I would say that without a grant funded studentship my life might have been very different. I turned down a job offer to take my PhD, and who knows where I would have ended up. I am sorry to see them go, but I feel that a grant funded before with a student on it will get funded with a postdoc on it, so no huge overall loss – we’ll get used to this change.

Categories: physics, policy, research, science Tags: , , ,

What did EPSRC do? Part 2: Proposal submission changes

In this post I want to start to look at the various changes that EPSRC have introduced over the past few years and why they have led to many feeling disgruntled with the changes. This is not to say that I completely disagree with the changes, but many I feel have been misguided. The first major change that EPSRC made to the grant submission and writing process was a few years ago, when they banned the re-submission of grants, and introduced a ‘three strikes’ rule, whereby applicants who were repeatedly ‘unsuccessful’ would be barred from submitting grants for a period. In fact after the initial announcement EPSRC did back track a little on this, and didn’t ban people outright from submitting, but limited them to only one grant in a year after the sanction was imposed.

Prior to this new rule you were free to submit as many grants as you liked, and if a grant was rejected, you could tweak it and resubmit after a cooling off period of six months or so. The burden that this placed on EPSRC in terms of dealing with refereeing and assessing the submissions was the reason given for changing the system, and in particular the delays introduced in getting referees to respond to proposals. In addition, the data suggested that very few resubmitted grants were ever funded.

This smacked of punishing academics for an internal EPSRC failing, and although there is no direct evidence of this, what appears to have happened was that EPSRC didn’t really know who to ask when seeking referees. EPSRC’s refereeing base is a ‘College’ of several thousand reviewers drawn from the EPSRC community, both academics, industrial scientists and engineers and those in other organisations such as NGOs. The problem, as I saw it at the time, was that I knew of plenty of people working in ‘hot’ fields that were in the College but who were never asked to review papers, some over the course of five years or more. Conversely, many, especially big names, or those well known to EPSRC got lots, often 10 or more a year. Clearly this disparity had an effect on the review rates. My hypothesis is that the people selecting the reviewers at EPSRC maybe didn’t have a good over view of the field (and this is sort of understandable – typically you might start at EPSRC as a newly minted PhD and work your way up). You could argue that they were simply asking their good bets, people they could trust, but I think the issue was a bit more basic than that. So we paid for inefficiencies in the system.

EPSRC will now tell you that they get far fewer submissions and the whole process is a bit smoother. That is to be expected, but the way in which this change was implemented was a bit of a shock to the system to many, and as the thing was backdated it made it even worse, which led to some timescale of implementation changes.

I think the key thing is that it got things off on the wrong foot, and it still rankles a bit. The communication was poor – which is a running theme with EPSRC – and the justification was never terribly strong. As things stand, I guess we are getting used to it. It does give me pause for thought when starting to put together a proposal – and this can be a bad thing, as I might hold off on something cool and speculative, as I feel it has a poorer chance of getting funded. (Note I am writing such a grant this week, as it can be submitted in a scheme which does not fall foul of these rules – I may never have written it otherwise). I have to be very careful, as if I have a great idea and it doesn’t get funded, I can never really send it back again. The worse thing is that an ‘unsuccessful’ grant proposal in this system is one which falls below the 50% line in the grant panel rankings. This does not imply that my grant is bad, poor science, or unfundable in any way, simply that the panel felt 50% of the submissions were more suitable for funding. This is a ‘strike’ and it does hurt.

The idea that we are getting used to this is important. As the other changes come into force we will ultimately get used to them. For someone new hired today, these rules are just the rules, there never was anything different. Is this a bad rule? In parts, but if it means that EPSRC can actually function and is not swamped with loads of proposals, maybe it’s the price we pay. Or maybe we need to make sure that we oppose anything that is really to the detriment of physical science and engineering research in the UK.

Categories: physics, policy, research Tags: ,