Volume 89 Issue 34 | pp. 34-35
Issue Date: August 22, 2011

British Chemists Are Fuming

U.K.’s main science funding body angers researchers over budget-tightening policies
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: Funding, EPSRC, UK

As violent riots rocked London streets last week, a different kind of storm was brewing in chemistry departments across the U.K. Two groups of hundreds of angry chemists have sent letters this month to the government to protest funding policies put in place by the U.K.’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The council is the main funding body for chemists in the U.K., playing a role similar to that of the National Science Foundation for molecular scientists in the U.S. EPSRC’s current annual budget is approximately $1.4 billion, two-thirds of which supports research in 11 themes with the remaining funds split between fellowships and administration.

The two groups of irate U.K.-based chemists are protesting different aspects of the way EPSRC is choosing to fund scientific research: One objects to the agency’s overall strategy and the other to specific cuts to synthetic organic chemistry.

At issue are several policies EPSRC is using to divide its budget in a tightening economic climate. Under one of the contentious policies, the economic impact of proposed research will be given important consideration, along with criteria such as scientific excellence and national importance. To do so, the agency organized its research portfolio into 111 different research areas, and it is in the middle of deciding which areas receive a funding increase, reduction, or no change.

This policy, as well as EPSRC’s recent requirement that applicants list the expected impact of their proposed research, is making researchers concerned that “EPSRC will not fund the most excellent science but the science that best fits with their preconceived ideas of what science is relevant to the economy,” says Paul A. Clarke, a chemist at England’s University of York and author of one of the letters.

In July, EPSRC announced that, on the basis of its prioritization procedures, the agency would reduce funding for synthetic organic chemistry by an unspecified amount. Currently, this research area is funded at about $72 million, or 5.6% of EPSRC’s physical sciences research budget.

That same announcement reported an increase, also by an unspecified amount, to the area of catalysis, which currently accounts for 3.7% of the council’s physical sciences research budget, or about $46 million. Most of the other 109 areas, such as analytical science and chemical biology, are still under review. Under the U.K. system, EPSRC has until March 2012 to set the exact funding levels for research areas, creating uncertainty for the research community.

Another point of concern for letter writers is a new policy that permits principal investigators (PIs) to pay only postdocs from EPSRC research grants—and not Ph.D. students. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) estimates that this rule will cause the number of physical science Ph.D. positions in the U.K. to drop by 30%, going from about 2,900 to 1,900.

The first protest letter, penned by Clarke and signed by more than 100 chemists, decries the overall direction and strategies EPSRC is using to fund science. Dated Aug. 10, the letter takes issue with policies that “prioritize arbitrary areas for research based on their perceived economic value.”

“It is clear that the EPSRC has the potential to do significant and lasting damage to the U.K.’s capability for fundamental scientific research,” the letter states. As a result, the group calls on Minister of State for Universities & Science David Willetts to “initiate an inquiry into the role and mode of operations of the EPSRC.”

The second letter, dated Aug. 14 and addressed to Prime Minister David Cameron, protests EPSRC’s decision to reduce synthetic organic chemistry funding. Authored by the University of Cambridge’s Steven V. Ley and Imperial College London’s Anthony G. M. Barrett, and signed by some 100 international chemists, primarily synthetic organic researchers and including some Nobel Laureates, this letter questions the decision-making process used by EPSRC to target synthetic organic research. “EPSRC is attacking an area of fundamental importance to the U.K. economy,” Barrett tells C&EN.

Noting the essential role synthetic organic chemistry plays in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, diagnostics, personal care products, electronics, and food production, the letter predicts “dire consequences for some very successful industries.”

The funding agency has justified some of its actions on the basis of tightening fiscal constraints, such as a flat national budget, which amounts to a budget cut since its coffers won’t grow with inflation: “But it’s not just about cuts,” says an EPSRC spokesman. “We operate in a context of increasing international competition in research. If the U.K. is to remain internationally leading, we have to be strategic. You can’t be strategic by simply salami-slicing funding and cutting everybody a little piece.”

Instead of prioritizing specific disciplines for an increase or reduction of funding, Barrett says the best approach is to let the best ideas be funded by means of expert peer review. Although EPSRC does have peer review, reviewers are increasingly being asked to evaluate proposals outside their areas of expertise, such as a laser spectroscopist reviewing an organic chemistry proposal, says Karl J. Hale, a synthetic organic chemist at Queen’s University Belfast and a signatory to the second letter.

In early August, a meeting between several EPSRC staff and several synthetic organic chemists “confirmed our worst fears,” Barrett says. He’s now worried EPSRC proposals can be reranked by EPSRC staff after peer review if peer review does not correlate with top-down priority research areas, he says.

This is not the first time in recent history that EPSRC has rankled British researchers. In 2009, EPSRC announced that it would bar scientists from applying for funding if their past success rates were too poor.

Under that policy, PIs who had “three or more proposals within a two-year period ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritization list or rejected before panel and [had] an overall personal success rate of less than 25% over the same two years will not be allowed to apply for the agency’s money for two years, either as the PI or the co-PI.”

After 1,800 British scientists signed a petition against that policy, calling the new rules a form of blacklisting, EPSRC “backpedaled ever so slightly,” Clarke tells C&EN, by permitting targeted researchers to submit one grant the following year.

When asked how the council made the decisions to increase funding for catalysis and reduce it for synthetic organic chemistry, an EPSRC spokeswoman replied in an e-mail to C&EN that “our decisions are based on our expert knowledge of the whole U.K. landscape.” She added that the agency used grant data, international reviews, and other reports, as well as “advice from key groups and individuals such as strategic advisory teams, learned societies, and industry partners.”

But members of some of those sectors say they weren’t consulted. For instance, David Phillips, president of RSC, the U.K.’s primary chemistry society, says that his organization was not consulted, just “informed” of EP SRC’s funding increases and cuts two days prior to the announcement.

But RSC is taking a wait-and-see approach to the budget cut to synthetic organic chemistry and increase to catalysis. “We need to ensure that all our members are not disadvantaged. We’re reserving judgment until we see funding as a whole,” Phillips says. “It’s hard to react to piecemeal announcements.”

Hale of Queen’s University thinks the time to act is now, before too much damage is done, both in the U.K. and abroad. “Once the funding agencies in other countries see the policies enacted in Britain, they may follow suit,” he warns.  

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