For better or worse, the main UK physical sciences funding body has finished deciding which areas of science will see their funding grow and which will shrink

For better or worse, the main UK physical sciences funding body has finished deciding which areas of science will see their funding grow and which will shrink. The process has been controversial and there is still unhappiness in the chemistry community about the way in which it was handled, but scientists do at least know whether their discipline will be affected by the funding squeeze.

Of the remaining tranche of 53 research areas that had decisions pending from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), most will receive approximately the same level of funding as in past years. Surface science is the one area in the chemical sciences that will have its funding reduced. Quantum optics and information and photonic materials and metamaterials are winners and will receive more money, although no announcement has been made on how much money different areas stand to gain or lose. All in all, the council divided up the research it funds into 113 areas with 14 to be reduced, 18 grown and the rest kept at around the same level.

The council said that with limited funding, ‘[EPSRC] must focus our investments to ensure we use resources effectively, build the capability we need to compete and gain the most long term benefit for the UK’. For surface science this will mean a move away from the ‘more traditional aspects of the discipline’ and it can expect to see itself embedded in other research areas, such as catalysis, chemical reaction dynamics and materials.

The EPSRC’s decision to implement its shaping capability strategy was not without its critics in the scientific community. The country’s scientific societies, including the RSC, were extremely concerned by the proposals and the limited consultation, culminating in an open letter warning that the council needed to listen to the scientific community. Some scientists also accused the body of ‘picking winners’ and squeezing peer review out of the funding process. These problems, along with the announcement that synthetic organic chemistry was to be cut, precipitated a campaign last year, led by top scientists, to get the research council to listen to the scientific community. The pressure from professional bodies and the wider community led the EPSRC to consult more widely with scientific societies, researchers and other bodies before making any further decisions.

David Phillips, president of the RSC, said: ‘Having had some disagreements with the shaping capability process in recent months, EPSRC’s commitment to engage with the community in a much clearer manner appears to signal that we are moving in the right direction.’ Phillips also welcomed the new approach being taken by incoming EPSRC chairman Paul Golby. He laments the cuts to EPSRC funding over the next three years, but says ‘we must engage and ensure that every pound is used wisely’.

Phil Woodruff, a surface scientist at the University of Warwick, UK, says the EPRSC consulted him ‘but they didn’t seem to take much notice of what I said’. He adds that although surface science underpins many disciplines, running it down and merging it with other research areas destroys its ability to feed into these other disciplines at a later stage after new techniques have been developed.

‘For surface scientists it’s obviously frustrating that EPSRC would do this and the whole shaping capability and top down management of research areas is a pretty foolish way to do science,’ says Phil Moriarty, a leading surface scientist at the University of Nottingham, UK. ‘Notwithstanding this, I think surface scientists will be able to circumvent this as many of us have rebadged ourselves in terms of nanotechnology and different areas.’

Moriarty goes on to question how the shaping capability decisions are made, pointing out that mathematical physics was ranked as internationally excellent - ‘a jewel in the crown’ - but has just been earmarked for a funding cut.

Steve Jenkins, leader of the surface science group in the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, UK, one of the largest in the country, says he was disappointed that the EPSRC didn’t seek the views of his group. He notes that the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise described surface chemistry in the UK as ‘world leading in the areas of heterogeneous catalysis, organic functionalisation and two-dimensional organic networks’. ‘That doesn’t sound like an area that needs to be cut back,’ he says, ‘but rather one where there are opportunities for growth.’ He adds that this decision is sending out ‘a message of decline’ for surface science when there are actually many reasons for optimism as it is such a vital interdisciplinary tool. ‘The current exercise, however well-intentioned, has been mishandled badly.’

However, Jenkins says the outlook isn’t totally bleak for surface science in the UK. ‘Much of our work tackles surface chemistry relevant to catalysis, for example, which EPSRC has flagged as a growth area, so there’s an element of compensation at work there. So long as EPSRC recognises and funds excellent science, they can re-brand it all they like!’