'Stop filling the gaps,' research supremo tells UK chemists


UK chemists have been too content to ’fill the gaps’ instead of tackling big, exciting problems. That’s the view of medical physicist David Delpy, who started work as the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on 1 September. Before that, Delpy was at University College London (UCL), UK, first joining the university with a studentship 35 years ago and finally becoming vice-provost for research late in 1999. His research includes work on electrochemical sensors, and NMR spectroscopy of brain metabolites.

With the government about to decide the research council’s budget, Chemistry World asks him about his vision for the EPSRC - and what it means for chemistry.

What are your priorities for the EPSRC?

There are several agendas to hit. We’ll certainly continue to fund the best basic science. But we’re under a lot of pressure to show the value of what we’re funding, so that we can explain to government the short, medium and long-term advantages of our programmes.

We’ll largely be able to do that by working in collaboration with people like the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), who together with us will be able to fund that transitional step between the basic research we fund and the eventual application.

I don’t think we’re going to significantly change the balance of the types of chemistry we fund. Nanoscience is one of our major priorities. We’re a major player in energy and we’re managing the [cross-council] energy programme. The ETI and EPSRC programme has a whole area on reducing energy demand and transport. So there are energy efficiency questions to be asked there which chemists can tackle - whether that be the control of combustion, heat loss through materials, smart coatings. And obviously solar power involves an enormous amount of chemistry.

David Delpy

David Delpy, the EPSRC’s new chief executive

Is a large chunk of EPSRC money going to be diverted to the TSB to fund more near-market research?

Based on discussions with the Department for innovation, universities and skills (DIUS), the research councils together will be committing about ?120 million to work with the TSB and since EPSRC is the major contributor there, our contribution is likely to be at least half of that. I don’t see that as money taken out of our budget, because EPSRC is going to be funding the basic science component of these grants. So it’s not right to say that EPSRC has lost [that money] to the TSB.

UKchemistry research currently has less international impact than the medical sciences - why? 

My answer would be that the chemistry community has largely focused on relatively less ambitious goals, tackling incremental research rather than being much more speculative. OK, we’ve got to populate the field with knowledge, but it’s filling the gaps between the innovative papers.

What I’d like to do - without being directive in terms of areas that people work in - is to change the type of grant people are applying for. My impression is that some areas of the chemistry community have been fairly conservative in the type of funding they’ve applied for.

Speaking from my experience at UCL, a lot of chemistry is geared around a three-year PhD cycle. But really ambitious problems are probably only soluble over a 5-10 year timescale, and by a team of people. Yet very few have dared to put these sorts of grants into normal responsive mode. I’d like to get to 20 per cent of our portfolio made up of much larger, more ambitious projects. 

"The chemistry community has largely focused on relatively less ambitious goals, tackling incremental research rather than being much more speculative" - David Delpy

A recent review by the EPSRC found weaknesses in UK nanoscience. What are you doing to address that?

We’ve appointed a nanotech champion, Richard Jones (see Chemistry World August 2007 p41). We’ve got nanoscience as one of our major themes. Our major worry is ensuring that we have enough people being trained in this area.

There was a reasonable amount put into nanoscience in the UK initially, it’s just that it was not necessarily put into the best places. There was a tendency to try and spread it around to various nanoscience centres around the country. But I’m not really sure the UK needs [so many] nanoscience centres. I suspect it would be better off with five larger and better funded ones.

How are you planning to step up the UK’s work with scientists in other countries?

All of the research councils are aware of the need to increase our international collaborations. In China, we’ve said that energy and materials are major focuses. With China’s burgeoning energy demand, that seemed the obvious priority to identify in the first instance. If you look at the Chinese universities that have been visiting the UK over the last 3-5 years, they’ve been looking for collaborations with universities that are largely in the energy area. So their priorities and our priorities match very well.

Ananyo Bhattacharya