Campaign group launches with PR stunt to highlight perceived failings at physical sciences research council

Yesterday saw a new lobby group of scientists launch itself with a mock funeral for UK science to protest recent actions taken by the main funder of chemistry research in the UK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The PR stunt by ‘Science for the Future’ went down a storm generating column inches in national papers and heated discussions on blogs, but left some researchers questioning whether the campaign was dividing the science community when there was a need for unity.

Science for the Future’s principal complaints with the EPSRC will be familiar to those who have been watching the research council recently: namely an emphasis on applications at the expense of so-called blue skies research, the shaping capability strategy (to prioritise funding of certain areas), a lack of consultation on big decisions and less money for PhD studentships. Tony Barrett, Sir Derek Barton professor of synthesis at Imperial College London, who helped to organise the campaign, says: ‘I have no problem with cuts [to funding] - I’m a taxpayer too, we know we’re in a difficult situation in this country. We just want to ensure that the money we have is spent wisely.’ Barrett says that what he wants to see come out of this campaign is an inquiry by the House of Commons science and technology select committee into how the EPSRC is distributing funding.

Around 100 researchers gathered at Westminster for the event and to meet with their MPs to ask them to lobby the science minister to look into the EPSRC policies. The event culminated in a coffin containing a petition being delivered to Downing Street.

Earlier in the day Barrett sparred with the chief executive of the EPSRC, David Delpy, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Barrett charged that under the current funding scheme important inventions like the laser, antibiotics and liquid crystals would never have been discovered. Delpy responded that the council was being asked to make difficult decisions and it was understandable academics had concerns because of their passion for their subject. The EPSRC also released a statement in response to the campaign to highlight that UK science was not on its deathbed and called on the research community to work together to ‘explain why science and engineering should be a priority for government spending’.

Nobel criticism

At the same time as Science for the Future was launched, UK newspaper the Telegraph carried a letter signed by nine Nobel laureates, including Richard Schrock, Elias James Corey, Harry Kroto and Andre Geim, backing the campaign. In the letter, they claimed that the EPSRC is guilty of ‘manipulating the process of peer review’ to fund selected favourites, rather than operating in a clear and transparent manner.

The RSC met with members of the lobby group last week and, in a statement, said it shared some of their concerns and was committed to working with both the research council and the chemical science community to ‘ensure we continue to have the dynamic chemistry community that the UK needs’. It said it was particularly worried about the changes to the support for postgraduate students and the effect this would have on the shape of the chemistry community.

However, not all researchers were supportive of the campaign. ‘I think that the aims of Science for the Future are confused,’ says Lee Cronin, a chemist at the University of Glasgow. ‘This seems to be a [case of the] EPSRC is an enemy, rather than trying to understand the pressures on the EPSRC from government, whilst maintaining the Haldane principle [the wall between funding decisions and the government].’ Others expressed similar concerns on social media channels. Cronin also describes the highly publicised fight as ‘frankly embarrassing’ and worries about the damage this could do to making the case of the importance of funding science.

Phil Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, who attended the event, says that there are plenty of other researchers who agree with the campaigns aims but are afraid to speak out. ‘There’s a very strong pressure brought to bear to keep your mouth shut,’ he says. The support of the Nobel laureates sends a strong signal, he adds, particularly Andre Geim’s as he just benefitted from £45 million of funding for a graphene hub at Manchester. ‘Andre’s just as irritated as the rest of us . With the sort of strategic top down management they’re introducing now, graphene may very well never have been discovered.’