EPSRC international review praises progress but highlights need for better communication

The Engineering and physical sciences research council (EPSRC)’s second international review of UK chemistry has warned that too little is being done to support early-career researchers and encourage high-risk research.

The international panel also delivered an overwhelming message that the community and the funding bodies need to take responsibility for ensuring a sustainable future for chemistry research.

Led by Michael Klein from the University of Pennsylvania, US, the panel did however give a generally positive report of the state of UK chemistry. They reassured that chemistry research in the UK is world class and were pleased that significant progress had been made in some of the areas highlighted in the first international review, conducted in 2002 under George Whitesides, particularly regarding academic-industry collaboration and interdisciplinary research. ’It’s fantastic to see how the community has evolved,’ says Klein, ’there are some terrific examples of regional interactions that need to be encouraged.’

One of the key points raised by the panel was the need for more constructive communication between the academic community and the funding bodies. ’It’s a two-way street,’ says Klein, ’the councils and researchers are like a married couple, and divorce is not an option.’ He adds that it is the responsibility of leaders in the chemistry community to engage in dialogue with policymakers and funding bodies and convey the central role that chemistry can play in addressing key societal challenges. 

The review also expresses criticism of the lack of support given to early-career researchers, saying that the academic career path is confusing and restrictive. The panel recommends that a move is made towards a more transparent system, with well-defined tenure-track positions supported by reasonably large platform funding grants to remove the need for young academics to constantly apply for multiple grants to support their research groups.

Katherine Haxton, who recently embarked on an independent academic career at Keele University, UK, agrees that a standardised probationary period for new lecturers, with significant financial support, would be a welcome first step on the academic ladder. ’A series of temporary contracts is no substitute for a genuine career path,’ she adds, ’one of the major issues in the current system is that no one can say how much time in a post-doc is sufficient before applying for lectureships.’  

Tied into this was the observation that the funding structure in the UK, in the eyes of the panel, appears to discourage high-risk basic research. Klein highlighted a perception that the penalty for failure was too high, resulting in projects with ’low horizons’ and a failure to encourage transformative research, especially for early career researchers. This is in stark contrast to the US and some European countries, where start-up funds are generous and relatively unrestricted.

Jim Feast, past president of the Royal Society of Chemistry and chair of the review steering committee, welcomed the report, saying: ’It has held a mirror up to UK chemistry - the question is whether it will recognise itself. The report raises issues that are relevant across the board of UK science, which the scientific community needs to address.’ 

Looking forward, Andrew Bourne, head of the EPSRC physical sciences programme, said that the recommendations of the report were already being considered as part of the EPSRC’s reviews of its training portfolio and the peer review process. ’The issues that have been raised are already being fed into our plans for the Physical Sciences programme.’ He added that there are efforts underway that will lead to improved engagement and communication, both with the academic community and with partners in industry and the other funding councils.

Phillip Broadwith