A confused picture has emerged following the EPSRCs funding announcement, says David Phillips

A confused picture has emerged following the EPSRCs funding announcement, says David Phillips


David Phillips, RSC president

The announcement by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) about future research funding has caused concern in the chemistry community. This is amplified by the fact we still don’t know the EPSRC’s full plans. By releasing information in three tranches - funding trends for 29 areas were named last month, 40 will be revealed in the autumn and the remainder in March 2012 - a confused overall picture has emerged, which will not become clear for at least another seven months.

The RSC worked hard in the run up to last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review, producing a report (co-sponsored by the EPSRC) on the economic benefits of chemistry, which was sent to all MPs and senior civil servants. Thanks to our lobbying efforts, and those of the whole science community, the overall settlement for science was better than for most areas of government spending and less damaging than could have been the case. Despite our efforts, the overall research budget is still being frozen in cash terms over the next three years. 

We know that organic chemistry has been earmarked by the EPSRC for above inflation reduction in its funding, but by exactly how much we do not know. There are currently 201 EPSRC grants assigned to synthetic organic chemistry, representing ?44.4million in total. As grants with ’some relevance to the research area are counted’, a proportion of those feature only a small fraction of synthetic organic chemistry. So what will the ’reduce’ headline on the EPSRC’s website mean in practice? What will be reduced? Where? By how much? And most importantly, by what mechanism will reductions be achieved?

Earlier this year, the EPSRC presented its overall approach and some initial data to members of the RSC’s science, education and industry board, which includes division presidents. Specific funding details were not shared at this point and, by our understanding of the term, we were not consulted. For the RSC, consultation means a two-way exchange, based on full information that is transparently available, with an opportunity to affect the final decision. As Chemistry World  goes to print, the EPSRC has scheduled a ’town hall’ meeting for representatives of the physical science community, and we will continue pressing the council to address our concerns about the process adopted so far. 

Chemists of the future 

The alarming drop in the number of studentships, from 2902 in 2010-11 to 1900 in 2011-12, is another issue of concern. A 2007, EPSRC-commissioned review of synthetic chemistry studentship research, chaired by RSC treasurer Peter Machin, was highly supportive of PhD studentships as a very effective mechanism for carrying out high quality exciting research, rather than just training. We see the need for a strategic vision for the chemistry postgraduate skills pipeline, and promoting and supporting trained postgraduates is a key mission in the EPSRC royal charter. 

The broad conclusions of the Machin review were clear: there was a healthy balance between new areas of research and more established; quality of research was internationally competitive; engagement with industry was strong in the synthetic community, due to the close relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.

Despite this favourable report, we now see the number of studentships being reduced.

The RSC believes there must be a balance between short-term, economically-viable research, which will clearly be of great benefit to the UK in this difficult climate, and blue skies research that leads to long-term benefits.

Speaking out 

The chemistry community now needs to speak with one voice - and we have a timely opportunity to do so via the RSC’s Chemistry Landscape project. A wide-ranging consultation of academics, industrialists, education specialists, policymakers and others is taking place right now, covering four key areas: industry and university collaboration; higher education and research capability; schools and further education colleges; scientific literacy. Through this exercise, we hope to create a shared vision for the chemical sciences in the UK to 2020. 

We will use this evidence, which the EPSRC has asked us to provide, summarise it and give our strategic view. It will give the community, united and speaking with a single voice, a solid base from which to engage in the debate, support the economy and create real jobs for skilled people in the UK.

For many, the only thing that is clear so far is the lack of clarity - which could have been avoided if the EPSRC had outlined its overall strategy in one go. Not doing so means great concerns will not be addressed for many months.

But perhaps it is not too late to make a difference.

David Phillips is President of the Royal Society of Chemistry