The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is having to make some tough funding decisions, says David Delpy

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is having to make some tough funding decisions, says David Delpy

The balance of global science funding is changing. The UK punches well above its weight, but cannot compete with countries such as China and Brazil on volume, and increasingly we are facing competition on quality in all areas of research. Key to the EPSRC response to these global challenges has been our goal of ’shaping’ our portfolio of funded research and training. I realise there has been some uncertainty as to what this strategy means and the process we have used. I hope I can clarify these matters here.

In February 2010, we published our Strategic Plan, which included a ’shaping capability’ strategy, developed following extensive discussion with our three strategic advisory bodies, now combined to form the Strategic Advisory Network, and explicitly approved by the EPSRC Council, the senior decision-making body accountable for budget stewardship. The network and council comprise senior academics from science and engineering, business leaders, and senior UK decision makers. 

Spending review 

This strategy became even more important following the government’s spending review because it was clear that EPSRC could not maintain funding levels in all areas. In order to safeguard the research base as a whole, and to ensure we remain internationally competitive, we have to make decisions on where to increase, maintain or reduce funding. We have based our decisions on each research area’s capability, quality and importance to the UK, relative to other areas in the portfolio, making it absolutely clear that these decisions are not judgements on individual research projects. 

There is of course no absolute answer on the correct balance of funding, but it is possible to identify opportunities, overlaps and gaps. This is why EPSRC is not specifying individual budgets for individual research areas - rather stating an overall direction. 

The process we used for taking these relative decisions included a detailed analysis of our own research and training portfolio and of the funding activities of industry, the EU, the Technology Strategy Board and other agencies. This was supplemented by evidence of the long-term research needs of government and business, both in the UK and internationally. From such information, we developed our initial ideas. We then invited our main university, industry and other relevant stakeholder groups to comment and to suggest other factors we should be taking into account. At each stage we also involved our Strategic Advisory Teams, which are made up of active academic and industrial researchers. We regularly test our thinking with the teams and we will continue to work with all these groups as the strategy evolves. Our council will also maintain an active oversight of this work. 

Synthetic organic chemistry 

For synthetic organic chemistry, our decision to reverse the upward trajectory of its funding does not diminish the importance we attach to the discipline. We expect part of the reduction to be achieved by grants finishing. The reductions will be gradual and regularly reviewed, taking into account the impact on the research base.  

Synthetic organic chemistry remains a significant part of our portfolio, but funding will be at a lower level to allow EPSRC to grow other important areas of chemistry, such as catalysis and synthetic biology, and to preserve funding where there are established centres of excellence. We would encourage synthetic organic chemists to consider funding opportunities in these areas and others such as chemical biology and to contribute to the EPSRC-funded Chemistry Grand Networks to develop further cross-disciplinary approaches as a community.  

While I stand by the way EPSRC has used external advice and evidence to inform our decision making, I would like to stress the expertise and knowledge of our staff in managing research funding and portfolios.  

EPSRC staff regularly meet with researchers in university departments across the country and facilitate workshops with researchers and industry to identify research priorities or evaluate past projects and co-develop plans. In addition to identifying peer reviewers and running peer review panels, this provides EPSRC staff with the specialist knowledge of the engineering and physical sciences portfolio to enable them to make balanced decisions about funding priorities.  

I would also emphasise that the concept of shaping capability is not new. We have always made strategic funding decisions when balancing programmes against one another and when putting out calls within or across programmes, for example. The difference is that we are now making strategic decisions across our whole portfolio.  

All of us, I am sure, would like the UK to have the strongest possible UK research base - one that undertakes internationally competitive research, contributes to UK economic growth, and improves our quality of life. It is vital that we work together to achieve this and to demonstrate the importance of future funding for research. 

David Delpy is the chief executive of the EPSRC