Why chemists are worried about the EPSRC's change in funding strategy

Compared to physics and biology, chemistry has long been thought the more secretive science, with researchers tending to be wary of open collaboration. That’s an over-simplification, of course. Synthetic organic chemists, for instance, often collaborate with biomedical researchers to test their compounds. 

But is chemistry changing? The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) thinks so. This year the research council has been restructuring the way it funds chemistry. It is focusing on funding multi-disciplinary teams in large research programmes for longer times. Ultimately, around a third of EPSRC grant money could be awarded as bigger ’platform’ or ’programme’ grants. The research council says the move will give chemists more freedom to be creative, explore more speculative ideas and encourage collaboration.

A study recently published in Science  suggests this may be a canny move. Examining research papers produced by US universities between 1975 and 2005, the researchers found that the number of papers co-authored by scientists based at different universities has rocketed. More importantly, such papers also gained more citations. It seems that, increasingly, the highest impact science is a result of collaboration. 

But the EPSRC’s strategy isn’t only encouraging collaboration. It is effectively funding bigger, but fewer, grants. And in an effort to get chemists to address today’s challenges, the research council has also earmarked around 20 per cent of its funds for priority areas, such as energy and nanoscience. In combination, these changes, as Chemistry World reports, have cut down on the number of grants awarded for speculative research (’responsive mode’), and, especially, to early-career researchers. 

In its efforts to push forward large-scale collaborative chemistry, the EPSRC may wish to reflect on the alternative picture of science painted by this year’s Nobel prize in chemistry - awarded to Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien for their research on green fluorescent protein (GFP). 

While the Nobelists’ research is certainly cross-disciplinary, the early work did not involve huge multi-university collaborations. Rather, the baton of research on GFP was passed down for around three decades before its ultimate fruition as a tag to illuminate the inner workings of cells. 

GFP’s discovery and development also demonstrates just how wonderfully unpredictable science can be. No-one, least of all Shimomura as he harvested jellyfish back in the early sixties, could have guessed how important his work would prove to be. Groundbreaking work sometimes springs from unlikely roots, so chemists may be right to be suspicious when they see their research council dividing parts of the funding pot into silos. 

The sad story of Douglas Prasher, who cloned and sequenced the GFP gene but is missing from the podium in Stockholm, also serves as a warning to the EPSRC. Prasher was forced to drop out of science after his funding was cut. He is currently driving a courtesy shuttle bus for a car dealership in Huntsville, Alabama. Fewer bigger grants will leave more gifted researchers like Prasher out in the cold. 

So while the EPSRC has good reasons for its change in funding strategy, there’s a delicate balance to be struck. The sharp drop in the number of grants available for early-career chemists and for more speculative research suggests that, this year, the research council has failed to get that balance right. 

Ananyo Bhattacharya, acting editor