Proposals for doctoral training centres lack one important element, says David Parker: some science

In November 2013, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) announced £350 million to support and grow its centres for doctoral training (CDTs). The announcement was, unsurprisingly, welcomed, as funding announcements usually are; most scientists will say that they should be supported more in their work. But we should be concerned, because this support is being granted without clearly assessing the nature and quality of the science that is to be conducted. 

In my view, we have not been particularly good at deciding how to distribute funding in the UK. Here, in the Anglo-Saxon cradle of learning, my senior colleague Jim Feast did not gain Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) grant support for his first 20 years and his colleague Dick Chambers built an understanding of fluorine chemistry primarily based on industrial support and US Air Force grants. In Sussex, Harry Kroto did not get much grant money from SERC before his moment of enlightenment, and then it took a decade before it dawned on others that this would lead to new areas of science.

Today, as we allocate very large sums of money to the CDTs, we should examine the decisions behind this funding carefully and ask whether this process of PhD support stands up to scrutiny. 

Alack, a lack

The science that evolves in PhD research is the lifeblood of our university chemistry departments. We must safeguard it and encourage fundamental new work focused by challenging objectives. If we are committing millions of pounds to support doctoral students in putative centres of excellence, we should check that they are setting out to address excellent new science. This work should be characterised by its rigour, significance and originality. ‘Impact’ may arise, but is not predictable of course, and is a much less important criterion for assessment in this case. 

Too often, we pass the student but want to fail the supervisor

Yet the final cases for assessment of CDTs contain no science to speak of at all. Let me make this clear: no new science appears in the cases for support; we cannot blame the applicants, because it is simply not requested. They place an emphasis on training and transferable skills, getting the students to learn about ethics and intellectual property; much of this material is to be found in undergraduate or masters courses. Perhaps this extensive system of postgraduate training is more appropriate for our future research technical staff in industry and academia?

Followers of fashion

Excellence in PhD research arises from a combination of preparation, rigour, patience, ability and inspiration from both the student and, just as importantly, their supervisor. When you ask a PhD chemist about their degree, they will tell you first with whom they studied, not which class or grouping or even at which institution. Thus, the quality of the people who will act as supervisors should be assessed, examining their output record as a function of input. Too often we are asked to examine PhD theses based on half-baked or ill-conceived ideas, where we pass the student, but really want to fail the supervisor.  We need a mechanism that weeds out such projects before they begin. 

Unfortunately, the final cases for assessment of CDTs do not ring with new projects and contain little detail about the allocation of supervisors (often just long lists). I suggest that we think hard before putting yet more cash in support of these centres. Examine the outcomes carefully: how many PhDs led to this work or output?  Calibrate achievement against input and compare to other support methods. Such thinking should be applied more widely; we still seem to adhere to the 1980s ethos of supporting bandwagon research themes, where much low quality work was screened by ill-informed hyperbole, on topics defined by self-interest groups or extolled by persuasive individuals.

Until 2012, peer review of new science projects for PhD support was possible, and where appropriate these were validated or supported by co-sponsorship with industry. In addition, there was the opportunity to bid for competitively selected awards for partnerships with industry, whereas now many of these are in the hands of larger companies who select projects based on their short term needs. Should we not consolidate the current award system and define its remit more precisely, giving it edge and competitiveness? 

Let us build our doctoral cohorts on the solid ground of achievement and ability, by identifying imaginative, diligent and energetic supervisors and students (and setting a cap on the number of PhDs any one person can supervise – students need time for ‘hands-on’ supervision). We should nurture those who seek understanding and not simply pay lip-service to short-term themes, based on shifting sands of shallow significance that change quickly, erode and oft are soon forgotten.  

David Parker is a professor of chemistry at Durham University, UK