December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

A pressure group called Science for the Future divided opinion among academic scientists in May when it held a satirical funeral in which the deceased was UK science. The wake was composed of 100 angry chemists and physicists.

The group drove a black horse-drawn carriage to Downing Street and delivered a petition calling for an immediate enquiry into the way the Engineering and Physical Research Council is being run.

Senior physical scientists have been dissatisfied with the behaviour of the EPSRC for some years. Tony Barrett, a professor of chemistry at Imperial College London, together with other senior chemists, wrote to the research council last year, saying that the EPSRC was seriously injuring a valuable sector of the UK economy.

The group’s complaints about the EPSRC are many, varied and technical; often focusing on the semantics of how research grant applications are processed, and the methods used to make funding allocations. They also dislike the council’s ‘shaping capability’ strategy, which aims to siphon funds into areas of ‘strategic national importance’ and in which the UK has a ‘pre-exisisting strength.’

Barrett is scathing about the restriction of funds to the EPSRC’s priorities. He believes such “excessive top-down control of scientific research” was more “appropriate for Honecker’s German Democratic Republic in the 1970’s” – whose research record compared very poorly with its western neighbours.

Science for the Future (SFTF) supporters also worry that the focus on the ‘impact’ of research risks the under-funding of ‘blue sky’ research, without which 20th century advancements like lasers and genetic engineering might not have happened. The EPSRC has repeatedly responded (scroll to third letter) that 60% of its money goes to fund ‘blue sky’ research, but this is not seen as “meaningful dialogue” by Paul Clarke, a supporter of the group and a chemist at the University of York.

Science is Vital, a similarly named group, campaigned for science to be ring-fenced from funding cuts during the government’s comprehensive spending review. They had a very positive message, emphasising the necessity of funding across the whole of science.

On the other hand, SFTF says it wants to see an independent and international enquiry into how the EPSRC is run. Some see this as unhelpful and liable to create factions among scientists.

Athene Donald, a physicist at Cambridge University, who has admitted the EPSRC has often found her to be “a thorn in their side” is one of those opposed to the action. She argued that SFTF’s stunt was “overstated”, since what the group object to is the EPSRC’s management of engineering and physical science funding. She said that this doesn’t square with the message of the stunt; that the whole of science is in mortal danger.

Donald argued that the inflated nature of the stunt and the complex issues the group want to highlight risk confusing politicians. She said it would be more sensible to write to selected politicians, outlining their causes clearly.

She suggested that if politicians are confused by the debate, then scientists risk disillusioning them. If it seems like scientists have no clear agenda or are simply playing for column inches, MPs may feel paying them attention is not worth their time.

James Wilesdon, a professor of science and democracy at Sussex University said “we need to draw a line under all this and focus attention instead on the real battle, which is maintaining, and ideally increasing, overall public investment in research next time around.”

However Phil Moriarty, a physicist from the Universty of Nottingham and an ardent supporter of SFTF, said he has tried talking with the EPSRC, but didn’t feel that they listened.

He says the research council organised a meeting straight after SFTF’s launch to discuss their complaints with EPSRC-funded scientists. “After having spent the last three to four years debating with EPSRC in rather less public ‘fora’ – and achieving precisely nothing – it is encouraging to find that EPSRC is finally taking our concerns seriously,” he said.

Ultimately, the success of the funeral stunt will be judged on whether SFTF achieve their aim of starting an enquiry into the EPSRC’s behaviour. Stuart Clark, a chemist at the University of Glasgow, and co-organiser of the group, said the campaign was “going really well” and that an proposed early day motion “already had support from several MPs.”