Evidence given to EPSRC funding programme

17 October 2011

The current version replaces the one posted on 17 October and updates a comment made about Doctoral Training Centres.

The RSC is the largest organisation in Europe for advancing the chemical sciences. Supported by a network of over 47,000 members worldwide and an internationally-acclaimed publishing business, its activities span education and training, conferences and science policy, and the promotion of the chemical sciences to the public. 

This document represents the views of the RSC. The RSC has a duty under its Royal Charter "to serve the public interest" by acting in an independent advisory capacity, and it is in this spirit that this submission is made. 

We welcome the opportunity to provide the EPSRC with information that will help them to develop their Shaping Capability Programme. In order for this programme to be successful, it needs to: 

  • seek out and use all of the high-quality data that is available, 
  • follow a clear implementation plan, 
  • and work closely with the chemistry community.    

A meeting between the EPSRC and RSC Division representatives on Wednesday 12 October 2011 was a welcome step and should lead to better engagement in the future. 

EPSRC also needs to clearly communicate how they used the data to make the decisions to raise, reduce or maintain funding for research in the various areas of the Shaping Capabilities portfolio. At the 12 October meeting they clarified that the EPSRC Council makes these decisions based on recommendations from Strategic Advisory Teams (SATs). However, this should be communicated more widely to the research community, and the RSC would be happy to assist the EPSRC in communicating with our membership. 

The RSC also recommends that the EPSRC consults directly with the research community and chemistry departments to seek out further data and evidence. The RSC acknowledges that the EPSRC consulted senior management at higher education institutions. Detailed data on the physical science research landscape, research outputs and pathways of PhD graduates, for instance, could be obtained by talking directly to the research community. It may be necessary to commission an external body to carry out this data gathering. 

Closer engagement with senior members of the scientific community, such as learned society presidents working with international experts, will involve the community in the Shaping Capability process and support Strategic Advisory Teams. This would help to ensure that strategic decisions on research priorities reflect both a national industrial strategy and academic priorities, and would improve acceptance of strategic decisions across the scientific community. 

The EPSRC should show greater transparency in their processes, consultations and decision making

The RSC recognises that in the current economic climate, less public funding is available for research and that difficult decisions need to be made about the excellent research that we can support. The scientific community is facing many challenges including sustaining financial support for conducting world-class research, and maintaining a healthy skills pipeline to deliver the scientists of the future. 

It is now more important than ever for the community to work closely with research councils and funders to develop our world class science base and drive economic growth. There is an opportunity for research councils to develop a portfolio that reflects the dynamic UK research landscape while maximising social and economic benefit by engaging with the scientific community. 

The key areas of science that underpin growth must be identified. In shaping the EPSRC portfolio, a wide range of data from outside the existing EPSRC grant portfolio should be considered to ensure that emerging and breakthrough areas of science are not overlooked. A 2008 survey of the chemistry-biology interface community indicated that only 38% of principal investigators within this community received an EPSRC grant over a three year period, and only 19% cited the EPSRC as their main funder. The EPSRC should also make sure that "rising stars" within the research community and emerging breakthrough research areas are not overlooked simply because they do not hold current EPSRC grants. 

As a first step, the RSC recommends that the EPSRC: 

  • publishes clearer information on processes, consultations and decisions made as part of the Shaping Capability exercise; 
  • gives clear information on the terms of reference and remit of Strategic Advisory Teams, together with clarification of how data analysis influenced decisions on research priorities; 
  • and clarifies how Shaping Capability will be used to prioritise grant proposals, with particular reference to post-panel ranking.    

The RSC report, Chemistry for Tomorrow's World: a roadmap for the chemical sciences, identifies a number of priority areas and global challenges, and the many ways in which the chemical sciences will make a fundamental contribution towards solving these challenges. These priority areas closely match the themes identified in the EPSRC portfolio. 

We also recognise that many future breakthroughs will come from fundamental chemical science including but not exclusively, analytical science, catalysis, chemical biology, computational chemistry, materials chemistry, supramolecular chemistry, nanoscience, synthesis and physical chemistry. 

The Royal Society cites in its 2010 report, The Scientific Century, several 20th Century examples of big scientific breakthroughs that originated from fundamental curiosity-driven research with no obvious original application, or social or economic benefit. The UK scientific community needs to work in partnership with research councils to ensure that the UK is best placed to reap the benefits from the breakthrough science of tomorrow. 

The scientific community, working with the research councils and the RSC needs to ensure that excellence in chemistry is maintained despite a challenging economic climate. We are working with the chemical science community to develop a vision for the future of the chemistry landscape in the UK. This initiative will outline a national strategy to ensure the most supportive environment for the chemical sciences that can generate future breakthroughs, support growth and provide solutions to global challenges. We look forward to working with the EPSRC and other research funders to achieve the recommendations in the Chemistry Landscape report. 

The EPSRC should review the processes and mechanisms by which they communicate with the research community

The EPSRC could do much more to communicate proactively and engage positively with the scientific community. Future announcements on funding decisions across the research landscape should be made simultaneously. Much of the recent disquiet from the chemical science community may have been reduced had the announcements of funding for all strategic areas been made simultaneously.  

Published updates and guidance on mechanisms by which the Shaping Capability exercise is being carried out should be available on the EPSRC website. Clearly defined opportunities for the research community to engage with the EPSRC on its website could help to remove barriers to engagement. 

The RSC would be happy to offer our support in communicating with the chemical science community and we encourage the EPSRC to engage with other learned societies in a similar fashion. 

Longer term recommendations

A multidisciplinary strategy and plan of action will be needed to influence the 2012 Comprehensive Spending Review. The RSC looks forward to working with the EPSRC in providing a follow-up report to the 2010 analysis of The Economic Benefits of Chemistry Research to the UK.  

An audit of current "facilities" should be carried out and the issue of capital spending should be addressed. 

A review of mechanisms for awarding Fellowships and PhD studentships (including from Responsive Mode) and funding for consumables should be carried out. We welcome the recently announced review of Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs) but strongly encourage the EPSRC to solicit broad and detailed feedback from the physical science community, as we have encountered wide-ranging and strong views on the effectiveness of DTCs. DTCs were initiated in a funding environment that involved widespread use of project-based studentships. Now that the latter have been terminated, the disposition of DTCs, both in their scientific and geographic disposition for the training of postgraduate students in the chemical sciences, is in need of urgent review. We look forward to communicating recommendations from the chemical science community as part of our Chemistry Landscape exercise. 

A coherent strategy for research funding across the research councils should be established to ensure that capability across the entire UK research landscape is united. This should be accompanied by a joined-up engagement strategy between the research councils and the learned societies. The learned societies exist (in part) to act as the honest brokers between funding bodies and the scientific community they represent. Organisations such as the RSC can help research councils to better engage with the community and vice versa to effectively communicate the viewpoints and needs of UK researchers. 

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