EPSRC meeting with RSC Organic Division

25 October 2011

Organic chemistry research proposals will need to strongly prove their 'authenticity' to gain funding from challenge areas, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has told the RSC.

Representatives from EPSRC defended the conception and implementation of Shaping Capability in a meeting with representatives of several of the Royal Society of Chemistry's Division Councils earlier this month.

The meeting was held after the chemistry community voiced their concerns about the consultation and decision making process in the development of EPSRC's Shaping Capability programme.

EPSRC made reference to a number of mechanisms for engaging the community and sourcing evidence for their decisions.

EPSRC answered pre-submitted questions from the RSC and Organic Division, although in the main, the answers given were as previously available via the EPSRC website.  

The funding council's plan for managing a reduction in research funding, named Shaping Capability, splits their 760m research budget into two categories: 'capability-led', for proposals in research areas where the UK is or could be a world-leader; and 'challenge-led', where the proposal addresses one of the societal 'Grand Challenges' identified by EPSRC.

Shaping Capability aims to make the best use of a reduced Government research budget by focusing on areas in which the UK has existing strength, or could become world-leading, says EPSRC. 

An announcement earlier this year outlined some areas that will see reduced funding in the capability-led part of the budget, including synthetic organic chemistry.

EPSRC suggested that the cuts may be less detrimental than the community has anticipated owing to a recent decrease in numbers of pure synthetic organic chemistry proposals.  

They also said that synthetic organic chemistry projects could still be considered as part of the challenge-led funding. But they stressed that only those proposals that 'authentically' address challenge areas, such as healthcare, will be considered for funding from that part of the budget.

The Organic Division Council, representing the interests of organic chemists in the UK, aired several concerns about the lack of transparency in the process so far, and specifically about the 're-prioritisation' of research grants by EPSRC staff after peer review.

EPSRC refuted this and stated that prioritisation is done with utmost transparency.  Panels will come up with consensus of research excellence and national importance.

Panels will also not have to respond to fixed budgets but will be asked to make decisions bearing in mind the direction that has been set.  

Peer review produces a ranked order of proposals and EPSRC will make the funding decision based on the peer review advice and affordability.

When asked whether they were aware of the possible impact of reduced organic chemistry funding on other sectors, such as contract research organisations and charity-funded medical research, EPSRC said they had used feedback from industry in making their assessments but had not conducted any impact assessments. 

The needs of SMEs had not been considered, owing to the difficulties of interacting with numerous, smaller companies.

Finally, it was also stated that as yet, no proposals have been funded under shaping capability. Further announcements are to be expected in November 2011, with the final process in place after end of March 2012.

Both groups highlighted the importance of the future role of the RSC in facilitating discussion between EPSRC and representatives of academia.

Responding to a question of how the RSC can work with them to influence government, EPSRC said a coherent, cohesive argument for funding could be built by the whole community and presented by the RSC.

The RSC thanked the EPSRC for offering this meeting and the discussions were held in a constructive atmosphere. 

It was agreed that the chemistry community should take a year to reflect on the overall process, with the RSC to broker a similar meeting to facilitate the two-way discussion at that time.

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