The EPSRC Shaping Capability programme

14 September 2011

In recent weeks, since the EPSRC made its first announcement in connection with its Shaping Capability programme, there have been many questions raised about how decisions were reached on areas whose funding will be increased or decreased, based upon the EPSRC priorities, with synthetic organic chemistry receiving reduced funding, and catalysis seeing an increase. The EPSRC also plans to fund significantly fewer studentships and to channel this funding instead through Centres for Doctoral Training. Clearly, the Shaping Capability programme has major implications for the future of the chemical sciences, in fact, all the physical sciences, in all regions of the UK.

Some of the reaction has been very adverse, especially from those directly affected, notably Anthony Barrett from Imperial College and Paul Clarke from the University of York, who wrote a letter, which was supported by 100 chemists, to the Prime Minister and to the Guardian newpspaper. 

Against this background, staff and relevant governance members have been in detailed discussions with senior staff at EPSRC about the issues. A letter has been written to the Chief Executive of EPSRC, David Delpy, expressing the RSC concerns and stressing the need for an open dialogue on the way forward. We've asked the EPSRC about the evidence that they need from us and other learned societies in order to decide on the second and third tranches of funding under their priorities, and we're waiting for a response. 

On Friday 9 September, representatives of the RSC met with the Royal Society, Institute of Physics, Royal Academy of Engineering and Council for Mathematics. We agreed to produce a joint letter to EPSRC recommending that they pause, take account of conversations that have taken place and reflect upon what has been said and see if any modifications of the current plans/processes are possible.

The EPSRC have decided to hold a town hall meeting in London on 26 September to discuss the Shaping Capability programme. Delegates will include representatives from various disciplines in the physical sciences, including university science departments and the RSC, and working together with other learned societies will help to make this as productive as possible. We will use this event to ask the EPSRC about how they reached their decisions and their future plans for funding across all areas of the chemical sciences. This should enable us to identify ways for the chemistry community provide constructive advice to the EPSRC.

We'll also be raising the crucial subject of changes to studentships - a high priority, given that our ability to train high quality doctoral graduates is central to the well-being of chemistry and the UK economy. The current provision of studentships reflects scientific need and departmental strength across the UK, so we will be particularly interested to learn how this will be maintained under the Shaping Capability programme. The EPSRC should also support an appropriate number of students and we would like to see project-based studentships reinstated where they are demonstrably the best way to deliver cutting-edge science. 

We expect that you, our members, have a wide range of views and questions that you would like us to put to the EPSRC at their town hall meeting. Many of you have already given us valuable feedback as part of our consultation on the UK Chemistry Landscape. Please share your views via MyRSC   with staff, or by passing your questions to the Division Councils that represent you. Please send us your comments by 23 September. 

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