Published online 20 July 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.426

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Budget cuts bite for UK physical sciences

Synthetic organic chemistry among fields facing reduced funding as research council lays out priorities.

Scientist Looking in a FlaskSynthetic organic chemists can expect less money from their funding agency in future.Corbis/Macmillan

The United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has begun to reveal the research fields for which it will cut funding as a result of budget restrictions — and why.

Emphasizing that the research it supports should provide economic returns and have an impact on society, the EPSRC says that it will shrink investment in synthetic organic chemistry, ramp up support for research on statistics, catalysis and quantum information, and maintain current levels of funding for graphene and carbon nanotechnology.

The agency, which has a budget of £830 million (US$1.3 billion) for 2010–11, faces cuts of some 12–15% in real terms - and a 50% cut in capital funds - over the next four years.

“It's not proven that investment in synthetic organic chemistry hasn't been value for money”

David Price
University College London

To back up its case for the cuts, the council has published hundreds of pages of statistics laying out the size of its investments in 111 research areas. Today, it is releasing funding assessments for 29 of those areas — the ones for which the agency has "firm evidence", and can make clear decisions, says David Delpy, chief executive of the EPSRC, based in Swindon, UK. Another 40 will be assessed by autumn, and the rest before the end of the financial year in March 2012.

The agency also tells scientists to make the importance and impact of their work clear when they submit grant requests to peer-review panels — effectively re-stating an existing strategy, in which academics must explain the economic and social impacts of their work before they are awarded a grant.

"We're setting out what our priorities are, in the absence of any national strategic plan for science," says Delpy. "We've tried to justify why we've arrived at those decisions. It's as open and transparent as we can sensibly make it," he says, adding that even in the areas that are to be reduced, "a really outstanding grant will still get through".

Mixed reaction

The agency says that funding for synthetic organic chemistry spiked in 2008–09, and that it wouldn't be sustainable to continue funding at the same level. At the end of March this year, it was supporting more than 25 institutions in the field with 201 grants worth a total of £44.4 million, although 75% of the money was concentrated at the top 10 universities.

David Phillips, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, is sympathetic. "While we wish there were an unlimited funding pot for chemistry research, a tough economic situation means tough decisions have to be made. The EPSRC has made an objective decision to reduce the funding in an area they see as having a lower return on investment," he says.

But David Price, vice-provost of research at University College London, says that the agency's choices of what to support and what to cut lack rigour. "There may well be a case, but it's not proven that investment in synthetic organic chemistry hasn't been value for money," he says. However, he adds, "that's not what they're saying – they're saying, 'we've done a lot of it and we need to reduce that funding'".

Anticipated conflict

Delpy is anticipating a lot of lobbying from scientists — most of whom will be learning about the decisions for the first time today. The agency has "deliberately not had an open consultation with the whole academic base", he adds. Instead, it has consulted with scientists and industry experts on its strategic-advisory teams, and with industrial researchers and learned societies such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics in London. *

The EPSRC is particularly aware that relations with its academic base are strained, after protests in 2009 about an exercise in 'demand management' that involved preventing repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants from continuing to apply. The agency revised that policy, but other funding cuts have not helped the situation — for example, the EPSRC was forced to restrict its equipment funding earlier this year (see 'Deeper cuts to UK research equipment').

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The concept of asking researchers to describe the impact of their work before they have done it has been a particular issue for UK researchers, who argue that it leads to hype and cynicism. But Delpy counters that, "the peer reviewers are pretty sharp at spotting what is genuine".

"I think the EPSRC has done quite a lot of damage to its credibility in the academic community with its indiscriminate use of research demand-management methods," says Price. "It's always been the case that academics want to express the relevance and context of their work, but the research-funding agencies are being ridiculed because they seem to be asking researchers to gaze into a crystal ball."

But Neil Alford, a materials scientist at Imperial College London, says that the EPSRC's new portfolio is "about as transparent as you're going to get".

*The Institute of Physics says that although it was briefed on EPSRC's plans, it was not consulted. On 8 August, the Royal Society of Chemistry added that it too was briefed but not consulted on the plans.  

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