Investigator-led research will be hardest hit. Credit: J. KING-HOLMES/SPL

UK physicists, still reeling from massive funding cuts announced earlier this year, have learnt of worse to come. Roughly £130 million (US$260 million) is being slashed from research grants awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), it announced on 17 March.

The EPSRC scale-back, which will mean grant cuts of up to 15% for investigator-led research areas and job losses, comes just months after the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council announced funding cuts of around £80 million and a 25% reduction in grant money (see Nature 451, 386; 2008).

"This could be as big a problem as the £80 million cuts in the Science and Technology Facilities Council," says Philip Moriarty, a nano­technologist at the University of Nottingham.

The EPSRC says its 'responsive-mode' grants will be affected by the cuts. These are grants for which proposals can be submitted on any topic related to engineering or physical sciences. The council says much of this money will instead be channelled into funding research in specific government-defined areas. But, overall, the amount of research funded by the council will drop by between 3% and 5%, it says.

Physicists, chemists, engineers and other researchers whose work does not fit into the six government-defined themes of nanoscience, health, IT, security, environmental change and energy will have to fight hard for the remaining responsive-mode money. Even before these cuts, fewer than one-third of research-grant proposals submitted to the EPSRC were successful last year.

"The 12% to 15% cut to investigator-driven research, coupled with the EPSRC's knowledge-transfer strategy, means that truly innovative science is less likely to result from EPSRC funding," says Moriarty. "Work on fundamental quantum mechanics, of the type that won Tony Leggett the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003, would struggle for funding in the current EPSRC system."

Peter Main, director of science and education at the UK Institute of Physics, says there is real concern about a shift from curiosity-driven research to applied programmes. "The real danger is that if you're not careful you end up funding lower-quality research simply because it is related to a particular topic," he says.

The EPSRC was given a budget increase of 18.6% by the government last year, but the extra money has been eaten up by inflation and its commitment to paying the full costs of research, which include maintaining equipment and building infrastructure. Rather than reducing all its funding by 3–5%, the EPSRC has decided to continue to fund the same number of PhD students and to prioritize support for the six themes.

It is not clear how much of the £130 million will be put into research grants in the themed areas and how much is covering inflation and the move to paying full costs.

"If what is happening is that the responsive mode is taking a bigger hit than [government-themed research], the scientific community will not be happy with that," says Peter Cotgreave, director of public affairs at the Royal Society. "People find it very uncomfortable when the decision about what to fund is made before they apply."

Not everyone thinks the shift is necessarily bad. While saying there needs to be more clarity over the decision, Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, says that "more focus is a good thing".

And Sue Ion, vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a member of the EPSRC council, points out the proportion of funding given through the responsive-mode channel has traditionally been high at the EPSRC. "More attention needs to be given to the directed, theme-based topics," Ion says. "They [researchers] need to look for opportunities rather than go 'woe, woe and thrice woe'."

In 2006/2007, the EPSRC funded 36% of all UK engineering and physical-sciences researchers, including 4,347 postgraduate and postdoctoral research assistants.

Unlike the Science and Technology Council cuts, there will be no high-profile projects cancelled, but fewer grants may mean fewer jobs in the long run. "It will mean 3% to 5% fewer grants, and the average grant employs a postdoc," says Cotgreave.

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