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Peer review and impact statements vital to UK research

Sir

Cameron Neylon's Correspondence 'Funding ban could break careers at the toss of a coin' (Nature 459, 641; 2009) is an example of some of the negative reactions to the proposed changes in the peer-review system used for grant applications at the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). However, the process will continue to be fair, open and transparent, being undertaken by the research community itself to ensure that only work of the highest quality is funded by the EPSRC.

I have been reported as saying that peer review is “a lottery”, but this was intended as a description for what can happen when success rates are too low. That is one reason why we have recently introduced measures to reduce the number of poor-quality proposals and so alleviate pressure on our peer-review process. Success rates will improve with fewer, more considered proposals.

The global financial crisis has boosted interest in science and engineering's contribution to future prosperity and in tackling global challenges. It has also never been more important to justify how we spend public money. This is why the research councils are working together to highlight the impact of the research we fund.

Some people have reacted strongly to the requirement for proposals to include an outline of the “potential economic impact” of the research. This has been taken to mean purely financial or commercial impact, whereas the definition consistently used by the research councils is much broader and embraces all the diverse ways in which research-related knowledge and skills could benefit individuals, organizations and nations. For example, high-quality research can lead to improved environmental measures, better communications, new products and services and better-informed public policy.

The primary criteria used to judge proposals remain international excellence and quality. We simply want to ensure that our researchers have considered the impact of their work from the outset.

There have been concerns that the emphasis on impact will draw attention away from blue-skies research. But the EPSRC is fully committed to investigator-led research and understands that this is where future generations of technology will come from.

Our mission remains unchanged — to promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research, thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom and our quality of life.

We must all work together to demonstrate the impact that science and engineering have on society, to ensure continued public support and government funding for research.

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Delpy, D. Peer review and impact statements vital to UK research. Nature 460, 456 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/460456b

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