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Science in peril

Posted 19/01/2012 by sevans

One is tempted to say: here we are again – as we seem to have been so many times in recent years. UK science is under threat once again, according to a letter from nearly 80 prominent UK scientists including Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto, published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper last week.

The reason? Yet another threat to the scientific base of the UK; this time from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). 

These eminent letter writers claimed that the EPSRC is making ‘disastrous errors in its operations’ and making changes that are ‘damaging scientific discovery in Britain’. The signatories believe it has ‘exceeded its remit so spectacularly that it has lost the confidence of a significant proportion of the scientific community’.

And what has the EPSRC actually done to incur this wrath? According to the letter: ‘The council’s pronouncements that research PhD students will no longer be funded through standard grants; that fellowships will only be open in areas chosen by unqualified EPSRC officials; that grant applications must present an assessment of the “impact” or their work over 10 to 50 years; and that the EPSRC will decide without consulting researchers what level of support is available for every subject, are all seriously flawed.’

Just to take one of these pronouncements – the requirement for an assessment of the impact of the research – would be laughable if it were not so serious. Scientific research is notorious for ending up with a totally different result from that originally envisaged and, particularly in the life sciences, what looked like promising research can end in spectacular failure. 

One is reminded of the old adage about advertising: only a very small proportion of the money spent on advertising is successful - the big problem is working out which proportion is going to be successful. Some of the greatest scientific successes have come from ‘blue sky’ research, research that was carried out for its own sake rather than a specific end in view. 

And to try to look up to 50 years ahead is ludicrous – even in the chemical industry where production facilities are built to run for up to 20-30 years, new process development can dramatically alter the capacity or efficiency of a plant within a few years of coming onstream.

In the UK’s case, another problem has been the inability to turn ground-breaking research with a recognised commercial application into real commercial success, something that governments have been trying to address for a number of years with only some measure of success.

Indeed the current UK government has said that it recognises this problem and is acting to overcome this problem. And in addition David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has pledged to make the UK ‘the best place in the world to do science’. The signatories to the Daily Telegraph letter point out that this will be difficult to achieve under the current EPSRC regime and call on the minister to overrule or replace the council.

As I said in last week’s blog, one step forward and two steps back – UK science staggers from crisis to crisis yet still manages to achieve world-class research. Just think what could be achieved if so much time wasn’t wasted in all these diversions?

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    14/03/2012 03:44

    Dear Geoff,1. He was under 30.2. He wasn't married.3. He didn't have any ciehdrln.That certainly plays some role, especially if we reformulate your three points as follows -1. He was arrogant enough to question well established theories.2. He was able (and wanted!) to focus on his work. Note that he was also underfunded Imagine you pay 150000$ to a 25 year old boy asking him to do some decent science (that's what they do to quants on WS by the way). I would bet that he will start really enjoying his bonuses after a year, and that's where his creative energy will be mostly channelled to. Based on your experience with human behavior and psychology, will you really doubt that? Suppose you will, in this case let me note that not only complications but the joys of life can well lead to the violation of the condition 2 above By the way, congratulations on doing all three Hopefully it won't hurt your science too much. So far it seems that all three factors in fact help me to work. Really appreciated it when my wife and daughter went travelling for a week Regarding the adversary argument, I am afraid I have to agree with you. Maybe, that's in human nature, only some serious danger forces our brains to work really seriously Being at college/university, did you notice how much motivation to learn rises when you are getting closer to exams? Thanks for the link, it was fun to read Cheers,Dmitry.

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