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EPSRC won’t shelve ‘shaping capabilities’ – but will consult more

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has declined to mothball its controversial shaping capability policy but agreed to work more closely with learned societies on implementing it.

The decision was announced following a meeting last week of the EPSRC council, which discussed a joint call from the major learned societies in the physical sciences, plus the Royal Society, to delay the introduction of the policy to give more time to consider objections to it.

Under shaping capability the ESPRC will decide to grow or shrink research areas on the basis of their national importance, as well as existing excellence and capacity.

The first tranche of decisions, announced in July, provoked heavy criticism and claims that the EPSRC had failed to engage adequately with the research community.

Atti Emecz, the EPSRC’s director of communications, said the research council believed it had already been “working with” the learned societies on shaping capability, but its council was “very clear that the robustness and credibility of the decisions we take is paramount and we needed to engage further with learned and professional societies in particular to achieve that”.

He said this meant the date for the second tranche of decisions – originally intended for November - might well slip, but the council had agreed that the April deadline for the third tranche remained appropriate.

He added that the societies would not be asked to give specific recommendations on which areas of their subject to grow or cut because doing so would risk alienating elements of their membership.

“We will ask them more subtle question such as what they see as strengths in the portfolio, which areas are emerging and which are well represented already,” he said.

But Neville Reed, managing director of science, education and industry at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said it was a “fallacy” that learned societies were unable to prioritise one area of their subject over another.

“Under our charter we have to represent what is best for the chemical sciences,” he said, adding that the society had already identified 10 priority areas for future research.

He praised the EPSRC for going “out of its way” to engage and reassure the societies since the controversy erupted, and said the “mood music” in the community had become much more positive.

“If the EPSRC continues in this vein it will eventually take all the community with it in the direction it wants to go,” he predicted.

But not everyone has been placated. Anthony Barrett, professor of organic chemistry at Imperial College London, who coordinated a letter to the Prime Minister from leading synthetic organic chemists protesting against the EPSRC’s decision to reduce its funding, said the research council was still not engaging with practising researchers.

“Everyone agrees that the EPSRC has to cut its budget, but the only way it will do it properly is engage with the people doing the research at the quarry face,” he said.

He added that the EPSRC’s acknowledgment that it should have engaged more widely with the community implied that its first round of decisions had been “flawed”.

“The question from the community will be, ‘Is the EPSRC going to rescind the prior decisions, and if not why not?’” he said.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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