‘The death of british science’? Really ?

I almost don’t feel I can comment -but of course I am going to anyway.

Today I watched, or rather half-watched via twitter and other media outlets, the protest about
‘the death of British science’
.

The protesters, about 100 strong, according to the BBC website, are objecting to the the priority they feel has been given to industry related science over basic science. They have specifically targeted the EPSRC (the Engineering and Science Research Council) for this sin.

The EPSRC disagree with the protesters claims and issued what I thought was a very positive press release about maintaining the UK as a scientific world-leader. James Wilsdon from SPRU (University of Sussex) called for ‘research communities to unite than indulge in self-interested bickering‘. Mark Henderson, after a well-deserved shout out to Jenny Rohn for starting up Science is Vital, argued that this protest might actually hurt government science spending because it could imply ‘that a research council cannot be trusted to spend its money wisely’.

For the record, I should point out that I am currently funded by the EPSRC. I should also point out that I am not funded in one of their strategic priority areas, at least under the remit I was funded from.

In some ways I agree with the over-arching theme of the protesters. I DO think we should fund basic science but I also believe the government has to fund some industrial science too. I think most academic scientists in the UK largely agree. Five minutes on the UK science blogosphere certainly supports this view, not to mention there is already action group which has established itself in 2010 to address scientific funding issues – Science is Vital.

On the other hand I am not sure this isn’t a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Everyone that I have interacted with at EPSRC has been very positive (and worried) about what is going on with funding cuts – they are, after all, the people having to administer these cuts. I am not saying I unilaterally agree with all of their decisions, but in my experience they are available for a dialogue about these issues.

From watching Twitter, there were varied degrees of distaste – as well as deafening silence – from the usual science research supporters on the ‘Death of British science’. I personally found it all a bit puzzling as I was confused, really, about what exactly the protesters were protesting.

It rather left me with many questions that maybe the protesters can help answer.

1 – Are you protesting government spending cuts to the research councils? or the EPSRC?

2 – Do you have statistics (real data) on how funding is currently split by EPSRC? Did you collate this data?

3 – Did you try to coordinate with Science is Vital – who could possibly help you think of ways to move forward when discussing with the EPSRC?

4 – Did you try to contact the EPSRC and set up a meeting?

5 – Why do you feel the need to invoke Stalin? I understand you are in fear of the ‘death of science’ but Stalin killed real people, which is much worse than spending cuts on anything. Do you know that much about science in Soviet Russia? I personally don’t but I do not think comparisons like this are particularly helpful, why do you?

I think I am not alone in my confusion. I had a non-academic friend phone me up today to ask me what it was all about. This is in contrast to Science is Vital where it was pretty clear to everyone. The point of a public protest is to make abundantly clear what it is you are protesting.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be concerned about research council funding decisions, in fact as fundees it is almost a duty to be concerned, but I am not sure a protest was warranted in this case. I also want to clearly state I am not being sarcastic, these are genuine questions I want to ask. As my Department Head said in a recent staff meeting, “we have to think about how to move forward in this rocky funding landscape” and the ‘Death of British Science’ protest didn’t seem to be a move forward to me.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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11 Responses to ‘The death of british science’? Really ?

  1. Sam Cook says:

    You echo my reaction to the whole mess very well.

    The impression I got was that ESPRC are currently in a similar situation to the one the STFC was in recently. This means there are now a lot of people within the space, HEPP, Astro and nuclear communities who now have a lot of experience working with these prioritisation processes and lobbying their research council. Why not come and talk to them? or if there is some particular aversion to physicists why not talk to ‘Science is Vital’ who have a much broader scope to help with things like this.

    As a launch for the a campaign (apparently it’s called “science is the future”) it was pretty ineffective as well. The only information I can find on it was via the BBC article and their letter to the Telegraph. The letter mainly accuses the EPSRC of “favouritism” and “manipulating the processes of peer review” but doesn’t really give much in the way of clarity what their primary objection is (EPSRC itself, the Shaping Capability goal, the administrators, the government, all of the above?) let alone any solutions.

    Having had a look at the new system EPSRC are employing I can understand the worry that this group has (especially in Mathematics where EPSRC are the primary research council and the scope has been severely reduced) but for a group of nobel prize winners their arguments and solutions seen vague, poorly thought out and, possibly worst of all in politics, not open for compromise.

    I can’t understand why they didn’t contact any of the existing groups, ultimately this sort of fragmentation is only going to weaken each voice and damage us all. If we want the Government to work with us we need to be working together first.

    Wandering around with tacky coffins, making arguments that are 90% hyperbole and not working with your colleagues is just going to leave us all in a bigger mess.

    It almost makes me wonder if the group are actually agent provocateurs…

    • Hi, Sam.

      Some of our objections to EPSRC policies are listed in my responses below to Sylvia’s questions.

      Solutions? I can’t speak for all involved with the Science for the Future campaign but for me the solution is very, very simple indeed: return EPSRC’s policies to what I refer to as pre-Delpy days (i.e. to what they were in 2007). When I started as an academic in 1997, EPSRC was one of the fairest and most supportive (to yound scientists) funding bodies in Europe. This continued all the way up to about 2006/2007 when the rot set in…

      Best wishes,

      Philip

  2. Stephen Moss says:

    I have to admit that when I saw the ‘death of British science’ tag I did rather switch off. It doesn’t help science to make hysterical or exaggerated proclamations of doom, because if anything it detracts from the real damage done. Thus, regardless of the value or importance of ESPRC-funded research, cuts will mean fewer jobs, less research and probably the UK becoming a less prominent force globally in ESPRC-funded areas. This is bad enough in itself, but falls well short of death.

    And all areas are experiencing cuts. Even in biomedical sciences, which have perhaps fared better than other areas, the funding freeze together with certain charities suspending applications (such as CRUK) and the Wellcome Trust adopting a narrow elitist funding strategy, the UK will inevitably lose some of its international impact.

    The worry, as has been cited many times by many commentators, is that government decisions are rarely evidence-based, and there is the sense here that as in many supposed acts of strategic planning, this is little more than arbitrary axe-wielding.

  3. Jim Woodgett says:

    This is a well balanced opinion of the protest, but I think misses a few points. Firstly (without knowing the details of the organizers) the protest likely reflects some level of frustration with changes that appear to be happening without clear consultation and rationale. EPSRC is likely trying to do its best in meeting various demands of its masters/payers and the scientific community but the deck is stacked. She who holds the purse, dictates the prize. Secondly, while there is no doubt that society needs translation of research into commercial activities and industry (indeed, this is an important, if not essential, element of impact, government and administrators and the public can get their head around products and outcomes far easier than the processes needed to create them. Politicians, in particular, understand where votes come from and perhaps tolerate science, despite its insidious disrespect for predictable behaviour, because they’ve understand that past history has shown science does drive prosperity. However, they do not understand it, in the same way that a reader may not understand the effort that an author put into creating a novel. The instinct is to place more resource towards the last stages. In pursuing the metaphor, its like throwing more money at the publisher in order to reduce the time taken for the authors next book to be written. The scientific community is also at partial fault as we included economic development as part of our bargain/contract for greater government investment in science. this was, of course, as foolish as expecting an author to be able to ramp up her creative process. So, we are collecting the fruits of our own seeds and they are not palatable.

    There seems to be an effort to realign research agendas around the world – driven in part by the fiscal situation. Unfortunately, basic science is as difficult to translate into common understandings it is to predictable impacts. We know benefit will be derived somehow, but it is a true collective effort that resists efforts to dissect generalizable examples. Expecting to be able to connect the dots between investment and science with tangible output is like trying pouring a cup of water into the Atlantic off Cork and tracing it to the cup of water extracted a decade later in New York harbour.

    Peter Lawrence eloquently defends basic science and the beauty of scientific enquiry. We need more like him.

  4. I agree with the funding of basic science, in fact I written several blogs about this myself. But t I don’t think that the current protest of EPSRC actually is supporting that view, at least not clearly.

  5. @Dr_PaulC did answer some of my comments on Twitter.

    After reading my post he tweeted:
    @girlinterruptin oh dear. You really should attend meetings before commenting on them. That way you’ll get the full picture #scipolicy

    I think this actually reiterates the problem I brought up in my post. Namely, if you are protesting, it should be clear what you are protesting. People ‘on the street’ watching shouldn’t have to attend a meeting to know why you are protesting.

    He also answered some of my other questions:

    @girlinterruptin in answer to your Q1: we are concerned at how EPSRC is mishandling current budget. #science4thefuture

    @girlinterruptin q2: stats we use come from EPSRC website. Tho they now disagree with their own data #science4thefuture

    I’d be curious to see some real numbers.

    @girlinterruptin q3&4 tried many times 2 talk 2 EPSRC via professional bodies All times epsrc unresponsive #science4thefuture

    Who? Science is Vital says they weren’t approached by them, and judging by CaSE’s press release about it, it doesn’t look like they talked to CaSE either.

    @girlinterruptin q5 over exaggeration on Stalin I’m afraid. One comment that top down management has been tried and failed

    @girlinterruptin by them. That article written by freelancer who needs to sell a story

    To be fair these answers came on Twitter, which isn’t the venue for such answers I suspect, 140 characters is simply not long enough but

    @Dr_PaulC did say though:

    @girlinterruptin I’ve blogged it all months ago. I’ll write up an accurate account of todays meeting as soon as I have free time

    I look forward to what he says in more detail….

  6. Hi, Sylvia.

    Apologies for commenting here rather late in the day but it’s been a hectic week. Thanks also for your post.

    I’m a physicist at the University of Nottingham (and, coincidentally, an EPSRC Leadership fellow) and I am heavily involved with Science for the Future. (I can’t take credit for the ‘hearse’ stunt, however, I’m afraid). I address your excellent questions below in a little more detail than is possible via 140 character tweets.

    Before I tackle your questions, could I also refer you to the papers and articles below which highlight the myriad problems with the EPSRC and the damage the Council is doing to the character and ethos of fundamental science in the UK.

    Science as a Public Good

    Public Science – Public Good? (A ‘spat’ with Terence Kealey, VC of the University of Buckingham)

    The Economic Impact Fallacy

    Reclaiming Academia from Post-Academia

    Some, including Athene Donald, have described the suggestion that EPSRC is distorting/perverting basic science and the scientific method as “risible hyperbole”. Athene’s certainly entitled to her opinion. But please make up your own mind on the basis of the articles listed above and my answers to your questions. Note that I refer regularly to Jennifer Washburn’s “University Inc.” and to Daniel Greenburg’s “Science for Sale” in the articles. These books are well worth reading, as is the more recent “Science Mart” by Philip Mirowski. They discuss the problems with science funding policy from the US perspective but the parallels with the UK grow ever stronger.

    Now to your questions:

    ——————

    1. Are you protesting government spending cuts?

    No. We are not in any way protesting government cuts. Indeed, in a refreshing change for a campaign group, we are not lobbying for more funding. We simply want the funding that EPSRC distributes ( ~ £800M annually) to be disbursed in a fair and transparent fashion. It is demonstrably not doing this. Examples?

    — The Council cannot claim to support fundamental/exploratory/curiosity-driven/basic science on one hand and on the other ask for impact to “inform the direction of your research” (see exchange with Athene Donald here for lots more on this).

    — In what sense is it fair for EPSRC to introduce new funding schemes for those it has selected as fellows which bypass the standard grant application and peer-review processes? The most odious of these schemes is the “Dream Fellowship” route, where EPSRC programme managers decide who they will invite to apply for this scheme – no other applicants are eligible. Note also that, by its own criteria , EPSRC’s fellowship scheme deliberately excludes many of the UK’s – and, more importantly, the world’s – leading scientists. (The ‘sour grapes’ jibe slung out by James Wilsdon on Tuesday is particularly irritating for me in this context as I am an EPSRC fellow).

    — The blacklisting scheme introduced by EPSRC is simply unethical. Any scheme based on the claim that peer review is entirely quantitative (such that any proposal falling in the lower half of a grant prioritisation panel is necessarily of poor quality) is deeply, deeply flawed. I’ve repeatedly asked David Delpy, Lesley Thompson, Atti Emecz, and Andrew Bourne at EPSRC to carry out the following experiment: Take the same sets of proposals with the same sets of referees’ comments. Distribute them to five independent panels. Cross-correlate your results. If you see 100% correlation between the results of all panels then, fine, go ahead with your scheme. If not, don’t you think it’s just a little unfair to completely demoralise new/young members of staff via blacklisting? For some strange reason, they’ve not carried out this experiment…

    — Blocking all resubmissions of grant proposals. This betrays an unbelievably low level of understanding of the role of the peer review process.

    — The loss of project studentships. Where is the evidence that a doctoral training centre approach, **particularly in the physical sciences**, leads to higher quality PhD students? EPSRC don’t have this evidence. But they have lots of ideological zeal about the benefits of more and more top-down management and centralisation. (I found it amusing that a couple of years ago they claimed that the Doctoral Training…ooops, sorry… Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) approach was ‘very successful’. Before a single student had graduated from a training centre.)

    — The crystal ball-gazing farce of “shaping capability”. Take a look at the infamous Bourne Graph and tell me with a straight face that this is the appropriate way to delineate and select priority spending areas.

    There’s more. But that’ll do for now.

    2. Do you have statistics (real data) on how funding is split by EPSRC?

    Ermmm, yes. Most of this is available from EPSRC themselves. They’re usually pretty good at releasing these data but sometimes need a little ‘toe in the behind’ to speed them up via a Freedom of Information request. (They apparently forget sometimes that they’re a publicly funded body…)

    Which particular data are you interested in discussing?

    3. Did you try to coordinate with Science is Vital – who could possibly help you think of ways to move forward when discussing with the EPSRC?

    Not to the best of my knowledge but maybe others involved in the Campaign can provide more information on this. I’ll check.

    4. 4 – Did you try to contact the EPSRC and set up a meeting?

    OK, this is perhaps one of your less-excellent questions…

    What do you think?

    Various groups of us have met with David Delpy and other representatives of EPSRC on numerous occasions over the last few years. On each occasion we have been categorically ignored. Letters have been sent. ‘Consultations’ have been made. Meetings have been organised. All to no avail.

    I’m sure you’ll remember that the learned societies and professional bodies (such as the Institute of Physics) took EPSRC to task not so long ago for claiming that it had consulted about its policy changes when it had done no such thing. This lack of willingness to meaningfully consult/debate with scientists is a signature characteristic of EPSRC.

    5. Why do you feel the need to invoke Stalin?

    I’ve had this debate with Athene as well. Tony Barrett made those comments. He leads the Campaign but we’re not a political party driven by a three-line whip to toe the party line! Don’t assume that we all speak as one ‘collective’. I may agree with a lot of what Tony says but certainly not everything. I’m sure that he’d say the same of me.

    What unites us is our deep opposition to EPSRC’s unfair, unscientific, and unethical policies.

    ———

    What particularly frustrates me is the idea that despite our strong misgivings about EPSRC’s policy the message we get from some of our colleagues is to keep our mouths shut in case we jeopardise the settlement for science in the next CSR. What a depressing indictment of science funding policy in the UK.

    As someone with a keen interest in outreach/public engagement with science, I find it remarkable that we are castigated by some senior scientists for highlighting the mismanagement of public funds. As I said to Athene, is this really the message we want to send to the next generation of scientists?

    A very long comment. Apologies. But I hope that I’ve gone some way to addressing your questions.

    All the best,

    Philip

    • Atti Emecz says:

      If I may join in (I am EPSRC Director of Strategy, Information & Strategy) and respond to just three of Philip’s points in this:
      In Q1 – Resubmission – The policy is NOT as stated here. Panels are able to invite resubmissions where they feel a resubmitted application would have a significantly higher chance of being funded.
      In Q1 – centres and studentships – We have provided Philip with evidence in the form of reports on the value of centres. He emphasises “physical siences” in his response because I agree we have not specifically produced reports in this area. Philip has, though, seen evidence for life sciences (a UCL study on their site) and for engineering. This evidence is published. For example a review here: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/SiteCollectionDocuments/Publications/reports/EngDReviewReport.pdf You can also see a brief summary of the general conclusions arising from a very recent mid term review of centres here: http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/newsevents/news/2012/Pages/cdtoutcomes.aspx

      I would also cite as evidence the fact that our advisory structures discussed at length the value and expansion of centres including to the physical sciences and agreed to that approach. This was endorsed by our Council. That process is effectively a type of peer review and also a form of evidence (at least in my book). In the face of this I would respond to Philip by asking him to provide evidence that the centres approach is not appropriate for the Physical Sciences.
      In Q2 – As the Director responsible for Freedom of Information, I can assure you we never forget our responsibiltiies as public servants. We aim for transparency. We provide information following direct FoI requests and also through simple requests for information that do not come badged as FoI. We have provided lots of information to those involved in SFTF. Although it is possible, and sat at home this Saturday afternoon, I cannot recall a case where we have denied someone information following a simple request from that person only to then provide it after an FoI request. If we have done so then I apologise to them. (I should clarify – we certainly do not disclose all information requested – various exemptions are allowed under FoI).

      • @atti Thank you for this – I wasn’t aware of some of this so much appreciated

        @Phillip Moriaty, thanks for your response and I apologize for the delay in responding myself – its been a crazy week.

        The only think I would like to add is to your query above about what data I was talking about (your response to my Q2) –

        What I would like to see is data from the last 20 years that shows what subjects were funded, if some were more or less funded than others and what impact DTC s have on the future of graduates and research. I do realize this is a bit vague – but it just seems to me almost to be an argument (not entirely) of ‘things were better in the past’ which I think doesn’t really work. Do we know this? with real numbers and evidence?

        Also – your response of ‘don’t assume we speak as a collective’ is fair (to my query about Stalin) but a body of people protesting rather is a collective. Why I am bringing this up is that many people in science do disagree with certain aspects of the way the Research councils handle things, this has always been true, but the Science for the Future campaign felt the need to protest in a very public way and as such are seen by the rest of the world as a united voice. I realize not everyone thinks the same way but the invocation of Stalin I think rather undermines your cause.

        Thank you again for taking the time to write here

      • Hi, Atti.

        1. Yes, I agree that there is a route for some resubmissions and that the statement above, as worded (i.e. “all resubmissions”), is incorrect. Apologies. The key issue, however, is that many grants which are well below the panel threshold for funding will have received extremely good reviews and yet cannot be resubmitted.

        A personal example: I am co-I on a grant which was resubmitted twice. The first time ’round the proposal came close to the bottom of the ranking. With minimal changes, on the third submission it was ranked #1. Should that grant not have been funded?

        2. It’s clear from yesterday’s meeting that EPSRC has a very long way to go in convincing the rest of the community that the loss of project studentships is a good idea. I would argue – if you’ll excuse the paraphrasing – that extraordinary changes require extraordinary evidence. As you know, the SATs were deeply opposed to the loss of project studentships. Council ignored their concerns.

        3. Re. FoI requests. It’s the final sentence of your response that prompted my, perhaps somewhat over-confrontational, comment about freedom of information requests. As you say, you have not disclosed all information. This has caused some irritation amongst some colleagues.

  7. Hi, Sylvia.

    It was a pleasure to meet you and chat over lunch at the EPSRC meeting last week. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond here.

    The difficulty with getting concrete data for the ‘efficacy’ of CDTs vs project studentships is that the former were introduced relatively recently. Atti points to some evidence above for life sciences and engineering. Note that the mid-term review of centres he cites does not attempt to compare the ‘outputs’ from CDTs with an equivalent investment in project studentships. This is the type of study that needs to be carried out. I would also like to see the panel report in full (rather than rely on the synopsis at the EPSRC website) and would prefer if these types of review were carried out with, at the very least, one non-UK academic on the panel (preferably the Chair).

    All the best.

    Philip