Wednesday, 30 November 2011

EPSRC: "Hope you like our new direction (but if not we don't care)"

EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which has funded most of the research I've done, and is one of only a few bodies likely to fund the research I want to do, has made what seems like a radical change of strategy over the last few years, though hints toward it go further back than that. The thumbnail version is that they used to fund whichever ideas the STEM community deemed best and now they fund the areas they've decided are most important to the UK economy. In reality it's not quite that black-and-white but it's certainly true that the Delpy Axe is cutting back vast swathes of STEM research that might once have been seen as viable in the same way that the Beeching Axe closed so many branch lines on the British railway system in the 1960s. There's a lot to say about this, but I've only got a day to get a lot done so what follows is more a series of marginal notes than the surgical dissection the issue deserves.

The bellwether for this was the e-Science initiative of the 90s, which ring-fenced a portion of EPSRC's budget for whatever could be passed off as e-science, though this tended not to include new ways to exploit the base of natural logarithms. For this we can thank Gordon Brown who, as Chancellor, was persuaded by then Science Minister Lord Sainsbury that this stuff, whatever it was, was obviously too good to risk the possibility that the STEM community might think there was anything better and had to have the money regardless. Wands were waved and it happened, though not without some disconcerting dislocations, such as the Connections cover story in which e-science czar Tony Hey simultaneously announced that e-science would be judged on its achievements, and that e-science mustn't be judged on its achievements because they were in it for the long haul. Or the EPSRC Fellows' Seminar I attended where a retiring official gave us a remarkably patronising haranguing in the course of which he twitted us for (he assumed) not knowing about the Haldane Principles while defending the e-science initiative that made a mockery of them. He also opined that science funding gave the best return on any investment and that the government ought to do less of it, and gave us a distorted printout of a Monet painting and ordered us to hang it in our toilets. We shall not see his like again, I dare say.

So what about those results? Some very interesting work has been done with e-science funding, but only because, in the words of one Professor of my acquaintance "It became apparent that EPSRC were utterly determined to piss a vast amount of money away, and the only thing to do was to grab a bucket and get in position." He was highly successful at this but many weren't; I heard about so many attempts to recast ideas that involved computer networks, however tangentially, as e-science and it was all time wasted. I mentioned this to another official at the fellows' seminar, in between the country dancing, and she demanded to know where I'd heard of this happening. The first three places that came to mind were Southampton, Cambridge and Edinburgh. "Well, they're all e-science Universities" she said, "so that's not a problem". As for the planned outcomes, I talk to lots of people who use high-performance computing and very few of them care about e-science. The idea that giving a percentage of our science budget to computer scientists makes computing faster is akin to the idea that carrying this stone around prevents tiger attacks; it should be tested by seeing if the effects abate when the purported cause is removed.

In the mean time, this approach has spread and spread so that now EPSRC have a portfolio of priority areas and a timetable for how they see them growing and shrinking, so woe betide you if you, a mere scientist, have had what you fondly imagine is a good or important idea in what they deem to be a shrinking area. And the specificity is scary. To take an example that's close to home for me, sustainable energy is a priority area, one of the least contentious ones by common consent. The UK needs, according to the IMechE 2050 Energy Plan a 40-fold increase in wind energy capacity to meet its targets. The UK also has a much lower rate of installation of onshore capacity than comparable EU countries, instead we're sending it all offshore at considerable extra expense per delivered kilowatt-hour. The reasons for this appear to be a fascinating confluence of political, sociological, psychological, acoustical and other engineering issues which a number of colleagues and I think we have a real chance of untangling and addressing. But EPSRC have determined that onshore wind does not count as the kind of sustainable energy they want to prioritize research into, though offshore wind does. It won't stop happening, but it might not get any quieter. Remember that when planning permission is requested for a wind farm near your retirement cottage.

But they don't just want to decide what should be researched but what should be researched where, a circumstance that allows me to drag in not one but two (near) folksong references.  Not only should all academics be like the Vicar of Bray, ready to subvert their vision of what needs to be done to that of the Monarch/Council, they should be prepared to up stumps and travel to wherever the centre for that activity. A significant number of distinguished academics are what are tastefully called 'trailing spouses'. From (the Universities of) Hull and Halifax and Hell, good Lord deliver me. 

In these straitened times it might be said that the market will supply ample academics, as long as the policy is good for the country as a whole. Is it? There's really hard to find evidence, instead we tend to fall back on anecdotes. You might say that without a national program we wouldn't have gone to the moon. I might reply "who's this 'we'? I still haven't been." I could quote Samuel Broder, former director of the US National Cancer Institute who said
If you had demanded that the NIH solve the problem of polio not through independent, investigator-driven discovery research but by means of a centrally directed program, the odds are very strong that you would get the very best iron lungs in the world - portable iron lungs, transistorized iron lungs - but you wouldn't get the vaccine that eradicated polio.
I could also observe that in the 1970s physicists were widely criticised for wasting their time playing with toys when there was an economic crisis going on and they could have been doing something useful. The toys in question were lasers. You might like to pause and count how many are in the room you're reading this in.

Of course a concentrated push can achieve a lot; just look at the Manhattan project. That was a wartime effort and you could argue that we are at war with global warming. Are we at war with the Digital Economy? With Nanotchnology, and Complexity? In the 1970s there was great excitement about Catastrophe Theory, which was going to take advanced mathematics out of the ivory tower and embed it in the social sciences. It was going to explain anorexia, fight-flight response and cold-war escalation. This didn't happen, and the word 'explain' in the previous sentence was found to be an overambitious substitute for 'be a bit like'. In time the fanciful stuff and the bandwagon jumpers washed away and what was left became bifurcation theory, part of chaos, the next big hype. Now it's complexity, some of which is amazing and some of which is nonsense, and it's still a little early to say which is which in many cases. I've got some ideas that could be framed as complexity, and will be pathetically grateful for whatever scraps of funding I can get for them. But imagine if there'd been a Doctoral Training Centre in Catastrophe Theory back then? We'd know no more now, we'd have spent a lot more, the blind alleys would have been exhaustively mapped and a large number of researchers would have specialised in something they couldn't find much use for later.

Notice that I said 'could be framed' above. Whether they will be won't depend on scientific merits, but on funding likelihood. Every University department/school/faculty will have one or more academics whose role, on top of their own research, is to make sure that all opportunities for research funding are being exploited to the maximum extent possible, so it may not be just the individual'choice. In fact, the department's research income depends on both the overheads on its grant income and its REF score. As both EPSRC and HEFCE become more prescriptive about what they do and don't want to see, this becomes an increasingly tricky optimization problem, not helped by the large element of double-counting: EPSRC like to give money to people they've given money to before, presumably on the basis that they imagine they rarely fund bad work or fail to fund good work.

This arrangement certainly isn't good for scientist's, but is it good for the country? Imagine two professors in adjacent offices. Prof A applies for and gets a million pounds worth of grants, employs five research assistants and publishes ten papers in reputable journals. Prof B thinks very hard and publishes ten papers in reputable journals. What should we say about these two? I  wouldn't for a moment say that all academics should be like B, apart from anything else A has helped train a number of young scientists. But as taxpayers shouldn't we be a little pleased about the million pounds that B has saved us, and a little perturbed that from the point of view of his employers, the University, that 'saving' is seen as nothing but a failure?

Both those Professors will increasingly find that they are trying to serve two masters. EPSRC have made no bones about wanting to move from funding research to sponsoring it, though they don't yet go as far as, say, the MRC who directly employ researchers. EPSRC's previous vision statement (which I can't dredge up at this moment) made it sound like they already did, and back when I was doing my PhD on a SERC quota studentship their published guidance to reject all paid employment until we'd written up certainly sounded as though they thought they'd bought us wholesale, and pretty cheaply too, given the size of maintenance grants in those days. Nowadays EPSRC have the power to shut down successful departments with a small change of policy. Is it unreasonable to wonder whether things could be better managed?

Anyway, I'd like to make a couple of modest proposals, not about policy, good heavens no, far be it from me etc., just about the dialogue we have about it:

  1. Please could we have an immediate moratorium on the use of the phrase "hard choices"? If you're going to kill someone's career by making the research their life has been leading up to impossible then its rather poor form to ask for their sympathy because it was so difficult for you.
  2. Please could EPSRC collectively recognise that the path that they have chosen in the last few years is, while clearly a response to undeniable conditions, not the only possible response to those conditions, and that many emminent people are unconvinced that it is the best one, and accordingly 'wind their necks back in'. I've seen a mid-level EPSRC functionary scowl and wag his finger at a roomful of seriously heavy-hitting engineers and tell them "you have to live in the real world" when one of them dared point out a possible negative effect of the strategy he was describing. That's completely inappropriate; you're not talking to relativist postmodern philosophers, if you don't want a dialogue stay at home.
  3. Please, if you're going to kill responsive mode (as the rumours claim) just announce it so we can plan accordingly. The 'non-denial denials' are driving us mad.
 One last thing, I hope you don't need to be told that the Beeching axe utterly failed to achieve the savings that it set out to.

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