Yesterday saw the launch of Science for the Future and it certainly did what it was intended to: make a splash!
via sheer lunacy.
Sheer lunacy makes an argument, as well. Two elements in the argument are problematic, however:
1) The move away from investigator driven research to directed research portfolios. No evidence has been supplied by EPSRC to suggest that directed research portfolios produce better science.
This attempts to place the burden of proof on EPSRC. But it is by no means clear that this is where the burden ought to lie. Is there any evidence that a laissez-faire approach produces better science? Moreover, it assumes that EPSRC’s decision ought to be based on something like scientific evidence. That sounds fairly reasonable at first blush, but it ignores the fact that such decisions are political. EPSRC is responding to increasing demands for accountability, and doing so in a way that reserves the majority of the portfolio (60%, I believe) for ‘undirected’ research.
4) The downgrading of peer review in the grant assessment process and the introduction of non-scientific and subjective criteria such as “importance” and “impact” to determine funding. As well as “guidance” being given to panel members as to which proposals have best fit with EPSRC priorities, regardless of scientific excellence.
There are multiple problems here. First, it begs the question, assuming that scientific criteria are the only ones that should matter. It also implies that criteria of scientific excellence are objective, while impact criteria are subjective. We’ve argued against that view at length here.
Second, it implies that guidance given to reviewers is somehow coercive, forcing them to consider impact over scientific excellence. EPSRC’s guidance to reviewers is fairly clear and extensive. It also refers to the even more extensive discussion of impact on the RCUK site. There is also a clear statement that scientific excellence remains the primary criterion for peer review: “The primary criterion for RCUK funding remains excellent research.”
RCUK are clear that this is a quid pro quo arrangement. Researchers are granted significant autonomy in return for engaging the impact agenda. That strikes me as a reasonable deal. Perhaps researchers would prefer simply to be given money on the grounds that they know best how to spend it. But that’s unrealistic, if not irresponsible. It certainly doesn’t seem to fit well with RCUK’s Royal Charters.
Obviously, RCUK (and EPSRC) are engaged in attempting to foster a certain attitude among members of the scientific community — one that is different from that on display at Science for the Future’s mock funeral for science. I suggest that members of the scientific community would be better off engaging EPSRC as co-producers of the impact agenda. Volunteer to serve as a reviewer instead of implying that peer review is being downgraded. Take the political exigency of impact seriously and find ways to own it, rather than simply reacting to it with resistance. EPSRC, too, should reach out and try to engage especially those members of the scientific community most resistant to impact. If scientists and science funders don’t work together, politicians are likely to react by cutting science budgets. That’s an outcome no one in the scientific community (including funding agency officials) wants.