While there are plenty of EPSRC initiatives, within the delivery plan, that seemed to me to be cause for concern my main fear is that of the EPSRC sponsoring research – as opposed to just choosing the best research work. In reality this seems to equate to choosing an individual researcher to give money to as opposed to reviewing individual research proposals. How will this ever keep high-quality researchers on their mettle if they have no fear that their research will be rejected? Indeed, should we use this method for reviewing papers – as long as those papers come from an established researcher with a good track record than they can be accepted regardless of the research or the text which they propose? This is obviously ludicrous but why is it any different to the idea of the EPSRC sponsoring researchers.
I have no problem with research councils sponsoring fellows – or even advanced or senior fellowships – but this should not be the de facto way in which research funding is applied. However, this seems to be just exactly what the EPSRC are suggesting in their latest delivery plan.
Sadly, I have even heard rumblings that responsive mode will now mostly be for foundational and algorithmic work – as opposed to any human factors or applied work – with the majority of funding going into large theme-based grants to sustain the large research teams of the chosen few sponsored researchers. These large research teams produce, per head, far less useful research than small tightly coupled teams, they often “double dip” the same research findings over different grants, they seem able to assign researchers to write grant, after funding application, after grant, and the novelty of the work seems to be low in that research threads started on one major grant are often continued – regardless of the topic – into the next major grant.
It may be that I’m being overly pessimistic – as some would say is my nature – and that this delivery plan is only for the next four years to 2015; it is unlikely therefore, that the UK research base will be destroyed in just four years. However, once the seeds are sown it is often difficult to stop them germinating.
Finally, this idea of large thematic research grants puts me in mind of the writings of Voltaire: he wrote in his notebooks circa 1750:
“God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best”. Voltaire – Notebooks (c.1735-c.1750)
The EPSRC would be wise to remember those words when they are trying to instigate their new delivery plan, or are writing the next one.