December 24, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Seduced by the Dark Side? Embracing Impact

particle-collisionThis is a guest post by Philip Moriarty, PI on a project, just funded by the EPSRC, entitled Mechanochemistry at the single bond limit: Towards deterministic epitaxy. We both hope to bring you more news about work on this project in the future.

Some of you who have been reading the Making Science Public blog for some time (and/or follow Brigitte and colleagues on Twitter) may know that I’ve been an irritatingly vocal and tediously persistent critic of the so-called impact agenda for research funding. The Pathways To Impact statement required by the Engineering and Physics Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been a particular bugbear. When it became a requirement for all EPSRC proposals in 2009 I stopped submitting grant applications to, and reviewing for, EPSRC. Since then I have had many discussions and debates with EPSRC (and Research Councils UK (RCUK)) representatives about the extent to which the impact agenda has the potential to damage the ethos of fundamental science.

Rest easy, I’m not going to rehearse all of my issues with impact here. (I’ve covered them at length elsewhere — this blog post provides a summary). What I will highlight, however, is that my concerns have always focussed on the extent to which commercial/corporate imperatives can influence and, at worst, distort (or even pervert) science and the scientific method. The Stern review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), announced last week, is very likely to up the ante when it comes to research impact. That the Treasury wants a quid pro quo for its ‘protection’ of the science budget in the most recent spending review should hardly come as a huge surprise…

The point of this post, however, is not to pillory, but to praise, EPSRC for its stance on impact. (Yes, you read that correctly). A year ago, I did a U-turn on my boycott of submitting/reviewing EPSRC proposals, for the reasons discussed in this Physics World article:

Some of these discussions [with various research council representatives] were helpful and constructive; others rather less so. However, time and again the same message came back to me and other researchers who had voiced concern. “You misunderstand us. It’s not about commercial impact,” they say. “It’s not even about predicting what the impact of your research will be – even if you are doing esoteric, fundamental science, your proposal won’t be disadvantaged by the requirement for impact.”

So, I am doing an experiment (otherwise known as an embarrassing U-turn). I am taking EPSRC at its word and am about to submit a grant application to them. A key component of that application is, of course, the Pathways to Impact case, which I am trying so desperately hard to avoid writing at the moment. In line with EPSRC’s often-stated commitments to fundamental, non-commercial research, the impact statement I am writing focuses solely on public engagement.”

The proposal in question was submitted in January this year. The first submission was ranked highly but fell just below the cut-off for funding. EPSRC invited a resubmission and we were delighted to find out last week that this time round the proposal had been funded. For both the original version of the proposal and the resubmission, our Pathways To Impact case was very well-received by the referees and the panel. EPSRC asked that I did not make the referees’ reports publicly available but was happy for me to upload a summary of the feedback. I’ve therefore uploaded our response to the referees.

Having spent a great deal of time criticising EPSRC (and the other research councils and HEFCE) on the question of impact, it’s only fair that I now give credit where credit’s due. EPSRC told me (and others) many times that fundamental research which was not motivated by application and/or commercial impact would not be disadvantaged when it came to peer review of grant applications. I perhaps should have taken them at their word rather sooner. We stated explicitly in our resubmitted proposal that the research was not motivated by application:

“The research we propose is unashamedly curiosity-driven fundamental science. As such, it is motivated not by the potential for direct short-term economic impact (via, for example, spin-off technology) – and it would be disingenuous of us to suggest otherwise – but by the fascination, importance, and challenges of the underlying science.”

…and yet the proposal was well-received by the panel and the referees, and funded by EPSRC.

Of course I remain very concerned about the extent to which the growing focus on near-term return on investment could potentially skew and distort the research done in our universities (both in the UK and internationally) but it is clear that entirely fundamental science, when coupled to a strong outreach and public engagement programme, continues to be supported by EPSRC. This came as a very welcome early Christmas present.

Image credit: Higgs boson simulation, Cern (Mette Høst)









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