December 24, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich
Seduced by the Dark Side? Embracing Impact
This 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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Thank you for this blog post Philip. I know you are aware of my background but, for the benefit of others, I should mention that I am now based at the University of Surrey although I had 25 years at EPSRC and I had much to do with impact in my latter days there. I write here of course in a personal capacity. On the subject of impact I also recall many robust discussions with you (and others) although I also found them quite enjoyable (well usually). I remember you telling me of your intention to run this experiment although I saw it as more of a challenge. I am pleased that it has turned out this way. Your public engagement work is exceptional so I had a high level of confidence that if you were unfunded it would not have been as a result of the pathways statement. Let’s just hope this experiment s repeatable 😉
Taking a broader view, I would like to state that our colleagues at the Research Councils are hugely committed to doing the best for UK research. For many, it is as much a vocation as it is a job. This was true for me and why I chose to stay for 25 years. Yes, sure the professionalism is there and, as public servants, RCUK staff have to tow the government line …so, for example, there are things that can’t be done/said. The whole impact agenda evolved over many years (well from 1993/4 onwards) and did have a strong central government push behind it. That was true whether the administration was red or blue. You and I will differ on whether that concept of impact in research funding is a good or bad thing but rehashing that argument is not my intent here (happy to do it over a beer sometime). The point I really want to make here is that the research community can be, or should be, very grateful for the work many dedicated Research Council staff did, and are probably still doing, to make this agenda workable i.e. so it achieved the objectives government/Treasury wanted without disrupting the quality of the UK’s research endeavour. I have no doubt they would be even more effective (and engage even more with the community) if they were not constantly under review!
Thanks for commenting, Atti. It’s always been a great pleasure to discuss impact (and other aspects of RCUK) with you. Thanks for the kind words about the public engagement work.
I agree entirely that there are very many highly dedicated research council staff who have played a key role in ensuring that the research councils aren’t driven entirely towards grant-awarding processes based on near-market return on investment.
I hope things are going well for you at Surrey. It’d be good to meet up again for a chat — hopefully we can meet at a conference/event in the not-too-distant future.