New agendas need new visions
Apr 3, 1998
The UK's research councils are four years old this month. Matin Durrani lifts the veil of secrecy that surrounds recent cuts to the physics programme at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and identifies how to react.
"Physicists are doing very, very well, " says Richard Brook, sitting in the chief executive's office at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. "We put more of our finance into physics departments than into any other. That's an indication of the priority that we give to the subject."
His statements will come as a surprise to many physicists. The EPSRC has cut the budget of its physics programme twice in the past three years and, although physicists receive almost as much money again from other EPSRC programmes, the overall trend is downwards.
Brook has been in charge of the council since it was set up four years ago and now controls a budget of more than £380m. He has made some notable reforms, particularly to the peer-review system, but to outsiders the EPSRC seems secretive, and the reasons behind the cuts to the physics programme remain mysterious.
Brook says that there are many justifications for the cuts. The one he mentions is that more than 50% of grant applications in physics are funded, compared with a success rate of only one in three in chemistry. Look elsewhere, however, and other reasons appear. An EPSRC newsletter says that the latest 3% cut was made because the physics programme "was not focused on new and burgeoning areas". And in a letter to university vice-chancellors in February, Brook wrote that "concern for the physics programme has continued to centre on the extent to which former strengths can be sustained across a broad front without compromising opportunities to engage new fields".
Stuart Ward, manager of the physics programme, is more direct. "There is a feeling that physicists generally are not as imaginative [as they could be]. They are not stretching the boundary of the field, and are not as innovative in their research [as they could be], " he says.
In many ways the confusion over why the physics budget has been cut reflects a concern that the EPSRC is remote from most physicists. Individual researchers are occasionally asked to referee a research proposal, or to sit on one of the prioritization panels that decide which proposals should be funded, but senior researchers in particular feel that they can play little part in setting and formulating policy. There is, nevertheless, widespread praise among the physics community for Ward, and most physicists agree that he is doing the best possible job in the circumstances.
TOP, UP and physics
Every autumn the EPSRC carries out a balance of programmes exercise, in which two high-level panels vote on whether the funding for each programme should go up, go down or stay the same. The Technical Opportunities Panel (TOP) looks at developments in individual research disciplines, while the Users' Panel (UP) looks at the skills and expertise that the UK needs from the programmes. The EPSRC's council then uses the votes and the panels' comments to decide how much money each programme will receive. In 1996/7 the physics programme was given £24.4m to spend on grants and studentships (about 8.6% of the funds available), although physicists secured another £22.8m from other programmes, particularly from materials and information technology. An additional £17.7m went to facilities used by researchers who are funded by the physics programme (Physics World February pp22-23).
A great deal of power is vested in TOP and UP, and the way that these panels view different subjects can have long-term consequences for funding. The panels discuss each programme in turn but, in the end, the discussion boils down to a simple vote. Since the exercise began, physics and materials have regularly come in the bottom half of the voting, and funding for these programmes has suffered accordingly.
Subjective opinion also plays a big part. As Brook says,
"[Physicists] have to persuade a group of scientists of high eminence who sit on our panels that physics justifies a substantial fraction of our budget." However,
it is not clear how they should do this. Brook rejected a proposal from the Institute of Physics,
which publishes Physics World,
that the EPSRC should set up a panel of physicists to help to draw up the information that is supplied to TOP and UP. He suggests that the physics programme should instead be reviewed by just one or two leading physicists,
who should then propose a new direction for it.
reasons why TOP and
UP voted in the
way they did are shrouded in secrecy.
The EPSRC refused to show Physics World
a memo from TOP and
UP to the
council that summarized the
panels' views on physics.
Brook admits that the
EPSRC could improve the
way it tells the
community what the
panels thought about each programme,
but says that it is difficult to take a complex discussion from the
panel meetings and
encapsulate it in words.
That cuts little ice with Mike Springford,
head of physics at Bristol University.
"To try to tell us that the
arguments are so diffuse and
subtle that they cannot be properly communicated is not acceptable,
" he says.
Other physicists complain that the
criticisms of the
physics programme appear to change from year to year.
In 1995 the
programme was deemed to be poorly connected with industry.
The following year it was said that physics was not exciting enough.
Last year it was claimed that the
programme lacked focus.
Ring-fenced funding for nuclear physics was also identified as a problem (see
There are also concerns about the membership of TOP and UP. Of the 13 members of TOP, three are vice-chancellors and four are from just one institution: Cambridge University. "TOP is supposed to be made up of active researchers, but in my opinion it contains too many senior figures who are no longer at the cutting edge of research, " says Mike Gunn, a condensed matter theorist from Birmingham University. He would prefer a greater number of younger researchers on the panel, who could spot exciting new areas as they emerge.
Other members of the physics community believe that it is the ex-physicists on the panels who are responsible for TOP and UP's poor perceptions about the physics programme. However, David Wallace, a former theoretical physicist who is now vice-chancellor of Loughborough University and chairman of TOP, calls the balance of programmes exercise a "pretty impressive development". He is proud of the way that the panel has worked and feels that the advice that it gives is not based on individuals pushing their own corner.
Peer review: reforming the system
One theme of Brook's term of office has been his desire to reform the peer-review system. He is genuinely concerned that peer review should allow the most adventurous and speculative research to be funded. However, he is well aware that changing old procedures can alienate the research community. As he says: "We have to keep the community with us on this, because if it loses confidence in our peer-review system, our legitimacy is gone."
In its early days the council abolished closing dates for grant applications, reducing the pressure on researchers to submit proposals that have not been fully thought through. Then it allowed researchers to suggest up to three potential referees for their grant applications. The EPSRC selects one of these referees, along with two experts from a college of about 120 physicists, to review the application. And recently, all of the young researchers who hold advanced fellowships have been appointed to the college to ensure that, as Brook puts it, "the doors are open to people at the beginning of their careers".
Although a recent survey by the Institute of Physics found that there was no widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of the EPSRC's refereeing, there is still room for improvement. One problem is that just 2% of proposals to the physics programme are rejected by referees. Many physicists therefore receive a positive referee's report, only to find that their application is then turned down by the prioritization panel. Ward says that one of his most difficult tasks is explaining to unhappy physicists why their application has not been funded.
The prioritization panel consists of about 12 physicists drawn from all areas of the subject, and meets about four times a year. It orders the proposals on a scale of one to five, based on the quality of the research proposed and the referees' comments. Ward and the panel chairman then decide how many proposals on the list can be funded, starting from the top. Funds for the seven different themes of the physics programme are not earmarked - the aim is that the best applications should get funded, whatever field of physics they are from.
However, some physicists say that there is a danger in this approach: without guaranteed funding for different areas of physics, valuable parts of the subject could simply wither away through neglect. Another problem is that the physicists on the panel have to judge proposals from all areas of physics. As Mike Gunn from Birmingham says, this may be unfair on applicants who are less well known or who are working in new fields. Having served on the physics panel, he wonders if it should be split up into subdisciplines, each of which would be able to judge applications more carefully.
However, Julian Jones, an optical physicist from Heriot-Watt University who has sat on many prioritization panels, disagrees. Jones, who is also a member of TOP, points out that a single panel has the advantage that a single quality standard can be applied across the whole programme.
Other physicists criticize the EPSRC's peer-review system for forcing researchers to specify who will benefit from their work. For physicists doing basic research, the beneficiaries are often other academics. But Gordon Davis, head of physics at King's College London, feels that physicists can find it hard to specify how their work will benefit industry, particularly in the long term. He says that many physicists end up trying to use a lot of buzz words in proposals, even when they feel they shouldn't. "It's perhaps easier for other scientists to talk about research that industry might take up, " he says. "Maybe physicists should just be more extrovert." So what should physicists do? "I think the answer is obvious, " says Ward. "They should be putting forward proposals that are more speculative, addressing broader questions in physics and taking steps to ensure that others who could benefit from knowledge that they are developing are informed about it." He argues that having a working relationship with industry is no impediment to performing leading-edge research, and says that incremental proposals will in future have to compete hard to be funded. "At the moment [the physics programme] has a mass of research in the middle, with not enough at the highly innovative end and not enough at the industrial end."
However, one physicist, who does not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing the chance of being funded, feels that programme managers have too much influence. "If you don't have their support, you won't get funded. I'm absolutely unequivocal about that, " he says. This researcher also claims that grant proposals from physicists working in the more applied areas that Ward refers to are often sent out to other programmes, such as materials, IT and engineering, which evaluate proposals using different criteria.
Jean-Patrick Connerade, an atomic physicist at Imperial College, London, also criticizes programme managers for not being experts in their subject. He feels that it would be better if expert programme managers were seconded from the research community, as happens in the US.
Be bold and brave
So what is the EPSRC's message to the physics community? Brook says that the vital importance of physics needs to be encapsulated in such a way that those who work outside the field find it to be compelling. However, he is open to persuasion. "Where [physicists] have concerns, they should advise us, and they'll find that we are very willing to enter into full debate about it to make sure that we get the best programmes in the future, " he says. Physicists will get their first chance at a number of discussion meetings between the community and the EPSRC later this month. A meeting is also being organized to gather the views of younger researchers on the physics programme. As for Ward, he would like leading researchers to have the courage to change field or to address new topics within their own field. "Don't focus on the EPSRC but on what physics can offer, on what challenges it can address and what solutions it can offer society. Get that right and everything else will follow. The challenge [for physicists] is to reinvent themselves and ensure that physics is addressing the really important questions. The people who have the vision, the invention and the skills are the physicists."
About the author
Matin Durrani is the Reviews Editor of Physics World magazine.