EPSRC : a capital affair

February 2, 2011

I just came back from an EPSRC roadshow presentation to our University. Interesting to compare this to the STFC one we got a week or so back. Possibly the most striking thing, given that EPSRC is the biggest research council (budget 760M), is that the attendance was smaller than for the STFC show, and there was a much larger fraction of finance and admin people as opposed to scientists. I think this shows that despite all the troubles of the last few years, astronomers and particle physicists still think of STFC as “their” research council, whereas other physicists, chemists, engineers etc think of EPSRC as a remote government body that holds some money they can ask for.

Of course EPSRC are full of impressive sounding noises about “strategic choices” and “nurturing leadership” and “concentrating excellence” and so on, but the truth is they have very few levers, and no coherent community to converse with, so I doubt if the fuzzwords will have much impact. Talking of which, they also talk of “embedding impact” and “driving cultural change”, but in fact what they (and the rest of RCUK) are doing is slowly broadening and loosening the meaning of “impact” so we can all do some. Fine by me.

So whats the big budget picture ? EPSRC are facing a 3% cut in cash year on year, so when deflated, thats looking a bit grim. Of course, as the EPSRC chappie told us, these are the best of times; in cash terms, they are at a maximum, and even when deflated, 2010 is as good as 2004. But we are looking at the downward slope. For many people its worse than that. About half the EPSRC budget is in those societal themes – energy, digital economy, health etc – and they are being protected. Normal disciplinary grants – now cutely called “National Capability” are now at 458M, next year 427M, and 400M the year after that.

Scarier still, for some, is that capital cuts are severe – down by a factor two from about 100M to about 50M. Problem is, about half that 50M is tied up in Culham fusion stuff. So getting big equipment from EPSRC is going to really tough. In fact, they are talking about moving some money back into equioment – by taking it from grants of course.

Meanwhile, they are trying to apply pressure for people to do equipment sharing, as per the Wakeham Efficiency Review. This made my condensed matter and chemistry chums a bit cross. According to them, they are pretty good at this, whereas the medics waste lots of money this way – every group has to have its own equipment, and their labs (according to my colleagues..) are full of things that are used one or two days a year. Anybody know if thats true ?