We all have at times a tendency to be cynical and find it easier to criticise and knock ideas down rather than develop and build them up. Equally, bitter experience can lead us towards supporting such phrases as "the devil is in the detail" or "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". However, on first reading, I am greatly impressed with the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) delivery plan for 2011 onwards. EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year and at any one time supporting a £2-3 billion portfolio of research and training.
Economic realities have undoubtedly been a driving force within the strategic plan, however there is much more to it than merely cost cutting. Many of the ideas and methodologies therein are widely relevant and applicable. The strategic aim being to align the EPSRC portfolio of activities to areas of UK strength and national importance. Maintaining the UK's global research standing in light of increasing international competition, and with limited funding, requires tough decisions and changes. The EPSRC is changing, it is in transition from being a funder of research and training to a sponsor, where investments act as a strategic resource focused on outcomes for the national good. All these higher level strategic concepts and goals can sound grandiose, however the EPSRC do seem to have the action plans that will deliver the end results. I was particularly pleased to see an emphasis on two points:
a) The focusing on specific themes. This includes targeted technical themes (eg the digital economy) and facilitating themes (eg manufacturing in the future and research infrastructure). In addition, the plan is brave enough to clearly state that with limited funding and a more focused approach, there will be losers. Some existing areas will be reduced. This may be obvious, it will be painful for some but it needed saying clearly.
b) The focus on key people and developing leaders. The clear statement that the EPSRC will identify and invest preferentially in emerging and established leaders may not appear to some to be politically correct or even democratic but it gets my vote. Building on existing winners, together with creating even more, always strikes me as a good approach.
Yes, I agree that "the proof of the pudding is in the eating", but to end on another culinary note - "you can't make an omelette without cracking eggs".
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