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Scientists lobby against EPSRC funding strategy

15 May 2012

A group of scientists shunned their white coats in preference for protest banners and took to the streets last week to deliver a symbolic coffin to Downing Street. The 'Science for the Future' campaigning group is taking issue with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC's) investment strategy, which it believes harbingers the "death of science" in the UK.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday May 15, nine signatories in support of the Science for the Future campaign - all Nobel Laureates and some of them Knights of the Realm - expressed "serious concerns" regarding the EPSRC's work.

The nine eminent scientists call upon the EPSRC to support blue sky research and "nurture this valuable method of scientific inquiry." They claim the EPSRC is failing to maintain Britain’s global research standing, and as a result is squandering British taxpayers’ money. They further accuse the EPSRC of "manipulating the processes of peer review to meet policy objectives and establishing favouritism schemes, where substantial funding packages are given to a few selected individuals identified by its own administration." The EPSRC is no longer allocating funds on a fair and transparent basis, they say.

Responding, the EPSRC said that by many measures of quality of science, the UK is second only to the USA and, in terms of productivity, such as citations per pound invested, we are ahead. But the world is changing it says; international competition is more intense than ever and, given the investment plans of countries such as China and India, is certain to increase further. The Council warns that the effects of inflation will reduce the available research funding for the next few years at least.

The EPSRC says that funding the “very best ideas” is at the heart of all that it does and remains the number one criterion for peer review in selecting which projects to fund. But, if the UK is to continue to excel in areas of strength, there must be a strategic approach to investment – as the EPSRC puts it: “so we have the right balance of funding between different research areas, making sure the UK has the right national capability in core disciplines and is addressing major societal and economic challenges.”

The Euro crisis
Torrie Callander, a corporate dealer at foreign exchange provider Global Reach Partners offers some observations on the current Euro crisis and some advice for UK exporters.

Greek politicians have once again failed to agree a coalition agreement meaning that a fresh set of elections looks likely, he writes. Worries abound that Athens may default on the austerity commitments that guaranteed their most recent raft of bailout funds.

Should this come to pass, the likelihood of a full exit from the Euro would increase exponentially. These concerns are being bolstered by developing problems in Spain – anti austerity protests, issues in the banking sector and unsustainable borrowing costs being the primary concerns.

Disappointing French growth data has heaped further pressure on new president Hollande to back up his pro-growth/anti austerity rhetoric. All of these factors, when combined, spell uncertainty for the austerity led recovery in the Eurozone - concerning financial markets greatly.

The Euro has hit six month lows against the US Dollar and close to three and a half year lows against the Pound. This is having a mixed impact on British business. British companies who import goods from Europe are making hay as their raw materials become cheaper and cheaper. This is of particular benefit to those importers who compete against far eastern competitors with lower costs.

However, UK exporters are suffering. Over 50% of UK exports go to Europe and, as the single currency loses ground, our produce is becoming more and more expensive. This is a major threat to the UK government's plans for an export led recovery and British exporters need to look further afield than Europe if they are to thrive.

Those businesses who do export to Europe would be wise to implement very conservative currency hedging strategies. The threat of further Euro weakness is very real and exporters must stay vigilant of this threat.

Les Hunt

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