School of Computer Science THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM CoSy project CogX project

Aaron Sloman
Last updated: 19 Mar 2009
Installed:19 Mar 2009


Some of the research council links may no longer work. The EPSRC administrators do not understand the importance of historical records.

Changes in EPSRC funding procedures

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which claims to be "The UK Government's leading funding agency for research and training in engineering and the physical sciences" recently announced changes in Funding Application procedures and review procedures. See:

One of the changes that has provoked much discussion is "Including Economic Impact in Funding Applications" as described here.

There has been a lot of discussion of this on the both the CPHC (Council of Professors and Heads of Computing) and the UKCRC (UK Computing Research Committee) mailing lists, especially concerns about the apparent intention to devalue long term (so-called "blue skies") research, which does not have any short term economic benefits, although the EPSRC web site states

"Quality of research remains the key criterion of funding but these changes will give applicants a further opportunity to demonstrate the importance of their work and to ask for resources to support impact and dissemination routes."
I felt there were some points wrongly taken for granted in the discussions and other points that were ignored altogether (e.g. about the relations between research and teaching at University level) and circulated the missive below to CPHC on 19th March 2009.

It will be modified from time to time in the light of comments and criticisms. (In particular I need to add something about academic and research staff recruitment procedures in UK universities, which I think are seriously broken, partly because they generally require an appointment to be made by deadline instead of requiring an appointment to be made when a good enough person is available, and because academics are not able to devote enough time and energy to selection processes, and don't always give enough priority to investigating quality, as opposed to using very crude indicators of quality.)

Points for discussion

1. Much has been said about pressures towards research with short term benefits and away from research whose benefits will occur only in the long term. But there are also obvious benefits and unobvious benefits, and in the latter case it may be impossible to tell in advance whether solving some hard problem will ever produce benefits, nor how long it will take. We all know stories about erroneous predictions.

For several years I had the privilege of being mentored by Gerry Martin, one of the founders of Eurotherm (heating controls) and a number of other engineering companies.

For more on his life and work see
One of his observations was that governments typically did not understand the variety of types of feedback loop, in which effects could have many different time scales and and whose effects could vary in scope/impact/uncertainty.

As a proposal reviewer I know that people who predict the benefits of their research are either foolish or deceitful, except in rare cases.

An implication of the unpredictability is that research funding *has* to be, to a large extent, a gamble. So what the government should be doing is working out a good way to spend money gambling, since they already approve of lotteries.

2. The current government policies for using reward-based management of public services, including research activities, is analogous to a policy of regularly monitoring the underwater supports of a major off-shore platform or bridge, and redirecting resources to the maintenance of the pillars that are in good condition. [You've heard that before.]

3. The whole discussion on this list so far starts from the assumption that most research should be funded from competitive research council grants, as opposed to being funded by direct allocations to universities to be used according to criteria decided by the universities (including local competitions where appropriate).

It would be far less wasteful for nation to try to work out how many research universities it needs (or can afford or wants to afford -- along with various other post school educational institutions that are not necessarily involved in research) and provide them with sufficient funding to ensure that at least about 75% of academic staff can get on with most of the research they need to do without having to waste huge amounts of time and emotional energy every year competing for grossly inadequate amounts of money, with the dreadful consequence that local evaluations of individuals (e.g. in promotion panels) give more weight to financial success than to doing good research on hard problems.

A further 20% (or more, or less) of academic staff will focus mainly on teaching and admin: Every great university needs to be a great teaching institution, and that requires a subset of individuals willing to put heart and soul into ensuring that that things like examining, time-tabling, teaching-allocations, monitoring, student selection, personal-tutoring, etc. etc. are done well.

And about 5% (or more, or less) should perhaps be doing research on 'big' projects that need to be funded and monitored at national level. There could also be funding from industry and other organisations for projects closely related to their needs.

(Of course, this will be strongly opposed by people in departments that are most successful at getting research council grants. That's the self-interested response, not a response based on trying to design a good national system.)

4. To ensure that the directly allocated tax-payers' money is not wasted, all research active departments should have internal and external research reviews with constructive feedback from the reviewers, along with proper mentoring of young researchers and mutual mentoring of older researchers.

This micro-management with constructive and critical feedback should produce far better results than the occasional shallow and expensive national review that leads to decisions about allocations of large sums of money for the next 5 years.

No sensible engineer would design a control system like that. It's like trying to drive a large vehicle by opening your eyes and holding the steering wheel for about twelve minutes in every hour.

It may also be better for most research money to be spent in departments that have the power to redirect resources if things are not going well, instead of being allocated in large three year (or longer) chunks where it is only after the three years that any evaluation of the project is done.

5. One of the most important functions of a university is to attract and *educate* students who are going to be leaders, ground-breakers, revolutionaries, and solvers of large and important problems.

The teaching of such people must involve an apprenticeship role, working closely with people who are tackling hard problems, and who can look at the learner's efforts in detail and provide constructive criticisms and suggestions, while allowing the learners to do the same in reverse. (I've just had some interesting critical comments on one of my research papers from a final year undergraduate).

That apprenticeship role cannot be replaced by giving students second-hand reports of the results of research done by others, anymore than you can teach someone to be a great violin player, or athlete simply by presenting recordings, videos, lectures and notes on what others have done.

This means that one of the most important effects of doing hard research, independently of the importance of the *content* of the research is the development of research skills and techniques and being in a position to help the next generation acquire them.

A related result, which I am sure you have all observed, is that someone not working on problem X can hear presentations given by people who are working on problem X and make very useful critical comments based on experience of working on other hard problems. That can lead to improvements in research on X.

I suggest that for the *majority* of research done in universities the side effect of providing an environment for apprenticeship-based intellectual training and development of the ability to make useful critical comments on research done or planned by others is FAR more important than production of direct economic or social benefits of *content* of the research, however much academics may like to think they can justify public funds being used to produce the results they report in workshops, journals, seminars, etc.

[Just read some of them!]

I wonder if anyone has tried to evaluate the impact of having had a period of close contact with teachers who are active researchers (and who care about teaching) on the quality of thinking of ex-students who work in commerce, industry, government service, school-teaching, and bringing up children.

6. Of course there is another kind of benefit of research, which is extending knowledge and understanding of some aspect of reality, or of some class of problems (as opposed to making yet another widget).

But that is comparable to production of great works of art: including being hard to evaluate at first, and having its own worth independent of any measurable economic or social benefit.

As we know well, the ability of large numbers of people to appreciate the worth of advances in knowledge and to enjoy learning about them and talking about them, can be diminished by a crappy educational system, religious indoctrination, etc.


1. The whole discussion assumes a research funding mechanism that is badly broken as a control mechanism.

2. There are aspects of doing research that make it a worthwhile thing to keep alive in universities that are independent of the importance of the research results. For the other results to be achieved it is more important that people be working on *hard* problems requiring major intellectual advances of some kind, than that they be working on problems of economic or social importance.

3. Offering young lecturers jobs involving teaching and research, then expecting them to waste their precious formative years chasing money instead of chasing solutions to hard problems is highly immoral, and counter-productive both for research and for university teaching.

Unfortunately these points are unlikely to be understood by politicians and civil servants who are themselves products of an educational system that is badly broken, especially people who have never had any personal experience of trying to specify, design, test, debug, analyse, extend and document a complex *working*, formally describable, system of any kind, and who consequently think that if you describe some desirable goal at a high level of abstraction, and pay lots of people to achieve it, then it will be achieved.

(It is appalling how often government ministers answer questions about how some complex goal is going to be achieved by saying that their policy is to achieve it and they are legislating for it and putting money into it. The really frightening thing is that they believe what they are saying.) >


I previously produced a document arguing that insofar as there is a research funding mechanism that cannot possibly fund all worthwhile research, it should use a dynamically weighted lottery mechanism, described here:

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham