Balancing Capability - What does it mean in practice and is a 'Reduce' label fatal to the field?

Posted by Professor Jon Binner on 10 November 2016
Photo of Professor Jon Binner

A fact

EPSRC's Balancing Capability concept is an evolution of an earlier approach, called Shaping Capability, which seeks to deliver dynamic research capability across 111 different research areas of endeavour within the EPSRC portfolio.

What EPSRC says

Their goal is to reflect the UK areas of strength and align them with topics of national importance over the long term in an increasingly competitive international environment. This can mean deliberately looking to increase, reduce or maintain the different research areas or even to merge some or split others up to create new research areas that more closely match current and predicted future activity.

My involvement

Whilst the Balancing Capability concept is ultimately driven by EPSRC's Council, it is moderated through extensive interactions with EPSRC's different Strategic Advisory Teams (SATs) and Strategic Advisory Networks (SANs), as well as consultation with practitioners in the different fields; academic, industrial and professional (e.g. Societies and Engineering Institutes). I have personal experience of just how extensive this activity is as a current member of the EPSRC Engineering SAT, the Past-President of my Institute and the Chair of my fields' Professional Society. Over the past 18 months I have been able to observe first hand just how seriously this activity is taken by EPSRC. Along with many other individuals up and down the country, I must have read and commented on the various drafts of the 26 Engineering theme documents many times until, finally, at the SAT meeting in September during which the outcomes were discussed. Of course, the outcomes of all of the themes still need discussing several more times within EPSRC and then feeding back to academics and industrialists early in 2017.

So, what are the consequences?

Back in 2011, under the original Shaping Capability banner, my field (Materials Engineering, Ceramics) was classified as 'reduce', the most dreaded outcome. To be honest, most of us didn't actually have a clue what it meant - but we all knew what we expected; less chance for submitted proposals, a decrease in the size of the field, individual hopes of promotion and progress quashed, the sky itself falling in before long. Whilst a few of my academic colleagues in the UK's different universities working in ceramics were resigned, the majority were spitting feathers. I well remember one Head of a University Materials Department, who wasn't even a ceramist, declaring over a lunch that I attended that he was going to get his University to sue EPSRC for deliberately blocking some of his staff from practicing their trade. Eventually tempers cooled and common sense prevailed.

Ceramics is not a large field and we all knew each other personally so a 'Town Hall' meeting was organised (by those working in the field) at which we attempted to take a long hard look at ourselves. By the end of the meeting we pretty much all realised that we had been coasting. We had long since drifted into complementary fields to avoid treading on each other's toes and quietly gotten on with the business of bringing in research grants, supervising research students and pushing out research papers. There were interactions between us, but they weren't extensive. There was some excellent research being done, but it wasn't uniform. There was good interaction with industry, but it could have been even better. I don't know if everyone felt a bit chastened, but I did. Combined with the reassuring noises coming from EPSRC, we agreed to work together much more in the future. We have done this and, though I can be accused of having a vested interest, I believe that our field is now much more dynamic. We have brought in many research grants, including a £4.2 million Programme Grant; we have published top quality research papers and are in great demand for joint projects around the world - funding is flowing in again from Europe (though for how long is anybody's guess!) and the States as well as elsewhere around the world. I know that the UK was regarded as the best in the world in ceramics in the 60s and 70s; we are not back there yet, but we are on our way. It is a personal view, but getting that 'reduce' actually helped us to see our way forward more clearly.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Professor Jon Binner
Name: Professor Jon Binner, CEng, FIMMM, FECerS, FACerS
Job title: Professor of Ceramic Sciences and Engineering, Deputy Head of College
Department: College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
Organisation: University of Birmingham

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