So, like the oik that I am, I waded in with an everso, everso slightly critical question. Feeling a little like a naughty schoolboy before the headmaster, I asked, - em – what did the panel think of Sir Paul Nurse's comments last week, when he took a side swipe at the EPSRC by attacking the concept of funders as 'sponsors'? After all, the ESRC's three 'strategic priorities' seemed to be a move in this direction.
Paul Boyle chortled like an indulgent Dumbledore, 'I certainly wouldn't want to comment on a sister research council,' he began, before explaining how the ESRC was cleverly treading the tightrope between shepherding the sector and giving them the space to do whatever they wanted via their responsive mode schemes.
Well, yes and no. You see, my problem with the ESRC priority areas is that I just don't get the point. For all its faults, the EPSRC is at least putting its money where its mouth is. You may disagree with the policy of 'shaping' its remit, but it's obviously decided what is important, and is now steaming ahead with putting into practice the changes necessary. Their priority areas do, at least, have some value – for better or worse.
The ESRC, on the other hand, has consulted widely, and has produced a 'bottom up' list that is so broad as to be almost meaningless:
- economic performance and sustainable growth;
- influencing behaviour and informing interventions;
- a vibrant and fair society.
But what are social scientists meant to make of – or do with – this list? It was made clear that the priorities wouldn’t play a part in responsive mode funding; indeed, at the ESRC Study Day in September Michelle Dodson said that the ESRC would ‘only exceptionally’ provide ‘new investments’ in these areas.
So they don’t want to railroad the sector with the priorities, nor do they want to provide much funding for them. What's left? What are they for, and what will they do? Dodson did say that the priorities would be fulfilled by ‘enhancing impact from existing investments’ and ‘encouraging investments to work together.’
Make of that what you will. Of course, if you don’t like them, you needn’t worry, because there might well be a new set along in due course. Whilst they don’t want to revise them each year they might be (ahem) ‘refreshed annually.’
Okay, so I may joke about these priorities, but I do think there is an important point to make here. There’s been a lot of light and heat generated by these: as Boyle suggested, there was a long consultation process, involving 'taskforces', 'frameworks', 'discussions', and 'comment', to arrive at these fairly anodyne aspirations. The ESRC should now either back the priorities by committing wholeheartedly to them [*shudder*], or, more preferably, drop the pretence at being directive and allow the sector to decide for itself – through the peer review and funding of excellent research – what its priorities are.