The United Kingdom’s Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) has revealed that it may fund 1000 fewer new Ph.D.s in the upcoming academic year than in 2010-11. The research council disclosed this estimate, in which the number of newly started doctorates would fall to 1900 in 2011-12, in a recently published answer to a question from Member of Parliament Gareth Thomas. Although an EPSRC official tells ScienceInsider that these forecast figures are a "worst-case scenario," the council does still anticipate significant cuts.
Atti Emecz, EPSRC’s director for communications, information and strategy, estimates a more realistic possibility is a 20% fall in the total number of Ph.D. students his organization would fund over the next 5 years. "Even with that reduction—and I’m absolutely clear there is a reduction; I’m not trying to hide from that—we will still end up approximating the same number of students we had in 2004," Emecz notes. "That is important because when you look at the real terms budget that we’ll have in 2014-2015, it is around the 2004 level."
The reductions in Ph.D.s funded, which will also hit the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in lesser numbers, come despite a protective "ring-fence" put around the United Kingdom’s £4.6 billion science budget last year. "It’s embarrassing that UK Research Councils feel they have to do this in the 21st century. It’s clear that the real cause is significant cash and real terms cuts to research spending," says Imran Khan, director of the United Kingdom’s Campaign for Science and Engineering. "The ring-fence is important, but that doesn’t help the fact that the actual contents of that budget have been drastically downsized." (The impact of the cuts to EPSRC is also highlighted by a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron in which more than 100 senior chemists, including six Nobel laureates, criticize the council’s plans to reduce research funding for synthetic organic chemistry.)
- Credit: Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC)
EPSRC’s cuts can also be partly attributed to its stopping, on 31 January 2011, the funding of Ph.D. students through the long-traditional method of including them in research project proposals. Postdoctoral researchers are paid from the same budget, but the number of Ph.D.s supported this way had ballooned. "Over the last 7 years, we have seen a doubling in numbers of project students, without any strategic intent," Emecz concedes. "We saw a risk that we would be funding students at the expense of postdoctoral research assistants. That would have led to a distortion of the portfolio where we’re increasing studentships, but there would have been many fewer postdoctoral positions for them to go to, and that seems counter productive to us."
The resulting degree of the reduction in recruitment, falling from 2902 new Ph.D. students receiving funding in 2010-11 to just 1800 in 2013-14, still looks drastic. However, Emecz points out that the projections assume that EPSRC has to fully fund the studentships, whereas the historical figures included part-funded places. In 2007, there were 40% more Ph.D. students getting EPSRC money than could have been supported were it their only source of funding.
Lesley Cohen, director of postgraduate studies for physics at Imperial College London, contends that the cull of EPSRC-funded Ph.D.s will have a disproportionate impact on intake of students from elsewhere in Europe. In the past, an unlimited number of European Ph.D. project students could be recruited and qualify for funding, she noted. "Now the situation is that only 10% of the EPSRC’s other studentship funds can be used for European students," Cohen said. "It’s educating British students for science in Britain rather than educating the best young brains in Europe."
The research council asserts that it is now focusing more on the quality than the number of Ph.D.s. That’s embodied by a shift to centers for doctoral training (CDTs) that provide 4-year Ph.D.s, including skills-development programs, rather than 3-year project student Ph.D.s. But having to pay for the longer Ph.D. programs could also reduce the number of students EPSRC can train. "It is true that the cost per student in a center is higher than in a project," Emecz says. However, he argues that CDTs attract investment from other sources that makes focusing on quality sustainable. "There is gain there, and that, to my mind, offsets the fact that you are funding students for 4 years."
But Cohen questions whether it’s the right time to transition to a more costly way of providing Ph.D. scientists, even if they are better skilled. "They are twice as expensive," she stresses. "Are we educating Ph.D. students for academic careers directly for science, or is it just an educational step? Does the country need that many scientists? Well, the government has decided that science is one of the areas that, if we make an investment, it will help economic recovery. So it does seem a bit of an odd time to decide that we don’t need so many people trained in that area."