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Panic seemed to spread on Twitter this afternoon as news spread that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) was going to cut funding for its public engagement activities. We spoke to the EPSRC earlier this week and this isn’t strictly speaking true.

The kerfuffle stems from this press release issued last week, in which the EPSRC says it is making changes to its public engagement agenda and cancelling the call for its Partnerships for Public Engagement (PPE) scheme this autumn.

There were some cryptic references to the ‘prevailing economic climate’ in the release, which made it sound a bit like public engagement could be an early casualty of cost cutting measures. But when we called up and asked for a bit more detail, it wasn’t quite so clear cut. Here are some extracts from our chat with David Reid, the EPSRC’s head of communications.

‘The only decision that we have taken at the moment is that the [PPE] call we were going to issue has been

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cancelled,’ says Reid. ‘That doesn’t mean it’s been cancelled forever. But that is the only decision that has been taken.’

Ok, so what’s the plan for the EPSRC’s public engagement agenda more widely? The buzzword here is ‘embed’ – the plan is to integrate public engagement activities within other parts of the council’s business. ‘Rather than have separate schemes for public engagement we will look to see how we can have public engagement within the schemes that we have got for research and training,’ Reid explained.

What about media fellowships? ‘We have taken no decision on these at all. Of course it’s part of public engagement, and as part of discussions we will have we will explore the extent to which activities like media fellows can be embedded or not.’

And what about this reference to the economic climate – was this decision made to save money? ‘The [EPSRC’s] entire public engagement activity in terms of its separate schemes is around £4 million. That £4 million will effectively now be embedded within our research and training portfolio. And people will still be able to do public engagement when they’re applying for their research grants – but that’s the sort of detail we haven’t worked through yet: how best do they do that.’

Will this end up reducing the number of public engagement projects going on? Reid doesn’t think so – he thinks it could even end up boosting the number of these kind of projects: ‘at the moment you’ve probably got a small group of people who are very good at doing public engagement, and they are very, very good at getting money from us –  and all power to them for doing so! – however, there’ll be a whole range of other people who are not getting that money. Here is an approach where those individuals will be more likely to get that funding – providing they can convince peer review.’

As for when the EPSRC will provide some clarity on what all this means in practice, well that’s likely to be early next year. The government has made it clear that cuts in overall spending are needed and that departments must plan accordingly. The EPSRC says it is consulting with the research community regarding a number of proposals (including its plans for public engagement) to accommodate various funding scenarios.

But the consultation with the community will be brief – the whole exercise is to be complete in time to provide input for the government’s spending review, the conclusions of which are due in October. At that time we’ll learn how much money the government will put towards science and research, and that sum will eventually be divvied up and the individual research councils will find out their slice of the cake. It is only then that the EPSRC will be able to work out the finer details of its plan – probably some time in January.

Anna Lewcock

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