Sir Paul Nurse PRS

Paul Nurse’s Review of the UK Research Councils, “Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour” was published this week. Behind its ambitious title, Nurse sets out his vision for not only the future of the Research Councils, but also for the UK research system as a whole.

The review was commissioned as part of the Government’s Science and Innovation Strategy this time last year. Now, with less than one week to go until the results of the 2015 Spending Review are announced, and hot on the heels of the green paper on Higher Education, Nurse’s recommendations are well-timed to be taken seriously by the government, as they think about how to fund and structure the research base over the course of this parliament, and beyond.

Seven Councils and a new umbrella body

Nurse is clear that the separate identities and roles of the seven Research Councils should be maintained, and the report is positive about their performance overall. There are some recommendations to improve their operation—improving peer review and application processing times—but the focus of the report is on overall strategic governance of the research system.

The report proposes that a new, stronger umbrella body be created, Research UK, to sit above the Research Councils. This is not a ‘super research council’, as some have speculated might be created. Instead, it would take responsibility for developing the Councils’ strategy and managing cross-Council funding and collaboration, in part through a new ‘common research fund’ to cover interdisciplinary and cross-cutting work. Research UK would also take on some shared administrative functions, be responsible for ethical and conduct issues in science, and survey public opinions about research.

Nurse also wants to see Research UK help the Councils to be better connected to the world around them. That means strengthening links with research community—both nationally and internationally—with devolved governments, the charitable sector and the public. Nurse wants to see a strengthened relationship between the Research Councils and Innovate UK, to support translation and tap into its expertise about, and networks with, industry. Innovate UK could become more integrated with the Research Councils, but Nurse is clear that this should not mean its budget being ‘tucked in’ to the ring fence that protects the science budget.

Research at the heart of government

Nurse wants to see research at the heart of government, something the Society has long called for, and connecting Research UK to the government itself is a key part of the plan. The report proposes new cross-Government arrangements for discussion between policymakers and research funders about strategic priorities and funding. He outlines a ministerial committee, which would be chaired by a senior Minster with cross-cutting cabinet responsibilities, and advised by the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology.

Old principles in new homes

Nurse is clear in his support of many key aspects of the UK research system, calling for continuation of the ring fence around the science budget, upholding of the Haldane principle, funding on the basis of excellence and distribution of funding through the dual support system. However dual support as we know it looks set to change.

Last week’s green paper on higher education suggested that HEFCE would be dismantled, but it’s not yet clear how the quality-related (QR) funding it provides to institutions would be distributed in its absence. Nurse suggests that QR could be brought inside Research UK. This would give Research UK control of both streams of dual support, enabling it to develop clear strategic oversight of UK public investment in research. However, bringing the two streams closer together could raise concerns about their independence in the future; Nurse highlights the need to preserve their separation. It’s also unclear how QR funding would be distributed to the devolved administrations from a UK-wide Research UK.

Better decisions, driven by better data

Making better strategic decisions about the research base relies on having the relevant evidence available to inform them. The report touches in several places on the importance of better—and better coordinated—data about UK research, and gives Research UK responsibility for enhancing and expanding present data management systems. Nurse suggests that there might be scope to build on the recently launched model of local science and innovation audits to thoroughly map strengths across the UK and across sectors, and calls on Research Councils to collect better data on their activities.

This relates to bigger questions around ‘Place’, which I have discussed in a previous blog. If Government wants to take account of place in their investment decisions, Nurse urges them to focus on building on existing strengths in particular areas and filling capability gaps in the UK research base, for example relating to emerging technologies. This should be underpinned by a “high quality map of UK research strength and an understanding of gaps in the landscape and international opportunities”.

When it comes to research budgets elsewhere in government, Nurse wants to see better coordination of the research needs of different Departments, and clearer protection of the resources for this work. He also proposes a pilot scheme, allowing public sector research establishments to compete for Research Council funding.

Over to you, George

The Nurse Review will now be considered by the government. If they choose to implement it, many of the details will require further careful consideration and development.

With less than a week to go until the results of the 2015 Spending Review are announced, all eyes now turn to George Osborne’s decisions about research funding. Nurse notes that there is no optimal level of public funding for the research system, but is keen to see better balancing of capital and resource budgets and agility in the funding system. The Society has called on the government to increase public investment in research to 0.67% of GDP.

Sir Paul Nurse is President of The Royal Society, but undertook and delivered his review of the Research Councils in a personal capacity. The Society’s submission to the Nurse review can be found here. The Society’s official response to the Nurse Review can be found here.