How can the structures governing and funding UK research and innovation be built to maintain scientific excellence during a period of uncertainty and change? This was the topic of a joint-Academy PolicyLab discussion on Monday 18 April. This was the second in a series of events, bringing the academic and policy communities together to consider the opportunities and challenges facing UK science following the November 2015 Spending Review. You can listen to a recording of the event on our website.

Sir Paul Nurse

Sir Paul Nurse

At the 2015 Spending Review, the government committed to implement the recommendations of Sir Paul Nurse’s Review of the UK Research Councils. Appropriately, Sir Paul was one of the speakers at the event, along with Professor Jackie Hunter, Professor Philippa Saunders, and Professor Sir Ian Diamond. Professor Graeme Reid chaired a lively discussion, which helped identify a number of key elements that underpin the success of the UK research and innovation landscape, and how a new structure for governing and funding UK science could preserve and enhance them.

1. Coordinating the Research Councils

The Nurse Review recommended the creation of the body Research UK to sit above the seven existing Research Councils. Nurse (listen at 00:05:19) envisaged this could establish better coordination and best practice across the research landscape and provide a formal organisation to articulate a strong common position for science to government.

Other members of the panel agreed the creation of Research UK would be welcome, but also stressed that Research Councils must retain their independence and autonomy. Jackie Hunter (00:13:07) emphasised that the remit and governance of Research UK will be critical to determining its success and highlighted the need to establish what specific bodies (e.g. HEFCE, Innovate UK) will be incorporated within Research UK and where the boundaries and alignments between Research UK and the individual Research Councils will lie. She argued the most important factor will be for Research UK to be led by a strong champion for UK science and innovation.

Another aim of Research UK is to enable more cross cutting, interdisciplinary research, and the panel were positive that Research UK could help deliver this goal. Philippa Saunders (00:21:08) noted that 87% of the impact case studies of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) came from interdisciplinary research.

2. Establishing cross-government representation of science

The first PolicyLab in this series focussed on the issue of putting science at the heart of government. This concept was a key focus in the Nurse Review, and Sir Paul emphasised the need to broaden the scope of science from BIS across Whitehall, to secure a greater engagement between policy makers and the science community. The proposed cross-government Ministerial Committee would be a major factor in achieving this. However, he accepted that this might be a more difficult prospect to establish than RUK.

Putting science at the heart of government might be a laudable aim, but a former civil servant in the audience noted (01:16:50) that similar projects in the past have not been successful, so there may be lessons to learn from these experiences. Consideration should also be given to how the operation of a Ministerial committee might affect its success; decisions about whether or not its work would be published would be important.

3. Improving peer-review

Philippa Saunders argued that the evaluation process for research should recognise the full range of activities scientists undertake and give individual researchers appropriate credit for their work. She highlighted a number of ways that the peer review system could be simplified, referring to the Academy of Medical Sciences ‘Team Science’ report, which she had been involved with. These included the use of ORCIDs (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) to tag all work produced and a ‘cast list’ approach to assign credit on publications.

The Society’s President, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, was in the audience (00:58:43), and spoke up to note that researchers undertaking a high volume of peer review are becoming overworked, which can mean peer review might be cursory and subject to bias, for example by reputation. Consulting a wider, more diverse pool of reviewers could help. Jackie Hunter also raised the potential use of new digital technologies for identifying peer reviewers. Unconscious bias and the need to mitigate against this, for example through anonymization, was also discussed.

4. Preserving dual support

Ian Diamond (00:27:03) highlighted the model of dual support for research funding, though Research Councils and quality-related (QR) funding, as being at the heart of UK scientific excellence and argued that this needs to be protected. While concern was raised that incorporating both of these funding streams into the jurisdiction of Research UK could risk one stream of funding being altered at the expense of the other, Diamond argued that, regardless of where specific funding bodies sat within the new research structure, it is essential that the importance of the dual funding model is communicated effectively.

5. Linking science and innovation

On whether it would be appropriate for the UK’s innovation agency Innovate UK to be incorporated into Research UK, Jackie Hunter argued that Innovate UK should not become the commercial arm of the Research Councils, and that too close a relationship between the two bodies could potentially restrict their effectiveness.

Nurse noted that research that can drive innovation does not only come from Research Councils, and Ian Diamond reminded the audience that translation of research is a complex, non-linear process, with different approaches required for different sectors. He argued that, regardless of where Innovate UK sits, connectivity and interaction are key.

Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, was in the audience (01:24:28) and complimented the Nurse Review for raising the profile of Innovate UK. She argued that the conversation should move beyond the structure to also include aspects of incentives and behaviour. The issue of the future support for innovation in the UK will be the primary focus of the next PolicyLab event in this series, taking place on Wednesday 4 May.

Holding the structure together

In addition to these 5 key building blocks, the panel highlighted one further thing – the mortar holding this structure together – the research community itself. Researchers will be the agile workforce and future leaders driving the research system and need the appropriate support. Discussions should consider not only the structure, but also how it can best nurture and represent individual scientists.