Nurse Review Offers a Federal Future for UK Research

Paul Nurse
Paul Nurse (Photo: University of Exeter/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

At the close of the First World War, Lord Richard Haldane was appointed by Prime Minister Lloyd George to investigate “The Machinery of Government.” Haldane’s subsequent report generated the notion, later dubbed — if somewhat incorrectly — as the ‘Haldane principle,” that “decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians.”

That concept – more or less –has guided Britain’s decisions on funding its research councils since the first, the Medical Research Council, was established in 1920. (The Social Science Research Council, later the Economic and Social Research Council, arrived in 1965.) More, say, in 1993 when an Office of Science and Technology white paper argued that “day to day decisions for Research Councils on the scientific merits of different strategies and projects should be taken by the Research Councils without Government involvement.” Please note the words “day to day,” since that paper, Realising Our Potential, called for government to set “broad” priorities. And Less, say, in the 1970s when the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee tasked government with setting strategic priorities, clear objectives and systematic criteria for research funding, and always with a focus on economic and commercial benefit.

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Thursday, a report prepared under the leadership of Nobel laureate geneticist Paul Nurse put a marker in the “less” category. The heart of Ensuring a Successful Research Endeavour’ is that quality research from the now seven research councils should itself be “at the heart of government” — and to achieve that those councils should be run by a single organization that has much stronger input from government than does he current arrangement.

Today, the seven research councils report to an organization known as Research Councils UK; the new body the Nurse Review envisions would be called Research UK, or RUK. It “should be constituted as a non-Departmental public body, at arms’ length from Government, but forming a single body with which [the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills] interacts. It should have wider responsibilities than RCUK, towards both the Research Councils and Government.”

As Nurse sees it, government funding for science is already all over the map, and it makes sense to organize and then centralize:

The Research Councils should take collective ownership of the mapping of the UK research landscape, and this high quality information is crucial in enabling them to do so, to produce a consolidated picture of capability across the UK including research supported not just by Research Councils, but also by Innovate UK; HEFCE and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; Government Departments; local authorities and other public agencies; charities and, to the extent that it is possible, industry.

In a sense, the new RUK would be similar to the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation, with its various discipline-based directorates. But that agency has concerns with political interference hobbling scientific enterprise. In an article by BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh, in which Nurse’s idea is linked to the phrase “a deal with the devil,” Nurse defended his proposal. “Politicians are very sensible people, particularly in this country. We absolutely have to talk to politicians,” Nurse told Ghosh. “We, as scientists, cost a lot of money and we have to justify what we do.  We have to engage with politicians if we are to maintain the support for science which is for the public good and promotes the economy.”

The Nurse Review itself goes to great pains to explain why it’s important that scientists determine what’s good science and how that dynamic won’t (exactly) be disrupted:

In making research funding decisions account has to be taken of the researcher(s) undertaking the research; the research programme; and the circumstances of the place where the research is to be pursued. High quality peer review plays a central role in this process. The ability of a research endeavour to come to good decisions about what to research, and who should undertake it, is an integral part of the scientific process.

Diversity should be protected in researchers, approaches and locations – recognising that novel approaches and solutions to problems sometimes emerge more readily outside the mainstream. The best research should be funded wherever it is found.

Funders should recognise that delivering the highest quality research is difficult, requiring patience, persistence and long-term investment.

Echoing the map metaphor, Nurse cites the example of the Royal Geographical Society in the 18oos, preparing explorers to chart the globe’s terra incognita. “In this case,” Nurse writes, “the funder’s role should be to define the general geographical region of interest, identify the best explorer and then properly equip that explorer so they can be most effective in the field.”

Organizations impacted by Nurse’s recommendations have been tentative in their response. Research Councils UK, for example, didn’t mention its own bureaucratic demise and instead said it had been working toward a more collective operational approach all along; “The report aligns with these aims and improvements in this area are expected in the future.”

Further, “The Research Councils will be working with government, our staff and communities to explore and shape any changes that government may wish to make to the UK Research landscape following this review, the upcoming spending review and the recent higher education green paper. Our overriding priority is to ensure that the UK’s world-class research is supported through the most effective means possible.”

The Academy of Social Sciences and Campaign for Social Science took a similar approach, focusing more on immediate concerns that next week’s government spending review will take money away from research. “The government,” reads a release from the groups, “should take especial note of Nurse’s warning against setting the level of public funding for science and technology at ‘sub-optimal’ level.”

They also made a plea that social science should have a prominent place at the table as the future is determined.  The chair of the Academy Council, Roger Goodman, was quoted urging social scientists to “seize the opportunity to lead and shape the cross-disciplinary research commended by Nurse. The review is welcome recognition that none of the challenges facing the UK can be addressed except by mobilising all the disciplines – with social science involved from start to finish.”

The Academy and Campaign didn’t ignore the federal principle at the center of the review. “Nurse leaves open important questions about the organisation of the research councils and support for research in universities, which we would like to see quickly resolved,” the release quoted James Wilsdon, chair of the Campaign for Social Science. “It is unclear how funds will be allocated within Research UK, creating unwelcome uncertainty.

“Nor is it clear how research funds will be distributed to universities under the dual support system – which Nurse has strongly supported. We will be underlining to the government the Nurse recommendation that administration of quality-related funds  be kept strictly separate from research council grants, to preserve a mechanism that everyone agrees is responsible for the UK’s amazing performance.”

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