Before poring over the details of this report from Sir Paul Nurse, it’s worth stepping back and asking: will any of it actually be put into practice?
The report, which recommends the creation of an overarching body called Research UK (inelegantly shortened to RUK) that would steer the existing research councils in a more coordinated direction, is only one of several pieces on the board in the game of what happens to the UK’s research framework.
Nurse’s review doesn’t recommend merging the councils into one, and actually says that doing so would be “disruptive”. But keeping seven bodies and adding an eighth in the form of RUK would appear to go against the thrust of what Sajid Javid, the business secretary, is trying to achieve at his department.
Earlier this year, Javid secretly commissioned the consultants McKinsey to review the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the result was an internal document called “BIS 2020” that aims to halve the 45 partner bodies BIS currently has. The councils would make an obvious target.
One view is that by coming down strongly against a merger, Nurse has made it unlikely that this will happen. This is the opinion of Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, who says: “I think it would be very difficult for BIS to say ‘thank you, Sir Paul, but we’re going to move all the research councils into one big body [regardless]’”.
But there is another view that sees plenty of wiggle room in the report that still would permit a bonfire of the quangos.
Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, says that Nurse’s report “talks about keeping the councils but not necessarily in the same legal status”, which would give Javid a handy number of quango scalps. He points out that councils’ names could remain, but all employees could simply transfer across to RUK. “It’s a merger in all but name,” he says.
So has Nurse scuppered BIS’ merger plans, or are the two actually linked? The release of the report provides mixed messages. A little strangely, although BIS commissioned the report, the press conference for journalists was handled by the independent Science Media Centre (SMC). Might BIS have been nervous of being too close to a report with awkward conclusions?
And yet at the same time, I am told that private briefings to sector figures on the contents were delayed (and the report, oddly, has no executive summary), raising the prospect that there was last-minute horse-trading between Nurse and the government. The first press release summarising its contents also, in the end, came from BIS rather than the SMC.
Ultimately, if BIS really does want to merge the research councils into one body, it won’t be too hard to do so while maintaining the appearance of separation under one roof. It’s hardly the kind of thing that Nurse (or others in the scientific community) will make a huge fuss about, particularly when compared with the much more important issue of the research budget, set to be announced next Wednesday as part of the spending review.
If science gets a decent settlement, the government is likely to have the political cover to remould the research councils as it sees fit.