While the real-terms protection of the science budget in last week’s spending review received widespread applause, reaction to the commitment to implement Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils, published a week before, has been more cautious.
That is partly because of the ambiguity surrounding its key recommendation: the establishment of a new body, Research UK. There is uncertainty over whether RUK would be an eighth entity alongside the seven research councils, or an envelope enclosing all of them.
We believe a close reading supports the latter interpretation. In effect, the Nurse report redefines what is meant by “research council”. Until now, it meant a distinct non-departmental public body, with a chief executive whose role was to fight for that council’s budget and then account to government for its use.
Nurse proposes that a research council is primarily about strategic leadership in its field of research, with a distinct identity, budget, head and advisory structure, but that function is delivered as a part of RUK, whose chief executive becomes the single accounting officer for all research councils and more. Understood this way, the Nurse model addresses the most serious deficiency of the current research funding system – that leading figures in research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England spend too much time anticipating what the government wants and not enough on the future of their research fields. With responsibilities for relationships with government concentrated in the leadership of RUK, the research councils will be freed to concentrate on getting closer to their communities. The price is some loss of autonomy and a top-slicing of budgets to support the programmes RUK takes on to keep politicians happy. But if that slice remains around 10 per cent of total budgets, it is worth paying.
RUK’s proximity to government and broad remit should make it better equipped to advise political leaders on options to address their priorities. A minister might ask how, for example, to increase excellent scientific activity in Wales, or to address the challenges of ageing populations. At present, such questions draw competing responses from up to nine agencies, all keen to demonstrate their talents and receive precious extra funding. Under Nurse’s system, the options will be agreed within RUK and delivered coherently. This joined-up approach will be more persuasive to ministers, enabling a wider range of scientific contributions to policy and making the UK research base even more worthy of public investment. None of this should threaten the frontiers of research or support for the best researchers.
Importantly, a unified structure offers potential improvements around international interactions and the interfaces between disciplines. These are priorities for all fields. The £1.5 billion Global Challenges fund announced in the spending review will let RUK get to work on both. Moreover, harmonisation around policies on data, impact, careers, equalities and integrity promises administrative simplification in universities.
Implemented well, the Nurse structure should be better at giving researchers, universities and politicians what they really want.
There are risks. Rapid transition might disrupt funding processes; allowing until 2018 before the new arrangements go “live” seems wise. Retaining the many knowledgeable dedicated staff in the existing funding agencies must be a priority. The fact that the job of head of a research council will lose the cachet of “chief executive” may discourage some applicants; however, the new roles should be easier to combine with a continuing research career, appealing to leading researchers with no ambitions to become full-time managers.
Another concern is that RUK becomes too responsive to ministers or the government’s chief scientific adviser, leaving the scientific community on an outside track. Undoubtedly, the CSA has an important role in setting priorities, but a powerful RUK chief executive and board must have the authority to say when those priorities can be delivered.
The spending review also committed to including industrial research and development funder Innovate UK within RUK, with a separate budget. This should simplify interactions between research funding and businesses. The spending review was less committal on Nurse’s suggestion that the research responsibilities of Hefce could also become part of RUK, but we see this as essential to strengthening RUK’s position. Some worry that this may create temptations to raid block grant funding; RUK’s responsibility to deliver the dual-support system should be written into a robust legal framework.
Hefce’s current research and knowledge exchange team should move to RUK, so that existing expertise is retained. Given Nurse’s conflicted interest, there is no discussion of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ £100 million a year support for the national academies, but we suggest this also be channelled through RUK, reflecting the academies’ role in the shared research endeavour.
Nurse’s review crystallises an extensive wisdom around how public money and research ideas interact. It resolves the main dissatisfactions of the present and provides an inspiring vision for a future in which scientific leadership is more strategic and political engagement more effective.
David Price is vice-provost (research), Graeme Reid is professor of science and research policy and Andrew Clark is director of research planning at University College London.