Political interference in research funding has emerged as one of the biggest concerns of those scrutinising a new report into how research councils should function by Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prizewinning head of the Royal Society.
Sir Paul’s report, released on 19 November, did not recommend merging the seven research councils as some had feared. Instead, it called for the establishment of a new overarching organisation, Research UK (RUK), to coordinate research strategy, distribute interdisciplinary funds and speak to the government.
Some commentators welcomed a more interdisciplinary approach to funding, but also see the report as opening the door to greater political control of research.
Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour proposes a new ministerial committee, whose role would include “assessment of advice and proposals from Research UK and its partners”, chaired by “a senior minister with cross-cutting Cabinet responsibilities” and attended by other ministers who are “responsible for major science budgets”.
In a press conference to discuss his report, Sir Paul emphasised that it was important that science was “embedded in the centre of government”. “If you don’t get closer to government, we’ll see our budget [fall] away,” he added.
James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, said that the most likely candidate to chair this committee would be George Osborne, the chancellor, who would be unlikely to “waste his time” on such a body unless it had some kind of financial power.
“At its most dystopian” the Nurse review would usher in an era of ministerial “tinkering from on high” with research priorities, he said.
Professor Wilsdon also feared that by transferring quality-related (QR) research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to the new RUK – a move Sir Paul said was his favoured option – ministers would have greater power over this pot of money.
“The worry for me with a ministerial committee is that unless you have extremely solid and watertight safeguards around the QR budget” then there would be “pressure from events to raid that budget”, he said.
Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that there was a question over how QR funding would be kept separate from responsive research council grants – the so-called dual support system – “when it’s all under one roof”.
The new ministerial committee could lead to a “more joined up” approach to research across government, she said, and might be able to better protect department funding for policy research that had been cut in recent years.
“But you might have micromanagement of research funding” by ministers, she warned.
However, she was positive about Sir Paul’s proposal for a “common research fund” to be distributed by RUK for interdisciplinary research, “grand challenges” and “in response to scientific developments which open up new opportunities”.
Such a fund reflected “the changing nature of research and researchers’ careers”, she said. For example, recent fears over the waning effectiveness of antibiotics required a response not just from medical science but social science too, since addressing the problem required “behaviour change” from medical professionals.
But Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, warned that this new “cross-cutting” fund could be allocated by RUK without normal peer review of bids.