Sir Paul Nurse said that a proposed new overarching research body could set research council budgets that in the past had been determined by historical precedent, hinting that there could be big winners and losers among disciplines as a result of such changes.
Speaking this morning in London at a press conference about his new report, he also said that the chief executive of the proposed new body, Research UK (RUK), would have the same powers over research councils as a vice-chancellor over faculties.
The report, Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour, rejects the idea of merging the seven research councils as some had feared. And during the conference, Sir Paul, who is president of the Royal Society, said that it was “critical” that “the research councils continue to operate as they do now…they will not be interfered with”.
But the details of the plans and Sir Paul’s comments suggest that the councils could have less autonomy than they currently enjoy.
Sir Paul said that under his recommendations, the chief executive of RUK “would have ultimate responsibility” over the research councils, and his report says that they would be the accounting officer for all the research councils.
This person would be “not unlike the vice-chancellor in a university” presiding over faculties, Sir Paul said, although he argued that vice-chancellors were “barely the boss of anything”.
One way the new structure could be described was “seven brains, one body”, Sir Paul said.
Every three to five years, research councils will have their budgets set “by ministers working with RUK”, the report says, “with generally only minor adjustments in-between”.
Sir Paul confirmed that there could be “some shift” in council allocations between these budget reviews. “If we have a major pandemic in the country, you might want to divert money,” he said, but declined to specify how much could be transferred.
The report also suggests setting up a “common research fund” to be distributed by RUK to support interdisciplinary research. Asked how big this cross-cutting fund would be, Sir Paul declined to give a specific answer, but said he doubted that it would be “very large” but should not be so small as to be “ridiculous”.
He also said that it was his “personal view” that RUK should take on responsibility for distributing quality-related funding, which is currently allocated by funding councils on the basis of research excellence framework results.
Another key recommendation of the report is the creation of a ministerial committee to link up policymakers and research leaders. It would be chaired by “a senior minister with cross-cutting Cabinet responsibilities” and would include the minister for universities and science, as well as other ministers “responsible for major science budgets”, the report says.
“This will move us [science] up a step…having it embedded in the centre of government is a critical point for science and the future,” Sir Paul stressed. “If you don’t get closer to government, we’ll see our budget [fall] away,” he added.
Responding to the report, science minister Jo Johnson said in a statement: “Sir Paul’s recommendations reinforce the important steps the research councils are taking to work together in a more strategic and efficient way.”
“The government will carefully consider the proposal to establish Research UK and we will respond in detail to the report in due course.”