Paul Nurse: 'political class' must have say in scientific decisions

Author of report into reshaping of research council system defends proposal to create a new ministerial committee

December 15, 2015

Decisions on whether or not to fund major scientific projects must involve “the political class”, according to the author of a report that recommends the creation of a new ministerial committee to advise on science in the UK.

Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and former president of the Royal Society, gave evidence today to MPs from the House of Commons science and technology committee.

His report, released at the end of last month, proposed the creation of an overarching body called Research UK to coordinate the strategies of the seven current research councils.

It also recommends the creation of a high-level ministerial council to assess “advice and proposals from Research UK and its partners”, with some commentators tipping the chancellor George Osborne to chair the body and warning that such a structure could lead to greater political interference.

Sir Paul told MPs: “There’s a need for another committee that is beyond BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] to have debates about science”.

He was asked by the committee whether the new ministerial body would have approved expensive projects like the Large Hadron Collider, or fund scientists who were “dreamers”.

“I always think the best of people including politicians,” he responded, adding that politicians tended to understand scientific needs if they were explained to them. “I don’t have this view that they are the devil incarnate”.

Of the Large Hadron Collider, “that is a debate that has to involve the political class”, he said.

At the end of the session, the committee chair Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said it would be “naïve” to imagine that there would not be “political pressure” on research priorities in such a set up.

During the committee session, Sir Paul also stressed that his report had not called for a merger of the councils.

“Research councils should remain independent,” he said, and added that there had been “loose language” after the release of the report suggesting the recommendations would be tantamount to a merger. “It is not a merger,” he said.

“The real objective is to keep the research councils working as they are,” he said, with RUK dealing with “the difficulties and holes”.

Sir Paul was also questioned about the new Francis Crick Institute in London, where he is now full-time chief executive. He said there were delays in the completion of the biomedical facility’s building management system, which meant that the project was “several months over”. “I’m mostly focusing on the air conditioning at the moment,” he explained.

The building would start to be occupied from the end of May next year, and anticipated that all of them would have moved in by the end of 2016.

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