The Nurse review of UK research councils: where next?

By Richard Black|May 4, 2016|Research|0 comments

In December last year, the UK government published the long-awaited Nurse review entitled “Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour”.  The review, written by eminent scientist Sir Paul Nurse, was tasked with looking at the UK’s Research Councils, which have the responsibility of funding ‘demand-led’ research in Britain across seven broad discipline areas.  It had high level input from government and from the scientific community.  So what does it say, and how is the UK’s research funding landscape changed in its wake?

When Sir Paul’s review was first announced at the end of 2014, there were arguably few reasons to be optimistic about the future of UK research funding.  Science funding had been ‘ring-fenced’ under the then coalition government’s plans, but was declining in real terms.  ‘Blue skies’ research seemed almost forgotten in a tide of research council priorities, themes and special initiatives.  With the emphasis on STEM, the future also looked particularly bleak for the humanities – a problem in many countries, but particularly so in the context of weak public spending on higher education.

Worse, the UK research councils in particular had suffered significant budget cuts in recent years, leading them to pass an increasing array of costs onto universities.  Thus all grants were already subject to ‘efficiency savings’; so-called ‘demand management’ had sought to shift the burden of peer review away from the research councils and onto universities themeselves; whilst ‘doctoral training partnerships’ had passed most of the administrative costs of PhD support back to the universities that provide the training.

With the election of a Conservative government in May last year, the appointment of McKinseys to conduct a separate ‘review’ of research councils over the summer, and a new spending review in the autumn, you would be forgiven for thinking that the days of independent UK research councils were numbered.

Yet three months on from the publication of Sir Paul’s report in December 2015, and despite the announcement of a new research body – ‘Research UK’ – the research councils are with us still.  Not abolished, they are to become more like ‘faculties’ in an umbrella ‘Research UK’ structure.

So how should we view the Nurse review, and what does the future look like now for UK research?

Certainly there is much to commend Sir Paul’s review.  For a start, we can probably never be reminded too often of the importance of research, and there is much in the report that stresses importance.  In particular, Sir Paul stresses the need for research funding decisions to sit above the short-term funding priorities of politics and public opinion.  In his invocation of the ‘Haldane principle’ of a century ago – that decisions about funding should be made by those with the expertise and experience to know where it will be best spent – he makes an important point.

Moreover, Sir Paul has clearly not sought to abolish the UK’s research councils, nor is this what observers perceive him to have done.  Indeed, he makes recommendations about how the research councils should continue to provide ‘scientific leadership’, as well as taking the lead on engaging with a range of stakeholders, including the commercial world, government, charities and Europe.

This in itself is perhaps a major achievement of the report – as on efficiency grounds alone, there must have been many in the UK Treasury who were calling for a single research council, with a massively slimmed down structure and simplified mechanisms for distributing research funds, based perhaps on some metric formula.  Instead, we will continue to have the same number of research councils as before, each responding to the specific interests and concerns of their own scientific area, each even with a ministerial appointment for its CEO.

Yet it seems to me that there is little cause to cheer this quasi status quo.  What is wrong, and what could be done about it?

First, Sir Paul has recommended the creation of an overarching body called “Research UK” to bring together the strategic side of our research councils, with direct access to government and its own Chief Financial Officer.  This might have some positive effects, but it seems highly unlikely that it will deliver any more finance to actually support research in the UK.

Unfortunately, that matters – because just a decade after devising ‘full economic costing’ (or FEC) as a mechanism to properly estimate the cost of research so it can be adequately supported, the UK has now retreated so far from FEC that it is almost a joke.  Now, the new mantra from government, including the research councils, is ‘matched funding’ or ‘contribution’ from universities, in which HEIs are expected to support from their own resources grants that are provided by the government.

Yet this is a device that ensures nobody receives full funding.  It implicitly favours large institutions that can generate surpluses over smaller ones that very often generate the best ideas.  My own institution for one would struggle, for example, to find the 50% match funding for PhD scholarships that the Arts & Humanities Research Council is currently consulting on. And even if we could find such funds, we might ask whether so much of our own money should be devoted to the priorities of a UK research council, and implicitly the UK government, rather than our own priorities. For example, the AHRC expects us to use this funding only for British or European students, whereas our priority is to recruit and train the best talent internationally.

And that leads to a second point: the problem that Research UK will certainly not resolve, but exacerbate, is the divide that is opening up in the UK between research and teaching.  It could be argued that one of the key strengths of UK higher education – the thing that attracts academics and students from around the world to work and study in the UK – is the way our ‘research-intensive’ universities combine the best of research and teaching and exploit synergies between the two.

Yet this is rapidly eroding, and this at a time that – more than ever before – universities will in practice need to cross-subsidise research from teaching income in order to make up the shortfalls in research funding.

To be clear – such cross-subsidies are justified, at least in moderation.  An inspirational teacher at tertiary level needs to know the research frontier that she is trying to bring her students towards, to have worked herself to ask and solve research questions.  Excellent teaching cannot consistently be delivered if the information being imparted or the problem-solving skills shared have been learned second-hand.

Yet a ‘Research UK’ with its constituent research councils and quite possibly incorporating core funding as well, but separated from an ‘Office for Students’ does not look likely to stand up for synergies between excellent research and teaching.  On the contrary, it looks likely to enhance the sense of a conflict between the two that does not need to exist.

Finally, what about the ‘wider research endeavour’ that is the subject of the third of Sir Paul’s four chapters?  Interestingly, much is said about connections with business, and quite a bit about connections with government.  Yet in spite of the correct observation that “openness to scientific strengths beyond the UK is one of the defining characteristics of the UK research base”, the report says little about Europe, nothing at all about the European Research Council, and nothing much about how international connectivity could be strengthened further.

This is a serious gap.  Working across borders – not only in Europe – is really one of the success stories of science and scientists in the past two decades, and not just in the UK.  The UK in particular runs a trade deficit in manufacturing, yet this is dwarfed by our trade surplus in services, a surplus that exists with most countries and rests in part on the excellence of our higher education institutions, including their research.

The true story of a successful UK research endeavour in the future will not be one of supporting public policy over a range of government departments or training the workforce in the skills necessary for the country’s economy, but one of the UK’s contribution to global knowledge and understanding.  This is an area in which UK performance – despite chronic underfunding – has arguably been little short of outstanding.  But it remains to be seen if the UK’s new-look research councils can deliver the same in the future.

This piece was originally written for May 2016 edition of Realising Research magazine from the Association of Commonwealth Universities”.  See: https://www.acu.ac.uk/membership/member-communities/research-knowledge-information/realising-research/

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