Nurse’s watery prescription for research

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What do you get when you take one Nobel Laureate, add a sprinkling of great and good, season with 250 stakeholder responses, and leave to stew for eleven months? The answer, if last week’s Nurse Review of research councils is anything to go by, is a bland and disappointing dish.

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI and former BIS special adviser, summed up the reaction of many policy experts, when he reflected out loud on twitter: “Reading the Nurse review, but the title of Bob Geldof’s autobiography and 1 Corinthians 9:22 keep popping into my head… ‘Is that it?’ ‘All things to all men?’”

Earlier this month, the HE green paper triggered a complete overhaul of the teaching side of the system, and pointed towards parallel changes to research funding. But a lot of the detail in this section of the green paper was missing, pending Sir Paul’s pronouncements.

However, his review tiptoes towards answers, rather than making great leaps forward. Much still remains to be resolved in light of this week’s spending review, and the green paper-inspired reforms that will follow.

On Thursday and Friday, I spoke to around a dozen senior figures across Whitehall, funding bodies and the research community to gauge their reactions to the Nurse Review. Here are five points that were made repeatedly:

1) The review is strong on assertion but light on evidence

Nurse’s supporting cast – his advisory and reference groups – are thanked at the start, but ultimately this is a one-man show. As advisory group members privately acknowledged last week, Nurse is presenting his own take on the research system: written in the first person, in a direct style that will be familiar to anyone who has heard him speak.

The first part of the report takes us back to first principles (‘why do we do research?’ ‘how do we fund research?’ ‘how do we decide what to research?’) and smoothly remixes arguments that Nurse has made elsewhere. In particular, I detected more than one riff from the Council for Science and Technology’s ‘Vision for UK Research’, which Nurse co-authored ahead of the 2010 election.

A lot of sensible points are set out in these initial sections, and as one insider suggested, “with so many new Ministers and officials, going back to first principles is actually rather helpful.” However, this material seems somewhat detached from the recommendations that follow. Several people commented on the “disconnect” between the richer opening text and the recommendations; one observed: “I have a lot more confidence in the first part of the report than I do in its conclusions.”

Despite the large volume of material submitted to the review, the evidence that Nurse draws on to support his case is surprisingly thin. He makes scant use of the substantial body of empirical analysis of research systems that has accumulated over the past thirty years; he attempts no comparative benchmark of the UK’s funding system against that of the US, Germany, Japan or other leading nations; and his engagement with the philosophy, politics, sociology and economics of science and innovation seems to begin and end in the early 1960s, with Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. As one official commented: “Nurse is an evidence-free zone… I was genuinely surprised to see so little research mentioned in a report on research. We thought he was taking a long time because it would be thorough and evidence-based.”

2) Let’s be clear – these changes would constitute a merger

Nurse attempts to tread a delicate line: recommending changes to structure and governance, such that the “partnership of the seven Councils making up RCUK should evolve into Research UK (RUK)”, while also “maintaining the integrity of the Research Councils.” This reflects the difficult political context for the review: as recently as late-September, Nurse was insisting that “merging the research councils is not on the agenda”, while in the same month, the McKinsey-inspired BIS2020 plan emerged, with its goal of “reducing the number of partner organisations by more than half.”

Nurse makes a valiant effort to please all sides: his proposal to “evolve” the councils into RUK, as a “formal organisation with a single Accounting Officer” would allow BIS to erase the seven councils from its organogram, and replace them with one reporting line. Yet the review also argues against a formal merger, and Nurse stuck to this line at his press conference last week.

Nobody I spoke to felt that this position was tenable. As one veteran of the system argued: “By any meaningful test, this constitutes a merger. If you have one accounting officer – the chief executive of RUK – and if that individual appoints the other council heads, there’s no doubt that this is a single organisation.” Another remarked: “he’s fallen shy of making an unequivocal recommendation for a merger but for all the soft-peddling, this will be a single organisation.” It was widely felt that Nurse’s proposals go some way further than the “Research Councils Together” plan that was produced back in October. Some were critical of the Councils for giving ground so readily; one said simply that the councils “signed their own death warrant.”

3) RUK will centralise control and reduce stability in the funding system

Importantly, the chief executive and board of RUK would have the power to move resources around within spending review periods – a significant shift from the current model where each council’s budgets are fixed within the ring fenced total. The seven council boards would simultaneously be reduced in size and status, to that of advisory sub-committees feeding into the main RUK Board. This move towards more centralised control runs counter to the case for devolved decision-making set out at the start of the review.

Combined with Nurse’s other, seemingly innocuous, proposals, such as the creation of an RUK-level fund to support interdisciplinary initiatives, and bringing Public Sector Research Establishments inside the ring fence, it is easy to see how – without an injection of fresh cash in the spending review – this new structure could lead to a significant reduction in available funding for each of the seven council areas, particularly in responsive mode (for which success rates have already fallen below 10 per cent in some councils).

Will the new RUK fund be top-sliced from existing budgets? Nurse doesn’t say, but emphasises that it should be “sufficient” to support cross-disciplinary research, address societal challenges, respond to new developments and tackle emergencies, “but not too large as to interfere with the effective running of each Research Council”. Pushed at the review press conference, Nurse refused to explain what he meant by this – 1%, 10% or 20% of the total budget?

Several of those I spoke to felt that creating RUK as a single, umbrella body was sensible. But there was criticism about the amount of detail that is missing on how the new structures would work in practice, and what the implications would be for budgets and priority setting across the seven council areas.

As one policymaker put it: “The review is disingenuous; it’s trying to pull off a merger while minimising opposition to one. And this is a real missed chance for a proper discussion of how a merger could work, and how it could support a step-change in the way the UK does interdisciplinary research.” Another said: “It could work brilliantly, but it could be a disaster. Nurse gives us none of the detail we need to determine how it will play out – about RUK, the Ministerial committee, the role of the GCSA. It’s as clear as mud.”

4) The leadership style of RUK’s chief executive will be crucial

Among those who support the RUK proposal, there was praise for Nurse’s analogy of a university and its faculties. The heads of the seven councils would be like deans of faculties, who can be powerful beasts in their own right. This led some to argue that RUK’s chief executive – who Nurse describes as “a highly distinguished scientist, capable of delivering a managerially efficient organisation and interacting effectively with government” – should be appointed from the ranks of the Russell Group vice-chancellors, with deep experience of managing high-performing institutions in a collegiate, cross-faculty way. Dame Nancy Rothwell and Sir Keith Burnett were mentioned to me as potential candidates.

With the introduction of this new layer of management, another test will be whether the seven councils are still able to attract high calibre senior managers. The appointment of a successor to Rick Rylance at AHRC (held in limbo since he announced his imminent departure a few months ago) will be one process to watch carefully: will the job still be advertised at “chief executive” level, and how will its terms and conditions change? Some expressed concern that, within a few years, we are likely to see officials managing the councils as “divisional heads”, with academic input restricted to council chairs and committee members, as well as membership of the RUK board.

5) Nurse says little about the green paper and the future of dual support

Although the two-week interval between publication allowed Nurse to take account of the green paper, it barely features, except in elliptical terms. HEFCE’s role as a research funder, and the future of the REF, which is discussed only briefly in the green paper, gets even shorter treatment from Nurse.

Nurse makes obligatory noises about the value of the dual support system, and acknowledges “an argument for incorporating [HEFCE’s] research functions including the REF within RUK”. But he offers no detail on the questions posed about the architecture and operation of quality-related funding and the REF in the green paper. To be fair, these were not included in Nurse’s original terms, but given the scale of change now envisaged, one might have expected a more detailed discussion of how RUK would absorb these additional responsibilities. Warm words about dual support are welcome, but given that both strands of the dual support system will now be controlled by the chief executive and board of RUK, many will be looking for watertight safeguards – possibly enshrined in legislation, as suggested by Universities UK – to prevent the QR budget line being raided to meet new or unexpected priorities emerging from the RUK board, or the new ministerial committee for science.

Nurse recognises the need for the funding system to include a deep understanding of how HEIs work, and makes the sensible suggestion that HEFCE’s “current capabilities in relation to maintaining institutional stability, and linkage to skills capacity, should be preserved…in the new system.” He doesn’t spell out how, but this could be achieved by moving HEFCE’s research policy team into RUK.

However, both Nurse and the green paper reinforce an artificial separation between teaching and research. Even though most academic staff in HEIs do both, many buildings are used for both, and teaching income often subsidises research, these connections and interdependencies aren’t discussed. The Office for Students is entirely absent from Nurse’s 36 pages, even though the interface between OfS and RUK will be vital to maintaining the overall health of the research – and wider university – system.

After Nurse?

I used to work for Paul Nurse: I like and respect him enormously. And I don’t underestimate the pressures he must have faced while undertaking this review. But leaving Nurse the man to one side and focusing on the text, the prescription he offers for the future of the research councils is too dilute to be effective. In an effort to please HM Treasury, BIS and the wider research community, he has produced a series of proposals that are simultaneously tepid and radical, but with none of the detail required to determine which.

For all the lip service he pays to diversity and devolved decision making, the net effect of Nurse’s proposals will be to centralise power in Research UK, its chief executive and board, who will themselves be subject to unspecified influence from the new ministerial committee.

Writing this hours before the spending review announcement, a certain amount hinges on the headline figure for research that George Osborne unveils on Wednesday. If the outcome is more positive than expected – perhaps flat cash, plus a few hundred million extra for RUK’s new cross-cutting fund, then the Nurse Review may come to be viewed as a smart tactical move, which helped to shore up the science budget.

Equally, in the face of budgetary uncertainty, it may be motivated by defensive considerations. Kieron Flanagan, a policy analyst at the University of Manchester, suggests that the RUK model is well suited to a new era of “mega-initiatives”, like the Crick and Royce Institutes, that are simply “too big to fail”. Either way, despite self-consciously placing itself in the science policy lineage of Haldane, Dainton, Rothschild and Waldegrave, it seems unlikely that we’ll be referring to the Nurse Review twenty, thirty or fifty years from now.

2 thoughts on “Nurse’s watery prescription for research”

  1. Thanks for this James. As we both know from working at the RS it’s difficult to balance policy realism with scientific aspirations. Scientific Century was a great effort 5 years ago which bolstered the ring fence against potential threats. Turning the RCs into a large government-funded super research university is not necessarily the answer we need on delivery. But who really knows.

  2. amcrae2014 says:

    Yes: excellent analysis of the warm tone, fuzzy detail, and dependence on an impeccable leader. It’s idealism merging into utopianism, which is not disastrous, but not entirely reliable either. More from me at: https://headofdepartmentblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/paul-nurses-utopianism/

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