The Nurse review is a topography of the minutiae of the research landscape, a history of the state we’re in, and a study of how public bureaucracies clash in unproductive and unhelpful ways.
Nurse makes clear that at its heart science is an administrative endeavour. It is about breakthroughs, experimentation, and shining a light into uncertainty but it is also about the judicious use of public funds, audits, form-filling, accountability, and careful record taking. It can be slow, made slower by processes, and made slower still when processes clash. Some of this administration is imposed by funders, some by government, and some by universities and researchers themselves.
There is no perfect system. The price for less bureaucracy can be less equity and oversight. More freedom for individuals can mean less organisational capacity. And the price of carrying out a high quantity of research is also to undertake a large amount of administration.
The administrative system is a set of management structures, sign offs, regulators, and funders, but it is also a set of incentives that people within the system respond to.
Nurse’s view is that organisations and the people within them follow the incentives that government, funders, regulators, universities, and industry, put in front of them. It is not only that some incentives produce negative outcomes but there are contradictory incentives that are harming broader research cultures. For example, Nurse makes the case that:
A vicious cycle is promoted whereby universities and their researchers prioritise the pursuit of more response-mode grants, and that in turn exacerbates pressure on the other support that research requires if it is to be effective. This can run the further risk of prioritising the quantity of research activity rather than its quality.
To give another example – historically, and in part thanks to the Treasury, the effective audit of public spending has been seen as an (if not the) administrative priority. No matter the additional impact on workloads, the record of researchers, or special pleading, it is collectively recognised that universities and researchers should be accountable for their spending. Simultaneously, the public also expects value for money in the funding of research, and to free up the researchers it funds to do the things they are best at – research.
Getting to work
The Nurse review recommends a more ARIA-like approach to the research system. This is to do away with unnecessary bureaucracy and encourage greater risk taking. Discussion of the merits of this approach is for another day but there is a key point that fostering human interaction is hard when researchers have so little time owing to their range of responsibilities. If one of the aims of this review is to reduce bureaucracy, a deeper question is how universities could use this additional time to foster more peer interaction both within and outside of the institution.
Permeability is a culture issue. It is about the incentives that encourage people to work between industries, share ideas, and collaborate. There are a raft of economic incentives that can force this interaction, like a special R&D business-university tax credit, but these should be secondary to people focused interventions.
Permeability can also have different degrees of permanence. Nurse rightly highlights the need for stability in the wider research environment but at an individual level the life of a researcher is often unstable. It is often a mix of short-term posts, employment tied to funding grants, and research carried out alongside other work. Work like the University of Liverpool’s Research in a Sustainable Environment (RISE) recognises that more work needs to be done to acknowledge the wide range of skills, expertise, and inputs that make up research teams. The next logical step is not only to recognise these skills but to explicitly train researchers for careers that can move between universities and industries.
People and systems
Nurse recognises that these issues are both about systems and about people. He recognises that to achieve some of the widespread changes in the research landscape it is necessary to change cultures, not just the behaviour of individuals. He lists a range of behaviours we should expect from the research community including ethical probity, integrity, trust, collaborativeness, openness and so on. Alone these values may make for better research cultures but they do not entirely address a the permeability problem. That is how ideas can move between different kinds of research environments.
This is particularly true when it comes to the translation of research into the real economy, where he says:
To understand the benefits of RDI for commercial activities and the economy, a culture change promoting openness, mutual respect, closer interaction, collaboration, and permeability of ideas, technologies and people has to occur in both business and academia.
The pipeline problem
Nurse takes a longer view than I have here and advocates for changes to the education system, access to more internships in RDI, and more focus on developing highly skilled RDI management and technical skills. Clearly, a culture that values the wide range of skills that make up the RDI ecosystem can only be good for the whole landscape.
The Nurse review is almost dizzying in its scope. If implemented his recommendations would lead to the single biggest shake-up in the research landscape since his last review in 2014. Together, the reforms could well cut down bureaucracy, streamline funding, and bring a sense of mission to a disparate policy and funding environment. Their success is dependent on bringing a more human approach to the crucial work of RDI administration.