Nurse Review stops short of recommending radical change

Sir Paul Nurse’s government-commissioned report, published today, recommends that research councils should not face a wholesale merger, but instead function under a new “arm’s length Non-Departmental Public Body” called Research UK (RUK).

The report, Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour, has been forged in an extremely tough political climate – in the middle of a Spending Review and during a time in which the government is planning big changes to the Department for Business, Industry and Skills (BIS) and all its partner agencies.

Early on in the process of the Nurse Review, it had been thought that Nurse, the Royal Society president, would recommend a merger of research councils, but with the government threatening these bodies in its “BIS2020” review, the 66-year-old has decided (perhaps under pressure from the research community) against giving ministers a “blank cheque”, or providing ammunition that would aid a radical overhaul of the landscape.

The 18,000 word report, around half the length of the recent Green Paper, suggests that a merger of research councils into a single organisation is “not appropriate”. Instead of the massive reorganisation that could have happened, it appears to pave the way to implement an extended version of the research councils’ own plan, “Research Councils Together”.

Research councils are to stay, although will now work more closely together under the new organisation proposed, RUK, which Nurse hopes will lead to increased co-operation. RUK will have more power and a broader remit than Research Councils UK (RCUK); and its CEO, who “should be a highly distinguished scientist”, will report to government and act as the single accounting officer for research. Having one single accounting officer would represent a substantial change – and there are some in the sector that have questioned whether this would leave the remaining councils with substantially reduced power.

In order to “put science at the heart of government”, the report also recommended creating a Ministerial Committee to oversee science and research, chaired by a “senior minister with cross-cutting cabinet responsibilities”, which some believe could ultimately be Chancellor George Osborne.

Nurse said the report aimed to ensure that “Different parts of the UK research system are working effectively together to support an endeavour with impact that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“To achieve this, the research councils must remain distinct in terms of their specialities but should be arranged under a single organisation which can strengthen their collective strategy and voice.”

He used the analogy of the RUK CEO as a “vice chancellor” and the heads of the seven research councils as “faculty deans”, to explain how he envisions the relationship between RUK and the councils.

Following the publication of the Green Paper and the government’s intention to merge the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) into the Office for Students, it is thought that the intention is to move HEFCE’s responsibility for managing the Research Excellence Framework and distributing quality-related research (QR) funding over to RUK. The Nurse Review makes a strong commitment to keeping the dual support system, although it implies that the entire system could be managed under one organisational roof, if needed.

Universities and science minister Jo Johnson says the government will “carefully consider its recommendations to establish Research UK” alongside the Green Paper consultation, which ends on 15 January.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+ said:

“The jury is out as to whether Research UK […] should be responsible for QR research funding but in any case this proposal raises important questions about the principle and merits of having a UK-wide research infrastructure.”

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance, commented on the report’s commitment to maintain the dual support mechanism (despite RUK taking on research funding responsibilities currently with HEFCE):

“The dual support system drives dynamism and innovation. As Sir Paul’s report recognises, this system has served the UK well – with a wide range of institutions producing world-leading research across multiple disciplines.

“Peer review is the best way to identify this excellence. The Haldane principle should continue to guide funding.”

University and College Union president Sally Hunt said:

“We would encourage research councils and any new body to examine how they can encourage the sustainable employment of research staff within universities. The current short-term funding model means too many talented researchers are wasting time chasing funding or leaving the sector.”

Many others believe the road to implementation of the Nurse Review is rocky, with a Spending Review now imminent and research falling under the responsibility of Secretary of State Sajid Javid, who has made clear his desire to radically simply the research funding landscape.

You can read the Nurse Review and supporting documents here.

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