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The Nurse review of the research landscape depends on a stable policy environment

The independent Nurse review recommends that everything makes sense. Debbie McVitty wonders if that’s too much to ask
This article is more than 1 year old

The cri de coeur of the independent reviewer is for their carefully worked out recommendations to be accepted in their totality. Not cherry-picked by a government on the hunt for low-hanging fruit to pick off and declare a win.

The independent Nurse review of the UK’s research, development and innovation (RDI) organisational landscape – announced in 2021 as part of the government’s Innovation Strategy – is a case in point: Nurse argues that only by adopting the report’s recommendations in full and, additionally, creating or tasking a cross-departmental working group to ensure those recommendations are implemented, will the government achieve its ambitious hopes for R&D.

This makes a lot of sense when the object of scrutiny is a complex ecosystem in which people and organisations interrelate in not always predictable ways – to tinker with one aspect of RDI policy can cause unexpected consequences in another. And smorgasbords of initiatives and strategies designed to solve short term issues – or grab headlines – rather than address long term structural issues and build a sustainable infrastructure, Nurse points out, is what got us here in the first place.

Which is where? Well, to a situation in which the research the UK produces is undeniably impressive, but against a backdrop of policy turmoil, patchy and sometimes counter-productive funding arrangements, excessive bureaucracy, and ongoing cultural divides between organisations that produce original research and those that translate or apply it.

Build it and they will come

The core policy prescription is for government to commit to a clear framework for RDI, incorporating core national and local scientific infrastructure, national research programmes and priorities (especially including for applied research), and well-defined governance – all based on accurate and regularly updated insight on the size and shape of the RDI landscape. This would also allow elements of that landscape to be reshaped – for example, institutes that had outlived their useful contribution could be closed, merged or absorbed elsewhere.

Falling out of that single framework would then be clear funding objectives – including assessing and, if necessary, changing or replacing, existing research funding mechanisms such as QR, and instituting “end-to-end” research funding that covers administrative and technical and laboratory facilities costs as well as direct research costs.

Funding would also be directed to encourage different kinds of researching organisations to flourish, such as translational research organisations, research institutes, and public sector research establishments (PSREs). All research organisations would be granted the same degree of administrative independence from government as ARIA enjoys – reducing bureaucracy and replacing the current audit culture with one of “earned trust”.

Such a stable framework, Nurse argues, could create the conditions for business to be confident in the value of investing in RDI, and could allow for funding to be directed towards regional knowledge exchange partnerships as well as areas of national scientific excellence.

It’s not all about systems and funding arrangements – Nurse also makes recommendations about increasing the permeability between different kinds of organisations in the RDI landscape. The hardy perennial of cultural differences between business and academia hindering effective collaboration is revisited here; and there is a suggestion that training and development of researchers could take better account of the diversity of research careers now available. Likewise, Nurse recommends that technicians, engineers, and facilities support staff should have access to better training and career progression.

Holding out for a framework

Thinking back to the last Nurse review of the Research Councils – the review that ended in the creation of UKRI – there’s a very similar attempt to bring a degree of order and coherence to a dispersed system, and a similar hope that with enough will and effort, something approaching a long term strategic plan can achieve that objective. There’s also a good bit of irony in being commissioned to tell government to create a national strategic direction that in theory was the reason why UKRI was created in the first place.

Nurse’s review was published alongside the government’s Science and Technology Framework which, while picking up some of the Nurse recommendations is very much not the formal response (which has yet to be published), nor does it do a credible job of analysing and addressing the weaknesses in the system that such a framework should in principle be designed to address.

And that’s the problem with Nurse’s prescription – he asks for a strategy and government will say it has one, but a serious strategy has to start with analysis of problems and it’s not in governmental DNA to admit there are flaws in the system, especially when the current flavour of government has been in power for 13 years – it’s all “building on our world-leading” here and “redoubling our efforts” there. And ultimately what you end up with is a shopping list of Nice and Impressive Sounding Things, without much sense of what’s going to be different as a result.

All of Nurse’s recommendations are sensible – we know this because versions of many of them have been made before. Certainly it’s always helpful to keep pushing on full economic costing (or “end to end funding”) of research – and Nurse makes the highly timely point that the sector’s increasing dependence on international student income to fill the gap is looking less and less sustainable. The idea of provision of an element of core funding for research organisations – possibly as distinct from QR in its current form and targeted at a wider breadth of research activity – is one that is worthy of further thought and scenario planning.

But if the success of RDI objectives depends on policy stability and the wholesale implementation of Nurse’s recommendations then it’s hard to have confidence in the prospect of sunlit uplands. What might be needed is for the scientific advisor community – those who are really intimate with how government works and what can and can’t be done – to produce a pragmatic and fairly short wishlist of things that absolutely require new policy, and that could meaningfully make a difference even in the teeth of ongoing policy uncertainty – rather than holding out for the unlikely prospect of stability.

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