Paul Nurse has a talent for saying big things in a quiet way.
At the Science and Technology Committee Nurse gave evidence on his recent review of the research ecosystem and said that on research “it is not just about science it is about the country as a whole.”
At the committee he made the case for a revolution of UK science through the evolution of existing policies. Despite numerous questions tempting him to say that UK science can improve through the novel, new, or as yet discovered, he carefully made the case that the future of research is through adapting existing processes.
His concern is not a shortage of ideas but that the UK research system is fragile. To his mind it is fragile because it is publicly underfunded by international comparison. It is fragile because it is afflicted by short-termism wrought by changing political priorities (Nurse’s own review sat in BEIS from December). And it is fragile because researchers are spending too much time doing activities aside from research.
It is only seeing Nurse at the committee that brings context to his report being about bringing stability and certainty to the research ecosystem. The fundamental challenge is how his range of recommendations work together, not just how they function individually.
In the committee Nurse made the case that the UK’s status as a world-leader in research is “vulnerable”. There is an underlying anxiety that the way research has been accounted for has been wrong for a decade, that big public funding pots like QR are not transparent, and that there is a cherry picking of policies that never quite amount to the whole.
If research is about the country it must also follow that to take the UK’s strengths in research for granted is to risk a whole swathe of economic activity.
While professing to not be a politician, Nurse was clear that reforming the research ecosystem requires political ambition. He advocated for a ten year plan for research that needs a coalition of politicians, the Department for Science Innovation and Technology (DSIT), a range of universities, and publicly funded research institutions. It is the antithesis of the current policy situation and it is possible to imagine a body like the National Infrastructure Committee that could oversee this work.
He was explicit with the committee that the reason his recommendations are measured, for example on the reform of QR, is because the issues are complex. It is not that he rules out significant reform in the future, it is that he points out that much of the research ecosystem has functioned as it does for much of the last half decade and to unpick it is significant and disruptive work.
The other reason he was measured is likely because his view that much of what is good about UK research, researchers doing world leading research, is mired in bureaucracy. He made the case that investment in administration of research is unglamorous and unloved but crucial to the UK’s position.
Nurse was joined at the committee by vice chancellor of the University of Birmingham and author of the review of research bureaucracy, Adam Tickell, who made a similar case. He made the point that when it comes to research bureaucracy there is always a means to add more bureaucracy but there are few considerations of how bureaucracy can be taken away. In a parallel example he shared how a National Audit Office driven audit required his institution to demonstrate expenditure on a half a million pound project down to screws which cost less than one pound.
Tickell also told the committee that his review has been received by the Secretary of State and that a response is due soon. He intimated that the response to his review had been positive, and the only pushback was whether it had gone far enough.
The other area of fragility is the UK’s place in the world. Both Nurse and Tickell were clear that Horizon is the preferred option and both were optimistic that association could be achieved. Nurse made the case that to leave Horizon is to “drift off into the cold north east Atlantic” and he was sceptical of the UK’s ability to influence global science policy outside of the European block. His view was that the Prime Minister is more sceptical of the value of Horizon than the Secretary of State. He was unconcerned about a difficult financial negotiation from the EU’s side. Tickell was keen to emphasise the need for speedy association.
To consider the research ecosystem as fragile, or vulnerable, feels inherently uncomfortable. There has always been a sense that the UK has leading research but that it doesn’t always get translated into the real economy as well as it could. At the Science and Technology Committee Nurse, and to a lesser extent Tickell, showed that there are some fundamental vulnerabilities.
There is a vulnerability that top scientists and researchers leave because of bureaucracy around pay and over burdensome regulation. There is a vulnerability around the UK’s place in the world if it chooses not to associate to Horizon. And there is a political vulnerability in a reluctance to plan for the long-term married to an uncertainty over how research spending is calculated, and over how QR is spent.
It is perhaps the case that the major challenge is not how the UK becomes a science superpower through new activity but how existing activity is put on a more stable footing.