Nurse review backs shake-up at research councils

Royal Society president Paul Nurse has released his long awaited review of the UK research councils that are responsible for allocating around £3 billion of arts and science funding every year. While the report does not go as far as recommending a merger between the councils – as some had feared – it does suggest changes to the way they are managed, including the creation of a new umbrella body to oversee all seven councils’ activities.

In his review, Nurse says funding bodies need better links with government and leaders in industry. To achieve this, he said a new body, Research UK (RUK), should be created to replace the current Research Councils UK partnership. RUK would have greater powers than its predecessor, as well as much closer links to government, potentially through a new ministerial committee chaired by a senior member of the cabinet.

‘The government will carefully consider the proposal to establish Research UK’
The seven research councils themselves would remain distinct, overseeing the allocation of research money in their respective disciplines. But the review said a better system for funding inter-disciplinary research was needed, and suggested that a separate pot of money for such projects should be set up and managed by RUK, although it is unclear whether this would be expected to come out of the research councils’ existing budgets.

The dual funding system, where institutions receive direct funding and research councils provide the cash for projects, was also up for review. Nurse concluded this system should be kept, but responsibility for funds currently administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) should move to RUK. This appears to chime with the government’s proposal to scrap Hefce put forward in its higher education green paper earlier this month. The review stressed the need for closer collaboration between research councils and industry leaders, but said the industry funder Innovate UK should remain separate from RUK.

The Nurse review says the changes it suggests are ‘not complex and could be easily adopted without disrupting on-going research activities’. ‘These new structures will improve decision making about research, which requires high quality strategic thinking in the research community combined with in-depth knowledge and understanding of the research landscape in government,’ it says.

Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering advocacy group, welcomed the review. ‘It is great to see … recommendations on strengthening strategic join-up across disciplines and government departments, rather than wasting precious resources rearranging the furniture,’ she said in a statement. She added that it was too early to tell whether the closer links with government would lead to better collaboration or allocation of science funding or risk ‘ministerial micro-management’.

‘What is abundantly clear … is that benefits from enacting the recommendations made today will be stymied without adequate funding,’ she added. The fate of the science budget over the next few years is set to be announced next week as part of the government’s spending review.

Responding to the Nurse review, universities and science minister Jo Johnson said the government was committed to ensuring the continued success of the UK’s ‘world class’ research base. ‘Sir Paul’s recommendations reinforce the important steps the research councils are taking to work together in a more strategic and efficient way,’ he said. ‘The government will carefully consider the proposal to establish Research UK and we will respond in detail to the report in due course.’

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