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expert reaction to Nurse Review of Research Councils

Sir Paul Nurse has published his review of the structure of the UK’s research councils, which recommends preserving them and providing a formal organisation above them to improve certain processes such as funding and which would be a strengthened voice for science and research.


Dr Jack Stilgoe, Senior Lecturer in Social Studies of Science, UCL said:

“The Nurse review presents few surprises, but the case it makes for why science should be supported by Government is weaker than it should have been. The review offers Government a more coherent research system, a consolidation of the current Research Councils, which goes with the grain of Government’s recent green paper and the Research Councils’ own plans. But there are unanswered questions. Despite Paul Nurse’s insistence that ’science’ includes all disciplines, people in the social sciences and humanities might justifiably worry that they will lose out. The review claims to want ‘science at the heart of government’, but it reads as an appeal for greater autonomy. Policymakers who want research to improve its focus on the big challenges facing society are likely to be disappointed.”


Prof. Peter Weissberg, Medical Director, British Heart Foundation, said:

“The British Heart Foundation echoes Sir Paul’s endorsement of the outstanding success of the UK Research Councils and welcomes his recommendation that the Councils and the dual support system should be retained. The BHF, which is the largest funder of cardiovascular research in the UK, works particularly closely with the Medical Research Council to ensure maximum impact from public funding for cardiovascular science.

“If Sir Paul’s recommendations are accepted, it will be essential that Research UK maintains and encourages individual Councils’ ability to react flexibly and nimbly to research priorities and new partnership opportunities, with an independent scientific agenda, as befitting the Haldane principle. To support a thriving research environment in the UK, we also need to see sustained, long term investment from Government. That’s why we would like to see Government show its support for research by maintaining the Science Budget in real terms at the Comprehensive Spending Review on the 25th November.”


Prof. Richard Reece, Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Manchester, and Trustee of the Biochemical Society, said:

“The research, education and innovation sectors are going through a time of change, and it is important to ensure these changes are strategic and coordinated. The Nurse Review proposes a retention of the seven research councils and creation of Research UK to oversee these, providing an efficient, integrated and strategic approach. We welcome the idea of the councils working together more closely to champion science, through interdisciplinarity, knowledge and service sharing. Also, establishing of a cabinet-level ministerial committee should strengthen engagement between the science community and the government. We hope the spending review will support the ambitions and potential of the UK science community and enable it to remain a world leader in research.”


Prof Ric Parker, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Committee, said:

“The Royal Academy of Engineering welcomes Sir Paul’s review. Investing in UK research is vital for economic and social growth, and we therefore support moves to make these investments more effective. Making the research landscape more strategically aligned and less complex will open up opportunities for greater collaboration, and echoes the recommendations of Dame Ann Dowling’s recent report on University Industry Research Collaboration.

“Particular attention should be paid to ensuring that there is a focus on research excellence, noting that excellent research encompasses use-inspired research, as well as curiosity-driven research. The report supports the Haldane Principle and reinforces that those best placed to make detailed decisions on the content, shape, location and executors of research programmes are those actively involved in the research. It recognises, however, that industry should have an input on applied research, and moreover, that society and politicians have a duty and right to define the societal challenges and high-level priorities, and appropriately direct funding at the macroscopic scale.

“Sir Paul has rightly identified the importance of continuing to develop the strategic relationships between the Research Councils and Innovate UK. Innovation investment is crucial to ensure that the UK extracts real value and social impact from its investments in research, and will be enhanced by stronger links between these organisations.”


Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said:

“The UK is renowned for its research excellence and much of this is down to the Research Councils and the vital role they play in the funding ecosystem. As highlighted in this review, while the Councils successfully champion the separate disciplines they represent, many of the challenges the world faces now require research involving complex collaboration across diverse fields.

“Reconfiguring the Councils’ umbrella body into Research UK and giving it the mandate and resources it needs to coordinate the Councils more effectively – while maintaining the integrity of the Research Councils – would ensure the UK is able to maximise its position as a global leader of research. Government funding is critical to this position and we hope to see it demonstrate its commitment to research in the upcoming spending review.”


Prof. Sarah Thompson, Vice President of Science and Innovation, Institute of Physics, said:

“We welcome the work by Sir Paul Nurse into the review of the research councils and hope that the spending review invests at a level to allow UK science to flourish in the future.

“The funding system that we have places peer review and the excellence of the science at the heart of the decision of whether or not to publically fund a research project. We welcome the commitment to ‘Investing in Excellence, Wherever it is Found’ and hope that this sentiment is carried through in any future endeavours that may follow based on these recommendations.

“We respect the work that’s been done to identify potential savings. It’s vital to remember, however, that those working in the seven research councils have built productive relationships with the communities that they work for.

“We welcome the emphasis in the report of the importance of the dual support system; a system that strengthens and supports the world class research base across our academic institutions. In any new funding structures it is essential that the two streams are protected to promote the stability and the strength of UK research.

“The UK continues to be a world leader in science and it is important to recognise that it has achieved such successes due to many of the systems already in place.”


Prof. Alex Halliday, Vice-President, Royal Society, said:

“If the government implements the recommendations of the Nurse Review it should help fine tune an already highly efficient research system that is the envy of the world. It would also place research closer to the heart of government, where the role of science in improving lives and driving the economy is increasingly recognised and championed.

“The Research Councils do a good job and through the proposed Research UK we can get greater strategic planning and a more efficient and effective approach to interdisciplinary research. In conjunction with the establishment of the proposed Ministerial Committee it should also help to create a better interaction between politicians and scientists. If research is more central to government, science investment through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills can be better aligned with investment from other government departments and the regions. We welcome the acknowledgement of the importance of the dual support system and agree that it should be maintained.

“If these investment decisions are based on a good understanding of the UK’s research base – where research is demonstrably excellent and where research capabilities need to be developed – they can make a real contribution to strengthening the UK scientifically and economically.

“The proposal that Research UK take overall responsibility for ethical and conduct issues in science is a very interesting one. Good science is dependent on honesty and integrity and we will look forward to seeing how Research UK can play a part in ensuring the UK maintains the highest standards.

“We will be watching the implementation of the ideas in the review closely to ensure that any changes maximise excellent research and its benefits.

“The Nurse Review sets out a way forward for an even more efficient and effective research base in the UK. Given government’s recognition of the importance of research and innovation, it is to be hoped that this vision for a stronger research endeavour in the UK will inspire the government to commit to additional investment in the forthcoming Spending Review.”


Naomi Weir, Acting Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), said:

“It is great to see the Review focuses recommendations on strengthening strategic join-up across disciplines and Government departments, rather than wasting precious resources rearranging the furniture.

“Some key questions remain which will be answered as the detail emerges in coming months. How will the dual support system be maintained in practice when both components are under one roof? Will strategic oversight at a cabinet level risk ministerial micro-management of research investment and make the Haldane principle history? Or will it drive better join up across government R&D making their budgets greater than the sum of their parts?

“What is abundantly clear though, is that benefits from enacting the recommendations made today will be stymied without adequate funding for the Research Councils, or indeed R-UK. I therefore look forward to the 25th to hear George Osborne deliver on his promise to ‘give science the funding it needs for the long-term’.”


Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive, Royal Society of Biology, said:

“The Research Councils are critical to development and growth and to maximise the UK’s potential for discovery and innovation. Ensuring that they can operate well and efficiently, with support and review from the research community is vital.

“The creation of Research UK, and the retention of the Research Councils, offers an opportunity to build on disciplinary as well as interdisciplinary focus. Maintaining disciplinary capacity for peer review and deep subject knowledge remains key to future success of the science communities. Sharing services and developing a broad oversight can ensure the best use of public funds. Critical to the success of Research UK will be the appointment of a visionary and respected scientist to lead this latest development in Research Council history.

“The potential remit of Research UK, extending into both research council and departmental research directions, is broad and could fundamentally reshape the research landscape of the UK. We will work with government and the research communities to explore how to achieve the best outcome for the UK and its bioscientists.

“It is important that savings made through back office integration are ploughed into front line research.”


Prof. Sir John Tooke, President, Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“This is clearly a time of change across the research sector, and it is vital that the community remains engaged in discussions on how best to deploy available resource. Public investment plays a vital role in supporting our world-class research base, and works in balance with charitable and private investment to deliver the type of outstanding impacts highlighted in the recent REF exercise.”

“Sir Paul rightly recognises that the Research Councils are a key component of the funding landscape for UK research, and his recommendations reflect on how this structure can deliver the best outcomes for public investment. We welcome this timely consideration and the informed discussion it will generate, alongside the recently launched consultation on Higher Education, and the Chancellors’ Spending Review due next week.”

“We look forward to working with the Government, to ensure this report helps to inform discussions on the path ahead.”




Declared interests

On this occasion the SMC has not asked for declarations of interests as we consider everyone to be an interested party.

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