Friday, 20 November 2015

Research and Development

So the review of the Research Councils by Sir Paul Nurse has been published, and what a report it is. A much better read than many government reports – it felt like the innocent scientific positivity in some of John Wyndham’s novels, or even better, in The Black Cloud by Sir Fred Hoyle.

I studied philosophy at the LSE, and the focus was very much – unsurprisingly for a department built upon Karl Popper’s work on epistemology and scientific method – around the philosophy of science. So it isn’t every day that the reading lists given to us crop up in government policy documents. But here we are: Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations, and TS Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I was hoping for a bit of Imre Lakatos or Paul Feyerabend too, but perhaps that was asking too much.

It’s also got a lovely opening section into the whys and wherefores of research. And a historical gem: the funding of the Medical Research Council from National Insurance contributions at a rate of “a penny per working person per year” in the 1911 National Insurance Act. By my calculations – and using the historical data set available from the Bank of England – that would equate now to 3 shillings and 11 pence  per working person, or just under 18 pence per head in post-decimal coinage. By comparison, the total science budget of £2.6bn in 2014-15 equates to £68.82 per working person per year. So it’s fair to say that government investment in research has grown over time.

So, from my reading, what are the key points of the review?

  • Research in all disciplines is really important to a nation, and can be focused on discovery, on applying knowledge to a problem, or translating basic research to applied problems (translational). And a great line: “To rush into translation may result in becoming lost in translation.”
  • Research Councils waste a lot of time engaging with bureaucracy, and bringing back control of support in house rather than through the UK Shared Business Services is necessary.
  • RCUK should be given more strength as a co-ordinator of the efforts of the seven research councils, acting as the interlocutor with government and enabling the research councils to focus on research funding. It should become a new body – Research UK – with a single Accounting Officer replacing those in the individual research councils.
  • Management of the funding process needs to improve, with better arrangements for international peer review, panel discussions, diversity, transparency and speed.
  • There needs to be better collaboration with other research funders, and especially business, charities, devolved administrations, and Europe.
  • Relationships with government need to be clarified, and a new structure to work with Research UK is identified.

Sir Paul’s report contains a curious mixture of realism and optimism.

On the realist front: “Given the many and varied demands made on the public purse which Government will need to balance, it is probably more likely the funding level will be set too low rather than too high.”. You're telling me.

On the optimist front: “The changes proposed through this report are not complex and could be easily adopted without disrupting on-going research activities”. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Will it do the trick? It doesn’t actually reduce the number of BIS quangos, although it does create a single infrastructure, so costs should go down. It does reduce complexity, by having a single Accounting Officer. And it certainly makes sense about funding high quality research.

But ... Jo Johnson’s response included an ominous last paragraph:
I encourage everyone with an interest in the future of our research and innovation landscape to consider this review alongside the proposals set out in the Higher Education Green Paper we published recently.
Sounds like a watch this space to me…

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