Nurse Review of Research Councils: recommendations and takeaways

Research and Innovation Development Office

Category: Research news

11 December 2015

In case you hadn't heard, Sir Paul Nurse's independent review of the UK research councils was recently published, making recommendations for how RCUK can evolve to support research in the most effective ways.

We highly recommend reading the whole Nurse Review to gain insight into the future of the RCUK in particular and UK research funding priorities in general, but in case you're short on time, the main takeaways are below.

The review reccommends the following guidelines and principles be adopted to promote successful UK research:

  1. Research into the natural sciences, technologies, medicine, the social sciences, the arts and humanities produces knowledge that enhances our culture and civilisation and contributes to the public good, for example through driving a sustainable economy, improving health and the quality of life, and protecting the environment.
  2. As such, research should be at the heart of Government with an effective dialogue and understanding between researchers, politicians and the public, so that policies and strategies are in place to bring about research that benefits society.
  3. Policies need to be in place to bring about high quality, cost-effective research carried out to the highest standards, and to ensure that the knowledge produced benefits society and is supported by society, recognising the differences and similarities between discovery, translational and applied research.
  4. The research endeavour has to be permeable and fluid, allowing the ready transfer of ideas, skills and people in all directions between sectors, research disciplines, the span of the research endeavour, and its potential beneficiaries. The endeavour thrives on excellent scientists, who are often motivated by their curiosity and have the freedom to pursue their intellectual interests.
  5. In making research funding decisions account has to be taken of the researcher(s) undertaking the research; the research programme; and the circumstances of the place where the research is to be pursued. High quality peer review plays a central role in this process. The ability of a research endeavour to come to good decisions about what to research, and who should undertake it, is an integral part of the scientific process.
  6. Diversity should be protected in researchers, approaches and locations – recognising that novel approaches and solutions to problems sometimes emerge more readily outside the mainstream. The best research should be funded wherever it is found.
  7. Funders should recognise that delivering the highest quality research is difficult, requiring patience, persistence and long-term investment.
  8. Research funding decisions should be made by those best placed to judge the research:
    • Discovery and translational research is usually driven by the scientists themselves close to the research, assessed by high quality peer review operating at an international level, including appropriate expert scientists and experienced scientific generalists; and in the case of translational and applied research an additional awareness of the potential use of the science.
    • Applied research needs a more directed approach and knowledge of relevant customer and market needs.
    • Assessments of more multi-disciplinary proposals require a wider range of reviewer expertise, as well as individuals with experience of working in these more complex projects.
    • Societal impact plays a role in assessment but should be proportionate in use. For example, with discovery research it is not usually appropriate for a fixed proportion of grant assessment to be applied for societal impact. There also is a need for better consideration of highly significant scholarly impact, which can lead to paradigm shifts in understanding.
    • Society and its elected representatives should be engaged in the high level questions about the overall direction of science and research, such as the top level allocation of resources, or in respect of needs that society might like to see addressed by research.

Nurse then moves forward to review the Research Councils in particular, providing the following recommendations to enhance their effectiveness:

  1. Research Councils should be focused on providing high quality strategic leadership to their research communities. Engagement with these communities should be prioritised, with the grant decision making process viewed as an integral part of the scientific process, and the Research Councils should work with the sector to determine collectively the most effective approaches to funding research.
  2. Research Councils should collectively take ownership of mapping the UK research landscape to produce a consolidated picture of capability across Research Councils, Innovate UK, HEFCE, Government Departments, local authorities, other public agencies and industry and how to access research funding support. They should take responsibility for making these data widely available. This understanding will support high-level strategic discussions including analysis of strengths, weaknesses and gaps in the UK research portfolio. This could be based on an extension of the Science and Innovation Audit.
  3. Research Councils should individually and collectively address the following issues, aimed at enhancing working relationships with their research communities:
    • Delivering consistently high quality international level peer review, sharing and promulgating best practice;
    • Reviewing of inter-disciplinary research proposals should be improved by using reviewers experienced in judging this type of research;
    • Assembling appropriate peer review panels with greater consistency in the operation of subsequent grant award panels;
    • Speeding up the grants assessment process;
    • Improving outcome reporting systems, transparency and feedback;
    • Ensuring diversity in funding options; and
    • Strengthening links with the research community

To support the above recommendations, the review proposes an updated governance arrangement, in the form of a new organisation dubbed Research UK (RUK). RUK would have a single Accounting Officer, and would support the whole Research Councils system "to collectively become more than the sum of its parts, through: speaking with a strengthened voice to Government; taking responsibility for delivering cross-Council strategy; and simplifying transactional operations, aimed at reducing the burden of administration currently placed on the heads of Research Councils."

So why is this important to you, the individual researcher? The implementation of the Nurse Review could lead to a reconfiguration of how funding is disseminated and influence funder priorities- on the one hand freeing up individual councils to focus more on their specialties, and on the other showing potential for unbalanced responsiveness to the government's chief scientific adviser (Times Higher Education offers an interesting analysis).

Even if you feel this will not affect your personal research career, consider the Nurse Review as an indicator of the current UK discourse on the place of research in society. Taking this into account could assist with the development of future research proposals, and increase your chances of funding the projects you're passionate about.


The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.