United Kingdom needs a science funding czar, report says

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United Kingdom needs a science funding czar, report says

As a sharp ax hangs over government budgets in the United Kingdom—a new 4-year spending plan from the governing Conservative Party is due out next week—a major review today recommended ways to increase the efficiency of science funding. The key suggestion is to create a supervisory organization that would coordinate and support the seven research councils that award grants to investigators in various disciplines. This new organization should be headed by a high-profile scientist who could provide “a stronger strategic voice for research,” the report recommends.

The U.K. government, eager to balance its budget and reduce debt, asked all departments earlier this year to propose cuts of 25% to 40% for the next spending cycle. In preparation, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) commissioned an independent review of the seven research councils, which spend £3 billion on science each year. The councils are funded by BIS but operate independently. The review was done by Paul Nurse, who leads the Francis Crick Institute, a huge biomedical research facility about to open in London. (After suggestions that he might have a conflict of interest, as Crick depends on support from research councils, BIS appointed an advisory panel to help with the review.)

Nurse recommends that the councils be subsumed into a new body called Research UK. The councils should not be merged—a tactic rumored to be under consideration—because Nurse fears that would lessen agility of funding, create more distance between managers and bench scientists, and make it harder to recruit top staff.

Instead, Research UK would take over administrative duties, such as tracking grant data, providing business support, and reporting to Parliament. That would allow council leaders more time for strategy and interactions with their own research communities, while retaining control over their individual budgets. Research UK should be run by “a highly distinguished scientist, capable of delivering a managerially efficient organisation and of interacting effectively with Government.” The director should also have a separate pool of money which could be used for cross-cutting grants, grand challenges, and rapid research on emergencies such as epidemics or earthquakes.

Nurse hopes that Research UK could help standardize grant review procedures across the councils, which according to his report have “what appear to be arbitrary differences” in certain areas, such as how they moderate referee comments. Reviews should also be accelerated, he argues; the councils should aim to make decisions within 3 to 4 months, and not exceeding 6 months, after applications are submitted.

In the review, Nurse also warns BIS not to pinch pennies: “Eliminating smaller grants, excessive concentration of the research effort, and the imposition of restrictions on who can respond to funding calls, are examples of policy changes that might marginally reduce administration costs, but can also significantly damage research activity.” Other recommendations include allowing government research scientists to compete for council grants if they partner with a university, and creating a new ministerial committee to think broadly about overall research capacity.

The review has been greeted warmly by top figures in the U.K. research community. “If the government implements the recommendations of the Nurse Review it should help fine-tune an already highly efficient research system,” said Alex Halliday, vice president of the Royal Society in a statement. Mark Downs, chief executive of the Royal Society of Biology, sees a larger impact: “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 U.K.”

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