Doubts over centralising UK science funding

1 min read

The Nurse Report, a government commissioned review of UK science funding, is calling for a single independent agency to liaise with ministers in order to determine priorities when it comes to UK science funding.

According to the report’s author, Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society greater centralised control will benefit the research community. He believes that in return for his proposed reforms the research community will enjoy increased financial security and greater engagement from politicians, and help to place science at the heart of government.

According to Sir Paul, "The aim of these proposals is to provide a good interface between the scientists and the politicians, because science and technology will impinge increasingly on everything the government, and we, do.

"For that I am proposing a ministerial committee chaired by a senior minister, so we have the political will for science and can use it for the good of the UK."

The report was commissioned by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the report comes just as the Chancellor’s upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review is expected to argue for further cuts – from which science, sadly, is unlikely to escape.

Sir Paul argues that the reorganisation is necessary to safeguard science funding in the UK.

If these ideas are accepted then ministers would start talking directly with scientists, giving science a more prominent role in government and society. Well that’s the idea.

Is such a deal, which even Sir Paul describes as "doing a deal with the devil", good for research and good for society?

Critics argue that the ending of the current structure – seven research councils – will see the loss of years of built up expertise and, more importantly, independence from government interference.

While an independent board is proposed to act as a buffer between the research community and ministers there are real concerns, already being voiced by the research community, that a new body based on these proposals would ultimately lead to the funding of pet projects favoured by more vocal ministers.

The science community needs to talk to ministers and if they are receiving money from the tax payer then any spending does need to be justified. Protecting science is crucial.

But do we want greater political control over where the UK’s limited funding for science goes? Even worse the proposed ‘super council’ would be run by a senior civil servant. Might they also direct research into their own preferred areas?

Anything that could lead to an erosion of a system that has led to the UK funding some of the best research in the world should be treated with extreme caution.