Paul Nurse

Source: © Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute, Paul Nurse, has delivered his eagerly awaited report on UK science that was commissioned in 2021

Research, development and innovation (RDI) in the UK is ‘under threat’ because successive governments have underinvested, according to an independent review. It makes a range of recommendations, which, if adopted together, provide a blueprint for government to make the UK a genuine science superpower. The government needs to increase investment, reduce policy volatility, and improve how the UK delivers and supports research.

The review was conducted by Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, and was commissioned by the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2021. In it, Nurse urges the government to take a long-term, consistent and systematic approach to safeguarding the RDI landscape, improving the research lanscape and good data collection. Nurse believes his review provides a guide to the necessary reforms. ‘It is all deliverable, but requires political leadership, researcher engagement, and support across all disciplines from the sciences to the arts and humanities, and critically, adequate funding similar to competitive research-intensive nations throughout the world,’ he writes.

Total UK investment in R&D lags behind commercially successful research-intensive nations such as South Korea, the US and Germany, whose research spend was 3.2–4.6% of GDP in 2019, compared with the UK’s 2.5%, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figures. UK government spending on domestic R&D is 0.46% of GDP, putting the UK in 27th place out of the 36 OECD nations where the average is 0.6%.

The review identifies 10 important attributes for a successful RDI landscape. These include financial sustainability, research quality and agility, permeability between sectors, disciplines and organisations, and strong international collaboration. It also makes 29 recommendations such as reviewing funding mechanisms and public sector research enterprises, reforming or ending them where necessary.

Quick wins possible

Nurse concludes that there are several short-term measures that could be enacted quickly and deliver rapid returns. One of these is associating to Horizon Europe, which ‘given the improved relations and progress with the Northern Ireland protocol, now looks attainable’. Others include relaunching specific research institutes, such as the Rosalind Franklin and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, with better funding and proper independence. Pilot programmes in universities could also offer end-to-end funding in areas of research excellence, with pilot projects to test how best to link universities in disadvantaged areas to their local communities.

The government will set out a detailed response to Nurse’s recommendations in the coming months, but Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, has already indicated that she approves of testing different models of funding science, and working with industry and philanthropic partners.

‘The review provides a useful and comprehensive map of the problems facing the science and technology system showing all the complexities and oddities,’ says Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the Alliance Manchester Business School. ‘We have a world-class R&D system, but we are strong in some areas and weaker in others such as non-university research. Even in areas of strength, there are problems of sustainability because of the way they are funded. Nurse makes an important point, picked up by Michelle Donelan, that the UK should look at new forms of funding and institutional models, as we should be looking to experiment more and tolerate more variety.’

Flanagan says this review has enormous impact and authority, thanks to Nurse’s involvement. However, he notes that the policy recommendations are a ‘bit vague’. ‘To be fair, he is mapping out very hard, long-standing problems and you could argue that it is up to politicians to make policy.’

The review will, if implemented, re-energise the research landscape in the UK, said Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences. ‘We are pleased that this review, and the government’s science and technology framework, highlight that people are central to the research endeavour. [Nurse] rightly emphasises the need to encourage career path and skills diversity whilst promoting permeability across sectors.’

Julia Black, president of the British Academy, welcomed examples of interdisciplinarity drawn out in the review, such as the human impact of machines. ‘Working across disciplines allows the UK to solve complex local and global challenges,’ she says. ‘The review is clear that unhypothecated research funding [not linked to any specific scheme or initiative] is essential for all disciplines, in all environments. We are encouraged by the support for quality related funding, and the assertion that funding for RDI should be increased to allow the UK to compete with research-intensive nations.