Paul Nurse, a Nobel-prize-winning geneticist and the president of London's Royal Society, led the review into the UK”s funding agencies. Credit: Mark Chilvers/REX Shutterstock

A tensely-awaited report into the future of the UK’s major research funding agencies has not recommended that they be merged — an outcome that some scientists had feared. But its proposals would still lead to a shakeup in the UK funding landscape.

A powerful new umbrella organization called Research UK should be created to manage the agencies, suggests the review — with an experienced researcher at its head who would become one of the UK’s most influential scientists.

There had been widespread speculation that Nobel-prizewinning geneticist Paul Nurse, who led the review, might recommend a wholesale merger for the agencies, which are called research councils and distribute some £3 billion of government research funding each year to separate disciplines (see 'The UK's research councils').

Table 7.31609 The UK's research councils

But Nurse’s review, released on 19 November, has stopped short of that idea. Although the agencies already have an umbrella group — Research Councils UK — Nurse wants Research UK to have more power. Its head would in effect be the boss of the heads of the seven discipline-based councils.

“It’s going to be a very major post,” says Nurse, who says the new body is needed to provide strong management, remove bureaucracy, and – he suggests – to facilitate discussions with government about redistributing the balance of funding among the seven agencies. He has also proposed that some money allocated to the existing agencies should be combined into a new fund to support interdisciplinary research, although he did not suggest an amount.

Science minister Jo Johnson said the Government would “carefully consider the proposal to establish Research UK”.

Nurse’s prescription

The Nurse Review — as it has come to be known — was conducted at a tricky time, says James Wilsdon, a science-policy expert at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.

Earlier this month the government proposed abolishing another body — the Higher Education Funding Council for England — which distributes £1.6 billion of government money directly to universities, among other functions. (Nurse suggests distributing this money could fall to the new Research UK body.)

And next week, researchers are awaiting a huge review of government spending which some fear could see science budgets fall in line with a government pledge to cut public spending. As the government also wants to cut the number of public bodies, a merger of the nation’s funding agencies was not out of the question, although Nurse has avoided it.

“He’s tried to tread a careful line of merging but not merging [the research councils]. Perhaps that was the most deft line that could be trod,” says Wilsdon.

But he adds that if the new interdisciplinary fund comes from existing budgets, that will reduce the amount of money available for research spending.

“To my mind it’s effectively a recommendation for a merger in all but name — and not just administratively but strategically, to be led by a powerful senior scientist figure,” says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy researcher at the University of Manchester.

Flanagan says researchers who would be concerned about a full-blown merger — those not doing large, well-funded projects and those in the social sciences and humanities — should be equally concerned about the Nurse recommendations.

For his part, however, Nurse says he hopes most researchers will not notice any difference under the new set up. “I hope they wouldn’t on the whole," he says, "because the research councils are working as they are, except maybe there can be certain improvements.”

Nurse also recommends that the research councils form closer links to both business and government, and suggests the formation of a new committee of government ministers to co-ordinate thinking on science. “If we don’t get closer to government we’ll see the budget for science just drivel away. They are our political masters, they are elected by society, we have to engage them,” he says.