Nurse review recommends harnessing a mythical beast

26 February 2016

In a piece originally appearing in Research Fortnight, our Head of Policy David Walker says Paul Nurse’s plan for the research councils lays out a crucial role for the research community. But it’s doubtful any such body exists. Read the full article below.

For a physicist or a biologist, an economist or a historian, identity is marked by belonging to a discipline. We are, to a considerable extent, what our peers think we are. Often this disciplinary being is reinforced by membership of a learned society or, for the very grand, fellowship of a national academy.

Some researchers extract an additional sense of identity from where they work, in a particular laboratory or department. Some—probably a minority—identify with the university that employs them, whether one of the Russell Group elite or a thrusting aspirant.

Many of us are lucky enough to have strong non-vocational reference points, through partner, family, place, hobby or team. But how far down the list must we go to find scientists and scholars identifying themselves with the research community? This thing issues no membership cards, convenes no meetings, sends out no bulletins and maintains no website.

Yet some people—especially Paul Nurse—believe profoundly that it exists and must now play a pivotal role in research governance. The Nurse review mentioned this fabulous beast some 29 times and prescribed in considerable detail its future role in making his recommendations work. For example, under Nurse’s plan the research community will “interact” more with the research councils as they come together under the proposed umbrella body of Research UK. It will discuss with this body the “strategy” for the UK’s research endeavour. Its “wisdom” will be harnessed.

There’s more. The research community has a “duty of care” towards the research councils, and they to the community. It is to be encouraged to contribute more to the councils’ work. It will have a new “interface”, its “strategic thinking” will be strengthened and through “greater engagement“ with senior policymakers it will demonstrate “in-depth knowledge and understanding of the research landscape in government”.

Nurse is betting a lot on the research community’s self-awareness and capacity for activism. But does it even exist?
Working in his own sphere of cell biology, Nurse would be careful about ascribing causes. He would make observations and attempt measurements. Away from the bench, different rules seem to apply.

If Nurse had asked, social scientists would have told him that community is a difficult concept—one they have struggled with since at least the 19th century, when the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies sought to distinguish it from society.

Defining a community, let alone ascribing powers of agency to it, is treacherous. But the word has a warm, cosy glow. It suggests people liking and doing things for one another, recognising shared values and interests.

The research community isn’t one, and not just because the sciences are internally divided—let alone the divides between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities. Community implies voice and a means of coming together to talk and agree.

Nurse says that he would like the research councils and, eventually, Research UK to reach out to the community. But it has no presence, outwith the obvious suspects of the Royal Society, British Academy, the other national academies and learned societies—and even these tend to be sectional or elitist. As for higher education, many professors say the “university community” is oxymoronic.

Nurse hints that the research councils themselves represent community interest, just as government departments act as the custodians of sectional interests such as farming or business. But this is a suggestion fraught with ambiguities. The Cabinet Office is clamping down on the lobbying of MPs and ministers by any body in receipt of public money. What will this do to Nurse’s call for engagement with policymakers and the research councils’ efforts to make a case for their communities?

Each research council deals with only part of the research in its discipline—this doesn’t just take place in universities. Even in universities, researchers are sometimes dismissive of ‘their’ research council, pointing to philanthropic and business support and, of course, to funding directly from the higher education funding councils.

Nurse talks of engagement, but relations between the research councils and practising researchers are often distant. In the social sciences, as elsewhere, only a minority commit to labyrinthine research council procedures and panels. Some council chiefs are peripatetic, often out and about talking to those on the front line; others occasionally visit a vice-chancellor and leave it at that.

Researchers are, in principle, a formidable body, a cornerstone of civilisation and highly important in economic advance. But as it stands they are a body without much corporeal existence and, despite Nurse’s belief, they are far from being a community.