A Times interview with the Paul Nurse, the newly nominated chief of the Royal Society, raised a few eyebrows in our news meeting this morning. Nurse, a Nobel-Prize-winning microbiologist and current head of the Rockefeller University in New York City, is known as an outspoken individual, but his recent nomination to be the next president of the Royal Society in the UK gives his words some extra weight.
In the interview (conducted before his nomination was made public) Nurse called for a rethink of how the UK funds research. “Much of the work is worthy but the question is, do we have enough at that top end who make real discoveries? Are we attracting enough people there, and are we resourcing them enough?,” he asked rhetorically.
The questions are especially important because the UK’s scientific enterprise is at a somewhat critical junction. After a decade of sustained growth it looks set for, at best, a flat budget, and far more likely is the possibility of cuts. From the interview it seems pretty clear that Nurse believes those cuts shouldn’t come out of the hides of the people he sees as “very, very good”, by which one assume he means the Nobel-Prize-winning types.
On the other hand, Nurse seems open, even positive, about the possibility of slicing out some of the flab from UK science. Interestingly, for him that includes senior researchers who are no longer pulling their weight (maybe some of whom are members of the Royal Society):
You need a combination of special systems that attract and support those who are excellent, and rigorous reviews so that when they cease to be excellent, as many often are, they don’t just hang on to those resources … they can fit into the more general system.
Nurse’s views are more than just a passing point of interest. After the election, the new government, whatever form it takes, will likely create an emergency budget that could include some serious cuts for science. Just how those cuts play out at the Research Councils is up to Adrian Smith, the director general for science and research at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, but Smith will be making his decisions based on input from a number of organizations. At the top of the list is the Royal Society.