Nurse Review of Research Councils

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The full Call for Evidence (PDF) outlines the goal of this consultation. Various entities have been asked to respond, including BioImagingUK.

Q1 Strategic decision making

Views are invited on how funding decisions are made; how society and government can engage with science funding decisions; how good decision making can be encouraged at different levels; and how Research Councils can make the best decisions to ensure research drives economic growth and promotes health, quality of life and environmental sustainability.


RCUK-funded research continues to deliver world-class outputs— high-impact publications and demonstrable societal and economic impacts. These outputs are final, individual measures of a much larger ecosystem of funders, universities, institutes, industrial entities, scientists, students, and publishers.

There is a natural and understandable desire to maximise the efficiency and impact of all activities of the scientific enterprise for the good of the society. Regarding RCUK's activities it is worth defining the methods for making the best decisions that will have the largest impact. Currently this goal is achieved using two devices:

  1. a full range of consultations, advisory boards and other community sampling is used by all RCs to identify strategic priorities and opportunities. For example, the BioImagingUK Network uses a "bottom-up", community-based approach to define strategic priorities for biological and medical imaging in the UK. We gather ideas and feedback from our community of scientists, coalesce them into documents (like this one) and publish them on a public wiki. In addition, many of BioImagingUK’s participants actively participate on advisory and/or review panels for BBSRC, MRC and EPSRC.
  2. Competitive peer-review of all research proposals and all other funding requests is used to deliver the quality and output achieved by the UK scientific enterprise to date.

In BioImagingUK’s experience, engagement with RCs has worked especially well. By collecting community feedback and strategic priorities and presenting them in a coherent voice, we have found BBSRC, MRC and EPSRC especially willing to listen to and engage with community defined priorities.

From BioImagingUK’s perspective, the decision making processes in RCUK can be largely be described as “ain’t broke”, and are thus not in need of “fixing”. In general, the willingness of the RCs to engage with and support communities like BioImagingUK are great examples of a functioning, constructive process for defining strategic priorities.

Against this background, the following issues have been identified by the BioImagingUK community for future consideration.

  1. The correct priority for social and economic impact across the full portfolio of UK science should be considered. Currently, every individual RCUK grant must justify itself within this context at peer and panel review and these statements are used for defining funding priority. The portfolio of UK science must deliver social and economic impact, but requiring every individual project to meet this requirement risks depleting the repertoire of basic, question-driven exploration that are the foundation of more applied and directed work. There is not a known, fixed, proportion of basic, question-driven science that provides a sufficient number discoveries to fuel the UK's social and economic needs. However, proposals could use an alternate designation to identify themselves as basic research. If held up to the normal, correct requirement for scientific excellence, this class of work might successfully be funded at the proportion necessary to maintain the UK's pipeline of basic innovation and discovery.
  2. Investment in small-scale and mid-range facilities within institutions is crucial to the health of the national research base as it supports core underpinning research infrastructure (see BioImagingUK’s Strategy Meeting Report for more info; Funding of equipment should also take into account the training and staff costs required to use the equipment effectively. Research Councils could consider longer term strategies for sustaining advanced instrumentation capabilities such as leasing, or purchasing modular equipment, in order to avoid needing to replace entire instruments every 3-5 years to stay competitive in rapidly evolving sectors. This could enable a wider user base to enjoy the highest specifications, although it should be noted that it may require users to have sufficient expertise to make modifications and upgrades.
  3. The independence of the Research Councils from politically driven decision-making is essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the UK research base and its international competitiveness. It may be helpful to create an RCUK-level expert advisory committee with senior academic representation to advise on how the overall RCUK budget should be split between the different Research Councils rather than having different Research Councils directly competing for resource from Government.

Q2: Collaborations and partnerships

Views are invited on the effectiveness of the Research Councils’ interactions with each other and with external organisations, as well as the Research Councils’ role in supporting collaborations and partnerships between institutions and between disciplines, and the links between Research Council funded activities and other academic, industrial, European and global R&D activities.

Answer: From our response to the BBSRC/MRC/EPSRC Technology Touches Life Consultation:

"The current drive for interdisciplinary science is laudable and correctly recognizes the need to bring expertise from many different domains together to achieve progress on strategic goals important for science and society. However the current career and recognition models derive from the now outdated need for an individual scientist to prove his or her own success for career progression, recognition and reward. While it is possible to bring scientists from different domains with different recognition and career progression mechanisms together, merely pretending these will combine and easily meld together is naive. There are examples where true cross-disciplinary collaboration has occurred and the normal academic career progression has been discarded. One notable positive example is the Allen Brain Institute ( where engineers, biologists, and informaticians have collaborated to build (over a 12 year timescale, a timeline that stretches long past conventional project horizons) the Allen Brain Atlas, a resource that now is becoming the foundation for the development of new scientific discoveries in neuroscience. One notable aspect of the Allen's work is that career progression and success for the Allen Insititute’s scientists are solely based on their contribution to the Allen Brain Institute’s mission and not their individual publication record, citation statistics, etc. Thus they are measured based on their contribution to the interdisciplinary project, not what part of the project they have somehow retained or branded for themselves. One message from this story is that large interdisciplinary teams that retain a focus on individual success may not be able to achieve the scale of accomplishment, discovery and contribution they might otherwise simply because the individual team members have to focus on their own progression and success."

Q3: Balance of the funding portfolio

Views are invited on the Research Councils’ role in delivering an appropriately balanced portfolio of investments in science in the UK, taking into account factors such as government priorities/grand challenges, discovery and applied research, and geographical distribution.


Organisation of the RCs: The current division of subjects between the Research Councils is appropriate. Any reorganisation of the current structure of the seven Research Councils at this time would waste a substantial amount of resource, and cause substantial disruption, without providing any significant benefit. Indeed, one benefit of having multiple Research Councils is that interdisciplinary topics can be considered from multiple perspectives.

Research Portfolio Balance: In the UK, there has been a substantial shift away from project-level funding, towards “personal” and “strategic” awards. The goals of these newer mechanisms are to enable larger more ambitious scientific projects and to recognise affective proven scientific leaders with long-term funding. As powerful as these mechanisms have been they have caused a major realignment in funding of science in the UK. Project driven science— traditionally the work funded by project and programme grants— has been substantially cut in favor of these more “strategic" investments. The inevitable affect will be the loss of the initial discovery and development that are the foundation of the larger strategic investments that are now being funded. Moreover young investigators or those early stage discoveries that form the basis of larger strategic collaborations are being choked off. This transition is predictable. Significant shifts in investment where total available funds are at best constant or in practice decreasing will naturally choke off important discoveries. Limited funding combined with shifts in strategic priorities has meant that important basic discoveries, in particular the scientific progress that feeds the next strategic priorities will not occur.

From the perspective of BioImagingUK the infrastructure and capabilities that have been funded through various strategic investments by BBSRC, MRC and EPSRC will progressively be used less and be accessed by a decreasing cohort of scientists and projects. A predictable outcome is therefore a slow decline in the hardware and intellectual infrastructure that underpins scientific discovery, and ultimately UK economic growth and competitiveness on the world stage.

For these reasons a rebalancing of the priorities of project-driven versus the strategic and personal awards must be considered.

Q4: Effective ways of working

Views are invited on how the Research Councils can operate most effectively within the wider science and innovation system, recognising what works well and identifying opportunities for improvements. You may wish to consider issues such as the strategic leadership provided by the Research Councils, how Research Councils engage with their communities, and the operation of the peer review system.


Research Council grants are often too short-term to be fully effective. 2-3 year grants do not help with planning for long-term research goals and highly skilled individuals trained during such grant periods often leave when the grant comes to an end. A better approach in some research areas would be to run longer funding cycles (c. 5-10 years), with regular in-project reviews and to review career paths for excellent enabling researchers who support high level instrumentation and capabilities over the long term.

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