The Nurse Review


Setting out a path to the future

Sir Paul Nurse

Sir Paul Nurse OM CH FRS is Director of the Francis Crick Institute, London. A geneticist and cell biologist who works on how the eukaryotic cell cycle is controlled, his major work has been on the cyclin-dependent protein kinases and how they regulate cell reproduction. He is Chancellor of the University of Bristol and has served as President of the Royal Society, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK and President of Rockefeller University. He shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


  • There are significant concerns about current UK activity in Research, Development and Innovation (RDI)
  • We should build on current structures – ‘revolution through evolution’
  • UK investment is well below the OECD average
  • More focus needs to be placed on full funding costs
  • Permeability between different research institutes should be increased.

Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) is crucial for the UK. It is an essential driver of productivity, sustainable economic growth, strategic benefit, as well as improvements in the quality of our lives and environment. It is not just concerned with science but rather with making the UK a successful country.

The review1 identified significant problems about the UK RDI endeavour, some longstanding and serious. It also proposes ways of fixing those problems rather than announcing new projects. It makes 29 recommendations, which need to be considered together. There are a whole range of actions that flow from this analysis.

I use the phrase ‘revolution through evolution’ because we should be building on the structures we have, rather than starting again with all the inherent instability that brings.


A key finding is that the UK Government underspends on both the research it performs (i.e. carries out within Departments) and supports (directly funds) when compared with comparator countries. This problem has been obscured by historically poor data collection which has hugely underestimated industrial spend and also the amount that universities themselves invest in research. The review team calculated that the R&D performed by the UK Government is 0.12% which is half of the OECD average of 0.26%.

R&D funded by UK Government amounts to 0.46% of GDP, which puts the UK 27th of the 36 OECD nations, where the average is 0.6%. In fact, the US, Germany, South Korea spend 0.7-1.0%. So, the inescapable conclusion is that the UK needs to invest more in RDI. Further, that investment needs to be embedded in a stable policy environment.

RDI investment by the Government should also be better delivered. In the past, there has been too much emphasis on just the direct costs of programmes, with insufficient attention to complete ‘end to end funding’. The latter includes boring things like administration: the lack of admin support means trivial tasks are given to researchers, distracting them from their main tasks and so wasting money. Sophisticated technical facilities need to be communally available, rather than only found in those labs that attract the highest direct funding. There has to be more of a focus on covering the full funding costs.


The diversity of our research organisations needs to be examined and, indeed, increased. The UK RDI landscape is complex. There are: universities; public sector research establishments (PSREs); research institutes and units; industry; as well as a whole gamut of other components such as academies, museums, translational institutions and the like.

Over the past 30 years, research carried out in universities and industry has grown while the proportion carried out in PSREs, institutes and other units supported by Government has dramatically shrunk: this is now just one-third of the figure three decades ago. Some 80% of non-business R&D is concentrated in universities in UK, compared with 45-60% in other countries. Our universities are generally very good and highly competitive on the international stage. While they do need continuing support, so too do PSREs, institutes and research units.

PSREs not only carry out discovery research, they provide a national infrastructure for RDI technical services, developing regulatory standards, providing sovereign expertise as well as emergency responses: these are not areas that universities are specialists at delivering. Institutes and research units offer a dedicated laser focus on the research mission and are very attractive to the highest quality researchers. Our best institutes and units are prominent on the world stage.

So there needs to be a review of whether we have the right balance in total spend between different research-performing organisations (RPOs) while at the same time defending the universities. It needs an expanded budget.


Further, there needs to be increased knowledge of – and permeability between – the full range of RPOs in the UK’s RDI landscape. Not only is the landscape complex and difficult to navigate, it is highly siloed. Knowledge transfer between the sectors is low. Better understanding and knowledge about those sectors is required to allow effective navigation through that landscape. Finances and capabilities of the different elements must be accurately and regularly reported: without decent data it is not possible to make decent policy. Improved knowledge of the linkages will promote permeability of ideas, technologies and people between industry and academia.

Universities, too, could have a special role in increasing permeability, as happens in the US where some universities provide services to local industry and communities for relevant research. So, in the UK, if you have a company in, say, Middlesbrough and they know there is relevant research happening in Bristol, they should be able to connect to it.

This may be an obvious point, but unnecessary and excessive bureaucracy must be reduced: we need to run the system better. I believe UKRI has a part to play in reducing bureaucracy and defending the Research Councils from restrictive Government and Treasury rules and regulations. The role of UKRI is to defend – and enhance – our research endeavour.


Talent is critical to successful RDI. We need to train talent – and particularly homegrown talent – at all levels, from technicians and lab assistants right through to research professors: they all have much to contribute. There needs to be more permeability across the different RDI sectors – many people in universities are just not aware of PSREs and the opportunities they offer. In addition, early career researchers, technicians, graduate students, postdocs, researchers, etc, need better employment conditions and further training to help them do their jobs more effectively.

We must have effective international RDI arrangements. Central to this is association with Horizon Europe. EU researchers are by far the largest group with which UK researchers interact and collaborate. Over the past 40 years, we have built up a complex arrangement of networks and contacts. Enhanced engagement has almost universal support across the research endeavour. There are three main groupings of science in the world, North America, Asia (particularly based on China) and Europe. We cannot build something separate all by ourselves. However, leadership is needed to get us into that European grouping.

While we are considering the international nature of RDI, it is also obvious that we need to attract and retain international talent. We have to ensure that the UK is an attractive place to do research.

A blueprint

The recommendations in the review provide a blueprint for the revolution that I believe we need. But there are some relatively inexpensive actions that can be carried out immediately. Financial sustainability is an issue, for example, through Full Economic Costing, QR and also direct grants. The Government, working with UKRI and others, should establish a planning and implementation group to see how to deliver this in practice.

The review identified significant problems in the running of PSREs. They require mission clarity, permeability, agility and funding. A major problem is quite simply Government restrictions – on how they operate, in their planning and implementation, and the salaries they can pay.

The review also found that a number of recently-established institutes – Rosalind Franklin, Alan Turing, Henry Royce, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and others – are not working effectively. Primarily, they were not set up with the right budgets, nor the right governance. They should all be overhauled within the next year to identify how to make them work properly.

A significant issue with healthcare RDI is the excessive pressure on clinical researchers due to their NHS duties. This is damaging medical research in the UK and needs to be corrected.

We do not yet understand RDI well enough in general and need effective mapping across the country and across all disciplines. Without information, we cannot deliver it.

These are examples of what can be done fairly inexpensively, although there are more expensive challenges ahead as well. But we should remember we are currently investing much less than most of our competitors in the OECD.