Paul Nurse’s Utopianism

Paul Nurse’s report on the research councils, Ensuring a Successful UK Research Endeavour, has left some readers bemused. It doesn’t adhere to the conventions of its apparent genre: no executive summary, no tables, very few references, and a personal voice guiding the reader throughout. As I read it – in my first ever blog-post with an embedded play-list – Nurse’s report is a form of utopian discourse.

 

Research UK: total control over you

Most official reports need at least a modicum of utopianism, to the extent that they are required to identify problems and seek solutions. But few betray the burning idealism of Nurse. ‘Science,’ he writes, ‘is a high calling in the pursuit of truth that needs to be pursued in a proper and ethical manner.’ Looking back to the ‘new science’ of the seventeenth century, he notes that ‘Francis Bacon argued that science improved learning and knowledge which “leads to the relief of man’s estate”’. Today, it promises solutions to our ‘grand challenges’.

The report is also profoundly idealistic in its assessment of how systems of research funding might be made to work. Nurse dreams of a world in which there is ‘effective dialogue’ between scientists, politicians and public. He dreams of a world in which universities exercise appropriate quality-control over grant applications, so that plunging success-rates do not render existing funding mechanisms untenable. He dreams of a world in which the best researchers provide intelligent peer reviews of grant applications, and funding panels operate consistently and provide ‘constructive feedback’ to applicants. He dreams of a world in which monitoring systems – even, yes, researchfish – work smoothly. He even dreams of a world in which the discourse of researchers is governed by ‘courtesy’. That’s right, courtesy.

These are noble goals. And yet, as Bacon’s contemporary William Shakespeare appreciated, there is another side to utopian discourse. In The Tempest, the dozy courtier Gonzalo displays his own courtesy by rehearsing a vision of a perfect state. His utopia will be devoid of property, hierarchy and laws, yet is predicated on his own status of ‘king’. As one of his companions notes, ‘The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning’.

The realization of Nurse’s vision may not collapse so utterly on a paradox, but it depends similarly on a benign magus: ‘a highly distinguished scientist, capable of delivering a managerially efficient organisation and of interacting effectively with Government’. This person will be head of ‘Research UK’: a new body built upon the existing structures of RCUK, but with more substance and resources. S/he will be the ‘Accounting Officer collectively for all the research councils’. S/he will also have a budget: funds ‘needed to respond effectively to epidemics, volcanoes, flooding and earthquakes for example’.

So maybe that’s more Prospero than Gonzalo, watching over us with his impeccable map of research activity, and scanning the horizon for natural disasters. Nothing to worry about then, is there, Shakespeareans?

 

The truth about scientists

One question bound to be asked by those of us in the arts and humanities, or even the social sciences, goes along the lines: when is a scientist a scientist?

Nurse opens his report with a definition: ‘In this review the terms “research” and “science” are usually used in the context of the entire academic landscape, reflecting the Latin root, “scientia”, meaning knowledge’. That’s appropriately Baconian, taking us back to a time when the quest for knowledge barely recognized disciplinary borders. More pertinently, perhaps, it is aligned with the discourse of the national ‘science’ budget.

But what about that qualifier, ‘usually’? When might Nurse be using ‘science’ instead in its more common modern sense? When might his ‘scientist’, as a seeker of knowledge, actually be a scientist, as someone operating predominantly in the STEM disciplines?

I never have much time for ‘crisis of the humanities’ conspiracy theories. It’s also fair to say that as long as the AHRC accounts for (on my reading of 2015-16 figures) just 3.6% of the total research councils’ budget, we’re barely worth the fuss and bother of a robbery. But there is just enough ambiguity in the Nurse report to unnerve us. I’d bet the head of RUK will be, well, a scientist. And I’d expect the RUK budget – ditto the (related?) ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ – to be weighted heavily towards the, let’s say, sciences. This is not the disaster for non-STEM that it might have been, but any humanities researcher will be bound to point out that signs – like words, usually – matter.

 

A Little Green

The Green Paper also had at least one utopian moment. It said, in its slim chapter on research funding: ‘Our ambition is to reduce bureaucracy and release our scientific and research leaders from administrative burdens as far as possible.’ More specifically, it targeted REF preparations: ‘We must also address the “industries” that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours.’

Absolutely: far too much resource is being devoted to the management of research (and impact), which could better be spent on the thing itself. But I have two questions. Firstly, how do they think they’re going to stop us? Unless (and here’s an interesting thought) someone finds a way of altering the system so as to negate such activities, they will surely remain responsible management by another name.

Secondly, can Nurse help with this agenda? As I read his report, the thought has barely entered his mind. Indeed his desire for a thorough ‘mapping [of] the UK research landscape’, and commitment to fixing the imperfections of grant-awarding systems suggests the contrary. Bureaucracy, for Nurse, is not a dirty word.

 

There’s a lot to like about Paul Nurse’s idealism and advocacy of researchers. Maybe this is one reason why commentary on the report has been slight: there’s not much to get grumpy about. But utopianism is an unreliable foundation for policy. In all of the 499 years since Thomas More published Utopia, I’m not aware of a single example of utopian discourse producing a utopian state.

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