Hunt for new government chief scientist as Sir Mark Walport picked to lead UKRI

Written by Matt Foster on 2 February 2017 in News

Walport will serve as sole accounting officer for the powerful new research funding umbrella body

The government's top scientist, Sir Mark Walport, has been named as the first chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, the powerful new umbrella body which will oversee the work of Britain's research councils.

Walport has served as the government chief scientific adviser and head of the Government Office for Science since April 2013, providing scientific advice to the prime minister and her cabinet as well as leading the civil service's science and engineering profession.

He was drafted into Whitehall after a decade as director of the major medical research charity the Wellcome Trust, and is set to take up post at UKRI from April 2018, subject to the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill.

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The latest appointment will put Walport in charge of a major shake-up of the way the more-than-£6bn-a-year in public research funding is allocated in Britain.

Under the recommendations of the 2015 Nurse Review, the current loose strategic partnership of the UK's seven research councils – which cover areas including medical research, arts and humanities, and economic and social research – is to be brought under the formal umbrella of UKRI.

Although the Nurse review stressed that UKRI should not be seen as a single research council, with each existing organisation council maintaining its own identity, it is being established to oversee and co-ordinate their work, meaning the new body's chief executive will wield significant influence.

Walport will serve as the sole accounting officer for UKRI, making him directly accountable to parliament for public research funding.

A BEIS spokesperson confirmed to CSW that recruitment for a new chief scientific adviser is to begin shortly, stressing the need for continuity in the government's top science role.

A spokesperson added: “The need for high quality science and evidence for policy has never been stronger. Science remains critical to society and the economy and it is very important that we ensure we have continuity in the GCSA role as we go through this very busy phase. 

"We envisage a graded transition process during which time Sir Mark can call upon his network of expert departmental chief scientific advisers until a full time replacement is appointed.”

Announcing the appointment, science minister Jo Johnson said he was "delighted" that Walport had "agreed to take on this pivotal role".

"With his experience of running a large scale research organisation, collaboration with businesses in all sectors and his work at the heart of government, Mark is uniquely placed to lead the establishment of UKRI and ensure the organisation becomes a major voice for UK research and innovation," Johnson said.

Walport said he aimed to make the UKRI "the world’s leading research and innovation public funding agency".

He added: "I look forward to working closely with the Research Councils, Innovate UK and Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as we work together to create UKRI.

"I also look forward to working closely with all of our research and innovation communities to provide a strong and coherent voice for UK science and innovation."

Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, meanwhile described the appointment of Walport as "excellent news", pointing to his "broad experience" at both the Wellcome Trust and as chief scientific adviser.

But he added: "Mark should also be well placed to address the concerns of the science community about ensuring that establishing UKRI causes minimal disruption to an already highly efficient research ecosystem and protects the autonomy of the individual Research Councils."

Walport will be working closely with former Treasury second permanent John Kingman at UKRI. The former second-in-command at the finance ministry was last year appointed as non-executive chair of the new body.

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is CSW's deputy editor. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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Submitted on 2 February, 2017 - 12:01
If the need for high quality science and evidence for policy has never been stronger in the Civil Service, then how is British research and technology supposed to attract young, technically-literate people into its fold when the real world they go into will require them to act in an unprofessional manner? In a report released last year, the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons accused the Ministry of Defence of using creative accounting practices to meet its NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP. What is less well known about MoD’s use of such under-hand tactics is that, it was the first to pioneer application of the wet-finger-in-the-air technique in the designing of military kit – more specifically, the most important aspect of defence equipment – its inherent reliability – which is an indicator of how frequently it will break-down when in service with the User, and therefore its cost of upkeep subsequently, through-life. The main reason why MoD Abbey Wood has failed to build-in desired levels of reliability into diligently engineered products is because Defence Contractors have been using the thoroughly unprofessional, wet-finger-in-the-air technique of ‘divvying up’ the given MTBF (mean time between failures) figure among lower-level Maintenance Significant Items – instead of employing the best practice method of determining overall system reliability ‘bottom up’ using measured failure rate figures (not predicted or estimated) derived from an up-to-date, Microsoft Access based 4th Line data repository. And from whom did Contractors’ people learn this method of quantifying equipment reliability? Why, none other than from the MoD! To be precise, the famous here-today-gone-tomorrow procurement officials who have been freely applying this wet-finger-in-the-air technique during their short stay at MoD Abbey Wood before migrating to the Defence Industry, in overwhelming numbers, and infecting it by continuing to spread this lazy practice – which has, over the years, become regularised and embedded in commercial & engineering processes to the extent that objective, evidence-based scientific analysis and thinking which has exercised technically-literate people since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has been suppressed. This disastrous situation has come about because 99% of people who end-up working in the Defence Industry were previously in the pay of the State – with no prior Private Sector experience. It should come as no surprise to MoD that all competing bids appear to be fully compliant with the reliability requirement claiming the same level of achievement, a figure slightly higher than that stated in the technical specification – thereby denying Abbey Wood Team Leader the opportunity to discriminate between Technical Solutions on the basis of inherent reliability. So, instead of acting as a responsible great Department of State and instilling professional values in its loyal employees, the Ministry of Defence has ended up doing the exact opposite! It has made a mockery and laughing stock of the engineering profession – as practiced in the UK – especially in the eyes of European competitor nations, the United States and potential export governments in the Arabian Gulf region, the wider Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and emerging nations in the Asia-Pacific region – where the engineering profession is still regarded in high esteem, and remains an automatic career choice for many young people. @JagPatel3 on twitter

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