Astrophysicist appointed next Foreign Office chief scientific adviser

Carole Mundell is the first departmental science adviser to be appointed since Patrick Vallance became government chief scientific adviser in April

Photo: PA

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has appointed a leading astrophysicist and advocate for diversity in science as its top science adviser.

Carole Mundell, the head of physics at the University of Bath and a professor of extragalactic astronomy, will be formally announced in the role tomorrow and will become only the second permanent female chief scientific adviser now in Whitehall when she takes up the post.

Mundell's research has been instrumental in advancing understanding of gamma-ray bursts – explosions observed in distant galaxies. Before joining the University of Bath she led an international team of researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, and has spent time at Jodrell Bank and the University of Maryland in the United States.


As chief scientific adviser to the FCO, Mundell will be responsible for using science to further the UK's foreign policy interests and representing the country's science base overseas. She will work to build international cooperation to address challenges such as ocean conservation, patient safety and antimicrobial resistance. 

She has contributed scientific expertise to policy development, been involved in allocating national and European research funding and overseen national and international astronomical facilities. She sits on the board of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which distributes funding as part of the non-departmental body UK Research and Innovation.

Mundell is the first departmental science adviser to be appointed since Patrick Vallance took up his post as government chief scientific adviser in April. In June, Vallance told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that ensuring every department was equipped with a qualified adviser was one of his top priorities, and that he expected to be involved at every stage of recruitment. He also stressed his commitment to improving the diversity of the government science and engineering profession.

Congratulating Mundell, Vallance said she "brings with her a wealth of experience and will be a real asset to the FCO, helping build international science cooperation to take on some of the global challenges we face such as antimicrobial resistance and girls' education".

Norman Lamb, the head of the Science and Technology Select Committee, told CSW that the appointment "demonstrates a seriousness of intent" on Vallance's part that he will deliver on his promises to fill gaps in the network and make it more diverse. He said it was "a bit of a break from the past, because that hasn’t been treated ultimately as a priority".

"It seems very positive; that Vallance has appointed a woman with Mundell's interests and expertise is to be welcomed," Lamb said.

The other permanent female chief scientific adviser in Whitehall is epidemiologist Charlotte Watts at the Department for International Development. In Scotland, physics and astronomy professor Sheila Rowan is chief scientific adviser to the Holyrood government.

Mundell is an outspoken advocate for diversity in her field, and has called on universities to improve conditions for female students and staff by doing more to tackle sexual misconduct. She was a whistleblower in a case in which a colleague was accused of harassing one of her students, and has supported the work of the 1752 Group, which aims to end sexual misconduct in higher education.

In 2016, she was named woman of the year in the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards, which celebrate the contributions of woman in technology

Mundell is the third chief scientific adviser at the department since the role was created in 2009. She succeeds Robin Grimes, a professor of materials physics, who stepped down in August after five years to become Ministry of Defence chief scientific adviser on nuclear science and technology.

A number of gaps remain in the network. The Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are among the departments now recruiting for a science adviser.

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