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

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

By Matt Foster

02 Feb 2017

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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