The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has appointed its first chief scientist in more than six and a half years.
Alan Penn, a professor in architectural and urban computing at University College London, has been appointed to fill the role, which has been vacant since the communities department’s last CSA stepped down in late 2013.
Penn will provide scientific and engineering expertise to the department on a range of policy areas and projects, including the Building Safety Programme that was set up following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.
Penn is also dean of UCL’s Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment – a position he will step down from when he takes up his MHCLG role.
His appointment comes more than a year after MHCLG first advertised for a chief scientist. The department reopened recruitment in November after the first round, which launched in May 2018, failed to attract any suitable candidates.
Sixteen scientists applied for the role in the November round. Responding to a Freedom of Information request from CSW, MHCLG said it shortlisted five candidates but only interviewed four before making a job offer, as one withdrew their application.
The department had interviewed four candidates in the previous recruitment cycle but none met the requirements for the role at interview, it said.
MHCLG has described the part-time position, which comes with a pro-rata salary of up to £120,000, as “one of the most senior and influential positions within the department”.
But the department has been heavily criticised since it emerged during an October 2017 Science and Technology Committee evidence hearing that it had employed no chief scientist in the years leading up to the Grenfell disaster. The vacancy had gone unnoticed up to that point as the then-Department for Communities and Local Government's chief statistician had been incorrectly listed as its chief scientist on the government’s website.
Committee chair Norman Lamb wrote to then-communities secretary Sajid Javid after the meeting telling him to make an appointment "as a matter of urgency".
Speaking to CSW in May, shadow science minister Chi Onwurah said the failure to make an appointment a year after recruitment opened demonstrated that MHCLG was either incompetent or an unattractive place to work.
"MHCLG has many scientific and engineering challenges, from the testing of flammable cladding to the planning permissions for mobile networks and the effective provision of local digital services. It is astounding that they have been unable to recruit anyone to fill the role of chief scientific adviser for a year now," the Newcastle Central MP said.
Commenting on the appointment, Sir Patrick Vallance, government chief scientific adviser and head of its science and engineering profession, said Penn was “an outstanding scientist and leading academic who will bring a wealth of knowledge and leadership experience to this vital role at a critical time”.
Penn said in a statement: “There has never been a more important time at which to bring evidence and analysis to inform the decisions that government must make as we work to decarbonise and build safe, thriving and inclusive communities.
“I am really looking forward to taking on the role of chief scientific adviser at MHCLG and helping to bring this about.”