Why didn't council appoint architect of programme?

April 7, 2000

Some social scientists fear that their own research council, the ESRC, is becoming a lap dog to new Labour.

For James Mitchell, professor of politics at Sheffield University, this tendency is epitomised by the recent appointment of a director to the council's specialist research programme on devolution.

The council initially commissioned Iain McLean at Nuffield College, Oxford to draw up the programme specifications. When headhunters approached Mitchell about the post of director, he declined, knowing McLean was the obvious choice.

It therefore came as quite a shock when McLean not only failed to make the shortlist for the directorship (which went to Birmingham's Charles Jeffery, a specialist in German federalism), but also failed to get shortlisted to run a project under the programme.

Some believe McLean was excluded because of his anti-devolution views. But that is a suspicion vigorously rejected by ESRC spokesperson Cathy Ham:

"That is nonsense. The right person was chosen for the job and was chosen for his academic pedigree and standing. There was no government interference. The ESRC is an independent organisation and we guard that independence."

Mitchell says that when he was approached about the post, it was made clear that the successful candidate would be "value free". However, Mitchell says: "Iain's views do not mean he would not have made a good director. The ESRC didn't want to upset the government."

Brendan O'Leary of the LSE says: "There have been rumours that McLean was not considered because he is a Scottish unionist. If that is so, it would be inappropriate."

McLean declined to comment.

Correction
We have been asked by Professor James Mitchell to point out that he does not, as we implied (THES, April 7 2000), think the appointment of the director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s devolution and constitutional change programme epitomises a tendency for the ESRC to become a lap-dog to new Labour.

14th April 2000

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