Bank transfer

Proud of his banking past, Alan Gillespie, the Government's choice to lead the ESRC, says research must be relevant

May 21, 2009

A former banker looks set to chair the Economic and Social Research Council after MPs said he was suitable for the role.

Alan Gillespie, a banker with 30 years' experience, is the Government's preferred candidate for the post, which was vacated last September when Lord Turner left to become chairman of the Financial Services Authority.

Last week, he was publicly vetted by MPs on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, the first "pre-appointment" conducted since the Government announced last June that it would subject more candidates to parliamentary scrutiny before offering positions, including research council chairs.

During the hearing, Dr Gillespie told MPs that he was attracted to the job because he "believed deeply" in the role of research, but would probably not have applied if a job at Alliance & Leicester bank had not fallen through.

Dr Gillespie was appointed chair of Alliance & Leicester last year, but the role did not materialise because the firm was taken over by Spain's Santander Group at the height of the banking crisis. From 2001 to 2008, he was chair of the Ulster Bank Group, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Prior to that he spent 14 years as a partner and managing director of Goldman Sachs.

Dr Gillespie told MPs: "I am still proud to say I have been a banker for 30 years, even if the profession is somewhat discredited."

Throughout the hearing, he stressed the importance of economically and socially relevant research. He acknowledged the importance of blue-skies study, but said it needed to be balanced with research capable of informing society and "scratching where we itch" as a nation.

"My burden for the future would be that the ESRC has got to fund research that is addressing the questions facing our nation today and relevant to where we are now," he said, stressing that the council must draw future research themes from the financial crisis.

He added that in the past, the UK's financial sector had taken advice from the City rather than the academy. As a result, relevant academic research had not seen the light of day. "We need to encourage a better distribution of (ESRC research) findings," he said.

MPs expressed astonishment that neither academics nor the banking sector had seen the crisis coming. Dr Gillespie said that questions about what had happened were on everybody's minds. "We need to understand how it happened and unpack that analytically as a basis for ... research," he said.

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