The government has been urged to clarify the role of Sir Mark Walport, its chief scientific adviser, amid suggestions that he is seeking greater authority over the £4.6 billion research budget and may be pushing for major changes to the way science is funded.
The recently announced review of the research councils is seen by many in the sector as having been instigated by Sir Mark, who is said to be close to the chancellor, George Osborne, and keen to seek an expanded remit beyond the traditional one of scientific guidance.
That news comes as stewardship of research policy in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has been weakened by a series of departures among senior civil servants. And Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, is described by some as being “part time” owing to his additional brief as cities minister in the Cabinet Office.
Sources suggest that Sir Mark’s aims could include a shift in the balance of funding towards big research institutes that can be “announced or re-announced” by government. That approach could mean greater direction of funding towards the operation of big national assets such as the Francis Crick Institute in London and away from existing funding for universities.
‘He’s not a Bond villain’
Others caution against seeing Sir Mark, who came to government from a powerful role in charge of the Wellcome Trust, as the equivalent of a “Bond villain pursuing world domination” – and say that he could be viewed as providing leadership for science in a politically risky period when BIS has lost experience.
The review of the research councils is to be led by Sir Paul Nurse and was announced in December. The announcement came just months after the triennial review of the research councils reported in April and offered no recommendations for major change beyond calling for a review of structures to support interdisciplinary research.
Some believe that the Nurse review may pave the way towards mergers between the councils, or even to the creation of a single funder for research with the loss of the dual support system, in which, in addition to income from research councils, quality-related funding is given directly to universities.
The loss of the QR funding stream would hurt humanities and social sciences research in particular, while universities would also fear damage to their ability to plan research strategies as distinct from reliance on individual grants.
Sir John O’Reilly, who leaves his post as director-general for knowledge and innovation in BIS this month, is said to have told vice-chancellors at a recent Universities UK meeting that ensuring the survival of the dual support system was a major issue facing the sector.
Other sources believe there is little prospect of the dual support system being scrapped, but suggest that the Nurse review could prove to be a big issue after the general election.
It is thought that there have been discussions with BIS about what might happen if a new government were to scrap the department. Under that scenario, the Department for Education would most likely take responsibility for higher education – but the new government would be searching for ideas as to who should be in charge of research funding.
The Nurse review is scheduled to report in the summer, after the election.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of newer universities, said: “It would be unfortunate if the future of government science policy was concentrated in the hands of one person.
“Ministers now need to clarify the extent of the involvement of the chief scientific adviser in the development of policy and funding regimes which have a direct impact on universities and BIS, the government department which is actually responsible for this.”
Geoff Rodgers, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at Brunel University London, questioned the timing of another review of the research councils so soon after the last one. “It does seem a bit strange,” he said. “It isn’t clear what outcome is expected or indeed what motivates it. And it’s a rather unusual time to be doing it…it being rather close to the election. That does make one wonder what is driving it.”
A spokeswoman for the Government Office for Science said: “The Nurse review has been instigated at the request of ministers. As chief scientific adviser to the government it is common for ministers to seek Sir Mark’s views as part of informing their deliberations on scientific matters.”
The review “will look at how councils can evolve to support research in the most effective ways by drawing on a range of evidence”, she added.