Concerns raised over Sir Mark Walport’s new powers

Scientists have mixed reactions to announcement of UKRI leader

February 2, 2017
Sir Mark Walport
Source: Getty

Sir Mark Walport has been named the first chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, a new funding body that will oversee science spending.

Many scientists have responded to news of his appointment with warmth, but others have questioned the amount of power that he will have over the research base and his intentions for science in relation to Brexit.

Sir Mark, who was previously head of the Wellcome Trust, is currently the government’s chief scientific adviser.

It was in this role that he commissioned a review of the research councils that advocated for a single body to oversee the activities of all seven research councils, which led to the creation of UKRI.

The creation of UKRI is seen as a huge shake-up for UK science funding, as the research councils have been operating as separate legal entities. UKRI will bring these together under one body for the first time alongside Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange elements of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Some fear that this could lead to a greater political control of research.

Many responded positively to the announcement of Sir Mark’s new position. Philip Nelson, chair of Research Councils UK, said that he was a “fantastic choice” and that he was “confident” about what Sir Mark could deliver in the role.

David Sweeney, director of research, education and knowledge exchange at Hefce, said that Sir Mark was the “obvious person” for the role and “well qualified” for it.

Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, added that the appointment was “excellent news” and that Sir Mark was “well placed to address the concerns” that researchers may have about the autonomy of the individual research councils.

But others highlighted the power that Sir Mark now has over UK research.

Lord Rees of Ludlow, astronomer royal and a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, said that Sir Mark has been a “strong proponent of a more monolithic structure” for science funding. “He now finds himself holding that extremely powerful new position,” he said.

“One hopes that he will be mindful of the concerns about how this unwieldy conglomerate will operate, and the widespread view that the individual research councils should not be downgraded,” he added.

One researcher, who spoke to Times Higher Education on condition of anonymity, said that it would now be hard for people to speak out against Sir Mark given the supreme power he wields over UK research and his ability to make or break careers.

Meanwhile, Philippe Froguel, chair in genomic medicine at Imperial College London, claimed on Twitter that Sir Mark was in favour of the UK’s leaving Horizon 2020, Europe’s multibillion research and development funding programme, as part of Brexit.

Professor Froguel said he had heard that the government wanted tight control over the research that is funded in the UK.

Sir Mark has outlined his ambitions for his new role in an article for Times Higher Education, but he makes no mention of his thoughts about European research funding.

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute and author of the review that led to the creation of UKRI, said that the “very difficult problem of Brexit” was a significant task that Sir Mark needs to tackle immediately in his “powerful new position”.

“[Sir] Mark’s robust qualities will help push science much further up the Brexit agenda, where it belongs,” he said.

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