The departure of Sir John O’Reilly as director-general for knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has heightened fears about the sector’s prospects at the post-election spending review.
Sir John – the former vice-chancellor of Cranfield University – resigned less than two years after he succeeded Sir Adrian Smith as the most senior civil servant overseeing higher education and science and innovation policy.
A spokeswoman for BIS declined to comment on the reasons for his departure.
When Sir John leaves at the end of January his role will be split into two again, as it originally was before being united under Sir Adrian, who is now vice-chancellor of the University of London.
Philippa Lloyd will add higher education to her existing duties as director-general for people and strategy at BIS. Dr Lloyd has a physics doctorate and has formerly worked on research funding policy, as well as consumer and competition policy.
Science and innovation will be overseen by Gareth Davies, currently executive director and chief economist in the Cabinet Office. An accountant by background, he was a board member of BIS’ forerunner, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and has also advised the prime minister on welfare reform and headed the prime minister’s Strategy Unit.
A spokeswoman for BIS said that the decision to fill the roles with “existing talent” within the Civil Service, rather than advertising it externally, had been taken to avoid uncertainty ahead of next May’s general election, and the spending review that is expected to follow soon after.
Mr Davies is believed to be the first director-general without a professional background in science to oversee the research councils since the role was created in the 1990s. One observer said that his appointment was “a surprising step for a government that has done so much to support science. What does it tell us about the intentions of BIS towards science in the next spending review?”
Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, welcomed Mr Davies’ profile within government, but admitted that since he wouldn’t be “walking into the job with a ready-made appreciation or understanding of the science and engineering sector” the sector would need to work fast to make its case to him ahead of the spending review.
But another senior figure said that could be an advantage because “if your chief advocate has been captured by the community there is a danger their argument carries less weight”.
Sir John is the latest in a string of recent senior departures from BIS. Matthew Hilton, director of higher education, leaves on 30 November after two years in the post to become deputy vice-chancellor at Kingston University.
It was also announced last week that Maddalaine Ansell, deputy director for international knowledge and innovation, will become the University Alliance chief executive in January. Graeme Reid, former head of research funding, left to become professor of science and research policy at University College London in April this year and Martin Williams, former director of higher education policy, left in 2012.
The department’s spokesman said: “As with any large organisation, there will be turnover of staff and BIS has senior succession plans in place for these scenarios.
“The department ensures that we recruit candidates of the highest-quality and necessary expertise to continue progressing government policy in higher education.”