Hotshots tipped to head new institute

April 28, 2006

Anna Fazackerley examines likely candidates for chief executive of a billion-pound medical research fund.

Treasury plans to create a British version of the National Institutes of Health in the US have prompted intense speculation over who will land the top job.

Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the Government's intention to merge research funding at the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health in his Budget speech last month.

Sir David Cooksey, chairman of Advent Venture Partners, has been appointed to advise on how this might be carried out.

Sir David was this week being mooted in the medical community as a likely candidate for the position of chief executive of the billion-pound fund.

But the position is likely to be hotly contested.

It will mean control of by far the biggest purse in UK medical research.

One influential medical academic said: "Cooksey wanted to be chair of the Wellcome Trust, and it is known that he is looking for something else."

But another senior scientist said: "My feeling is if this is going to work like a research council at arm's length from the Government it has to be led by someone with real scientific credentials.

The scientist added: "It must be a card-carrying, respected scientist or clinician."

Two obvious candidates would be Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the MRC, and Sally Davies, the DH's director of research.

But while both are thought to be keen to take on the responsibility, figures close to Whitehall this week said that the Government wanted a new face.

Other key figures who are said to be in the running include Sir Richard Sykes, the business-minded rector of Imperial College London; Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University and a member of the MRC council; and Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University in New York.

Sir Paul is hotly tipped to be the next president of the Royal Society, and this is seen by some as an ideal interim role back in the UK.

The structure of the unified fund remains up for debate.

But Professor Rothwell said: "The most effective way forward is to enhance the MRC. It already has rigorous procedures in place that for the most part work well. You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Professor Blakemore said: "We are looking at changes that will affect us for many decades to come, so it has to be considered in terms of principles and not personalities."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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