In the news: Keith O'Nions

November 21, 2003

Sir Keith O'Nions, chief scientific adviser at the Ministry of Defence, will launch into a different sort of battle in January when he takes over as director-general of the research councils.

The research community is in general agreement that he will need all the ammunition he can muster for his first major task - trying to secure a decent settlement for science in a spending review that is likely to be far from extravagant.

The outgoing director-general, John Taylor, previously director of Hewlett Packard Laboratories, had a strong industry background. But Sir Keith comes from the other side of the fence. He has held academic positions in the earth sciences at the University of Oxford (1971-75), Columbia University in New York (1975-79) and the University of Cambridge (1979-95). He went back to Oxford in 1995 as professor of physics and chemistry of minerals and the head of the department of earth sciences. He has had some experience of the research council machinery already, having been either chair or member of committees within both the Natural Environment Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council.

Sir Keith took up his post as MoD chief scientific adviser in January 2000.

This is a high-level policy role. He is a member of the defence council and the defence management board, and the UK principal for agreements with the US on both nuclear matters and ballistic missile defence technologies.

He is also used to holding the purse strings. At the MoD, he is responsible for a £450 million research programme. This is one of the largest research budgets in government, but as director-general of the research councils he will be in charge of significantly more. He will advise the secretary of state for trade and industry, Patricia Hewitt, on the strategy for the science budget, which by 2005-06 will reach nearly £3 billion.

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