Knight takes critical position to become BIS grandmaster

Sir John O’Reilly will soon become the sector’s most powerful civil servant. He talks to Elizabeth Gibney

November 29, 2012

Dutiful servant Sir John O’Reilly will have overall responsibility for higher education

Academics who react against the impact agenda are missing the point that their research is about improving society, not just making strides in their own fields.

That is the view of Sir John O’Reilly, who is set to become the chief civil servant responsible for higher education in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Sir John, who will take over the role of director general of knowledge and innovation in February, said he defined the impact agenda as a commitment that having done some research, academics should seek to promote it so that it could be picked up by others.

“If we react against [impact] we miss something really important - that research for itself is important but what it can contribute to society and the economy and so on is very important, too,” he added.

Sir John, vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, previously served as chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for five years before moving to the university in 2006. Before that he was head of the department of electronic and electrical engineering at University College London.

He will leave Cranfield when he joins BIS: the university already has a succession plan in place, it said.

Sir John said he hoped his experience would serve him well in the BIS role, which includes oversight of the research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Student Loans Company and the Technology Strategy Board, as well as three executive agencies: the UK Space Agency, the Intellectual Property Office and the National Measurement Office.

When approached to apply for the job, Sir John said he raised the concern that the sector might see him as lacking in concern for the arts and humanities. In reality, cross-council projects undertaken while he was at the EPSRC had helped him to realise the importance of all subject areas, he said.

“We need to draw on strengths across the disciplines (and) recognise the full spectrum,” he added.

Sir John was cautious about backing any proposal to tackle the risks to postgraduate education posed by higher undergraduate fees, despite being a passionate speaker on the subject as Cranfield’s head. Evidence being gathered by Hefce on the issue would be essential in informing his stance, he explained.

He wanted to gain a “clear picture and understanding” of the problem before making any decisions, he added.

A duty and a privilege

Sir John will take over from John Alty, chief executive of the IPO, who has filled the breach since Sir Adrian Smith left the job to become vice-chancellor of the University of London at the end of August.

In tackling the next spending review, Sir John hinted that his approach might be similar to that of his predecessor in 2010. Then, Sir Adrian selected five bodies to formally advise him alongside the government’s scientific advisers.

“I thought Adrian’s move was very good,” Sir John said.

Before Sir John’s appointment, speculation was rife about Sir Adrian’s successor, given the role’s huge responsibility yet relatively modest pay - at £140,000 a year, it will represent a £135,000 pay cut for Sir John, based on Times Higher Education’s latest survey on vice-chancellors’ pay.

Nevertheless, it was hard to say no to such a position, he said, which he called “something of an amalgam between duty and privilege. It’s one of those things where if you think you have something to bring to it, it’s important for the country and sector that you should do what you can.”

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