The Medical Research Council's management of public funds and its entire strategic direction are under question after MPs criticised its chairman's decision-making and expressed "serious reservations" about his suitability for the job.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said Sir John Chisholm had shown a "lack of focus and clarity" about his responsibilities, which raised concerns about his ability to guide the council, which allocates about £500 million of research funding a year.
Sir John, an engineer and former chairman of defence technology company QiniteQ, had been "vague" about the process of his appointment as MRC chairman, increasing suspicions by the committee that he was put in place by a Government keen to increase the influence of business in academic affairs.
"We regret that Sir John was unable to give the committee a clear account of the process by which he was appointed," the MPs said.
The Government's decision last year to establish a single health research budget, from which the MRC and a new National Institute for Health Research would receive funds, already raised fears that basic research will be undermined in favour of work with direct health and economic benefits. One researcher told The Times Higher the MRC would lose out without strong leadership as the Department of Health was keen to boost funds for clinical trials via the NIHR, A perception exists in the research community that Sir John believes all medical research should be geared towards specific clinical problems and is seeking to take the MRC in that direction. "It's an engineer's perspective," said one senior medical researcher. Some even believe Sir John was put in place specifically to convert the MRC into a research agency for the NHS.
The committee raised concerns about the informal process in which the MRC hired consultants Ernst and Young at a cost of £216,412 to help the MRC with a strategic review. The MPs also cast doubt on the joint review's conclusion that the MRC's governing council be reduced from 17 members to 12 to improve decision-making as Sir John had "not produced any evidence" that the original council was ineffective. The loss of two scientists might reduce the council's scientific expertise, they warned.
Ian Pearson, the Science Minister, said the committee had been "grossly unfair. Sir John has my full backing. We need to be very careful that we don't put anybody from business off getting involved in providing advice to Government."
Normal appointment processes were scrupulously followed in Sir John's case, he added.