A row between scientists and the government has been avoided after the director general for science and research, Adrian Smith, was confirmed in an expanded Whitehall role that also includes higher education and innovation.
It emerged during a Lords Science and Technology Committee hearing earlier this week that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was planning to merge Professor Smith’s role with two other positions to create a new post of director general for knowledge and innovation.
John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific advisor, expressed “deep regret” that he had not been consulted over the amalgamation and confirmed that the selection panel for the new role would not contain an external expert, and that there was no guarantee the appointee would have any experience of science or academia.
The committee responded by writing to Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to take “appropriate action” to make sure the post, which will retain responsibility for allocating the £4.6 billion research budget, went to a “senior scientist who is able to maintain the trust and confidence of the scientific community”.
“Were the holder of the new post to be other than a senior scientist, there would be a significant risk of damaging the relationship between government and the scientific community and of undoing the good work for science in the comprehensive spending review,” Lord Krebs, the committee’s chair, wrote in his letter.
The issue was also raised with Mr Cameron by the chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, Andrew Miller, during yesterday’s session of the Liaison Committee. Mr Cameron said he would go away and think about the issue, and admitted the government had not “completely cracked” its relations with the science community.
Professor Smith, who is a statistician and the former principal of Queen Mary, University of London, is widely credited with having played a key role in sealing a flat-cash settlement for research in the recent Comprehensive Spending Review.
Confirming his appointment to the new post, Martin Donnelly, BIS’ permanent secretary, said today: “Professor Smith brings to this role his wide knowledge of the university and science sectors and his successful leadership of significant change programmes in the public sector.”