Research council head veto ‘will make vacancies harder to fill’

Ministerial intervention in research council appointment highlights growing politicisation of British science, experts warn

February 15, 2022
Business men stop to look through the gap in a construction block to illustrate Research council head veto ‘will make vacancies harder to fill’
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Kwasi Kwarteng’s decision to block the selection of a leading academic to run a £200 million-a-year funder because the candidate was reportedly perceived to be too left-wing highlights a growing politicisation of appointments which is damaging efforts to recruit leaders to the UK’s research funders, senior figures have warned.

The business secretary’s veto of Jonathan Michie’s bid to run the Economic and Social Research Council after his application was approved by an independent panel is the latest in a series of delays that have meant the council has been led by an interim executive chair since January 2021. Professor Michie is president of Kellogg College, Oxford.

Another of the UK’s nine main public funders – the Medical Research Council, which has a budget of about £710 million – will also have an interim head until late 2022, despite its former chief Fiona Watt announcing her departure last summer. Another council, Innovate UK, whose budget will soon rise to £1 billion a year, took more than three years to fill its top job until Indro Mukerjee was appointed last year, while the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) has yet to find a chair before it launches in May.

These delays were criticised by Sir John Kingman last year on his departure as the chair of the councils’ umbrella body, UK Research and Innovation, stating that the “current government’s intense suspicion of appointments proposals that come through the institutional machine” and its “collective political policing” of candidates had resulted in a slow process that often resulted in “strange unexplained decisions”.

John Womersley, a former executive chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said the latest event confirmed suspicions about the politicisation of scientific appointments by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

“In many ways, UKRI has always felt more like an executive agency of BEIS than a fully independent arm’s-length body like its predecessors,” Professor Womersley said. “This action will confirm that view in many people’s minds. 

“It certainly looks as if these positions are not proving straightforward to fill right now and this action certainly won’t have helped recruitment.

“It makes political interest in the outcome appear very explicit – and that will have implications for how people imagine the job would need to be carried out.”

Another former research council head told Times Higher Education that the reliance on interim chairs did “not look like good governance for organisations in charge of £9 billion of public money”.

“How many universities are running for six months or more without a permanent vice-chancellor? Not many, because you don’t expect to see big organisations like this run on an interim basis,” he said.

The umbrella role of UKRI – which coordinates the work of the councils – may also be deterring some suitable candidates from applying, given a perceived loss of autonomy. This concern was voiced when the new body was created in 2018, said Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester.

“Once you have UKRI, the executive chair role becomes even less appealing than it might have been before,” said Professor Flanagan.

“Add into that mix a government in permanent, gloves-off campaign mode, with a tendency to turn everything into a culture war issue, and you can see why people might not be rushing to apply.”

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