Science is in for a change at the top

March 11, 2005

Scientists who wish to leave the laboratory for the corridors of power should start brushing up their CVs because four of the biggest political jobs in science may soon be up for grabs.

Lord May of Oxford, the outspoken president of the Royal Society, will leave his post at the end of November. Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, is due to come to the end of his term in office at about the same time.

There is ever-growing speculation that Lord Sainsbury, the popular Science Minister, may leave Parliament in the next term to concentrate on the eponymous family retailing business, although he has kept quiet about the subject.

And Ian Gibson, the rabble-rousing Labour MP, freely admits that he does not know whether he will chair the controversial House of Commons Science and Technology Committee after the forthcoming election.

Whether one likes or loathes these four men, there is general agreement that they have been exemplary in their efforts to put science on the political map.

Their seats may still be warm, but the science community is already fretting about who could replace them because these appointments could make or break British research.

The question of who will head the Royal Society may be the first to be decided. The society's council will meet in mid-April to determine the single name that will go on the ballot paper to be sent out to fellows.

According to society insiders, the clear favourite is Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who was rumoured to have been second choice for the job last time round.

Traditionally, presidents of the Royal Society have been Nobel laureates.

Sir Martin, like Lord May, lacks this accolade, but he has accumulated a string of major international awards and honours that could swing the presidency his way.

It is by no means a one-horse race. Also reported to be on the shortlist are Sir John Krebs, chair of the Food Standards Agency, and Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel laureate and former director-general of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Both are experienced political operators who have run large, high-profile organisations. But Sir Paul's supporters point out that he would have to be tempted back from New York, where his presidency of Rockefeller University comes with an impressive grace-and-favour mansion.

The final candidate - Dame Julia Higgins, vice-president of the Royal Society - would perhaps symbolise the biggest shake-up of what was once very much a gentlemen's club. As Dr Gibson put it: "To have a lively woman running the place instead of old, boring men would be great."

The job of the Government's chief scientific adviser may offer an opportunity for a less prominent name to step in.

Peter Cotgreave, director of the campaign group Save British Science, said:

"Until recently, they have almost always gone for someone from Oxford or Cambridge university, but perhaps they will want to look at an institution such as Manchester University now."

He added: "It is an incredibly hard job to fill, and I cannot imagine that there are many people who would want to do it."

One attraction might be power. Sir David is said to have the ear of Tony Blair, having stepped into the breach and rescued the Government when foot-and-mouth disease gripped the country before the 2001 election.

Indeed, sources in Westminster say that the Government hopes to persuade Sir David to stay.

Since last year, when rumours that Lord Sainsbury might leave first emerged, the minister, who has championed issues ranging from space science to animal research, has been getting letters from scientists asking him to stay.

If he does go, a hot favourite to replace him is Lord Drayson, the wealthy founder of Powderject, the successful Oxford University spin-off. Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, has been discussed as a possible outside runner.

Some observers think that Lord Drayson would be a dangerous choice because he could be an easy political target for opposition parties and those who want to attack science. Lord Drayson has had to face two inquiries into whether his donations to the Labour Party helped Powderject secure a £32 million government vaccine contract, although neither found any evidence of undue influence.

Dr Gibson, who has made it his mission to push science up the political agenda with a committee that has become renowned for its tough scrutiny, may be similarly hard to replace.

Sources close to the committee say there will be no shortage of volunteers from fellow committee members - who are reported to squabble for the chance to step in as chair whenever Dr Gibson is away.

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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