Sir Mark Walport debunks ‘myth’ that he is pushing research agenda

Chief scientific adviser is ‘amused’ by funding conspiracy theories but dismisses them as ‘complete invention’

February 5, 2015

Source: Dwayne Senior/News Syndication

The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport has described reports that he has taken over responsibility for research policy in order to drive a personal agenda as a “total mythology”.

Several press stories have appeared in recent months suggesting that a power struggle with Sir Mark – who advises the government generally on scientific matters but is not in charge of research funding – lay behind the unexplained resignation, announced in November, of Sir John O’Reilly, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ director general for knowledge and innovation.

Sources suggested that Sir John had been criticised for being ineffective in the role of overseeing the higher education and research budget, which he had occupied for less than two years, and had been outflanked by Sir Mark.

But in an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Mark described this as “complete invention”. His role as “a transmission mechanism between the world of science outside and inside government” meant that he often spoke to the BIS-funded research councils about “the range of activities they support”, but he did not seek “line management responsibility” for them.

He also dismissed suggestions that he had rewritten Sir John’s draft of the government’s Science and Innovation Strategy, which had been expected to be published alongside the chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 3 December but did not appear until 17 December.

“It is people looking for conspiracies where there are none. I read this stuff with amusement because I know it is not true,” Sir Mark said.

Sir Mark’s role in the announcement of the new Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation, announced in the Autumn Statement, has also been questioned. After George Osborne’s June speech in Manchester, in which he proposed a “Crick of the North” to rival London’s Crick Institute for life science, Sir Mark confirmed that he was asked by the chancellor to “work with northern universities to come up with some ideas that had potential for government funding”. Asked why Sir John – who remained in post until the end of January – had not been asked, Sir Mark said that it was a “timing issue”.

Some universities have privately been critical about an alleged lack of transparency in how the decisions to base the institute primarily at the University of Manchester were arrived at, and the research councils were reportedly irked by the announcement of another government-led capital project whose running costs they would be expected to fund. But Sir Mark said that the Royce proposal had been subject to “a lot of discussion” and had been “challenged in a variety of ways”, such as in a round-table meeting with industry. The research councils had also been consulted and Sir Mark had not picked up any indications that they were unhappy.

Sir Mark’s relationship with the research councils has been under scrutiny since Sir Paul Nurse’s review of them was unexpectedly announced, also on 17 December. Sir Mark, who was director of the Wellcome Trust until March 2013, and Sir Paul are said to have developed a strong relationship during the genesis of the Crick Institute, which Sir Paul leads and which is partly Wellcome funded, and conspiracy theorists suspected that Sir Mark had engineered the review as part of an agenda to concentrate more research funding in elite institutes – an approach the research councils were thought to be opposing.

Sir Mark said that this was “quite simply nonsense”. He believed that Sir Paul would do a good job but he had no sense of what his recommendations would be, and dismissed as “rank speculation” suggestions that they could involve merging the research councils or top-slicing their budgets to fund government initiatives. He added that he had “not been party” to any discussions about abolishing the quality-related research funding stream.

Most of the questions Sir Paul would examine had been raised by last year’s Triennial Review of the research councils, on which ministers had decided to act, he said. “But if you are going to ask someone of the distinction and independence of Paul Nurse to do a review, particularly in context of a 10-year strategy, why would you not ask him to address all the big questions that have arisen over the years?” Sir Mark asked.

Some observers have questioned Sir Paul’s neutrality given that the Crick will also receive large amounts of Medical Research Council funding. However, Sir Mark pointed out that Sir Paul would have an advisory group – yet to be unveiled – containing “a broad range of expertise”. Besides, it would be “well-nigh impossible” to find anyone with sufficient expertise who had not had “some connection with the research funding infrastructure”, creating “some potential so-called conflict of interest”.

Trends in science meant that there were increasing imperatives to work at larger scales and in multidisciplinary groupings, but Sir Mark insisted that there was “no single answer” to how this should be organised, and it was “for the scientific community to debate” whether more institutes were needed.

He also dismissed talk that Sir Paul might recommend diminishing the power of the BIS director general role.

“At the end of the day, the power is with the politicians,” he said. “[But] the research community should want people in posts such as mine and the director general’s to be strong and effective. What is needed is quality.”

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