‘Stupid, ignorant, foolish’: peers express dismay at potential loss of scientific expertise in merged BIS post

Plans to change the way the science and research community is represented in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills could have a damaging effect on the sector’s relationship with Whitehall, peers have warned.

November 16, 2010

Adrian Smith, BIS’ director general for science and research and the former principal of Queen Mary, University of London, has been widely applauded for his role in securing a flat-cash settlement for the research budget in the recent Comprehensive Spending Review.

Lord Willis, former chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee and now a member of its equivalent in the House of Lords, described Smith as providing a “conduit from science community right through to government”, giving rise to a “superb relationship”.

However, as part of its drive for efficiency savings, BIS has announced plans to amalgamate Professor Smith’s role with two others and appoint a new director general covering science, research, universities and innovation.

The post has been advertised only to civil servants.

Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society, today told the Lords committee today that the appointment of someone from within the Civil Service, particularly at such a sensitive time, would be lamented by the scientific community and would reverse a 25-year practice of filling the post with appointments from within academia.

John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said it was “deeply regrettable” that the amalgamation had not been discussed with him.

He said there was “potential merit” in harmonising the agendas for innovation, universities and research during a difficult economic period.

But Professor Beddington said he had made his view clear to government that the appointee would have an “enormously difficult” job and would need to be an “outstanding figure”, having “complete credibility” with all three communities.

He confirmed that there would be no independent members on the selection panel and, therefore, no way to guarantee that it would have any scientific expertise.

Lord Willis quoted former Royal Society president and chief scientific advisor Lord May as describing the move as “stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”.

He warned that awarding the post to a career civil servant without a scientific background could have a “damaging” effect on relations between BIS and the scientific community.


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