Who will succeed Mark Walport at UKRI? What challenges lie ahead?

The hunt for a new UK research supremo continues, apparently after the shortlisted candidates failed to pass muster

February 3, 2020
Source: Reuters

Who should lead UK Research and Innovation? With Sir Mark Walport set to retire as chief executive of the UK’s £7 billion-a-year funding body later this year, the hunt is on to find a successor.

But the search is not going smoothly, it seems. The deadline for applicants was extended last month amid reports that Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, who has taken a keen interest in science policy, was unhappy with the shortlisted candidates.

He has also reportedly ruled out appointing internal candidates, suggesting that Sir Mark’s heir will not come from the seven research councils that have been overseen by the research umbrella body since its creation in 2018.

His successor was also unlikely to come from a UK university either, one sector leader told Times Higher Education.

“It is hard to think of any vice-chancellor who has covered themselves in glory in recent years,” he said, referring to controversies over fat cat pay and ongoing disputes over pay and pensions. The recently re-elected Conservative administration was also unlikely to forgive university heads for their public antipathy towards Brexit, he added. “Next to the NHS, this is the largest public body in the UK, so Downing Street will be heavily involved in who gets the job,” he added.

Sir Mark Walport

So who might get the top job at UKRI? And what qualities and experience will they need? Credibility with three key constituencies – academia, industry and government – will be crucial for whoever succeeds Sir Mark, said James Wilsdon, Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield. “It is going to be very hard to find someone who ticks all these boxes,” he said, adding that the successful candidate will also need to be able to hold their own against experts across numerous academic disciplines. “It’s almost impossible to find a single individual with a background covering all these things,” he added.

Mr Cummings’ interest in science policy will prove challenging for whoever takes over, Professor Wilsdon added. “But this interest in research structures, cutting bureaucracy and rebalancing [regional research spending] creates enormous opportunities at the same time.

“Whoever fills Sir Mark’s shoes will need a very adept and sophisticated narrative to navigate the various corridors of power,” said Professor Wilsdon, who did not rule out an international appointment.

“It might be quite helpful but for every Mark Carney success story there is a John Hood [a New Zealander] who was hired to run the University of Oxford and it was a disaster,” he added.

Luke Georghiou, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Manchester, where he is professor of science and technology policy, said that Sir Mark’s successor would need to address how research spending could be increased outside the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

“One of the big challenges will be taking on the regional rebalancing agenda while also defending the concept of excellence,” said Professor Georghiou.

“There is also some talk of whether UKRI’s headquarters could be moved north,” he added, although he warned that the relocation of research councils in Swindon over the past decade “absorbed a lot of energy”.

There is also the considerable matter of how the UK would deal with the potential loss of funding from Horizon Europe, the European Union’s €100 billion (£84 billion), seven-year research and innovation programme, after Brexit, said Robert-Jan Smits, who ran the €10 billion-a-year Horizon 2020 programme as director of research and innovation at the European Commission from 2010 until 2018.

“If the UK is not be able to become fully associated to Horizon Europe….[UKRI] will need to develop new partnerships and programmes with partners from across the globe,” said Mr Smits, who is now president of Eindhoven University of Technology.

UKRI will also need to help “attract foreign talent by offering excellent conditions and make it clear that the UK is still an attractive place to do research and that foreign scientists are welcome, even though the overall image of the UK is increasingly that ‘foreigners’ are not desired”, he added.

“It will be difficult to replace Mark given his long-standing reputation as scientist, manager and diplomat,” added Mr Smits, who said that the replacement would face “enormous” challenges.

“The big advantage of Mark’s successor will be that there is lots of money. The coffers are well filled, but it will be a challenge for Mark’s successor to ‘keep politics out’. The Johnson government will be much more hands-on, very much to the dislike of the British science community,” said Mr Smits.


Runners and riders: potential candidates to lead UK Research and Innovation

The favourite: Sir Patrick Vallance

Sir Patrick Vallance

With experience in academia, industry and Whitehall, the government’s chief scientific adviser is widely seen as the natural successor to Sir Mark. Both led medical schools at top London universities (UCL and Imperial College London, respectively) before becoming chief scientific adviser. But they are very different characters, with Sir Patrick viewed as the more gifted communicator. Sir Patrick’s decade or so at GlaxoSmithKline, where he was head of research and development, also ticks a major box given the desire to grow industry spending on research.

The university candidate: Dame Nancy Rothwell

Dame Nancy Rothwell

The University of Manchester vice-chancellor is well known in government circles, having co-chaired (with Sir Patrick Vallance) the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. Her links to industry – she was a non-executive director of AstraZeneca – and leadership connected to the £235 million Henry Royce Institute for advanced materials, located in Manchester, will also be viewed favourably. Despite leading Manchester for almost a decade, however, Dame Nancy is not thought to be interested in a new role.

The industry candidate: Juergen Maier

Jurgen Maier

Having recently taken early retirement as chief executive of Siemens UK aged just 55, the British-Austrian industrialist may be looking for a new challenge. An expert on industrial research and development, Mr Maier was a key figure in the Northern Powerhouse project, is a member of the Industrial Strategy Council and has good links to academia, having been a visiting professor at Manchester. The outspoken anti-Brexit views expressed by Mr Maier, who once claimed that ministers “don’t often understand the research agenda”, could count against him.

The wild card: Peter Strohschneider

Peter Strohschneider

Inviting a German medievalist to run the UK’s main research body may be too much for some tastes. But Professor Strohschneider has won acclaim for his leadership at the German Research Foundation, which has a €3.3 billion (£2.8 billion) annual budget, not least his ability to engage with various academic disciplines as well as government. Having a humanities scholar in charge could alleviate concerns in some quarters that UKRI is too focused on science and technology.


Print headline: Battle of brains: hunt is on for next UK research boss

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Reader's comments (1)

It would be completely improper for the government to be influenced by candidates' views on Brexit as it decides who will be the next chief executive of UKRI.