New UK science body appoints chief

Prof Sir Mark Walport

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Prof Walport is currently the UK’s chief scientific adviser

Prof Sir Mark Walport has been appointed to head Britain’s newly created science funding organisation.

BBC News has learned that Prof Walport will be the first chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – an umbrella body that oversees some £6bn of research funding annually.

Sir Mark is currently the government’s chief scientific adviser.

UK research is currently funded by nine separate organisations. Each body specialises in specific fields.

The system is regarded as one that works well and has contributed to Britain leading the world in many areas of science.

The government recently set up UKRI and has now appointed Prof Walport to oversee and co-ordinate the work of the research organisations, following a review of the system by Sir Paul Nurse.

Critics of the reforms fear that the restructuring is a merger in all but name.

It would, they believe, lead to the loss of the close relationships between specialist funding bodies and research groups that has led to a system of effective funding that nurtures world class research.

Before he was appointed chief scientific adviser in 2012, Prof Walport was director of the Wellcome Trust – one of the largest funders of medical research in the world.

This, combined with his extensive experience of government, make him highly qualified to take on the new post.

But his appointment is controversial. Critics fear his appointment will lead to more centralised of research and a diminishing of the role of individual research councils.

Prof Walport has a reputation for being tough. He has steered through controversial strategic changes at the Wellcome Trust that have won him many friends but also some enemies.

The new head of UKRI also has strong opinions on a variety of issues and is not shy to express them, often forcefully.

The Astronomer Royal Lord Rees told BBC News: “Reorganisation of the research councils puts a great deal of power in the hands of a single person. They oversee such a great deal of research ranging from hard science at one end to humanities at the other. No one could fulfil the role adequately.”

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said his appointment would be greeted with mixed feelings.

“Sir Mark Walport is the ultimate operator in British science, so his appointment as UKRI’s CEO is in some ways an unsurprising outcome. He will bring a wealth of experience to the role, both from his years running the Wellcome Trust, and from the past four years he’s spent as government chief scientific adviser,” he told BBC News.

“The vision for UKRI is ambitious and exciting, and Mark’s track record and connections will be a huge asset in turning this into an operational reality.

“But as he will be only too aware, critics in the House of Lords and elsewhere, who fear that UKRI may lead to greater centralisation of power and political direction across the research system, will also be looking to Mark for reassurance that the opportunities of UKRI can be realised, whilst still preserving the delicate balance between freedom and accountability – bottom-up and top-down – that has enabled UK research to flourish.”

The Science Minister, Jo Johnson has confirmed the news. He tweeted: “With Sir John Kingman as Chairman and Sir Mark Walport as CEO, UKRI will be a strong voice for science and innovation”.

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