Ongoing UK Research Problems (7) – The £6 Billion Science Man

(November 7th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.

Well before the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum, the UK’s Conservative government had been planning for major changes to the organisation and funding of scientific research and universities. In May 2016, the government proposed a new Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB), incorporating recommendations from the so-called Nurse review on UK research. Although HERB only became law in April 2017, the UK government had already started implementing its major changes to research and higher education.

In February 2017, it announced the selection of its chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport, as head of the powerful new science agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Science immediately gave him the title “The £6 billion man” since he would now become the “most important person in UK research”, controlling an umbrella organisation for the existing research councils that will serve as the “strategic command center of government research funding”. UKRI will open its doors in April 2018. Combining the seven existing research councils, it will administer their research grants and institutional funding (over £3 billion annually). It will also take control of Innovate UK, which funds and supports technology transfer, and of the parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England that distribute research funding to UK universities (around £1.6 billion per year) as well as parts of the Global Challenges Fund (£1.5 billion) and the new Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund (£2 billion).

Paul Nurse, whose review had recommended the creation of UKRI (see part 3) said Walport could also help minimise the fallout from the United Kingdom's impending departure from the European Union. “The UKRI CEO can provide the much needed, and presently lacking, leadership needed to deliver the best deal for UK science,” Nurse said. “Mark's robust qualities will help push science much further up the Brexit agenda where it belongs.”

However, the choice of Mark Walport as the founding head of UKRI was not without criticism. Times Higher Education (THE) noted that some think he is a controversial choice to watch over the nation’s £6 billion research budget. As a prominent science administrator for two decades, he is known for his forceful character and style. He was accused of conflicts of interest in his post as chief scientific adviser (CSA) to the UK government. Furthermore as CSA, he appeared to openly embrace the government’s aim to primarily treat science as a source of economic growth.
Walport studied medicine and obtained a PhD at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge. He worked at Hammersmith Hospital in London, where he progressed from senior lecturer in rheumatology to professor of medicine, and was director of R&D at Hammersmith Hospitals Trust for four years. His clinical and research interest focussed on immunology and the genetics of rheumatic disease. In 1997, he became head of medicine at Imperial College London. He left ICL to become director of the Wellcome Trust from 2003-2013. While director of the world’s largest medical research charity, he promoted open access, making it obligatory for Wellcome-funded researchers to publish their results in journals that can be accessed for free. But changes to research grants under his tenure were also perceived as concentrating funding on fewer, elite researchers, and on shiny research institutes.

In 2013, Walport became the UK government’s chief scientific adviser (CSA). At that time, some thought that his “bold, decisive and, at times, forceful personality” would serve him well in the role. But Walport also has a reputation for “bluster and prickles”. THE remarked on the number of people, who were unwilling to talk publicly about their experiences of him. One senior scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he can take criticism personally. “People I know have been shocked by his behaviour on occasion and it seems that he doesn’t necessarily realise how he comes across. He has very clear views of what he thinks will work and can appear dismissive of other views. People appear to be frightened of him.” It was suggested that this was an unhealthy state for the UK scientific community to be in, especially now that Walport will be in a “uniquely powerful role.”

Also raising alarm bells for some is the apparently “cosy relationship” between Mark Walport and Paul Nurse. In 2011 Nurse (Nobel Prize 2001, President of the Royal Society 2010-15) became the first Director and Chief Executive of Europe’s largest biomedical research centre, the new Francis Crick Institute in London. Under Walport’s directorship, the Wellcome Trust gave £120 million towards its foundation, and he worked closely with Nurse.

Concerns had already been expressed in 2015 when Walport as CSA played a role in establishing the review of the research councils headed by Paul Nurse - the review that resulted in the creation of UKRI, that Mark Walport now heads. Contrary to his role as CSA, it was claimed that Walport had been seeking greater authority over the £4.6 billion research budget and was pushing for major changes to the way science was funded in the UK. In this respect, it seemed that the Nurse review had been instigated by Walport, who was close to the chancellor, George Osborne, and “keen to seek an expanded remit beyond the traditional one of scientific guidance.” Another source of concern was that Walport favoured a shift in the balance of funding towards big research institutes that can be “announced or re-announced” by government. This could result in a shift of funding away from universities towards the operation of big national institutes, such as the Francis Crick.

There has already been criticism of Walport’s role in the 2014 decision to locate the Henry Royce Institute - for advanced materials research and innovation - at the University of Manchester. Both the National Audit Office and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee questioned the funding choices for this new £235 million centre, pointing to lack of rigour and transparency in the prioritisation process and the assessment of their financial implications.

Several other new national research institutes with high political visibility were launched during Walport’s tenure as the government’s CSA. Others include the Alan Turing Institute (for data science) and the Rosalind Franklin Institute (for the development of health and life science technology). Many researchers are anxious that Walport’s apparent preference for large, high-profile, and at times politically prominent, research centres may come at a cost for university-based science.

However, Walport rejected the ‘conflict of interest’ charge over his appointment as head of UKRI. He told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in March 2017, “I applied, there was an open competition, there were Cabinet Office public appointment guidelines and it was supervised by the office of the Commission for Public Appointments”. He also denied that he had commissioned the Nurse review: “it was commissioned by ministers. We talked about a whole variety of things around the 10-year science and innovation review when Greg Clark was science minister. That wasn’t me pushing for a review.”

Walport also explained that as the head of UKRI, he is now expected to “fix” the Research Councils’ “insufficient forward looking” and lack of interdisciplinary work. He insisted that UKRI would improve on the research councils’ record and will be “mapping the landscape of research and innovation in the UK more effectively.” Indeed, for the most powerful person in UK research, science means business (see part 8).

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 12.01.2017