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November 16, 2010

Top government science and research post axed in civil service reshuffle

The government is to abolish the position of Director General of Science and Research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Research Fortnight has learnt.

The DGSR post, which pays a salary of around £165,000, is to disappear as part of a wider shake-up at the top of BIS. In a letter to staff, Permanent Secretary Martin Donnelly confirmed the department will be organised under just three policy groups from the next financial year. Science, research, universities and space will now sit inside a new group called Knowledge and Innovation.

“This [Knowledge and Innovation] grouping spans elements of three of the existing groups, so it has not proved possible to do a match for this post,” Donnelly wrote in the letter. “Having consulted the Cabinet Office I have concluded there should therefore be a competition to fill the new post.”

The new post has been advertised internally and interviews are being held this week—suggesting that a career civil servant is being sought. It is not clear whether the current DGSR Adrian Smith, former principal of Queen Mary, University of London, intends to apply. Smith has been the DGSR since September 2008.
During a hearing of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on 16 November, chief scientific adviser John Beddington revealed that he had not been consulted on the decision—a situation which he described as “deeply regrettable”.

He and David Delpy, the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—who was also taken by surprise at the announcement—told the Lords that whoever takes the post must hold the confidence of the science community.

However, Beddington expressed further concern that there are no guarantees that anyone on the appointments committee will have a background in science.

The news that government responsibility for the research councils will be handed to a career civil servant—and possibly someone with no science training—has not been welcomed by scientists. Some of the harshest words came from Robert May, former chief scientific adviser in the 1990s.

“It is substantially both stupid and ignorant and it is politically foolish,” May said in a telephone interview with Research Fortnight. “All the credit they’ve earned from that and the good work that David Willetts did will be undone if we end up with some civil servant presiding over the research councils. If that person is a successful civil servant they are very unlikely to know much about science.”

John Cadogan, a former director general of the research councils who worked with May in Whitehall, agrees it would be unusual if the job were to be given to a career civil servant with no science training. “The DG position was always advertised outside to get someone in who knows what is going on,” he says.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, is similarly opposed to the move and questions whether it will lead to savings. “I’m not sure we’ve seen evidence yet that they have actually made sure this will be efficient,” he says. “The end result is that you are just transferring the work somewhere else.”

Khan is also concerned that scientists may lose an important conduit of influence into BIS. “The fact that you haven’t got a good link between the science community and the department is actually inefficient. The better the flow of information into and out of BIS, the better the funds are used, to an extent.”

A BIS spokesman, however, told Research Fortnight that the new post-holder would retain an open-door policy for science community representatives, as was the case under the DGSR. He also said that, in making the appointment, BIS would look for a candidate with appropriate skills to do the job.

The two other policy groups being created in the reorganisation are Market Frameworks, and Business and Skills. Market Frameworks will focus on growth and competitiveness and will be led by Bernadette Kelly, currently the director general of the Fair Markets group. Business and Skills, meanwhile, will be headed by Philip Rutman, director general for business.

The previous Labour government is also reported to have tried to axe the DGSR post. However, it relented after a campaign from influential scientists and appointed Smith.

UPDATE - 19 November:

BIS has announced that Adrian Smith has got the job of Director General of Knowledge and Innovation.

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Comments

This year 2014 is the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of logarithms by Napier in 1614 and the discovery of the Cotes formula in 1714. These are not being commemorated because modern mathematicians have no idea how they were discovered. The Science Research Institutions are largely responsible for this ignorance.

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