Sir Mark Walport to lead UK research funding

Article by Staff Writer

SIR MARK WALPORT, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, has been appointed head of a new umbrella body that will merge the UK’s research funding councils and oversee the allocation of the state’s £6bn (US$7.46bn) research budget.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will bring together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Under the current system, the councils each have their own specific focus. The new structure, which was recommended in a review by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse in 2015, will provide a greater focus on issues that cross-cut the individual funding bodies, the government has said. While this sounds positive news for wider-focussed disciplines like chemical engineering, there are fears that a more monolithic structure will have its drawbacks.

Raffaella Ocone, professor of chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University and chair of IChemE’s UK Research Committee told The Chemical Engineer that while there are concerns that a centralised council might affect the research funding for relatively smaller disciplines like chemical engineering, it is imperative that the discipline takes a pragmatic view.

“It is critical that we get our fair share of the cake,” Ocone said. “To that end we must work with UKRI – not just be spectators – and use its creation to look strategically and holistically at our own research and innovation landscape. It is essential that the chemical engineering community is represented at UKRI. This could be a great opportunity for chemical engineering to reach out more strategically and work closely with other disciplines to contribute first class R&D.

Announcing the appointment, the Department for Business, Energy & industrial Strategy said Sir Mark would in the coming months work with the research and innovation communities across the UK to shape the organisation to deliver the government’s new Industrial Strategy proposals for investing in innovation.

This is a positive announcement for IChemE’s UK Research Committee, which is keen to engage.

“Professor Sir Mark Walport has the right background, as both a researcher and an advisor to government, to be a successful first chief executive of UKRI. I hope we can work with Mark, along with experts from all relevant disciplines – no matter how large or small they are – to continue the UK’s research success. The IChemE UK Research Committee stands ready to help and is in a unique position to do so, as it draws on chemical engineering expertise from both academia and industry” Ocone added.

Steve Bates, CEO of the UK Bioindustry Association, said Sir Mark will also be measured by his ability to guide the commercialisation of UK research, a key topic in the government’s Industrial Strategy:

“Mark’s success in this new role will not just be in funding the right science but also in ensuring it is successfully and speedily translated, industrialised and scaled into economic wealth for the country.

“In the Brexit era it’s a mission that UK life science businesses look forward to working closely with him on in the months and years ahead.”

Ocone added that UKRI would have an important part to play in helping UK universities maintain their excellent standing in global research as the country looks to exit the European Union.

“At a time when our future participation in European funding is uncertain, UKRI will have the crucial role of acting strategically to maintain our international reputation and attractiveness, and ensuring a fair deal for researchers in the UK” she said.

Article by Staff Writer

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