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UK science shake-up stirs passions

The UK’s chief scientist was not consulted about a reorganisation of key roles within the government department responsible for research, it emerged in a Parliamentary hearing this morning.

John Beddington, the government’s Chief Scientist, told a House of Lords committee hearing that the abolition of the position of Director General of Science and Research (DGSR) at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) “was not discussed with me” and that this was “deeply regrettable”.

Currently the DGSR role is in the hands of Adrian Smith, who advises government on science and research spending.

Suspicions emerged at the committee that the replacement role for the DGSR has already been earmarked for a civil servant rather than an external candidate with a strong science background. No one on the panel appointing to the new role has a science background, the hearing was told.

David Delpy, chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, who was at the hearing along with Smith, also expressed surprise at the move. “We need someone at the top who has the confidence of the academic community,” he said in reference to suggestions that a career civil servant could take the role.

The response from the UK’s science community has thus far been even less impressed. Robert May, a former government scientific adviser and former President of the Royal Society, told the policy newsletter Research Fortnight that, “It is substantially both stupid and ignorant and it is politically foolish. … If that person is a successful civil servant they are very unlikely to know much about science.”

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said in a statement, “It’s deeply disappointing that the Government has failed to consult the Chief Scientist, Parliament, or the research community on these significant changes.”

Research Fortnight notes that the abolition of the DGSR role was triggered by the department reorganising its policy areas and that BIS could not find a match for the current DGSR role within its new structure.

UPDATE 19/11: BIS has announced that Adrian Smith will take up a new post of Director General, Knowledge and Innovation. “It seems that the need for scientific expertise in this post was understood by government,” says Khan.

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