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Mark Walport

Mark Walport led the Wellcome Trust for a decade before becoming the U.K. government's chief science adviser.

Government Office for Science

The £6 billion man: New top job in U.K. science goes to Mark Walport

It will be the most powerful agency in U.K. science, created to give research a stronger voice, and after a 5-month search, it has a director. Today, the government announced the selection of Mark Walport, currently the chief science adviser to the U.K. government, as head of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The umbrella organization for the existing research councils will serve as the strategic command center of government research funding.

UKRI will be created by a controversial higher education reform bill that Parliament is expected to approve this year. The bill calls for UKRI to oversee seven existing research councils, which together hand out £6 billion in research grants and institutional funding each year. Also folded in will be Innovate UK, which funds and supports technology transfer, and parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The government anticipates UKRI will open its doors in April 2018. In the meantime, Walport and Non-Executive Chair John Kingman will start “to shape the new organisation,” according to a statement. Before becoming science adviser in 2013, Walport led the Wellcome Trust for a decade. While at Imperial College London, he conducted research in immunology and rheumatology.

U.K. science luminaries are praising Walport’s abilities. The pick is “excellent news,” Royal Society President Venki Ramakrishnan said in one of many responses collected by the Science Media Centre, a nonprofit organization in London. Paul Nurse, director of The Francis Crick Institute in London and author of a report that served as a blueprint for UKRI, said Walport could also help minimize 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 U.K. science," Nurse said. "Mark's robust qualities will help push science much further up the Brexit agenda where it belongs."

But Ramakrishnan and others sounded cautious notes about the potential for UKRI to disrupt the existing research councils. “One hopes that [Walport] will be mindful of the concerns about how this unwieldy conglomerate will operate, and the widespread view that the individual research councils should not be downgraded,” said astronomer Martin Rees of University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Walport seems well aware of those concerns. In an open letter to the councils released today, he emphasized the importance that “UKRI respects and empowers the nine individual Councils and their identities” and that “individual funding decisions are supported by outstanding expert review.” He added that UKRI will help ensure that “proposals do not ‘slip between the cracks’” and that “big and imaginative ideas can be supported in both research and innovation.”  Walport himself would control part of the £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund and a separate fund for multidisciplinary grants, taken from the council budgets and expected to disburse £100 million to £150 million annually.