Select Committee on Science and Technology Eighth Report



1. At the beginning of the Parliament we undertook, as one of our core tasks, "To scrutinise major appointments made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry" within our remit.[1] This is in line with the resolution of the House of 14 May 2002 that its select committees should "consider, and if appropriate report on, major appointments by a Secretary of State or other senior ministers".[2] We decided that this would involve a single evidence session with new incumbents a few months after taking up the post. The sessions are intended to be analogous to the Congressional confirmation hearings in the United States, although we have no power to ratify or veto any appointment. Our purpose is to satisfy Parliament that the post has been filled with someone of sufficient calibre, to establish the views and principles that he or she brings to the job, to alert them to our interests and concerns and to heighten awareness of our role in scrutinising each individual's performance and that of their divisions or organisations.

2. Since July 2005 we have held four such sessions, with Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the then Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, Professor Philip Esler, Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and Mr Ed Wallis, Chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council. On 20 June 2007, the Committee held a fifth introductory hearing with Sir John Chisholm, the newly-appointed Chairman of the Medical Research Council (MRC). The transcript of the session is published with this Report, together with memoranda received prior to the hearing and written evidence from Sir John which clarifies several points that were unresolved in the oral evidence.

The appointment

3. Sir John Chisholm was appointed Chairman of the MRC in October 2006. His background is in technology business in both the public and private sectors. He has successfully founded and directed companies in the computing and engineering sector. In 1991 he brought together the UK Defence Research Establishments to form DERA, most of which was floated-off and became a commercial entity in 2001 as QinetiQ, with Sir John as chief executive. In 2005 he became its chairman.[3]

4. We asked Sir John how he was approached for the role of Chairman of the MRC. In oral evidence he said that he thought that the invitation came from Professor Sir Keith O'Nions (Director General of Science and Innovation), but in a subsequent memorandum to the Committee he said that he was approached by the recruitment company Saxton Bampfylde Hever plc.[4] When asked about the selection process, he said: "as far as I am aware, the standard procedures and processes were followed".[5] The processes involved in making major public appointments should be transparent and open to scrutiny. We regret that Sir John was unable to give the Committee a clear account of the process by which he was appointed.

The MRC's strategic review

5. The Cooksey Review, published in December 2006, looked at the strategic priorities of UK health research, highlighting in particular the importance of translating basic research into health and economic benefits. [6] The Review proposed new institutional arrangements, which included the creation of the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research (OSCHR). In response, the MRC launched a strategic review "to examine the impact of the [proposed changes] on the organisation's role, structures, and operations, while building on its strengths".[7] To support the team conducting the review, and to seek to ensure the study was carried out with sufficient objectivity, the consultants Ernst & Young were invited to conduct the review jointly with the MRC.[8] (The review is hereafter referred to as the Joint Review.)

6. The rationale for selecting Ernst & Young as partners in the Joint Review appears to have been as much convenience as special expertise. A decision was made by MRC executives in December 2006 to conduct the review within a timeframe that enabled the MRC Council to hear recommendations in March 2007.[9] Contracts worth £145,000 or more are required to be put out to tender unless an applicable framework agreement is already in place.[10] In this case, the MRC wished to avoid the tendering process because of the tight timeframe, and Ernst & Young, which had a applicable framework agreement, were appointed. They were paid £216,412 plus VAT for their contribution to the Joint Review.[11] We are concerned about the informal way in which Ernst & Young was appointed to conduct the Joint Review. Tight timeframes should not preclude proper assessment and clarity about how public money is spent. The MRC should ensure that all such appointments of consultants are conducted more formally and follow existing best practice of open and transparent competition.

7. The Joint Review made a number of recommendations regarding the institutional structure of the MRC. These included the creation of:

a)  a Translational Directorate to develop translation strategy and create and support knowledge transfer schemes;

b)  a Strategy Advisory Group to shape and integrate scientific strategy development;

c)  a Strategy & Evaluation Directorate to bring together and strengthen the development and evaluation of science and organisational strategy; and

d)  a Strategy Advisory Group to shape and integrate scientific strategy development.

8. These recommendations have not been implemented because the MRC is currently looking for a new chief executive officer (CEO). We welcome the Council's decision to delay discussions about restructuring the MRC until after the new CEO is appointed.

9. The Joint Review also recommended that the MRC Council should be reduced in size from 17 members to 12 members. The rationale for this recommendation is that it should be small enough to ensure that it does not become unwieldy and ineffective at decision-making but big enough to allow an appropriate mix of experience and skills; in the private sector, company boards are typically made up of 9 to 12 individuals.[12] Sir John assured us that the new-look Council would retain effective scientific input and that half the Council will be eminent scientists.[13]

10. We are concerned that the Joint Review did not provide evidence, nor could Sir John produce any evidence when challenged, that the 17-strong Council had been 'ineffective at decision-making'.

11. We welcome Sir John's confirmation that the ratio of scientists to non-scientists will remain 50:50, ensuring that the relative quantity of scientific input into the decision-making processes remains the same. However, we are concerned that the removal of two scientists from the Council could result in a reduction in the absolute quantity of scientific input. There will still be the same range of scientific and medical issues to cover, and it is imperative that the loss of two scientists does not reduce the Council's breadth of scientific expertise.

Technology translation and basic research

12. The Cooksey Review urged the medical research community to pay greater attention to translating basic research into health and economic benefits. However, concern has been raised in some quarters that increased emphasis on translation may divert funds away from basic research.[14] Sir John told us that "there is no sense in which basic research is downgraded as a result of [the Joint Review]"[15] and he acknowledged the "fundamental importance of basic science and the role the MRC has in furthering basic science."[16] This supports statements he has made elsewhere that the increased emphasis on translation will be supported by increases in funding from the Treasury and that the budget for basic research will not be cut.[17] We applaud the enthusiasm with which the MRC has embraced Sir David Cooksey's vision for UK medical research and welcome Sir John's assurance that basic research will not be harmed in implementing this vision.


13. The MRC is entering a period of change as the Cooksey Review recommendations are put into effect. The new Chairman's career record—in particular his experience in managing change and translating research into marketable products—indicates that he should be well suited to a non-executive Chairman's role at this stage in the MRC's evolution. We note that Sir John assured us that "I am […] very much a non-executive chairman".[18] We expect the Chairman to fulfil this undertaking, and the MRC Council to ensure that he does.

14. At our introductory hearing Sir John appeared to us to show a lack of focus and clarity. He was vague about the process of his appointment and evasive when discussing the process of appointing Ernst & Young to help with the Joint Review.[19] He was unable to explain adequately some of the details of the Joint Review, such as how MRC staff and other stakeholders were consulted, his role as chairman of the Steering Group and the reasons for reducing the size of the MRC Council.[20] His explanation for the policy decision to increase contingency funding was unsatisfactory and he lacked the necessary knowledge to discuss the MRC's relationship with the other Research Councils.[21] We do not consider that these shortcomings were resolved fully in his supplementary written evidence.[22] For the reasons set out in this paragraph, we have serious reservations as to whether Sir John is the right person to guide the MRC Executive through the coming period of change.

Scrutiny of Research Council appointments

15. On 3 July 2007 the Government published a Green Paper on the Governance of Britain which said that Parliament, through its select committees, should play a role in scrutinising some public appointments through pre-appointment hearings.[23] We are pleased that the Government is taking steps to involve select committees more fully in the scrutiny of public appointments. We believe that pre-appointment hearings with the relevant Select Committee will improve accountability and help ensure that the right people are appointed to key positions. We recommend that Chairpersons and Chief Executives of the Research Councils be included in the proposed list of appointments that should be subject to these hearings.

1   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, Work of the Committee in 2005-06, HC 202, Box 1 Back

2   First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Session 2001-02, Select Committees, HC 224-I, para 34 Back

3   Sir John Chisholm's biography on Back

4   Qq 2-3, Ev 6 Back

5   Ev 6 Back

6   Sir David Cooksey, A review of UK health research funding, HM Treasury, December 2006 Back

7   Review of MRC Role Structures and Operations, Ernst & Young and MRC, June 2007, p 6 Back

8   Ev 6 Back

9   As above Back

10   The Public Contract Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/5); Ev 6 Back

11   Ev 6 Back

12   Review of MRC Role Structures and Operations, Ernst & Young and MRC, June 2007, p 47 Back

13   Q 59 Back

14   Ev 2, 4, 5 Back

15   Q 67 Back

16   Q 69 Back

17   'New cash to ease birth of Chisholm's new MRC', Research Fortnight, 23 May 2007 Back

18   Q 14 Back

19   Qq 2-3, 23-29, 44-46 Back

20   Qq 33, 47-49, 53-61 Back

21   Qq 82-83, 90 Back

22   Ev 6 Back

23   Ministry of Justice, The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170, July 2007, pp 28-29 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 31 July 2007