Pre-appointment hearing: chair of UK Research & Innovation and executive chair of the Medical Research Council Contents

Appointment of the chairs and UKRI and the MRC


1.The 2007 Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, proposed the introduction of pre-appointment hearings for key public officials in which Parliament has a strong interest. It stated that, in each case, it should fall to the relevant select committee to conduct the hearing, which should cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in selection. The Government’s proposal was welcomed by the House and, following discussions between the Liaison Committee and the Government, each published guidance for pre-appointment hearings in 2013.1 The agreed list of 50 posts that “would be suitable” for pre-appointment hearings included the chairs of the seven research councils, the chair of the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) and the chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (whose role is being split in April 2018 between two new bodies—the Office for Students, and Research England). Our predecessor Committee in the 2010–15 Parliament undertook six pre-appointment hearings—five research council chair appointments and the Technology Strategy Board chair.

2.In accordance with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) begins operation in April 2018, bringing together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. These nine bodies are included in the agreed 2013 list; albeit with some changes of name or (in one case) being split into two. The chair of UKRI, as a new and overarching body encompassing those nine organisations, is however not listed in the agreement.

3.The Committee in the 2015–17 Parliament nevertheless examined the setting up of UKRI after the Government announced in May 2016 that Sir John Kingman would be the Chair of UKRI “on an interim basis to set up the new organisation in shadow form”.2 The Committee also wrote to the Business Secretary in May 2016 to seek the Government’s confirmation that the Committee would be given an opportunity to undertake a pre-appointment hearing with the preferred candidate for the UKRI chair once Sir John’s “more permanent successor is chosen”. The then science minister responded that “as per usual with significant public appointments in science and research, the preferred candidate [for the permanent chair and other key appointments in UKRI] will appear before the Science & Technology Committees”.3 The Government should formalise this by adding the post of UKRI Chair to the Cabinet Office guidance.

4.In December 2017, the Government announced Professor Fiona Watt as its preferred candidate for the ‘executive-chair’ of the Medical Research Council (MRC), and on 16 January 2018 that Sir John Kingman would be the UKRI permanent chair. We decided to undertake a pre-appointment hearing with Professor Watt and Sir John, together, because they will be part of the same organisation from April and will together be involved in UKRI’s administration and management.

5.It is regrettable that we (or our predecessor Committee) have not had the opportunity to consider undertaking pre-appointment hearings with other UKRI-related chair appointments made by the Government over recent months:

There are further UKRI-related positions to be filled in 2018. We trust that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will ensure that we are in future kept informed of prospective appointments that are covered by the House/ Cabinet Office agreement, to give us the opportunity to consider holding further pre-appointment hearings.

The policy background

6.Pre-appointment hearings by our predecessor Committee were held against a generally stable policy context. The role and status of the organisations involved were not undergoing change. The situation is very different today. The establishment of UKRI in April 2018 will bring together organisations covered by the pre-appointment regime in a single organisation. The previous Committee reported on the setting up of UKRI in December 2016,8 raising issues that would need to be managed by the incoming UKRI chair and chief executive. Furthermore, the nine bodies subsumed within UKRI would each have an ‘executive-chair’ rather than separate chairs and chief-executives.

7.We have taken the opportunity in our current pre-appointment hearing to examine with the prospective heads of the MRC and UKRI a number of the issues addressed in our predecessor’s report:

We also used the hearing to examine Professor Watt’s and Sir John’s perspectives on the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (to be managed by UKRI), and the challenges and opportunities for science and innovation arising from Brexit.

8.These are all matters which we will continue to monitor as UKRI becomes operational, and Brexit and the Industrial Strategy evolves. Our focus in this report, however, is a more narrow one: to consider the suitability of Professor Fiona Watt and Sir John Kingman for their respective positions.

The Medical Research Council

9.The MRC “supports world-class research across the entire spectrum of medical sciences, from fundamental laboratory-based science to clinical trials, in all major disease areas. Research funded by the MRC is carried out in universities, hospitals and in our own research units and institutes across the UK and in Africa.” Its latest Annual Report notes four strategic aims: “picking research that delivers (setting research priorities which are most likely to deliver improved health outcomes), research to people (bringing the benefits of excellent research to all sections of society), going global (accelerating progress in international health research), and supporting scientists (sustaining a robust and flourishing environment for world-class medical research).”11 It has four priority areas for supporting research: neurodegeneration and mental health (including the UK Dementia Research Institute and networks in mental health research), antimicrobial resistance and infections, prevention research, and regenerative medicine (“the MRC is the largest funder of regenerative medicine research in the UK”). The MRC supports 2,800 researchers’ activities, in 113 universities.12

10.BEIS provided us with a note13 on Professor Watt’s CV as well as the executive-chair job description and person specification. The executive-chair appointment is for 3–5 years. BEIS informed us that the position was run as a fair and open competition, and that external search agents were used for the recruitment. Twelve applications were received and six were interviewed, culminating with Professor Watt being selected.

The preferred candidate

11.Professor Fiona Watt has an extensive career in medical research, including many UK and international leadership roles in the sector. As director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, she brings expertise in a field to which our predecessor Committee gave its support last year.14 Although not having a background in clinical trials, we were pleased that Professor Watt undertook to prioritise the case for the Health Research Authority to audit whether all trials results are published — an issue in our ongoing inquiry into Research integrity.

12.Professor Watt has a clearly impressive academic career history; one which is highly relevant for leading the MRC. In addition, she demonstrated a sound understanding of the challenges the MRC faces and how these fit in the wider context of the Industrial Strategy. She would clearly be comfortable interacting, and speaking up for the research council, with UKRI’s top management and with Government as necessary.

13.Professor Watt currently consults for two Biotech companies and is a member of the Unilever Scientific Advisory Board, and she is a non-executive director of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult. Some of these activities could be construed as potential conflicts of interest. We were assured that she has undertaken to resign from the roles as appropriate, if appointed.15

14.We were impressed by Professor Watt. We were fully satisfied that she is a suitable candidate to be executive-chair of the MRC. We are pleased to recommend that the Science minister proceeds with the appointment. We wish Professor Watt well in her new post and look forward to working with her in the future.

UK Research & Innovation

15.BEIS provided us with a note with the job and person specification of the UKRI chair post.16 The non-executive post is for 4–5 years, and part-time (one day a week). The position was run as a fair and open competition. There were seven applicants for the post, but only Sir John was selected for interview.

The preferred candidate

16.Sir John Kingman has an extensive career in public bodies and management boards, holding senior positions in most of them. Perhaps most significantly, that includes the Treasury, where he was involved in managing previous Spending Reviews. That will be invaluable in ensuring that the Government understands the forthcoming spending allocations that it will have to make to keep it on track for delivering the Government’s pledge for the UK to be spending 2.4% of GDP on research in 10 years’ time. Sir John demonstrated a sound understanding of the challenges UKRI faces and the wider context of Brexit and the Industrial Strategy for the science and innovation community. He has clearly long been comfortable in negotiating with ministers. We welcome his willingness to promote the importance of investing in ‘excellence-based’ research and innovation beyond the ‘golden triangle’.

17.In working alongside a previous Government Chief Scientific Adviser—Sir Mark Walport as the chief executive of UKRI—we accept that Sir John does not himself require a science or innovation background. Sir Mark will sit on the planned UKRI ‘Executive Committee’, alongside the heads of the research councils, and be a vital conduit for keeping Sir John informed as necessary about any science or innovation issues that need to be escalated to the UKRI Board.

18.We were fully satisfied that Sir John Kingman is a suitable candidate to be Chair of UKRI. We are pleased to recommend that the Science minister proceeds with the appointment. We wish Sir John well as he transitions from interim chair to permanent chair, and we look forward to working with him in the future.

1 Liaison Committee, Guidelines for select committees holding pre-appointment hearings (Nov 2013); Cabinet Office Guidance: pre-appointment scrutiny by House of Commons select committees (Nov 2013)

2 Science and Technology Committee, Setting up UK Research & Innovation, Eighth Report of Session 2016–17, HC 671

3 Letter from Jo Johnson MP to the Committee, Science minister, 27 May 2016

5David Sweeney appointed Executive Chair Designate of Research England’, press release,, 21 April 2017

7New ESRC CEO and Executive Chair Designate announced’, press release, ESRC, 26 October 2017

8 Science and Technology Committee, Setting up UK Research & Innovation, Eighth Report of Session 2016–17, HC 671

10 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 BEIS [PMU0001]

14 Science and Technology Committee, Regenerative medicine, Fifteenth Report of Session 2016–17, HC275

15 BEIS [PMU0001]

16 BEIS [PMU0001]

1 February 2018