Director of Wellcome Trust Chosen for U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser

28 June 2012 6:20 pm

Wellcome Trust

Mark Walport

The director of the Wellcome Trust, an independent charity in the United Kingdom that funds much of the nation's biomedical research, has been appointed as the U.K. government's next Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). Mark Walport will take up the influential role in April of next year, replacing John Beddington, the population biologist who has held the post since 2008.

In the United Kingdom, the aim of the CSA is to help apply science and engineering knowledge to government policy across all departments. Walport, a physician specializing in immunology who was a professor of medicine at Imperial College London, will assume the role at a challenging time, as the U.K. government has frozen its science budget for 4 years. Science, engineering, and technology "are critical both to economic recovery and growth, and to addressing many of the greatest challenges of our time, such as environmental change and the ageing population. I look forward to working with colleagues both inside and outside Government to ensure that the best possible advice can be provided from the most expert sources, based on the strongest evidence, to facilitate the wisest possible policy decisions," Walport said in a statement announcing his new position.

The Wellcome Trust director has played a role in several major science policy reviews for the U.K. government in recent years, including a 2008 report on data-sharing and a 2010 report on math and science secondary education. "Mark Walport has already advised the Government on several occasions in his capacity as a member of the Council for Science and Technology," U.K. Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood noted in the CSA announcement.

Walport's selection has been welcomed by the Royal Society. Its president, Paul Nurse, who has worked closely with Walport on getting the new Francis Crick Institute built in London—Wellcome Trust is a major funder of the huge biomedical facility and Nurse is its first director—sent out the following comment shortly after the announcement: "The position of the Government's Chief Scientific Advisor will be hugely important over the coming years. They will have to make sure that evidence is at the heart of policy making. ... I'm sure that, in Mark Walport, we have absolutely the right person for the job."

Joining growing calls from scientists for more evidence-based policymaking, the U.K. Cabinet Office this week released a report suggesting that ministers should test public policies using randomized control trials, in the same way that medical drug trials are carried out. However, this research-based approach has not always been popular with British politicians. In 2009 the government drugs adviser, David Nutt, was sacked after claiming that ecstasy was a less dangerous drug than alcohol, and criticizing politicians for devaluing research into the relative harm of illicit drugs.

Under Walport, who has been the director for nearly a decade, the Wellcome Trust in 2006 introduced an open access policy that has required all of its funded research to be made available to the public within 6 months of publication. With only 55%of research papers as yet complying with this rule, this week Wellcome announced that it would tighten up its enforcement of the policy.

Since public engagement is a key role of the Wellcome Trust, Walport has also supported more mixing between the arts and sciences. In 2007, he oversaw the opening of the Wellcome Collection, a museum of medical artwork and objects, which hosts regular free exhibitions. Walport is recognized, too, for leading the shift of the Sanger Institute—a nonprofit genomics research center near Cambridge—from a place focused mainly on sequencing genomes to a facility conducting a greater variety of research. The Sanger Institute now publishes about 280 research articles per year.

University of Oxford neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, former head of the U.K. Medical Research Council, has added his support to the CSA choice, announcing in a statement: "Mark Walport is bright, efficient and enormously knowledgeable about science, education and innovation. But, equally important, he has great political acumen and robust independence. I can't think of anyone better prepared to make the case for the use of science in government and for the defence of the best of British science."

The Wellcome Trust has now begun the hunt for a new director, and says it may recruit from outside the United Kingdom. "Mark will be a tough act to follow," William Castell, chair of the Wellcome Trust, noted in a statement.

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