Go back

Whitty appointed interim chief scientist

Chris Whitty has been appointed interim chief scientific adviser to the UK government, replacing Mark Walport who will take the helm at UK Research and Innovation.

Whitty, a professor of public and international health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has served as deputy chief scientific adviser two days a week since April. He has also been chief scientific adviser for the Department of Health since January 2016 and was previously chief scientific adviser to the Department for International Development.

The interim appointment, announced on 18 September, follows speculation over the identity of the leading candidate for the permanent role. Patrick Vallance, president of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company, has been proposed for the job, Research Fortnight has learned.

Vallance’s name was proposed to 10 Downing Street by an independent panel of scientists, including Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, along with at least one other candidate who has a background in the physical sciences.

Vallance joined GSK in 2006 as head of drug discovery. He was subsequently appointed senior vice-president for medicines discovery and development. During his time, GSK has maintained a strong focus on the development of antibiotics and medicines for tropical diseases.

Between 1995 and 2002, Vallance held various positions at University College London, including professor of medicine and head of the university’s division of medicine. His principal area of expertise is vascular biology. He has been a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences since 1999 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society this year.

It had been thought that the job would go to a physical scientist, as the previous two incumbents were biologists.

Kieron Flanagan, a senior science policy lecturer at the University of Manchester, said that it was not unprecedented for a UK government’s chief scientific adviser to have a background in industry. “Downing Street desperately needs to show that it is pro-business, and this is an easy way of doing that. It would be a gesture towards valuing business expertise,” he said.

The chief scientific adviser is responsible for providing scientific advice to the prime minister and the cabinet, and for improving the quality and use of scientific evidence in government.

The role also involves chairing the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology. However an industrialist could perceive the job as possessing diminished managerial power compared with their previous leadership role, Flanagan said.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight