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Tough job

A full in-tray awaits Adrian Smith’s successor

John O’Reilly, who was last week named as director general of knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is a shrewd choice for one of the toughest jobs in UK research policy.

The outgoing vice-chancellor of Cranfield University is a Swindon veteran with scars to prove that he served as chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council from 2001 to 2006. In 2004, when the then Labour government awarded an extra £1 billion over three years to research, O’Reilly famously said: “More money for science isn’t the same as money for more science.”

But what exactly does the DG of knowledge and innovation do? There’s a clue in the title that used to come with the job—DG of the research councils. Though that title changed after the creation of Research Councils UK, its central purpose remains: to defend the research budget against competing claimants for the government’s largesse.

This is a job where success often depends on the quality of relationships: with the ministers to whom the DG reports, as well as with his or her all-important special advisers. One new but powerful player whom O’Reilly will need to keep sweet is Rohan Silva, an adviser to David Cameron who looks after the Tech City initiative among other things. His other most important relationships will be with the government’s chief scientific adviser, soon to be Mark Walport, and the departmental chief scientists.

As did his immediate predecessor Adrian Smith, O’Reilly will also be working closely with heads of the research councils and learned societies to build up a base of evidence in advance of the approaching spending review—evidence that investing in research benefits the economy.

By most estimates the research budget is likely to escape cuts on the scale to be seen in other public-sector budgets. O’Reilly is fortunate that Vince Cable and David Willetts are mostly at one on the role for research in a broader strategy for economic growth. But there will be plenty of other battles for him to fight.

One immediate priority is to keep up the pressure on the Home Office to reform our antiquated system for collecting immigration statistics. The government has agreed to compile a separate count for overseas students, which is a start. However, the crucial step will be to find a more accurate method for collecting data—at present, immigration numbers are compiled by interviewing a sample of passengers at UK airports. The major battle will then be to persuade the Home Office that if students are no longer automatically entitled to work in the UK, it makes no sense to count them as migrants.

O’Reilly’s second big challenge will be to continue with the BIS strategy to keep clawing back bits of the capital budget, which the Treasury cut by £1.6bn at the last spending review. Around £1bn of this has now been reclaimed in the form of announcements for new funding, often from the Chancellor himself. It may not look pretty but it seems to be working and if O’Reilly can continue to encourage the government to inject £100 million here and £200m there, a large part of the damage done through this cut could be made up by the next election.