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Ivory Tower: inside the process to appoint the next UKRI chief executive

“UK Research and Innovation has begun looking for a successor to Ottoline Leyser”
– Research Professional News, 20 Feb 2024

Three months later…

Somewhere in SW1…

Juniper: Let me just say how delighted I am that the department has chosen the Juniper-McCall University Media Relations executive search package.

McCall: We speak to applicants, so you don’t have to.

Juniper: Thank you, Oliver. May I also introduce our degree apprentice, Janet, who has worked tirelessly on this search.

Janet: You should see my Google history.

Juniper: Now, can I begin by asking, have we got the make-up of this shortlisting panel quite right?

[Everyone round the table looks at one another non-plussed]

Juniper: Well, it’s just that it is a little unusual, for an appointment of this type, to be joined by the deputy chair of the Conservative Party.

Con Deputy Chair: I’m just here to observe.

McCall: Observe what?

Con Deputy Chair: Impartiality.

McCall: We are ensuring impartiality by having the deputy chair of the Conservative Party sitting in on the shortlisting?

Con Deputy Chair: It was either me or Robbie Gibb, so what do you want?

Juniper: Do you have much experience in the world of science?

Con Deputy Chair: I’m a big fan of that Richard Attenborough.

Janet: From Jurassic Park?

Juniper: Moving on. The permanent secretary, you all know, of course. And then we have the chair of UK Research and Innovation itself. Lovely to see you again—what are you looking for in a candidate?

UKRI Chair: The world faces many pressing scientific challenges, especially our changing planet. So, I’m looking for someone who will transition us towards a sustainable future in a common-sense way that aligns with the objectives of my organisation.

McCall: Shell?

UKRI Chair: No, UK Research and Innovation.

Juniper: OK… and completing the panel we have a… distinguished academic? Sir Tom Rhubarb-Smith, who is also… Conservative MP for Naysebury on the Moss.

Rhubarb-Smith: Thank you for inviting me.

McCall: Who invited you?

Rhubarb-Smith: My honourable friend, the deputy chair of the party.

Con Deputy Chair: Don’t look at me, I’m impartial.

Janet: And you are a distinguished academic?

Rhubarb-Smith: I am a visiting professor at TCU, the Taxpayer Coalition’s University, where I’ve been consulting on an online masters’ programme in European relations.

McCall: Is that one of those name changes the OfS has been consulting on?

Juniper: Look, we’ve got a lot to get through and big shoes to fill, so let’s crack on. We have a range of exciting candidates for you.

Rhubarb-Smith: I hope they’re not woke.

Juniper: Woke?

Rhubarb-Smith: Like Prince William.

McCall: Prince William is woke?

Rhubarb-Smith: Or is it Harry? Can’t remember. Anyway, this appointment should be an ambassador for UK science and reflect British values.

Janet: Unlike, Prince William?

Rhubarb-Smith: Was always suspicious of his father.

Janet: The King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Rhubarb-Smith: Talks to trees.

UKRI Chair: Very suspicious.

McCall: I think George III used to talk to trees as well.

Juniper: As I say, lots to do. We’ve divided the applicants into three bundles for you. In the green folder we have senior scientists and academics with experience of running complex organisations.

Con Deputy Chair: I think we can skip that one.

McCall: But that’s the job description.

Con Deputy Chair: Cut through the red tape that’s stifling British science.

Rhubarb-Smith: This lot are all scientists and academics?

Juniper: Yes.

Rhubarb-Smith: Then they’ll be Marxists.

Juniper: No, they are scientists.

Rhubarb-Smith: Woke, Britain-hating, Marxists.

McCall: Yes, I wonder Sir Tom, do you actually know what a Marxist is?

Con Deputy Chair: I think what my colleague means is that this role is ultimately a ministerial appointment, and we should endeavour to have candidates that the secretary of state would be comfortable appointing.

Rhubarb-Smith: So, no Marxists.

Con Deputy Chair: And no experts. She’s not great with them.

Janet: It took me ages to do that folder. It’s colour-coded and everything.

Juniper: Moving on to the blue folder, here we have the candidates who, while not researchers or scientists, do have experience of running large cognate organisations.

Con Deputy Chair: I think we can skip that one too.

Janet: What? I haven’t even had my receipt from Staples reimbursed yet.

McCall: I can assure you that no one in this folder is a Marxist or an expert.

Rhubarb-Smith: I suppose it’s full of businesspeople like that woman from John Lewis.

Juniper: As it happens.

Rhubarb-Smith: Woke, Europe-loving, communists.

McCall: Janet, could you nip out and get a dictionary for Sir Tom. I think he might find it helpful.

Juniper: But you need someone with experience of running a large organisation.

Permanent Secretary: To be fair, we ignored that criteria last time.

Con Deputy Chair: The only important criteria is that they can be appointed before a June general election… Sorry, I’ve said too much.

McCall: Subject to critical scrutiny by the select committee, of course.

[Everyone laughs]

McCall: OK, fair enough. I see what I did there.

Juniper: Very well, that leaves the red folder candidates. These are people in the public eye who could be ambassadors for British science. Shall we go through them?

McCall: Candidate one, Gareth Southgate, free to start work after a planned trip to Germany this summer.

Rhubarb-Smith: Isn’t he the Twitter-baiting Marxist who presents Match of the Day?

Juniper: That’s Gary Lineker. Gareth is the England football manager. There was a play about him at the National Theatre.

Con Deputy Chair: Sounds like a wrong-un.

Rhubarb-Smith: Not having some namby-pamby, bend-the-knee, rainbow-hugging footballer.

Juniper: Right, candidate two. Brian Cox.

UKRI Chair: Another Scottish appointment could be good for UK Research and Innovation.

Juniper: Is he Scottish?

UKRI Chair: I loved him in Succession.

Rhubarb-Smith: Not having a Scots Nat.

McCall: Yes, very amusing, this is actually Brian Cox, professor of astrophysics at the University of Manchester and former keyboard player with the band D:Ream.

UKRI Chair: Really? What was their big hit?

Janet: Things can only get better.

Con Deputy Chair: Nope, not having that.

Juniper: OK, candidate three, television presenter and numeracy campaigner Carol Vorderman.

Con Deputy Chair: Are you serious?

Juniper: Candidate four, willing to take the pay cut for the sake of public service, the nation’s favourite money-saving expert Martin Lewis.

Rhubarb-Smith: Any relation to John Lewis?

Con Deputy Chair: Let me just check his social media history. We can’t have anyone who has criticised… sorry who has not demonstrated due impartiality with respect to government policy… OK, moving on, next candidate please.

McCall: Look, we could be here some time. I’ll read out the list and you say stop if there is one you like: Gordon Ramsay, Phillip Schofield, Ed Sheeran, Nigella Lawson, JK Rowling, Adele, Hugh Grant, Simon Cowell, Bear Grylls, Kylie Minogue, Sir Tom Jones, Wayne Rooney, Judi Dench, Alan Sugar, Jamie Oliver, Clare Balding, Alan Carr, Jeremy Clarkson…

Rhubarb-Smith: I’ve heard of him. Dreadful fella, leader of the Labour Party, wasn’t he?

Janet: That’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Rhubarb-Smith: Well, I’m definitely not having him.

Con Deputy Chair: Look, all we need is someone who is not an academic, or an expert, or has a record of success in business or organisational management, who will be considered appointable by the secretary of state and can start in June. How hard can it be?

Janet: What about Liz Truss?

Rhubarb-Smith: Splendid idea—a safe pair of hands.

Janet: I was only joking.

Con Deputy Chair: I think Juniper-McCall executive search has really excelled itself this time. I think there may be a bonus in this for you.

Janet: Are you crazy?

Juniper: Now, Janet, let’s not be too hasty, the deputy chair makes a very good point.

Con Deputy Chair: We should use you on all appointments across Whitehall.

McCall: I’ll have a contract drawn up this afternoon.

Juniper: Very well, we have our preferred candidate. Let’s move straight to interview. No need for a show of hands. That’s all settled then. Suggested appointment date for the candidate, 1st of June. Everyone happy with that?

Rhubarb-Smith: Great choice.

Con Deputy Chair: I couldn’t possibly say, I’m strictly impartial.

UKRI Chair: I guess.

Permanent Secretary: Should I book this room again for a follow-up meeting in July when she resigns?

Janet: Can you pass me your folders? I might be able to get my money back on them.

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