Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee have expressed “reservations” about the government nominee for the chair of UKRI, citing his lack of sector know-how and the “potential conflicts of interest”.
The bi-partisan select committee of MPs, chaired by Conservative Greg Clarke, published findings from its pre-appointment hearing for Sir Andrew Mackenzie, UKRI chair nominee and until last year group CEO of the largest mining company in the world, BHP.
MPs agreed Sir Andrew lacked knowledge of science and innovation policy, concluding his “answers to our questions did not always demonstrate a depth and breadth of knowledge that we would have expected”.
When asked about the distribution of funding across Research Councils, and in separate questions on funding for Horizon Europe and whether the UK’s subscription should instead be given to UKRI, Sir Andrew said as part of his reply that ‘these are questions I will ask of UKRI staff’
– Science and Technology select committee report
The report also detailed MPs’ concerns about the perception of a conflict of interest in the appointment of Sir Andrew: he aims to combine the UKRI role with his recently acquired chairmanship of oil and gas multinational Shell. The role could require “two to three days a week, once travel resumed”, Sir Andrew estimated – but he assured MPs that he would not add to his portfolio if confirmed as UKRI chair.
In particular, the report raised concerns that “it did not appear that a formal process had been put in place by Sir Andrew and UKRI to manage potential conflicts of interest”. They asked the research funding body to report to the committee when such a framework is agreed.
“I am, of course, aware of the contrast between Shell, as an energy company, and the role of UKRI as the major funder of environmental R&D. But rather than a conflict I see this as a positive,” he told MPs. “Climate change is the major issue of our day and [it’s] essential to have effective understanding between different organisations if we are to reach the UK’s Net Zero goals. I am well placed to help facilitate this in a broader sense.”
The report said the nominee had enjoyed an “eminent career to date, which indicates a track record of being able to adapt and succeed”. They also noted he had the “professional competence and many of the skills required for the role”.
The report said, if confirmed, Sir Andrew should focus on learning about how to work with ministers and officials in Whitehall and within UKRI and the particulars of current UK research policy. Said the report: “When asked about the distribution of funding across Research Councils, and in separate questions on funding for Horizon Europe and whether the UK’s subscription should instead be given to UKRI, Sir Andrew said as part of his reply that ‘these are questions I will ask of UKRI staff’.”
Academics have raised concerns about his nomination. Prof Keri Facer from the University of Bristol told this publication: “It is strange that a fossil fuel magnate, with a long history in the extractive industries, would be chosen to head up the funding body responsible for the green innovation and research needed to address the great challenges facing the UK today. This decision is like putting a tobacco industry magnate in charge of health research. It is almost as though the government doesn’t believe that climate change is happening.”