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An expert panel of MPs has accused the United Kingdom's leading research funding body, the Medical Research Council, of poor practice in its appointments process and has questioned the tenure of its chairman.
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said in a report published earlier this week that the MRC had appointed its current chairman without adhering to the principles of transparency and accountability necessary for posts funded by public money.
Sir John Chisholm, who took up his position as chairman in December 2006, told the panel that he thought his appointment had come through personal invitation from Sir Keith O'Nions, director general of science and innovation at the Department of Trade and Industry. He subsequently said in a written submission that he had been approached by a recruitment company.
Sir John's performance at the committee's introductory hearing, at which he “appeared to show a lack of focus and clarity,” and gave unsatisfactory answers, prompted MPs to question his leadership capabilities.
The committee's chairman, Phil Willis, said that the council required “exemplary leadership,” based on sound knowledge and open communication to guide it through forthcoming changes.
“Based on our inquiry, we are not convinced that Sir John Chisholm is the right man for the job,” Mr Willis continued.
The committee also felt that the deployment of the consultancy firm Ernst and Young, at a cost before tax of more than £216000 (€320000; $440000), had bypassed the tendering process normally required for publicly funded contracts worth more than £145000.
And the committee questioned the strength of the evidence on which the decision to cut MRC membership from 17 members to 12 was based.
A spokesperson from the MRC said that it would be contributing to the response, which would be forthcoming from the Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills, in line with parliamentary procedure.
Meanwhile, the UK government has promised that its new Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research, set up to oversee the funding and progress of UK health research, will not be heavy handed.
And it has offered reassurances that it will not overlook the contribution of research in allied health sectors to the UK's overall research output.
The promises come in the government's responses to the Commons' science and technology committee appraisal of last year's review of UK healthcare research, by Sir David Cooksey. The government responses broadly agree with the committee's recommendations.
But the government would not allay fears that government spending on research will be cut, stating that the budget would be announced this autumn.
Chairman of the Medical Research Council: Introductory Hearing and The Cooksey Review: Government Response to the Committee's Third Report of Session 2006-7 are available at www.parliament.uk.