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Business Secretary blocks Oxford Professor’s appointment to research body

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng reportedly blocked the appointment of Oxford Professor Jonathan Michie to a research council, allegedly due to disagreements over Michie’s political affiliation.

Professor Jonathan Michie was selected by an independent panel to become chief executive of the publicly funded Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which uses its annual budget of about £200m to finance research across the social sciences. Michie, a Professor of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange and President of Kellogg College, recently received an OBE for services to education and lifelong learning and has been in academia for 30 years, but – in a move the FT dubbed as opening a “new front in Britain’s culture wars” – had his appointment to the ESRC vetoed by the Business Secretary.

An ally of the Business Secretary claims that Kwarteng’s decision was driven by concerns that Professor Michie has alleged links to Jeremy Corbyn’s circle and leftwing political organisations.

Michie was university friends with Seumas Milne, who later served as Corbyn’s head of communications. In 1989 the pair co-authored with Nicholas Costello a book, Beyond the Casino Economy: Planning for the 1990s, that featured a foreword by former Labour MP Tony Benn.

Professor Michie told Cherwell: “I’m afraid that I have no knowledge of that at all, other than the speculation that I’ve read, the most informed appearing to be that published by Research Professional [News].”

“I have accordingly never publicly expressed any political views of note, and do not belong to any political party.”

Susan Michie, Professor Jonathan Miche’s sister, tweeted, “Why is supporting ‘Corbyn’-type values rather than this Government’s values a reason to not appoint brilliant academics to leading academic positions? What kind of society are we drifting into? Dystopian & scary. I hope academics resist this politicisation of our culture.”

Professor Michie was selected for appointment by an independent panel that included former advisor to Boris Johnson and pro-Brexit economist Gerard Lyons alongside a senior employee of the ONS and both the former chair of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as well as their current chief executive – UKRI being the departmental public body of which the ESRC is part.

James Wilsdon, a Professor at Sheffield University and director of the Research on Research Institute, told Research Professional News that this independent panel was “hardly a Marxist cabal” and that “to penalise senior academics based on their friendships or political positions as students 30 or 40 years ago is ridiculous – and reflects little more than the insecurity, paranoia and narrow-mindedness of Kwarteng and those advising him. It’s also a further sign of the creeping politicisation and corruption of the public appointments system.”

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Business Department would only say that “while the initial recruitment returned a strong field of candidates, none were ultimately suitable. Another campaign will start shortly with a view to attracting a wider range of candidates.”

A UKRI spokesperson told Cherwell that appointment to the ESRC’s executive chair is a matter for the Business Secretary, who has not yet responded to Cherwell’s request for comment.

Secretary Kwarteng’s office was approached for comment.

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