17th November 2022

Sunak science: Can the new PM be trusted?

With (another) new prime minister in power, we investigate his record on science and how that might impact the UK’s scientific community
Sunak science: Can the new PM be trusted?
Photo: Number 10

In recent history, it seems we have gone through more Tory prime ministers than DFS Sales. We have moved past our nation’s brief ‘Truss era’ and are now in the age of Rishi Sunak. But is Sunak scientifically aware enough to lead a post-pandemic country out of a climate crisis?

What has Sunak done for science in the past?

Sunak’s past actions could help us understand his perspective on science. As Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 2019 – 2020, he oversaw many post-Brexit budgets and research grants for UK scientists, before he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2020.

In 2020, the proposed Research and Development budget was £22 billion per annum over three to five years. However, this was reduced by 17% in 2021, adding further pressure to independent funding bodies. This was an attempt to reduce the post-Brexit impact on the scientific community when many UK researchers lost out on collaboration opportunities and support from industry.

In addition, Rishi Sunak has also had some less-than-positive ideas about the role that scientists should play in government. In an interview with the Spectator during his initial leadership campaign, Sunak said he felt it was a mistake to “empower scientists” during the pandemic and that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had too much influence over decisions.

Several members of SAGE and experts in the scientific field responded with criticism to his comment, stating that SAGE is an advisory group set up to provide relevant scientific data, not to inform on economic issues. Some suggest that Sunak is blaming SAGE for the government’s own mistakes.

This suggests a hesitance by Sunak to let scientists influence scientific policy.

What might Sunak do for science in the future?

With Sunak now head of state, several new statements regarding science and technology have been made, including his promise, “I will make the UK a science and technology superpower.”

He is aiming to reach an annual Research and Development budget of £20bn within the next two-three years, claiming that science and innovation will be at the heart of his government. This could provide the scientific community with tentative confidence, particularly within the life sciences and offshore renewable energy industry.

However, Sunak’s recent flip-flopping on the issue of his attendance at the COP 27 Summit did not portray him as a Prime Minister who prioritises scientific issues.

Despite finally agreeing to attend the conference, his last-minute decision to do so will no doubt linger in the minds of many environmental scientists. Likewise, his decision to give tax deductions to companies investing in oil and gas extraction is unlikely to win him many friends in this arena, despite his recent reinstatement of the fracking ban.

Only time will reveal whether or not Sunak will follow up on his promises and funding commitments, and what his overall impact on the British scientific community will be.

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