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6th March 2023

Sunak Science: Latest cabinet reshuffle

With the creation of a new cabinet position and Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, we take a look at how politics influences scientific advancement and the current issues facing UK researchers.
Sunak Science: Latest cabinet reshuffle
Photo: Simon Dawson @ Wikimedia commons

In a move described by UCL researcher James Wilsdon as having “a bit of a ‘deckchairs on the Titanic’ feel,” Rishi Sunak has orchestrated a mini cabinet reshuffle.

Amongst other changes is the creation of a new cabinet called the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology from the splitting of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) into three separate entities.

Previous Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, heads up the new department as a cabinet member with permanent secretary Sarah Munby as the head civil servant. Neither have any scientific background, Donelan having read History and Politics and Munby having a background in economics. 

Photo: Simon Dawson @ Wikimedia commons

A game of musical chairs

The governing of science has been complicated since 1998 when the role of Parliamentary under-secretary for science and innovation was first occupied by Lord Sainsbury of Turville. Since then, there have been five different titles describing the role, each with different additional responsibilities such as universities or investment.

Since 2006, there have been six different ministers in the position, with George Freeman returning in 2022 to make it seven different tenures. In addition to this, the post was left vacant for three months during the start of Liz Truss’ turbulent control of parliament.

Since the start of this century,  science has not appeared to be a significant priority to governments. Statistics published by the BEIS show that from 2016 to 2022 the UK’s share of all research publications produced has decreased at a rate of 2.7% per year. So, does this new restructure begin to fulfil Sunak’s promises to make the UK a ‘scientific superpower’ or is it just a continuation of the decades of neglect of scientific research and development? 

The promise of a ‘science superpower’

The creation of this new department is heralded as positive by some scientists and researchers who have long called for the move. This is the first time there is a specific department dedicated to science with separate funding and a seat in the cabinet.

Sunak made many promises during his leadership campaign to turn Britain into a ‘science superpower’, even promising to increase research and development funding to £20 billion by 2024/25. However, since his election, this seems to have been forgotten and many accuse the cabinet reshuffle as paying lip service, rather than actually fixing the issues faced by the scientific community.

Without the funding

Throughout this government’s term, the funding for scientific research and development has been decimated, the main reason being Brexit. After leaving the European Union, scientists hoped that the UK’s membership of Horizon, a funding organization for research across all EU member states, would be maintained.

Countries donate money to a pot that in turn funds scientific projects across the member states, with a pot allocation of £100 billion to be handed out over seven years. Membership also opened up opportunities for international collaboration, something that is crucial for modern-day science.

Much of cutting-edge research is completed at global collaboration centres such as CERN, where more than 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries collaborate to further our understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. It’s no wonder that polls show that 83% of scientists wanted to remain in the European Union.

In Brexit negotiations, Horizon membership seemed to be secured until conflict over the Northern Irish protocol saw the European Union withdraw membership as a bargaining tool, a move which is still yet to be reversed. This leaves researchers in limbo of finding funding. The president of the Royal society has stated that: “The failure of all sides to secure the UK’s association to EU’s research programmes has now cost the UK science £1.6 billion. That comes on top of the talented researchers who have left the UK in order to carry on their collaborative work. How does this sit with the government’s stated mission to have the UK as a science superpower?”

 Donelan’s ‘ready to go it alone’

Many argue that the main long-term priority of this new department should be securing Horizon membership for the UK and, in the meantime, implementing a rigid plan that will support the scientific sector using the money that would have been sent to Horizon. However, the news out of Whitehall seems to be the opposite.

Last week, Michelle Donelan was quoted as saying, “We are more than ready to go it alone with our own global-facing alternative, working with science powerhouses such as the US, Switzerland and Japan to deliver international science collaborations.”

This dangerous attitude seems to suggest that the new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology either do not understand or aren’t listening to the needs of the scientific community.

Leaving the Horizon group is likely to hinder the UK’s scientific development, causing a ‘brain drain’ of talented scientists leaving the country in order to continue their research. Despite campaign promises and changing name badges of the head of departments, it seems science is still being overlooked.

This has been followed by reports of a leaked treasury document, released just a week after the creation of the new department, for the £1.6 billion set aside to fund for Horizon promised for investment in UK science research to be returned to the treasury. Researchers will not be impressed by a new department name if results and funding do not follow.

Will science be a priority?

Their appears to be an ongoing failure by those in power to take science seriously. The modern age of global pandemics, climate change and fuel crises has underlined the importance of scientific research, even if the work does not appear to directly target these issues.

Rutherford, working here in Manchester, had no idea of the importance of his investigations into the scattering of neutrons by nuclei. Decades later, he has been heralded as the father of nuclear physics, an area of science that could hold the keys to the renewable energy sources of the future.

It is clear that the scientific community feel their needs have not been met. With news of more negotiations on the NI protocol and a general election with the potential for a change in leadership, one can hope for an improvement of the situation researchers face. However, Whitehall’s track record with science does not inspire much hope.

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