On 7 February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak split the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) into three new departments, creating the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and the Department for Business and Trade.
Michelle Donelan, a former universities minister, has been made Secretary of State of the new department, while George Freeman retains his science portfolio, with a promotion up the ministerial ranks to minister of state.
“A dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy,” the Prime Minister’s office said in a press release. “Having a single department focussed on turning scientific and technical innovations into practical, appliable solutions to the challenges we face will help make sure the UK is the most innovative economy in the world.”
The UK scientific community largely welcomed the move. “This is another sign of the importance government places on science and innovation,” says Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a research-advocacy group in London. “It is vital, however, that the practicalities of making changes in Whitehall aren’t allowed to take away from the time and resources needed to drive forward the promising agenda the government has previously set out.”
Rathbone highlighted reform of the R&D tax relief system and access to European research programmes as two big issues the new department needs to tackle.
Breaking up the BEIS “super-ministry” could mean that science and innovation gets more attention from the government, says Kieron Flanagan, who studies science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, UK.
“On the face of it this structure makes sense,” says Flanagan. “But we still need to know more about what the department’s role and goals are.”
Although the UK scientific community’s top priority remains retaining access to the European Union’s Horizon Europe funding programme, Flanagan points out that the government reshuffle will probably have little effect on broader negotiations related to Brexit. “The expectation may be that having a higher profile Secretary of State for science will help solve this, but it is really a political issue, not a scientific one,” he says.
James Wilsdon, who studies science policy at University College London, says it seems strange to see such a big change in the machinery of government when the country is expecting a general election to be called relatively soon. “It does have a bit of a ‘deckchairs on the Titanic’ feel,” he says.
There is symbolic value in giving science more visibility and a seat at the cabinet table, but “I’m not sure tinkering with the name badges and furniture in Whitehall has any real relevance to the fundamental challenges in the real economy and the research economy”, says Wilsdon.