On Friday, the UK government department that represented science for the last couple of years, the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS), was disbanded. In addition, Lord Drayson changed his title from Minister of Science & Innovation to Minister of Science & Defence.
The obvious response from those with a stake in science’s political profile is to complain. And perhaps rightly so; a press release from the Chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSS), Phil Willis, showed that even he felt that science had been let down:
“The real casualty of this ill-thought out re-organisation is the nation’s strategic science base.”
But I disagree. Although we are right to complain about expensive reshuffles (according to the FT, £7 million was spent on setting up DIUS for it to last only 20 months), I don’t think that science has much to worry about.
Control of science-related policy is now with Lord Mandelson in his new Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (DBIS). This initially felt like the next in quick succession of steps by government to commercialise science. First, politicians asked scientists to outline the commercial potential of their work in all new grant proposals. Then, they skimmed off research council money to be used only for projects with clear economic potential. As I mentioned in a blog entry in May, this has already caused a public fight between George Monbiot at the Guardian and Lord Drayson. Other science community publications have picked up on it as well: “The Economic Impact Fallacy” by Philip Moriarty in Physicsworld this month provides a forceful argument against these new economic shackles for science.
But Lord Drayson has promised to keep the science budget separate from the rest of DBIS. So, despite the other, recent disappointing changes to the structure of science funding, not much has changed this time.
Moreover, as was set out in an email dialogue-cum-blog from The Times’s science correspondents, there are some palpable advantages to the move:
1) Having two Lords and Cabinet Ministers, Mandelson and Drayson, behind science is not a bad thing. Particularly given Mandelson’s healthy relationship with No. 10.
2) Phil Willis has used the disbandment of IUSS as an opportunity to ask for a new Committee on Science & Engineering. Given that the previous committee was shared with innovation and universities, this move would be upping rather than diluting government’s science dosage.
There is one niggling doubt though. Lord Drayson has swapped Innovation for Defence in his shared role with Science. And as much as scientists are worried about becoming economic pawns, there is a much greater threat in getting too close to the military.
To be fair, Drayson did well defending his move yesterday on twitter (a useful rundown of which is here). He stated clearly that the two roles are completely seperate. And as my colleague Colin Stuart (@skyponderer) tweeted,
“Hats off for the chance for dialogue. Very impressed we can all chat to the Minister for Science about such key issues.”
At least Drayson is willingto engage openly on the subject. More hope came this morning when Lord Mandelson said:
“Lord Drayson will give the overwhelming bulk of his time, to science, innovation, and technology.”