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Early signals on science and engineering from Theresa May’s new Ministerial team

02 Aug 2016

CaSE Board Chair, Professor Graeme Reid, reflects on the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Ministerial team, after attending a stakeholder event.

The Ministerial team from the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) met stakeholders from across its full span of responsibilities at the Royal Society last week.  I was there for CaSE.  Speaking to a packed room, new Secretary of State Greg Clark described the role of the new Department.  These are early days and we should allow a little time for dust to settle before attempting detailed scrutiny of BEIS policies but some things were already clear.

Greg Clark was science Minister in the months leading up to the 2015 General Election and during that brief term of office he produced with the Treasury a strategy for science and innovation.  He remembers that experience.  He does not sound like a new Minister reading a civil service script: he knows about science and engineering policy, is familiar with much of the policy jargon and organisational structures and understands the key contributions that R&D make to the economy and society.  We now have two Ministers in BEIS, Clark and Jo Johnson, who have a good grasp of science and engineering policy.  Surely that is a good thing.

The shift to the new Departmental structures seems pretty straightforward for science, after all this is the sixth Government Department in the last 25 years to have responsibility for science.  Thankfully the ring fence around the science budget protects it from being chipped away during these moves but the new arrangements create uncertainties for the vital relationship between science and higher education. 

Clark has an established interest in cities and regions.  Jo Johnson shares that interest, as we saw through his regional science and innovation audits, more of which have now been launched.  Don’t be surprised if we see more focus on cities and regions in science policy.  The Higher Education and Research Bill is heading for detailed scrutiny in the House of Commons.  I detected no change at all in Ministerial commitment to the new research funding body, UK Research and Innovation, and other proposals for legislation.  We shall see how the Bill gets on when it reaches the House of Lords and has to be defended against criticism from distinguished academics and industrialists in the upper House.  Meanwhile Chancellor Philip Hammond has signalled some relaxation in austerity while Treasury officials add that there will be no new flood of public money.

Of course Brexit will colour much of Clark’s and Johnson’s time at BEIS.  The EU was not the main focus of Clark’s speech but Theresa May has already said in writing that she will protect the science budget in real terms and that she is committed to ‘ensuring a positive outcome for UK science as we exit the European Union’.  Perhaps even more important in the short term, the Prime Minister is aware of the urgent need for reassurance to scientists who have moved between countries in the EU.  Jo Johnson and EU Commissioner Carlos Moedas have rightly called for business as usual during Brexit talks but widespread reports from the research community suggest that it doesn’t feel like business as usual on the ground.

This adds up to a set of encouraging signals from the Government as it moves into some extraordinarily uncertain and challenging times.  We now look forward to more discussion between Government and the science community as these signals are developed into detailed policy.  CaSE will be using every channel of influence to support its members as this process unfolds.