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Is science in good hands?

13 May 2015

A digest of the new, and returning, figures who have important roles to play in the health of science and engineering

Many hours of coalition ‘what ifs’ lie redundant and, rather than drawing up a coalition agreement, the new Government are getting back to business. Ministers are this week getting to grips with new briefs or, for many, heading back to their departments to pick up where they left off. And of course this has all happened rather sooner than any of us, and they, expected.

BIS is still the department housing the Science Minister but departments from Education to Treasury impact on the health of science and engineering. So we’ve taken a look at some of the actions key returning and new Ministers could take to strengthen science and engineering across education, investment, and use of scientific expertise in policy making. 

The Chancellor returns to Treasury bringing with him a ‘personal priority’ for science and a desire to continue building a “Northern Powerhouse” in which science has been a major feature to date. With a spending review around the corner, the former will need to be backed by ambitious, long-term, internationally-comparable investment if it’s not to ring hollow.

Meanwhile, the latter is likely to be part of growing discussions about the place of ‘place’ in science spending decisions. It’s a political pressure that seems here to stay but is certainly not something that the research community have adequately addressed, yet. Linked to that, but extending far beyond Treasury, are questions around how science policy and funding decisions are made. We await the outcome of the Nurse review and hope that one result is greater transparency and accountability in decision making for science.

It is all change at BIS with Sajid Javid taking the helm as Business Secretary and Jo Johnson moving across from the No 10 Policy Unit to be Minister for Universities and Science. Neither is on record talking about science or engineering so many unknowns remain. In contrast to his predecessor, Greg Clark, Jo Johnson doesn’t also have the Cities brief to split his time. But with concerns over the post no longer featuring on the ‘also attending Cabinet’ list we will be looking to work closely with Sajid Javid, and others, to ensure science makes its full contribution to Cabinet discussions and decisions.

Looking ahead to spending decisions, David Cameron has said that a Conservative Government “will ensure the UK’s science and engineering industry remains one of the world’s best” and would “continue to invest in science and engineering, centred on the Science and Innovation Strategy published last year”. Arguably cuts to science – in BIS and across Government – would be at odds with those statements but without being a protected department major cuts could be on the cards for BIS.

So as well as getting a good overall funding settlement, some other challenges for the new Secretary of State and Science Minister will include doing some joining up: science and innovation with the industrial strategy (working with Francis Maude as Trade and Industry Minister), capital with resource funding, funding for university teaching with the cost of teaching. Not to mention the EU referendum on the horizon and the seemingly inevitable collision between needing more talented scientists and engineers and the tightening of immigration policy by Theresa May, who returns as Home Secretary.

Of course immigration is only one part, all be it an essential part, of ensuring the UK has the science and engineering skills the UK needs. Nicky Morgan, continuing in her role as Education Secretary, and her colleagues such as Nick Boles, continuing as BIS/DfE Skills Minister, will be key people for the science and engineering community to engage with. Two of the actions we’d like to see on their respective agendas are around building primary science expertise and linking STEM apprenticeships to professional registration standards.

The Conservatives have left many big decisions to the spending review – so its too early to tell whether science and engineering is in good hands. Which means we’ve certainly got a job to do, but we also have a good, evidence-based, story to tell. (Keep an eye out for more on that next week…) CaSE will be looking to work closely with our members and others in the sector, along with advocates within Parliament and Government, to ensure decision makers hear and take action to back science and engineering.

Take a look at Ministers who will be of key importance for science and engineering on our Ministers to watch page.

Also take a look at our top ten actions and, for more detail, our three briefings on investmenteducation and skills, and advice in government.