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Priorities for the new science minister

10 Jan 2018

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main offers her thoughts on the opportunities and challenges facing the new universities and science minister, Sam Gyimah MP, as well as analysing his previous statements and positions on these briefs.

A warm welcome to Sam Gyimah MP in his new role as minister for universities and science. His official title is Minister for Higher Education, a joint appointment between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as was Jo Johnson’s before him. Although science doesn’t feature in his ministerial title, we understand he retains responsibility for the science brief and we hope it will be a prominent part of his role.

As we start 2018, there will be much for Mr Gyimah to consider in the science brief. He will be the minister accountable for delivering on the Government’s down payment in R&D investment to achieve increased and more widely spread productivity across the UK through the industrial strategy. Not only is this part of the Prime Minister’s agenda of ‘making the country work for all’, but it is a counterbalance to the risks of Brexit – to achieve a technological advantage through research and innovation which will make the UK a formidable global player and attractive partner, helping to attract foreign business investment in R&D, encapsulated in the Government’s target to reach R&D expenditure of 2.4% of GDP across the economy over the next ten years.  

The delivery of this grand ambition starts now, with the launch of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in April; stewardship of an increasing science budget; and the success of a considerable programme of industrial strategy challenge funding. The science minister will play an important role in accountability for this investment of public money, in his representations to the Secretary of State for business. As such, I hope he will gain sufficient command of the delicate web of interactions that stimulate and sustain a successful science base, to be a critical friend and a powerful champion in Government.

In Brexit negotiations, Mr Gyimah will be a key advocate for science interests in Government and will need to work hard to keep science present in the minds of negotiators during phase two of the Brexit negotiations. I hope to see him using the high level stakeholder group on EU exit, universities, research and innovation set up by Jo Johnson to full effect. It will be an important forum for him to get to grips with issues in science and higher education and to create an effective flow of dialogue between that community, his departments and the Department for Exiting the EU.

One of CaSE’s key messages to Government is that cultivating an environment in which science and engineering thrives requires the efforts of multiple Government departments to secure, for example, the fiscal, cultural and regulatory frameworks for success. Therefore, I hope to see Mr Gyimah reaching out across Government to advocate in the interests of science as well as using his dual role in the Department for Education and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to good effect. As one example, we are expecting an immigration bill this year and I would hope to see Mr Gyimah and his team making strong connections with the Home Office in the interest of maintaining the strength of the UK’s research and innovation endeavour. His Parliamentary record (see below) indicates that he is alive to issues of access to global talent, at least in the tech sector.

Mr Gyimah is no stranger to a challenging brief. He was Minister for the Constitution over the period of the referendum on Scottish Independence, and his responsibilities in his brief at the Ministry of Justice included prison reform, probation reform and extremism. So the political and public profile of the higher education part of his brief will probably feel familiar, although this time he is one rung further up the ministerial ladder. I hope he is able to draw on his experience in a sector undergoing major reform as he oversees the implementation of the new structures set out in the Higher Education and Research Act (namely UKRI, and the Office for Students) as well as navigating a clear path through the promised major review of Higher Education. His best chance of doing that will be to rapidly get to grips with new stakeholders and structures inside and outside his Department.

Underpinning the two major themes of industrial strategy and Brexit are long-standing challenges of skills needs in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). I trust that the minister will be a vocal advocate for promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM throughout education and in the workforce to ensure that there is long-term sustainability to the success of the Government’s efforts to make the UK a global science and innovation leader.

We wish him every success and look forward to working with him in his new role.

Below is some information on Sam Gyimah’s experience related to science and education

In January 2018 Sam Gyimah MP was appointed Minister of State for Universities in the Department for Education, and Minister for Higher Education in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Mr Gyimah was elected Member of Parliament for East Surrey in May 2010. He has experience in the Department for Education as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2014 to 2016, where his responsibilities covered childcare and education. He was also Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Cameron during the Coalition where he was vocal in debates concerning enterprise and the economy, drawing on his background in banking and as an entrepreneur (he won the CBI’s ‘Entrepreneur of the Future’ award in 2005). 

Across both of these roles, and more lately at the Ministry of Justice he has shown an interest in opportunities for young people, including speaking about the need to widen access to university education. Responding to a parliamentary question on education in 2015, Mr Gyimah made clear:

“Increasing the diversity of young entrants into the (STEM) industries is vital. All of us on both sides of the House share the view that we have to take that matter seriously”

Mr Gyimah has also spoken as a constituency MP on the importance of R&D grants and the benefits of high-skilled migration. Speaking during a 2010 adjournment debate on growth, he remarked:

“We should have a flexible (R&D grant) system in which the money follows innovation and ideas and is not just targeted at certain regions.

Another factor is access to visas for highly talented people. Many internet and technology businesses who employ computer scientists and require people from all over the world are struggling because of the current visa regime.”

Outside of his Government responsibilities he is a school governor and sat on the Development Board of Somerville College, Oxford University, where he previously gained a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Mr Gyimah backed a Remain vote in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

A fun fact: what connects our outgoing and incoming science ministers? A constituency boundary. Jo Johnson is MP for Orpington and Sam Gyimah is MP for East Surrey.