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Reflections on Jo Johnson’s tenure as Science Minister

09 Jan 2018

As Jo Johnson heads for a new berth at the Department for Transport, Sarah Main looks back at his tenure as science minister.

In order to advocate for science effectively, it is very useful to have a science minister you can talk to, who will listen and be frank in reply. Jo Johnson was certainly that. He met with CaSE on a regular basis and spoke at our lectures and events, generously helping CaSE celebrate both the beginning and end of our 30th anniversary year. He worked diligently for science and I certainly saw him grow in his confidence in the science brief over the years of his tenure.

This is important because, as many will say, it is vital to have a minister who ‘gets’ science. Few ministers enter the job with a comprehensive understanding of the research landscape, so Jo’s dedication to the brief helped enormously in his engagement with CaSE and the wider UK scientific community.

Since May 2015, Jo Johnson has overseen generational changes in the research funding landscape and in higher education. I will leave the Higher Education brief for others to comment on, but it is apparent that the reforms are transformational and not universally popular.

Jo Johnson began his ministerial role in science as the Nurse Review drew to a close. He implemented many of the recommendations of the Nurse Review through the Higher Education and Research Act, creating UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The creation of UKRI is inextricably linked with the Government’s investment of £4.7bn in research and development at the Autumn Statement of 2016, through the National Productivity Investment Fund. Sir John Kingman, the chair of the shadow UKRI organisation, has been crystal clear that a single point of accountability to Government for science spending, achieved through the creation of UKRI, was imperative in Government’s confidence to invest significantly in R&D.

This investment, plus the additional funds awarded at the budget in the autumn of 2017, create an upward trajectory for the science budget over five years, and amount to a generational shift in research funding. Alongside the funding uplift have come structural changes which will take time to fully manifest. The Research Councils, Innovate UK and Research England will join together as UKRI from April of this year. Significant changes to the leadership of these bodies and to ways of working between them open many opportunities, including the often cited opportunities for interdisciplinary working, and no doubt new challenges of integration within the organisation and of outreach to its constituent communities.

As well as these organisational changes, the new investment brings a change of funding focus, with the majority of the funds being channelled through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, shifting the balance of public funding towards the ‘challenge-led’. It will be important for Government and the science community to monitor the efficacy of this mode of funding and evaluate it against the success of existing prospective response-mode and retrospective research quality modes of funding.

Alongside major reforms to the Higher Education and research landscape, Jo Johnson has been the champion for science in Government during Brexit. A clear Remainer, he set out his pro-EU position at our Annual Lecture in January 2016. Following the referendum he convened the high level stakeholder working group on EU exit, universities, research and innovation. CaSE is a member of that group and it has proved a useful forum for dialogue between science, research and university organisations with Government and has proved increasingly valuable for reports from and contributions to the Department for Exiting the EU as negotiations have progressed. I certainly hope that Jo’s successor will continue to find it a valuable forum.

I enjoyed working with Jo Johnson as science minister and found him absolutely dedicated to his brief and convinced about the value of science, research and innovation to the UK. There is no doubt he achieved a considerable amount during his tenure and, I felt, that he brought a personal conviction to his reforms. These reforms are long-lasting and controversial. No doubt we will measure their impact, and Jo’s, in decades.

Jo Johnson MP:

Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Universities and Science) from May 2015 to July 2016

Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education) from July 2016 to January 2018

CaSE wishes him well in his new role as Minister of State (Department for Transport) from January 2018…