Science super department created, universities left out

Higher education and research leaders have generally welcomed a shake-up of the government machinery in the United Kingdom designed to give a greater focus to making post-Brexit Britain a science superpower.

But some experts decry the failure to bring universities into the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Newish UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to put renewed focus on energy security and Net Zero, together with a fresh drive to turn Britain into a science and innovation ‘superpower’ has won the backing of the country’s universities and research institutions.

His announcement on 7 February that the giant Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is being broken up to create three new government departments, including a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) headed by Michelle Donelan as secretary of state and George Freeman as minister of state, received widespread support across the sector.

Familiar faces in new department

Donelan moves from being culture secretary and absorbs digital responsibilities, including piloting the online safety bill through parliament from her old department. Her new science and innovation position includes a seat in the Cabinet – and despite her new department not including universities, she is a familiar face to the sector having served as higher education minister in Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration.

Freeman is also well known, having served as science minister until he briefly resigned along with many government colleagues, including Donelan, to bring Johnson’s chaotic reign as prime minister to an end.

Two other government departments are also being created from the Whitehall reorganisation, including one to cover energy security and Net Zero headed by Grant Shapps, the former business secretary, and a slimmed down Department for Business and Trade led by former international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch.

Lucy Frazer joins the Cabinet as culture secretary in a department which has lost responsibility for digital technology which moved with Donelan to the new Science, Innovation and Technology Department.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, welcomed the new DSIT department and said they looked forward to working with it “on boosting growth and opportunity across the whole of the UK”.

‘Priority is Horizon Europe association’

A Universities UK spokesperson told University World News: “As its priority, the department should continue engagement and dialogue between UK and EU counterparts with the aim of securing full UK association to Horizon Europe; enabling UK and EU researchers to continue to work with one another on critical and mutually beneficial research projects.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of universities, said: “The decision to create a dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology recognises the value of our sector and its importance to growing the economy, creating jobs, and solving major challenges.

“We hope the new Secretary of State will take the opportunity provided by the Spring Budget to back the development of more innovation clusters to create jobs and investment across the UK, built around the talent and research of our world-leading universities.”

He said global research collaboration should be a priority and wants the new department “to push for the UK’s association to Horizon Europe and [to] work with the sector to ensure the funding set aside for this or alternative schemes delivers the biggest impact for the UK”.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, the voice for universities in the UK capital, told University World News: “The creation of new departments by the government shows its commitment to focusing on innovation and growing the economy.”

Creative industries important

She particularly welcomed the re-focused Department for Culture, Media and Sport, telling University World News: “In representing most of London’s specialist creative higher education institutions, we are glad to see the government recognise the importance of the creative industries to our economy and the need to position the UK as a global leader in the creative arts.”

She urged the new dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology headed up by former higher education minister Donelan “to commit to working with universities to build on the full diversity of our R&D capabilities, including in the creative industries, and unleashing their potential for growth”.

She also welcomed the appointment of George Freeman within this department and looked forward to “working with him to ensure the UK’s ‘science superpower’ ambitions are realised”.

However, a note of disappointment came from Jonathan Simons, a government relations expert and head of the education practice at Public First, who despite welcoming Rishi Sunak’s focus “on economic growth via innovation, science, technology and high growth enterprises, and digital running”, asked why higher education was missing from the new department.

‘Missing a trick’ by excluding universities

He posted on LinkedIn: “The only caveat is that it’s missing a trick to not also bring universities into this new department – [they are] currently languishing as a sector in Department for Education (DfE) but will be a critical delivery partner all around the country in taking research funding and creating innovative new products and companies in areas including nuclear fusion, clean energy, bioeconomy, life sciences and pharma, space technology, communications, and AI.”

Ruth Arnold, head of external affairs with global education provider Study Group and advisor to the National Indian Students and Alumni Union, noted Simons’ concerns, but told University World News there was a need to follow the reshuffle announcement with practical cross-government action.

“When it comes to delivering the UK’s ambitions in science, innovation and technology it won’t be enough to announce our intentions. The UK will need to attract talented people from across the world who will deliver scientific breakthroughs and innovation, and the full funding of that work.

“That means ensuring that the international students who cross-subsidise research and who are a pipeline of talent through our universities must be drawn to the UK by a globally competitive offer of leading universities, commercial opportunities, generous post-study work visas and the ability to be joined by their families as they contribute to our economy and global standing.

“Science, Innovation and Technology will need the full and coordinated backing of a whole range of departments from Education and the Home Office to Trade and the Treasury. If we don’t ensure policy is joined up in this way, the scientists, medical researchers and engineers who make things happen have other options, and we cannot allow that to happen.”

Announcing the changes, the UK government said DSIT “will focus on positioning the UK at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement”, building on the country’s “strong foundations of world-class research, a thriving technology scene and global networks of collaboration to create a golden thread from outstanding basic science to innovations that change lives and sustain economic growth”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.