Experts have criticised the government for failing to appoint a new science minister, warning that the UK’s scientific policy is “rudderless” at a time when access to vital European funding for research and development looks set to be lost.
The position has been left vacant since 7 July when George Freeman, along with much of Boris Johnson’s government, announced his resignation.
A new minister is not expected to be appointed until the Conservative Party elects a new prime minister. Kwasi Kwarteng, the secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has taken on responsibility for the science brief on a “temporary basis”.
However, scientists have expressed concern that the slowness to fill the post points to a wider apathy within government to prioritising science, research and innovation following the Covid pandemic.
“The government has committed to making the UK a science superpower but the absence of a science minister means any conversations about realising that goal are at risk of stalling,” said Tom Grinyer, CEO of the Institute of Physics. “Even a delay of a few months is damaging and unnecessary.”
The delay comes at a time of great uncertainty for the UK’s scientific community, which is currently being being blocked from joining the £82 billion Horizon Europe research programme because of the row over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.
Membership to Horizon, which previously entitled British scientists to vital funding and research grants, was agreed in principle after the UK’s departure from the EU but has now been delayed.
News on the UK’s involvement in Horizon, or the fall-back provision that is going to be made to plug the gap in lost funding, is expected to be made soon — and scientists are fearing the worst.
John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, said: “Given the fact that we are likely to be crashing out of Europe’s premier science collaborative network, without, as far as we know, a plan B, it is very disappointing that science policy in the UK is currently rudderless.”
Amid the confusion regarding UK membership in Horizon, new programmes and research fellowships have stalled.
Leading European scientists are no longer seeking positions in British laboratories, while the 44 UK scientists who have been awarded fellowships under Horizon have been told they will no longer be funded unless they move to an EU country by the end of the month.
Mr Griyner said: “We have the pressing issue of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe and the need to identify funding for alternatives if association is not possible – getting moving with this agenda cannot wait on the election of a new prime minister.
“We need a dedicated science minister in post now to provide continuity and leadership to keep the government’s science vision on track.”
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Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said the failure to appoint a new science minister was symptomatic of a government that has lost its “enthusiasm” for pandemic preparedness.
He added: “The desire from government seems to be to brush recent experience under the carpet and hope that a similar occurrence doesn’t happen again on their watch.
“There has to be a co-ordinated and clear approach about how the UK can be better prepared ahead of ‘the next time’, for there definitely will be one – we just don’t know when.
“One short-term aspect would be to ensure that there is a science minister in place with clarity around priority policy areas, and what outputs there will be over the next 6-12 months.
“Longer-term, there has to be an increased investment in UK R&D, with international partnerships at the centre of our research outputs.”
A BEIS spokesperson said that Mr Kwarteng “will be supported by officials and junior ministers in the normal way” while covering the science, research and innovation brief. “The work of the department continues at pace,” they added.