New department takes responsibility for UK science
09 June 2009
The UK government reshuffle has reunited the departments responsible for business and science. It's less than two years since the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was dismantled, but now its major constituent parts, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), are being merged to form the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, under the leadership of Lord Mandelson. Lord Drayson will continue as science minister.
Science had fallen under the remit of DIUS since its inception in 2007, but last week's statement announced the new department's responsibility for science and its commitment to 'continue to invest in the UK's world class science base, and develop strategies for commercialising more of that science'. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry's head of political affairs and government relations, Stephen Benn, it places science at the heart of government economic policy. With both Mandelson and Drayson in the House of Lords, science will be handled in the House of Commons by a minister of state in the department. Drayson has already stated that the science funding ring-fence is safe.
A consequence of the abolition of DIUS is that its select committee will also be abolished. 'In the rearrangement of parliamentary select committees we must make sure that science has a very strong voice,' Benn says. 'Because it is now such a big department, expanding BERR's select committee to include members from other areas could mean that science is squeezed out. That would be very bad for the scientific community. We have to be very careful that science doesn't lose out.'
Another warning note was sounded by the Royal Society's president, Martin Rees, who stressed that resources should not be diverted away from basic research. 'To maintain a flow of groundbreaking ideas and ensure that the UK remains competitive in attracting mobile talent, it is imperative that the science budget remains strong and ring-fenced,' he said. 'In the US, we have seen the positive impact of science being moved closer to the centre of the administration. It is time we followed suit.'
The Chemical Industries Association's chief executive, Steve Elliott, believes the merger will be good for industry. 'For a long time now I have stressed that government must make the UK a good place to do business,' he says. 'Three key elements of that are the political promotion and fairer regulation of companies - especially chemical and pharmaceutical businesses - the innovation culture, and the ability and skill level of all of us who work in the UK. I believe this move seeks to address those three enterprise drivers in a far more sensible way and I welcome it.'
Benn stresses that science is now the responsibility of a very powerful government department. 'There is a common view that science is the key to getting out of this recession,' he says. 'I think there will be a greater appreciation of all the sciences, chemistry included, and science's role in doing just that.'
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