In a move overshadowed by the weekend’s political dramas, science was yet again shuffled between UK government departments as a result of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet changes.
Over the years responsibility for science has resided in several different departments, including Education and Science (DES), Trade and Industry (DTI) and Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS).
On Friday the Prime Minister pulled the plug on DIUS, less than two years after its creation. He folded it into Lord Mandelson’s Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), forming a new super-ministry known as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. BIS will be like the old DTI but with the added responsibility for higher education.
Quite rightly, commentators in the academic and scientific communities have expressed concern about the quick demise of DIUS. While few felt that DIUS was doing a great job, the cost and disruption of yet another reorganisation, so soon after the last one, should not underestimated.
From the viewpoint of science, the most important thing is that the budget for basic research, which has risen strongly under Labour, should not be raided to pay for problems in other areas for which BIS is responsible – as happened when science was in the old DTI.
Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, put it well: “In the rush to unlock economic benefits, we must ensure that we don’t divert resources away from basic research… It is imperative that the science budget remains strong and ring-fenced.”
Another concern emerged today. It was announced that Lord Drayson, the science minister, who had worked full-time in DIUS, would now divide his time between BIS and the Ministry of Defence, where he will be responsible for research, development and procurement – a job he held a few years ago.
All in all this seems to amount to something of a demotion for science in the Whitehall hierarchy. But who knows how long the new set-up will last…