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What remains

Researchers need political allies, but politicians need research

What remains to be said about research policy and the UK’s government at this point? If a week can be a long time in politics, the past months have pushed much of the country deep into senescence.

Just seven issues of Research Fortnight ago, George Freeman was science minister and promising to deal with the problem of UK researchers being locked out of EU grants.

A fortnight later, he was gone as science minister, and Boris Johnson was gone as Conservative Party leader, and EU grant access and other big problems of the research world remained unresolved.

By the time the new prime minister, Liz Truss, appointed a replacement science minister, Nus Ghani, the to-do list waiting for her had a distinctly familiar air.

Now, Truss has joined Johnson on the backbenches, and most of her ministers have ended up there with her. The same to-do list is still there, with nothing ticked off and the sense of chaos largely undiminished.

If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it must be that there is at least no need to explain the issues to the new science minster. For it is again Freeman, doing what is known as the Johnson-Skidmore Manoeuvre and making a swift return to the science brief with his own well-worn to-do list. Don’t call it a comeback.

Of course, given the current state of Westminster, this silver lining arrived tarnished, with confusion over whether Freeman actually is science minister, or whether Ghani is hanging on to some or all of the portfolio

As one senior figure in a major university remarked to Research Fortnight’s opinion editor, John Whitfield, last week, the current answer to ‘what is the government’s approach to science?’ is “going with what was written by the last two science ministers, crossing fingers, and hoping that the next government doesn’t scrap everything to focus on robots or cold fusion or something”.

But amid the gloom, it is worth looking at why what is being done in research is important. In times of loss, it can be good to look at what remains.

In this issue of Research Fortnight, we note that researchers across the UK are still probing the fabric of the universe, developing vaccines and—even if some in Parliament don’t approve—working on projects in the arts and humanities. Others offer support to colleagues fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Most of them will still be doing this when the next science minister is announced. And the one after that.

It is easy to be disheartened by the bleak state of politics and the huge challenges that researchers face in just surviving at the moment, let alone thriving.

But this will not be the last time the sector once again pushes its list of what needs to be done towards whoever has the ministerial positions overseeing research and universities.

The research world spends a lot of its time telling government why research is so special and how it has the power to make a better world, and therefore needs nurturing and supporting. 

It is also worth remembering that all this is done not just to elicit more money for research projects, institutions and personnel. It is done because it is true. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight