New department will aid science policy but poses questions for science advice, says David Willetts
In December 2010, Vince Cable, then Liberal Democrat business secretary in the coalition government, was secretly recorded saying that he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch. In the fallout, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) lost responsibility for digital technologies to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Software and hardware, in other words, were separated.
By closing this divide, the most dysfunctional in the system, the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) marks a step forward for UK science and research.
The split had caused cabinet committees on science and technology to get bogged down in arguments about which department was responsible for quantum technologies or cybersecurity. It has also held up the semiconductor strategy. Giving the new department responsibility for technology in all its forms resolves the problem.
The creation of DSIT also recognises that the business department lost interest in key technologies in about 2015. Since then it has been led by the Office for Science and Technology Strategy, which is also brought into the new structure.
This does, however, open up a delicate issue. The classic model of science policy, developed by the OECD in the 1960s, distinguishes between policy for science and science for policy. In my time as science minister, for example, then chief scientist John Beddington advised the whole government on the impact of the Fukushima earthquake and Icelandic volcanic eruption, as part of a distinct unit serving the cabinet and all of Whitehall.
Policy for science required a different way of working under the science minister. That model was not perfect, but if anything Fukushima enhanced its reputation. Beddington briefed cabinet and publicly stated that the risk of radiation reaching Tokyo was tiny, so British citizens need not evacuate.
It was a striking contrast to France’s decision to pull out its diplomats. Afterwards, the Japanese government asked how it could create a post of chief scientific adviser with similar independent authority. That was how our classic model was supposed to work.
During the Covid crisis, the current chief scientist Patrick Vallance developed an exceptionally close working relationship with the prime minister and others at the top of government. That is a good thing. Unsurprisingly, Vallance has also come to play a larger role in policy for science.
Is this a temporary change shaped by the intensity of the Covid crisis and the gifts of one man, or a permanent new model? How will the new department organise around these two functions? The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which succeeded BIS, hosted both the science minister and the chief scientist, but the latter served cabinet as a whole. Is that subtle but important distinction to continue? How will it work in practice?
Such questions raise another key issue. The biggest change in British science and technology policy over the past few years has been the growing importance of the security perspective. This rescued strategic support for technologies from Beis’s indifference. A Cambridge academic and entrepreneur once asked me why the security services were so interested in his technology that they wanted to check who invested in it, yet the Treasury and Beis were so unsure of its potential that they refused to fund it.
Cabinet’s National Science and Technology Council created in 2021 was one place where civil and security perspectives came together. How will that work now?
One reason why UK industrial strategy collapsed after World War II was a failure to work out how to commercialise technologies developed with a security requirement. The new department is a chance to revisit that challenge. A good working relationship with the Ministry of Defence will be crucial.
The other crucial relationship will be with the Department for Education. Universities are fundamental to the UK’s research effort, and the science superpower agenda depends on their growth. The DfE, however, doesn’t much like universities, rather wishes fewer people went to them, and is presiding over a steady fall in the unit of resource per student. This in turn means revenues from overseas students are subsidising the costs of teaching domestic students, whereas until recently they have subsidised research.
It is dysfunctional to have one department responsible for university teaching and another for research. Far better to put universities as a whole in the new department. As a minimum, the DfE should recognise that the science superpower agenda cannot be delivered without its active support for universities.
David Willetts was minister for universities and science, 2010-2014, and is now a Conservative peer
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight