The UK science minister has vanished. Plans by the government scare researchers
The UK’s science community is pleading with the country’s incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss to fill the position of science minister, which has gone unfilled for over three months, and to renew its commitment to the previous administration’s plan to turn the nation into a “science powerhouse.” The requests come amid worries that Truss’s administration would downgrade research priorities and that UK scientists will be harmed by her economic agenda, which has brought the pound to record lows.
According to Martin Smith, head of the Policy Lab at London’s Wellcome, a financier of biomedical research, “it’s absolutely crucial that the incoming administration delivers a really strong signal to the community that the’science superpower’ agenda is alive and thriving.” We haven’t seen any indication of it from the new administration thus far, despite the fact that it was a significant component of [former Prime Minister] Boris Johnson’s rhetoric.
After Johnson’s resignation in July, Truss was selected by members of the conservative party in early September. Her administration is seen as being more right-wing than that of her predecessor, and she has already taken a number of moves that upset researchers and policy experts. She dissolved the National Science and Technology Council this week, a legislative body Johnson founded in 2021 with the mission of making strategic choices on the nation’s scientific initiatives. And even months after former science minister George Freeman resigned in July to demand Johnson’s resignation, the position of science minister is still vacant.
Julia King, chair of the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee, wrote to Truss this week pleading with her to appoint a science minister and rethink dissolving the council. We definitely need collaboration across government ministries if we’re going to carry out that [scientific superpower] goal, says King.
For UK experts, the government’s lack of clear guidance on research has exacerbated already-existing difficulties. The European Union and the UK government have been wrangling over Brexit for six years, but they have failed to agree on whether the UK will continue to participate in Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship research initiative.
Nearly €100 billion in research funding will be distributed over the course of the seven-year initiative, and earlier iterations of the plan have provided significant funding for UK scientists. However, it is more and more probable that UK academics will no longer have access to this funding pool as long as politicians cannot agree on the precise terms of Brexit.
More than 100 Academic Plan from the UK who had been awarded grants from the prestigious European Research Council for the programme lost them in June because they declined to move to Europe, which was a requirement for the money. The UK government claims to have a backup financing strategy for researchers, known as Plan B, although there are few specifics.
According to James Wilsdon, a research policy expert at the University of Sheffield in the UK, “the worst thing is the protracted uncertainty because it’s simply pouring acid on the delicate tissues of collaboration between UK academics and research throughout the rest of the EU that we rely on.”