What is the science minister for?

What is the science minister for?

National Centre for Universities and Business Strategic Adviser, Professor Graeme Reid, looks at how universities and science minister Sam Gyimah can ensure the UK’s place at the forefront of research and innovation.

In January, Gyimah replaced Johnson as universities and science minister. In one of his first speeches in the role, Gyimah set out three priorities for his brief: to build on the reforms of the Johnson era; to maintain the UK’s world-leading cutting-edge science; and to act as the ‘minster for students’.

Imagine you are Sam Gyimah. You arrive in a new job as universities and science minister. You want to make a difference but find that the research agenda is already nailed down.

New legislation for higher education and research is complete; the structure of UK Research and Innovation is defined; key appointments in UKRI and the Office for Students have been made; the industrial strategy has been published and the overall research budget has been agreed. A new government chief scientific adviser has been hired. The only new game in town is the forthcoming review of university finance and even that was trailed before you arrived.

You are going to be frantically busy delivering other people’s ideas: all hard work and no glory. But there is another way to look at it.

The creation of a big-budget UKRI makes research and innovation a more powerful beast in the government jungle. Research and innovation get a high profile in the government’s plans for a post-Brexit economy.

With administrative structures already agreed, the new minister can get on with the bigger picture: harnessing different parts of government to make the most of science and innovation. These are things only a science minister can do. That is where the real glory should lie. They are big issues that affect us all.

Speaking for universities and researchers

European Union membership worked spectacularly well for the researchers but less so, it seems, for many others. Gyimah has retained the government’s high-level forum on Brexit, universities and research so he has the authority to speak for the community as he feeds into the negotiations. The Treasury has guaranteed continuity of funding for EU collaborations but that may need updating as negotiations proceed. The impact of Brexit on science regulations and the contribution of science advice to trade negotiations need close scrutiny. There is plenty for the science minister to do on Brexit.

Home Office immigration policy is absurd. It prevents employers hiring talented people when they want to and it sends hostile signals to the rest of the world. It sits alongside vital work by the Foreign Office, promoting the UK as a trusted partner in global collaborations. Insensitive signals from government send shivers around the world as people choose whether to study, work or invest in the UK. The science minister represents the interests of the research and innovation community as government tries to resolve deeply held but opposing views within its ranks. Nobody else can speak for science as that debate goes on inside government.

Tackling productivity

Unacceptable regional differences in productivity, wealth and opportunity within the UK have frustrated successive governments. Layers of devolution add complexity, but maybe—just maybe—add new ways of tackling the problem.

Productivity gains require improvements in transport, housing, digital infrastructure and skills along with more research and innovation. The science minister cannot solve the productivity challenge alone but he has a big contribution to make.

The Conservatives were elected last year on a manifesto promise to raise the UK’s total investment in R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. Government has made a terrific start by pledging to invest a further £2.3bn on R&D by 2021-22, but two-thirds of R&D investment in the UK comes from industry. This commitment is largely about increasing business investment in R&D though regulatory reforms and persuading more overseas firms to do their R&D in the UK.

Realistically, the commitment can only be met if the Treasury, the Department for International Trade and the science minister join forces. It is for the science minister to make that happen.

The joy of science

There are perennial ambitions to attract more young people to study science and increase the diversity scientists and engineers. Much of this responsibility rightly falls to schools, universities and businesses, but the science minister can often promote science and innovation careers through publicity and endorsement along with judicious educational reforms. Gyimah combines his responsibilities for science with the role of universities minister in the Department for Education. That gives him even more opportunities to promote science careers.

A series of science ministers have been captivated by the sheer excitement of science, research and innovation. Exploring the furthest reaches of the universe and the fundamental structure of matter; trying to understand the origins of life and what it means to be human; nurturing the delicate ecosystem of our planet; attempting to break the world land speed record; opening up the potential of data science and so much more.

Gyimah has started his new job in a whirlwind of meetings, visits and speeches. Let us hope that he makes time to enjoy the fun of science while he steers us through the choppy waters ahead. 


By National Centre for Universities and Business Strategic Adviser, Professor Graeme Reid.

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