DSIT creation brings fear over ‘political direction’ of research

Michelle Donelan will have to stop ‘fighting culture wars’ and try to ‘make stuff happen on the ground’, says professor

二月 13, 2023
Giant puppet being walked throughout Liverpool, England to illustrate DSIT creation brings fear over ‘political direction’ of research
Source: Getty

A new UK government Department for Science, Innovation and Technology means the sector might have to guard against increased political direction of the research system, according to the chief executive of Universities UK.

Rishi Sunak created the department on 7 February as he broke up the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which was previously responsible for research funding. He appointed as secretary of state in the new DSIT Michelle Donelan, who dismayed many in the sector with a perceived “culture wars” approach as higher education minister.

The shake-up was driven by calls for a secretary of state with a Cabinet seat – rather than a junior minister – to be responsible for science, to gain “the political authority to crack departmental heads together” as the Conservative government pledges to make the UK a “science superpower” and dramatically increases research spending.

One immediate departmental priority will be the question of whether the UK associates to the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme – an issue entangled in the Northern Ireland protocol dispute – or pursues a “Plan B” alternative, with a proposed scheme under development.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of UUK, said the creation of DSIT could be viewed in two ways.

“On the one hand, it’s a signal that research is regarded as one of the key planks of economic success,” she said. “I think that has to be received positively, and it means a voice around the Cabinet table with that as their exclusive focus.”

But she added: “If you were being glass half-empty about it, though, you might say this might be a bit of a worry in the sense you will have a department which is almost exclusively focused on what’s happening within UKRI [UK Research and Innovation] and the academies.

“I do think there’s a bit of a sign that central government has wanted to tinker and to micromanage the research system to an extent I don’t think is terribly healthy.

“That’s part of the debate going on around Horizon alternatives at the moment: taking something that is meant to be expansive, broad and available for bottom-up direction and turning that into something that is perhaps more politically directed and top down.”

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former adviser in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills under the Labour government, said that on Downing Street’s stated priorities for DSIT – to “drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy” – Ms Donelan will “need a pretty good idea” of how research and development spending “going out the door is actually going to help deliver on either [or] both agendas”.

Richard Jones, vice-president for regional innovation and civic engagement at Manchester, said the goal of the Levelling Up White Paper to increase research spending outside the greater south-east area “needs institutional changes, not just in DSIT, but in other departments with significant R&D budgets”, including the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Defence.

“So, to succeed, the DSIT secretary of state will need to engage across the whole of government; the National Science and Technology Council could be an important instrument for this,” he added.

Linking research and development into boosting jobs and the economy is “not fighting culture wars”, said Professor Westwood. “It’s actually trying to make stuff happen on the ground.”




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