George Freeman replaces Amanda Solloway as UK science minister

Former life sciences minister founded series of Cambridge biomedical start-ups before entering politics

September 17, 2021
George Freeman
Source: Richard Townshend

George Freeman, the founder of a series of Cambridge biomedical start-ups, has been appointed the UK’s new science minister.

The Mid Norfolk MP, a former life sciences minister, was handed the role by Boris Johnson at the end of a reshuffle which saw former incumbent Amanda Solloway appointed a government whip.

His appointment is likely to be warmly welcomed in the sector, on account of his tenure in the life sciences brief from 2014 to 2016, and his career before politics.

He spent 15 years in the Cambridge biotechnology sector, founding and financing four biomedical start-ups: Transmo Citycard, Merlin Biosciences, Amedis Pharma and 4D Biomedical, the last a biomedical consulting and seed investment advisory business which was acquired by PA Consulting.

He also served as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, and as a life sciences adviser to Lord Willetts when he was universities minister.

Mr Freeman takes on the brief at a time of unprecedented focus on the UK research sector, with the Conservative government regarding innovation as a cornerstone of the country’s post-Brexit economy and pledging to increase public spending on research and development to £22 billion by 2024-25.

However, concerns remain about whether the £22 billion target will be hit, with a series of battles over funding settlements raising questions about whether the government’s stated commitment rings true. The UK’s reputation as a research partner was damaged when funding for projects supported from the overseas aid budget was slashed, and universities had to lobby frantically for an additional £250 million to cover the cost of the country’s continued participation in the Horizon Europe programme.

Ms Solloway was perceived to have had her influence limited by her junior ministerial role since – while her predecessors had attended Cabinet, this privilege was lost when the universities and science briefs were split in 2020. UK science policy at times appeared to be being driven forward by Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser.

Mr Freeman will hope that his roots in the sector will allow him to punch above his weight, and he comes with a higher profile than many Conservative parliamentarians, having founded the 2020 Conservative Group of MPs, chaired the Conservative Policy Forum thinktank, and set up the Big Tent Ideas festival, initially viewed as an attempt to connect the Tories with young people but now a non-party political event.

Writing on Twitter, Mr Freeman said that it was a “huge privilege and honour” to take on the brief. “We have a historic opportunity to unleash UK science and innovation for post-Covid recovery,” he said.

Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that Mr Freeman was a “longstanding champion” for research, with “significant experience of working in the biomedical and life science sectors”, and that his appointment came at a “pivotal time”.

“UK science has been crucial in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and strengthening UK science, research and innovation is an essential part of increasing productivity and prosperity across the country,” Dr Main said.

“I am looking forward to working with him to draw up the long-term plans needed to ensure the full benefit of increased investment in R&D is realised right across the UK.”

Mr Freeman, the son of a Grand National-winning jockey and a descendant of 19th-century prime minister William Ewart Gladstone, studied geography at the University of Cambridge. He has also served as a transport minister.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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