Right where it belongs

Being part of BIS means science is now at the epicentre of Whitehall and government policy, says Lord Drayson

July 2, 2009

Some in the science community have expressed concerns that responsibility for science policy now comes under the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

They voiced their misgivings to me directly through Twitter - where this article was commissioned. The micro-blogging and social-networking site may harbour dangers for politicians, but I find it a useful source of feedback from the scientific front line.

The points made to me included the suggestion that science will have a diminished profile in BIS, that it will be subservient to business, and that my ministerial role covering defence will further relegate science and present ethical dilemmas about its use.

I appreciate these concerns and take them seriously. They confirm the desire across the community for an experienced and committed advocate of science and engineering in Government.

However, I believe that the creation of BIS is the best outcome for science.

The Prime Minister has signalled the importance he places on science and technology by making the Science Minister a Cabinet-level appointment and by creating a dedicated Cabinet committee. Gordon Brown, Lord Mandelson and I have stated repeatedly that the ring-fenced science and research budget is secure. Far from cutting science funding, we are committed to raising it.

Now, with the arrival of BIS, science is not just at the heart of Westminster, but at the epicentre of Whitehall.

The purpose of BIS is to build a dynamic knowledge economy driven by excellence in education, strategic investment from Government and - critically - an outstanding science base.

Being part of the strongest Whitehall department will increase political buy-in and speed policy implementation, thereby harnessing scientific expertise in support of a high-tech economy and strengthening the research base.

I see my parallel role at the Ministry of Defence as another constructive development. The MoD has the biggest research budget of any department. As a minister there previously, I ensured that the Defence Industrial Strategy, and all decisions on equipment for the armed forces, were made on the basis of strong scientific evidence and capability.

I have a similar brief this time, with a particular focus on defence science and technology. Of course science is essential to the development of weaponry - it was ever thus - yet breakthroughs associated with such necessary work have also delivered considerable benefits for civilians. The ultrasound technology first used to detect submarines now helps to identify heart defects in unborn babies.

But there is a wider objective driving both the creation of BIS and the trend towards combined ministerial duties.

One of the Government's biggest challenges is to improve co-ordination among departments. The more that can be done to address that challenge, the better. In recent months, the new Office for Life Sciences has served a vital function by building consensus across Whitehall on how to boost our national capacity in this industry. Such co-ordination is just as critical in addressing major issues such as climate change.

A final point: the recession, as tough as it is, has actually raised the profile of science and reinforced the value of universities to the country.

That can only be a good thing, but equally, it is one of my tasks to ensure that science does not become overly identified with business. In this area of government, Bill Clinton's famous slogan - "It's the economy, stupid" - won't wash.

From the days of David Sainsbury, Labour has long recognised the importance of basic research, knowledge for its own sake, public engagement and the urgency of recruiting future generations of scientists in every discipline.

My brief is the same: as an advocate for and defender of science and engineering within BIS and across Government.

I'm happy to be judged on the extent to which British science as a whole moves forward - whether on Twitter, in the pages of Times Higher Education or before a new parliamentary committee for science.

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