Sajid Javid cautious on plans for new UK science ministerial committee

Critics fear proposals for high-level body could risk politicising scientific decisions.

January 21, 2016
Sajid Javid speaking at podium

The secretary of state for business appears to be lukewarm over controversial proposals for a ministerial committee to oversee UK science.

Sajid Javid appeared in front of MPs earlier this week to answer questions about last year’s spending review and the future structure of research funding bodies.

Last November, Sir Paul Nurse, the former Royal Society president, released a report recommending the creation of an overarching body, Research UK. It would incorporate the existing seven research councils, although it was emphasised that this did not amount to a merger.

The report also recommended that a committee of ministers assess proposals from this new body in order to better join up research and government – although some critics feared this would lead to political interference in science. The chancellor, George Osborne, had been tipped to chair the new body.

Questioned by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Mr Javid said that he supported “almost all” of Sir Paul’s recommendations.

But asked about the new ministerial committee, he said: “That was an interesting recommendation.”

While cross-government coordination of science strategy was important, “whether we have this ministerial committee in exactly the same way [as recommended]” was “something to still decide”, Mr Javid said.

On the spending review, which committed to protect funding for research in real terms for the duration of this parliament, Mr Javid confirmed that nothing additional would be funded out of the research budget – the so-called “tucking in” of extra costs to a fixed budget.

More details of the science budget would be released in mid-February, he said.

Last week, the vice-chancellors’ organisation Universities UK criticised some elements of Sir Paul’s plans to reorganise the UK’s research infrastructure.

Part of the plans involve shifting responsibility for distributing quality related research funding (QR) away from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which currently also handles funding for teaching, to the new body Research UK.

“Creating an absolute administrative and funding separation between teaching and research runs the risk of damaging the interactions between these functions within universities to the detriment of both,” UUK’s response to last year’s higher education Green Paper said.

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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