Science minister’s ‘investment security’ brief raises concerns

Appointment may reflect shift towards a ‘harder-edged, more hawkish’ attitude towards research collaboration, say experts

October 6, 2022
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Combining the UK science minister’s brief with “investment security” raises important questions about Britain’s openness to engage internationally on research and whether the government increasingly sees science through a “harder-edged, hawkish” lens of defence and security, experts said.

Unlike her predecessor, whose role covered “science, research and innovation”, Nusrat Ghani’s title is “minister for science and investment security”, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

In addition to her responsibilities for science and research, which include “Horizon Europe membership”, life sciences and space strategy, Ms Ghani will also cover “technology, strategy and security” and will support the business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg with “investment security” and “investment pipeline and opportunities”.

Her brief will also cover “maritime and shipbuilding” and “critical minerals and critical mineral supply chains”, which is likely to be focused on China’s growing dominance in the acquisition of rare metals, such as lithium and cobalt.

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, told Times Higher Education that the sector should “show more curiosity about what ‘investment security’ means in this portfolio, and what it might tell us about this government’s vision of the place of science and innovation in public life”.

“I assume it relates to the new national security and investment policies, which implies an instrumental view of research and a view that science and technology is part of the zero-sum competition between nations rather than a globally collaborative enterprise,” said Professor Flanagan.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said it was good news that the science minister was now a full minister of state, rather than a parliamentary undersecretary, but also shared concerns over the investment security aspect of her brief.

“Quite what the latter involves is unclear, but one assumes it reflects the harder-edged, more hawkish view of the role of science, technology and research more broadly in the defence and maintenance of the UK’s security and strategic advantage,” said Professor Wilsdon.

On balancing the two parts of her brief, Professor Wilsdon noted that Ms Ghani was “a prominent Tory hawk on China so one assumes some of her focus will lie there”.

“While there are of course some legitimate concerns over security, economic and intellectual property risks that may arise in respect of UK research links to China, I think we urgently need a science minister who is serious about boosting UK research collaboration with the wider world, rather than taking a big fat marker to cross out yet more swathes of the globe where collaboration is no longer supported or seen as valuable,” he added.

Given current geopolitical tensions, Ms Ghani’s other role of promoting Britain as a “science superpower” would also prove challenging, he added.

“If association with Horizon Europe continues to prove elusive or impossible, Russia and China are no longer seen as acceptable collaborators, and a major bilateral deal with the United States on research (as well as wider trade) is out, one wonders what remains for the substantive focus of any ‘Plan B’,” he said. “There’s only so much we as the UK can do in research and development collaborative terms with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel and Switzerland.

“Are we still aiming to be a ’science superpower’? And if so, what does that mean in this context? This is what I’d like to hear the new minister spell out more clearly in the months ahead.”

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