Michelle Donelan to lead new science department in UK government

Prime minister shakes up structures within government as well as ministerial team

February 7, 2023
Michelle Donelan

A new UK government Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has been announced by prime minister Rishi Sunak, with former higher education minister Michelle Donelan becoming its first secretary of state.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – which previously oversaw science and the research budget – has been broken up.

As secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, Ms Donelan will have a seat at Cabinet, rather than science being a junior ministerial post as at present. This gives the science brief a far stronger position within government.

Meanwhile, George Freeman, who had been minister for science in BEIS, tweeted that he was “honoured to be the first minister of state”, the rank below secretary of state, in the new department.

Downing Street said in a statement: “A dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy. Having a single department focused on turning scientific and technical innovations into practical, appliable solutions to the challenges we face will help make sure the UK is the most innovative economy in the world.”

There will also be a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, Department for Business and Trade and Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology was also expected to take responsibility for digital issues.

Mr Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, have pledged to prioritise science, recently committing to “protect the entire research budget” and proceed with plans to increase it to £20 billion by 2024, despite cuts elsewhere.

Lord Hague, the former Tory leader regarded as a key influence on Mr Sunak, said in the summer that the next prime minister “should appoint a secretary of state for science and technology and give them the political authority to crack departmental heads together” to follow through on the goal to make the UK a “science superpower”.

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Royal Society of Biology, welcomed the creation of a dedicated science department.

“This is a great opportunity to facilitate further interdisciplinary approaches to address some of the UK and world’s biggest challenges. To realise the full potential of UK science and innovation there must be a fully cohesive approach that embeds skills and training and links these across government departments and the devolved assemblies,” he said.

“We are glad to see that this new structure will recognise the key role of science in society and provide a strong basis for leadership across government departments.”

Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said the reorganisation was “another sign of the importance government places on science and innovation”.

“It is vital, however, that the practicalities of making changes in Whitehall aren’t allowed to take away from the time and resources needed to drive forward the promising agenda the government has previously set out,” Dr Rathbone added.

“This new secretary of state position can help ensure cross-governmental buy in and support by championing science at the Cabinet table, whether that is in investment, skills development, or from elsewhere.

“This support will be essential in tackling the big issues and uncertainty currently facing the sector, such as reform of R&D tax relief system and access to European research programmes.”

The sector will also await news of whether the reshuffle – sparked by the need to find a new Conservative party chair after the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi – brings further changes to an ever-changing ministerial team at the Department for Education.


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Reader's comments (1)

Fab - awesome to see Michelle's superstar progression through the Tory party - even despite the competitive talent pool up against her. TBF - her degree in History and Politics as well as that important experience in marketing for WWE made her the obvious choice for this. Well done Rishi!