A new Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology has been ushered into being – and with a new department returns a familiar face to many in the education community: former universities minister Michelle Donelan has been appointed as the first Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology (after, supposedly, Michael Gove turned the job down!)
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is no more. Alongside the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (there is no convention for acronyms yet but DfSIT pronounced duff-sit is surely an early front runner), will sit a new Department for Energy, Security, and Net-Zero, and a Department for Business and Trade. The Institute for Government (IfG) has said that the Department for Business and Trade will absorb the functions of the Department for International Trade (DIT) – with current DIT Secretary of State, and noted university free speech sceptic, Kemi Badenoch leading this department.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen significant changes to this group of departmental responsibilities. The Institute for Government blog has a lovely infographic charting the history of BEIS and DIT. The early functions of BEIS began in 1861 with the Board of Trade, becoming the Department for Trade and Industry in the 1970s, and later becoming the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (and taking on responsibility for the university sector) in 2009. BEIS emerged in 2016 following various moves to absorb and split off its functions within the Department for Education.
Big change for big benefits?
The argument in favour of breaking up BEIS into smaller parts is that it will bring greater focus to the science and energy agendas – an argument that was also made when splitting out universities and research. Proponents of these tweaks will say that science can be too easily lost within wider business policy and given its importance to the UK economy it deserves specific focus with the whole machinery of a department to row in behind it.
With independence also comes the opportunity to be punchier in policy making. The government has pursued an explicitly pro-business pro-science agenda and there are times where the interests of business, particularly in the short-term, may run against the interests of science. For example, the recent reforms to R&D tax credits overwhelmingly benefit the largest businesses at the expense of smaller but more nimble innovative companies. A separate department should allow more distance to formulate deeper, perhaps more independent policy, and allow for more challenging proposals to emerge.
The optics of this move are also important. Giving science its own department signals that this is a priority for a government – and that comes with a proper ministerial team, dedicated civil servants, and parity with other government departments. It is cosmetic but it is important. It matters that as a country we’ve said research is the basis from which we’ll grow the economy and that the government is aligned to doing that. If funding, personnel, and attention row in behind this new department it could be one of the most important in government.
A slight but important note, given the UK has no industrial strategy of note anymore BEIS doesn’t make a lot of sense as a name for a government department.
The problems it won’t fix
The UK is undoubtedly really good at science but not as good at deploying these innate strengths to solving issues within the economy and society more generally. Whether it is the UK as a science superpower, whether it’s clusters of excellence, whether it’s moonshots, or whichever epithet of science we choose this week, it’s not because of where science sits that as a country we don’t live up to our potential.
Research is underpowered because we haven’t spent enough money on it. It’s obviously more complicated than that but not much more complicated. The government has massively uprated public investment in science which will make an impact overtime but the underpinning research infrastructure does not have sufficient absorptive capacity to grow the economy to the level ministers imagine.
There is a significant and chronic shortage of lab spaces across the country. Demand isn’t only high in the golden triangle but all over the country. This is money, innovations, and research, which are being left on the table because there is no space to carry out work. For example, despite everything learned in COVID, there are no category four lab spaces, those equipped to work with the most dangerous pathogens, north of London. This is before even considering the enormous productivity losses of poor transport infrastructure between universities and businesses.
A new science department also won’t resolve innovation within the private sector. The public face of the government’s science agenda has often been geared around breakthroughs, and big, interesting science. This of course has a place and it is important. However, as work by NESTA demonstrates, there is distinct value in investment in research in the foundational economy. The grinding, even tedious work, of investing in business capacity for innovation activity, is the only way to grow the overall business economy. Policies that strip back tax reliefs for R&D from smallest businesses are the exact opposite of what the government should do.
New department new opportunity
The question at the heart of this debate is what will this new science department do that it couldn’t under its previous guise.
Broadly, its purpose will be to prioritise science and innovation activity for the good of the economy. In addition, the government should consider the social objectives of the department that may be possible with its new independence. If the department is to plan for the long-term then addressing issues of sustainability, health inequalities and the social and economic misery they bring, and the rights and health of children, are social objectives which will realise long-term economic goods. These may have a short-term cost to business but should be done for the longer term benefits of society.
Close to the top of the agenda will be resolving the impasse around Horizon. It seems unlikely that association will be achieved and that Michelle Donelan, and probably Kemi Badenoch, will be spending significant time developing bi-lateral research agreements. The likes of which were recently announced with Japan.
If the department is to be effective it will carefully have to straddle the focus its separation brings with influence in wider government departments that are key to achieving a science and innovation mission. In this light, the department will need sufficient clout, and perhaps even powers, to bring forward widespread planning reform to address chronic shortages in science infrastructure.
One consistency in a perennially changing science landscape is that the science community has felt science has never been treated seriously enough. Now it is, and with that comes the opportunity to shape the science agenda for a generation. It is not unfeasible to think that DfSIT could become one of the most powerful departments in government.