Farewell George Freeman, hello Andrew Griffith

Freeman is out and Griffith is in. James Coe has the latest on a changing DSIT

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

After nearly a decade of science roles George Freeman has stepped down as Minister of State for Science, Technology and Innovation, to spend more time focussing on his health, family and life beyond the frontbench.

George Freeman

A sometimes erratic proponent of superpowers, clusters, moonshots, missions and all sorts of science innovation, Freeman will be remembered as a friend to research and innovation where over the last decade there have been as few voices as loud or as consistent in calling for increased R&D support and investment.

Freeman’s admirers will remember him as the person that helped to deliver association to Horizon Europe at the point when association looked unlikely. It is easy to say in retrospect that the UK would have always signed-up but there are MPs that would not have been as consistent advocates for joining an EU funded scheme in the aftermath of Brexit.

Should ARIA be a success over the next decade in delivering breakthroughs in research outside of the confines of traditional institutions and funding he will be remembered as someone who had the political bravery to deliver an idea heavily associated with a then discredited Dominic Cummings.

Freeman has also overseen what will likely be seen as a boom time for investment in R&D. As his boss Michelle Donelan has got stuck into woke scientists he has been a proponent of investment in agrifood, dementia care, transport innovation, clusters, bi-lateral partnerships, multilateral partnerships and basically any problem that R&D could have a role in solving. While policy fatigue is a hallmark of his tenure he has brought a seriousness to the role.

The cumulative impact of this work is that Freeman has been more high profile than junior ministers in other departments. He has also undoubtedly got a greater degree of expertise than many of his peers by virtue of having been around much longer. His parliamentary science career has spanned Cameroonian smarter state, to Johnsononian levelling up, to Sunak’s Science and Technology Framework.

The downside of Freeman’s approach has been that he leaves a legacy of policy litter that risks bulging into a mess. The conceptual framework that science is the centre of the countries’ economy has been set while the government launches a culture war on its own funding bodies. Horizon association has been secured while strategic ambiguity on research security with international partners continues to stymie Britain as a global superpower. And while clusters have been the minister’s buzzword, aside from RIF, there are few funding mechanisms to make this a reality.

In a system which is complex with multiple political actors this contradictory approach to policy making is not all the minister’s fault. However, his exit from the stage comes at a particularly poor time as the sector awaits the Autumn Statement, the response to the Nurse Review, the response to the review of research bureaucracy, the final decisions on REF, plus the existential issue of making whatever remains of place-based research policy a reality.

While the university sector has often been criticised for being too woke, teaching too broadly, or otherwise being misaligned to the government, Freeman has been a steadfast advocate for universities and their research. For this alone his departure will be mourned by many invested in research, technology and innovation.

Andrew Griffith

Taking up the science mantle is Andrew Griffith.

Griffith’s pre-parliamentary career was in finance, working for companies like Sky, PWC and Rothschild and Co. before being elected as MP for Arundel and South Downs in 2019.

Griffith has served in a number of junior roles across net zero, sustainable infrastructure, international trade and most recently as Economic Secretary to the Treasury (commonly referred to as city minister). Griffith is more than a Boris Johnson loyalist. He allowed the former Prime Minister to use a property of his during his leadership campaign. Griffith also served as Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary. After the departure of his old boss Griffith backed Liz Truss for Prime Minister.

In a piece for Conservative Home in February 2022 on his appointment as Johnson’s new director of policy Griffith wrote that “a competitively regulated, low tax and high skills economy trading globally has always been the right combination for economic success.” In a January 2021 speech on the National Security and Investment Bill, Griffith spoke against more restrictive definitions within the bill, saying that

The UK economy is one of the most open in the world, and our prosperity depends on that. The salaries and pensions of one in every three nurses, doctors and teachers depend on the cyclotron of capitalism that combines our world-leading science and intellectual capital with human talent from all over the world to invest in and create economic activity here in the UK.

Alongside his initial tweet to “unleash capital” in supporting new opportunities, this could signal a move toward more of the technical debates on pension reforms, spin-outs, the investment ecosystem and foreign direct investment that have been bubbling under the surface. The key tension is how he will temper these free market instincts against enormous challenges like sustainability and levelling up that only state intervention can resolve.

Elsewhere, time will tell if Freeman’s programmes of clusters, cultures and state investment survives the new incumbent. This appointment may not get the attention of some other ministerial posts but Griffith’s track record raises the possibility of a change in priorities and approach.

One response to “Farewell George Freeman, hello Andrew Griffith

  1. Freeman’s decision to go is for me a clear signal that the focus of his department over the next year or so will be on “kicking the woke out of science” rather than more constructive activities

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