So long, George Freeman

He’s gone, he asked to come back, the interim government said no, and now there are a lot of unresolved issues in science policy which need urgent resolution.

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

I’m not sure what sort of legacy any Minister can have in ten months, but most watchers of higher education will recognise George Freeman as a regular, vocal, and consistent, champion of the value of UK research. He will be most fondly remembered for his advocacy for association to Horizon and funding for alternatives in the face of a reluctant treasury.

He was also part of the team which provided record investment in research, led some of the research twinning activities with Ukraine, and backed infrastructure investment in health and life sciences. If his achievements were hindered by circumstance or time most people in the sector will have felt he was at least on their side.

Saying this, I’m not sure that Freeman was ever able to articulate a single compelling vision for UK research. His scope for action as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Research and Innovation, was of course limited by his lack of seniority, but the whole thing never really seemed to click. Levelling up by investing in latent R&D assets makes sense but that doesn’t work if you promise investment everywhere. Global Britain is a good ambition but doesn’t comfortably fit with the implicit challenges of security bills or, to his disagreement, exiting multi-partner research frameworks. Moonshots, trying out bid ideas with freedom to fund them, works but ARIA has no executive or ideas. And it’s still not really clear what being a science superpower is.

Not all these policies are of Freeman’s making but it speaks to the frenetic nature of recent science policy. It’s simultaneously about concentrating investment in left-behind areas and funding excellence everywhere. It’s about the world and it’s about Europe but not reaching out to the world through Europe. And it’s about significant investment in tried and trusted methods and reviving a Victorian age of brilliant individuals funded to lead industrial development. These things can’t all work at once.

I once took part on a panel with Freeman for the thinktank Onward and he told a story of a whiteboard he had up in his office with investment zones, policy ideas, ideas for global Britain, moonshots and the like. In the end, this seems like a good capsule for his tenure. A politician with lots of ideas but somehow could never quite force them into a coherent or popular agenda.


Taking in the previous incarnation of this role Freeman is the 7th incumbent in seven years. The whole idea of divorcing the job from the education portfolio was to give a greater focus to research occurring outside of the academy. This isn’t a bad idea in and of itself but constant churn and changing of mission means that no single policy can have the attention it deserves.

Freeman also leaves an inbox with thousands of unread messages. The Government collapsing is pretty inconvenient for Horizon negotiations which need a resolution. The EU Commission, Northern Ireland, and thousands of researchers aren’t going to wait forever for a resolution. Every day a solution isn’t found ideas, people and money are fleeing from global Britain. Is Levelling Up now dead? Any future Government is going to want to make places better but the fiscal framework and policy levers to do that will now be rewritten. And who knows what this means for future research funding settlements, frameworks, and the like.

There’s now going to be a leadership election. Freeman did express interest in 2019 but declined to stand in the end. Assuming he decides not to stand it would be good for UK science to have a bit of consistency. A Prime Minister who can advocate for UK’s research globally, a Chancellor who values and will fund science, and a science, research and innovation team, in whatever format it’s constructed, with a few clear and funded policy ideas.

Is that too much to ask?

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