Published online 5 June 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.550
Updated online: 8 June 2009

News

UK science pulled back to business

Government reshuffle abolishes short-lived research and education department.

Gordon BrownGordon Brown.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has abolished the government department in charge of science and higher education, just two years after it was created.

As part of a cabinet reshuffle today, responsibilities for research and universities were absorbed into a newly inflated business department that will "build Britain's capabilities to compete in the global economy", according to a government statement.

Science policy experts thought the merger, which brings the United Kingdom's science budget under the ultimate control of Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, might herald an increased focus on science as the United Kingdom tries to haul itself out of economic recession. But they warned that scientists would be increasingly expected to justify the economic benefits of their research.

"It's crucial that money for science remains ring-fenced and that [the move] does not result in additional pressure on the research councils to deliver more short-term mission-based research," said Beth Taylor, director of communications at the London-based Institute of Physics.

Dance of the acronyms

The new Department for Business Innovation and Skills (DBIS) replaces two others: the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). Both of these were created when Brown became prime minister in 2007.

DIUS had attempted to bring greater coherence to policies surrounding science and higher education — previously under the jurisdiction of two separate departments. It also separated science from business. Science minister Paul Drayson is moving to the new department, but the former head of DIUS, John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, will instead take charge of the communities and local government department.

Phil Willis, chairman of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, criticized the move. "The real casualty of this ill-thought-out reorganization is the nation's strategic science base," he said. "Science needs a stable home at the heart of government policy."

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"We need to make sure science has a proper home in government and isn't repeatedly moved from department to department — especially if that shuffling is based on personnel rather than for any strategic reason," said Nick Dusic, director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering.

But Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, praised the decision to shift science and business into the same department. "Science and innovation should be the bedrock on which the economy builds as we come out of the current recession. Placing science alongside business and enterprise should help to make that happen," he said. "In the United States we have seen the positive impact of science being moved closer to the centre of the administration. It is time we followed suit." 

Updated:

Higher Education and Intellectual Property Minister David Lammy is "also moving":http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page19550 to DBIS.

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