British prime minister Gordon Brown has scrapped the government department in charge of science and higher education, just two years after it was created.

As part of a cabinet reshuffle on 5 June, 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", says a government statement.

Science-policy experts say that the merger, which brings the United Kingdom's science budget under the ultimate control of business secretary Peter Mandelson, might increase the focus on science as the country tries to haul itself out of economic recession. But scientists might increasingly have to justify the economic benefits of their research.

The new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills sees the end of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), a short-lived attempt to bring greater coherence to policies surrounding science and higher education.

Higher education will now be part of a more powerful department, but some worry whether it could become "the handmaiden of business", says Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute in Oxford.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the House of Commons committee that oversaw DIUS, criticized the move. "The real casualty of this ill-thought-out reorganization is the nation's strategic science base," he says. "Science needs a stable home at the heart of government policy."

But Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, praised the decision. "Science and innovation should be the bedrock on which the economy builds as we come out of the current recession," he says. "Placing science alongside business and enterprise should help to make that happen."

Higher-education minister David Lammy is moving to the new department, as is science minister Paul Drayson, who takes on extra responsibilities as defence procurement minister. The former head of DIUS, John Denham, will head the communities and local government department.

The arrangement is likely to be temporary, as the unpopular Labour government must call an election by June 2010.