Amid the carnage of Brexit, the UK government has gained a new science minister. Chris Skidmore was appointed on 5 December, succeeding Sam Gyimah, who resigned last week over the direction of Brexit negotiations.
Skidmore takes over responsibility for the universities and science portfolio, a brief divided between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The post, a junior ministerial position, has had high turnover in recent years: Skidmore is the United Kingdom’s fifth science minister in eight years.
A Conservative member of parliament since 2010, Skidmore studied history at the University of Oxford, and represents a constituency in southwestern England that has strong links to science and innovation: it is home to aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the UK National Composite Centre, a government-funded research institute focused on developing composite materials and technologies. He is also a historian who has written several books on British monarchs.
“Delighted and honoured to have been appointed Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation,” he tweeted.
Skidmore favoured Britain remaining in the European Union in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. But, importantly for embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, Skidmore is regarded as a government loyalist. His voting record demonstrates continuous support for May’s policies, including her stance on Brexit. This might have been a factor in his appointment, because ministers are expected to vote with the government — and he has publicly supported May’s divisive Brexit divorce deal.
The agreement, which defines the terms of Britain’s looming exit from the European Union, was hammered out in fraught negotiations between the UK government and EU. Announced last month, it split politicians and prompted a spate of ministerial resignations. May now faces a fight to get the deal approved by the UK Parliament in a vote on 11 December.
Before starting his political career, Skidmore worked as an adviser to David Willetts — a long-serving and well-liked former science minister — and to former education minister Michael Gove. That experience should play to his favour, according to Universities UK, an umbrella group that represents British higher-education institutions.
“Chris Skidmore comes to the role with significant insight into the science and engineering sector through his constituency,” says Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, a London-based advocacy group. “The minister has a big agenda in front of him: to increase the UK’s research intensity by 50% over 10 years.” That goal lies at the heart of the government’s ‘industrial strategy’ to increase productivity, says Main.
Mike Galsworthy, founder of anti-Brexit group Scientists4EU, says that the new minister’s stance on some topics — such as his support for ending ‘free movement’ of people between the EU and the United Kingdom — “does not sit well” with universities, who worry about post-Brexit research collaborations and academic exchange.
“His biggest challenge is to be able to strongly represent the interests of the science and universities community through the chaotic Brexit battles now,” Galsworthy says.
Jess Cole, head of policy at Britain’s Russell Group of large research-intensive universities in London, says: “It’s a turbulent time in higher education, with Brexit, an immigration white paper and a major review into post-18 education and funding all hurtling down the track.”
“Hopefully the new minister will get up to speed quickly, recognizing the UK’s universities are a great national asset that will be central to building a strong economy post-Brexit,” she says.
Gyimah was science minister for only 11 months, and his resignation came after May announced on 30 November that the country would pull out of Galileo, the EU’s satellite-navigation system, and consider building its own.
Galileo had been a key sticking point in Brexit negotiations. The UK government had intended to negotiate rejoining the system, but EU law dictates that a non-member state cannot be involved in developing the secure part of the system, which provides signals for government users, including the military.
Another of Skidmore’s predecessors, Jo Johnson, also resigned over Brexit in November. Gyimah, Johnson and Willetts have all now backed a fresh referendum on Brexit — as have many in the scientific community, which broadly fears that the departure will be a disaster for research.