Former UK science minister returns as Brexit government assembles

Jo Johnson is back at the science ministry while hard-line Brexiters take leading roles.

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Jo Johnson, brother of Conservative leadership candidate Boris Johnson, is seen leaving parliament on June 20, 2019.

Jo Johnson, the brother of prime minister Boris Johnson, is back as a minister in the government department that oversees science.Credit: Luke Dray/Getty

In a dramatic first day as UK prime minister, Boris Johnson appointed a cabinet of ministers in charge of the country’s finances, immigration and science funding, who are generally more conservative than their predecessors and more in favour the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal. Johnson also appointed Dominic Cummings — a controversial political strategist who has strong views on science and research policy — as one of his senior advisers.

The shake-up sees Jo Johnson, the prime minister’s brother, return to the Conservative government as minister for universities and science, a role that straddles the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) — which oversees research — and the Department for Education.

Johnson, who campaigned to stay in the EU, was generally popular with scientists in his previous stint in the role, in 2015–18. He moved to the transport department in 2018 before quitting last year to call for a second public vote on Brexit. Johnson replaces Chris Skidmore, who moves to the health ministry.

Johnson’s reappointment comes with a promotion that will see him attend cabinet, the government’s senior decision-making body, meaning that science will be represented at the highest level. However, it is unclear how long this government will last; the Conservative Party holds a slim majority in Parliament, and some commentators predict a general election in the coming months.

Some researchers have warmly welcomed his return. “Jo Johnson has always been a very powerful supporter of UK universities, and, crucially, he is also a pro-European politician,” says Alastair Buchan, head of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford, UK.

As universities and science minister, Jo Johnson oversaw major changes to the UK research system, including the creation of research mega-funder UK Research and Innovation. While out of government, he criticized the recommendations of a government-commissioned review that called for university tuition fees to be cut, which he said would destabilize university finances.

Hard-line worries

But the hard-line Brexit stances of the prime minister’s most senior ministers are likely to worry scientists. Universities, leading laboratories and learned societies have repeatedly warned that a no-deal Brexit would have catastrophic effects on UK research.

Andrea Leadsom, a prominent member of the ‘leave’ campaign during the referendum, has replaced Greg Clark in the top job at the BEIS — which holds the purse strings for research. And Priti Patel, another leading leave campaigner, has become home secretary, in charge of UK immigration policies in the wake of Brexit. These could affect how highly skilled workers, such as scientists, enter the country.

Top adviser is science enthusiast

Boris Johnson has appointed Dominic Cummings — a divisive political strategist who regularly blogs about science — as one of his two senior advisers. But it is not clear how much time Cummings will be able to devote to science policy, says James Wilsdon, who studies science policy at the University of Sheffield, UK.

In blogposts from the past five years, Cummings has criticized research-funding mechanisms, saying the United Kingdom “ties research up in appalling bureaucracy” and fails to fund it enough. He has also said young postdocs “are abused as cheap labour”.

On his blog, Cummings has proposed creating a UK version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to carry out high-risk, high-reward research. He has also suggested setting up a data-science unit in the prime minister’s office that can “plug into the best researchers around the world”, guide policy and flag where there is an absence of evidence.

Cummings’ efforts to apply science to policy have also proved controversial. In an essay written in 2013, when Cummings was an adviser to the education minister, he suggested that children might receive “personalised education” based on genetic testing, arguing that genes have a significant influence on intelligence. The essay attracted criticism from scientists. Cummings cited the work of King’s College London behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin, author of a 2018 book that has been criticized for its overtones of genetic determinism, suggesting that genes predominantly control human nature.

Former banker Sajid Javid has become chancellor of the exchequer — Britain’s finance minister — replacing Philip Hammond, who in 2016 oversaw a major boost in funding for research and development. At the forefront of scientists’ minds is whether Javid will retain the government’s flagship research target of spending 2.4% of the UK gross domestic product on research and development by 2027. To do so would require year-on-year increases of at least £1 billion (US$1.2 billion) in public funding, says James Wilsdon, a science-policy researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK.

In his time as head of BEIS, in 2015 and 2016, Javid showed a “distinctively lukewarm” attitude towards the government’s industrial strategy — a policy to channel more cash into research to boost the economy, says Wilsdon.

But the prime minister’s first speech in office showed a “striking and somewhat surprising” attention to science, adds Wilsdon. Boris Johnson highlighted life sciences, technology and academia as “enormous strengths” of the UK economy. He cited pioneering UK scientists using gene therapy to treat blindness and those working at the forefront of new battery technologies. And he described how the country now has the opportunity to liberate biosciences from anti-genetic-modification rules imposed by the EU, freeing researchers to work in areas such as developing blight-resistant crops. He also hinted at changing tax rules to enable more investment in research.

Controversial adviser

Cummings is among the prime minister’s most controversial appointments and is one of two senior advisers who will reportedly act as de facto chiefs of staff.

Cummings, who was the chief architect of the Vote Leave campaign during the referendum, is a divisive figure among politicians. In March, he was officially reprimanded by Parliament for failing to appear before a committee of MPs investigating the role of fake news in the referendum.

But Cummings is also known to be a great enthusiast for science, arguing for greater research funding and proposing a raft of policy ideas on his blog (see ‘Top adviser is science enthusiast’).

Although welcome, an increase in funding would be unlikely to mitigate Brexit’s negative impacts on research, says Mike Galsworthy, who co-leads the Scientists for EU campaign group. “Dominic Cummings loves science, and he loves Brexit. Unfortunately, one damages the other,” says Galsworthy.

He suspects that Cummings’ efforts to push science will find a willing ear in Boris Johnson, whose rhetoric promotes a ‘can do’ attitude to make Brexit a success. But the government’s approach is likely to deter the best scientists from coming to the United Kingdom, says Galsworthy. “The fundamental flaw is that, as much as they love the idea of science and British science, when you actually look at the science culture in the UK, it is strongly for our partnership with Europe,” he adds.

Nature 572, 14 (2019)

Additional reporting by Holly Else and Quirin Schiermeier.

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 29 July 2019: On 26 July, Jo Johnson confirmed that he has been appointed as universities and science minister. Former science minister Chris Skidmore, has moved to the Department of Health and Social Care. The text has been amended to reflect this.

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