Patrick Vallance gestures during a press conference at 10 Downing Street in 2021.

Patrick Vallance was the UK government’s chief science adviser during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit: Adrian Dennis-WPA Pool/Getty

The scientific adviser who graced UK televisions with nightly updates during the COVID-19 pandemic has been appointed as the country’s science minister. The appointment is one of many made by new UK Prime Minister Keir Starmer, who began naming his cabinet after his Labour Party won a landslide in the election on 4 July.

Patrick Vallance, a clinical researcher and former head of research and development at drug firm GlaxoSmithKline, takes up the role in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. The science ministry saw several reorganizations and ministers during the Conservative Party’s 14-year rule.

Vallance’s appointment, as a scientist who is not a Member of Parliament (MP) and who has no ministerial experience, seems to be a first for the science ministry. He was the government’s chief scientific adviser under the Conservatives from 2018 to 2023, and helped to shape the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vallance’s hiring is “a reassuring signal to the wider research community, that they’ve actually got somebody who understands what they do and the constraints”, says Jill Rutter, a former civil servant and researcher at the Institute for Government, a think tank in London. There is some precedent for having a non-politician in the role, says Rutter, noting that business leader David Sainsbury held the post from 1998 to 2006, during Tony Blair’s Labour government, although he was not a scientist.

Centrist minister

Vallance will serve under Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, who was appointed secretary of state for science, innovation and technology on 5 July and has a seat in the Cabinet, the prime minister’s most senior group of advisers. Kyle held the shadow science brief while Labour was in opposition, having been appointed in September 2023. The secretary — who has been an aid worker and has a PhD in community economic development — is likely to be welcomed by the industrial research community. Writing on X, former Conservative science minister George Freeman referred to Kyle as “not one of the Old Left — but a dynamic modernising centrist reformer”.

The full ministerial team of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has yet to be announced. Chris Bryant, MP for Rhondda and previously shadow minister for creative industries and digital, has been appointed as a junior minister in the department. So far, Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and West and a long-standing shadow minister in the science, research and innovation team, has yet to be given a role.

Peter Kyle walks to Number 10 Downing Street.

Peter Kyle is secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, mirroring a role he held in the opposition cabinet.Credit: Alex McBride/Getty

Alongside Vallance, Starmer has appointed other external experts to ministerial posts. James Timpson, a business leader and former chair of the London-based charity the Prison Reform Trust, becomes prisons minister, and Richard Hermer, a lawyer with expertise in international law and human rights, becomes attorney-general, the government’s chief legal adviser. Because they have not been elected as MPs, all will be given peerages, which will allow them to sit in the House of Lords, the upper house of UK parliament, and serve as ministers.

A “big plus” of appointing experts from outside politics is that they are less likely to seek more senior political appointments, says Rutter. Vallance “won’t be looking for a promotion to another job and looking to be reshuffled”, she says.

The expert appointments echo the moves of former prime minister Gordon Brown’s Labour government from 2007 to 2010. Brown appointed non-politicians to some ministries, including the Department of Health, as part of an aim to install a ‘government of all talents’, says Kieron Flanagan, a science-policy researcher at the University of Manchester, UK.

But Flanagan cautions that appointing an expert doesn’t guarantee success as a minister. “You just exchange ignorance of the technical and professional aspects of the subject matter for ignorance of the high-level and practical politics of the matter.”

Sir Keir Starmer and Peter Kyle (left) talk to two AstraZeneca employees in protective attire as they visit an AstraZeneca laboratory in Macclefield in 2023.

Peter Kyle (left) and now Prime Minister Keir Starmer (centre) at an AstraZeneca laboratory in Macclesfield, UK, in 2023.Credit: Jason Roberts/Getty

Flanagan suggests that Vallance has been appointed because of his professional experiences as chief science adviser. These “have given him a strong perspective on things like cross-government coordination, how the science base can be mobilized to support public policy goals, but also how to make a ‘mission’ work”, he says. For example, Vallance was involved in the vaccine taskforce during the pandemic, to drive the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Continuity in service

Apart from these expert appointments, the prevailing message from the new government is continuity, says Rutter. “The good news is that you’ve got people going into those roles who have had those roles in opposition.”

On the campaign trail, Labour’s manifesto namechecked Britain’s “excellent research institutions” as an area where the country has a global advantage and one the party would back as part of efforts to kick-start economic growth. But it didn’t feature any specific funding pledges for science.

Eyes will also be on Bridget Phillipson, MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, who has higher education in her wide brief as education secretary; she also becomes minister for women and equalities. In her first speech at the Department for Education on 5 July, Phillipson referred to “the state of university finances” as one of several issues that staff “all know well, but that have had rather less attention in recent weeks during the election campaign”.

Many universities have found themselves in economic difficulty as a result of a fall in the number of international students and a freeze, since 2017, on domestic tuition fees.

Climate focus

Researchers are hopeful that the cabinet will inject ambition into the country’s climate agenda. The previous government had rolled back and delayed several decarbonization measures and announced new exploration licences for gas and oil companies, jeopardizing Britain’s role as a climate leader.

Starmer has appointed Ed Miliband, MP for Doncaster North, as energy secretary. Miliband, who was party leader during the 2015 UK general election, which Labour lost, has a record of championing environmental and climate issues while being outspoken on inequality, says Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist and director of research at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “There is also hope that this climate ambition of the energy secretary is supported by the other cabinet picks in key positions.”

Alongside Miliband, foreign secretary David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, has campaigned for a fair transition to a low-carbon economy that benefits all communities, and for the need to combine racial and climate justice.

However, there are some concerns. In February, Starmer and Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West and Pudsey and now chancellor of the exchequer — the most senior UK finance minister — slashed proposed funding for the Labour Party’s green investment plan from £28 billion (US$36 billion) to £15 billion a year. It remains to be seen whether the government will pursue this pre-election pledge.

There’s also tension between the Labour government’s growth agenda and its net-zero ambitions, says Marie Claire Brisbois, an energy-policy scholar and co-director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK.

Nevertheless, it’s a “step change” from the previous government, she says. “It’s quite hopeful that there are people in key portfolios that have experience with the topics” of climate and environment.