Bye-bye to Two-Brains

Features editor

The departure of David Willetts from his post as minister for science, universities and skills is a cause for regret, and early signs for his replacement are worrying.

Ministers come and ministers go; it’s a fact of life in the UK. David Cameron isn’t as reshuffle-happy as previous Prime Ministers, but in his first (probably only) full-scale reshuffle of this parliament, the departure of the minister for science, universities and skills, David Willetts, will be the cause of regret for most of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) sector.

Willetts
Willetts: Large brain, large shoes to fill?

Willetts was a bit of a surprise appointment in 2010 — he had neither shadowed the portfolio in the previous parliament nor shown any particular interest in it; and he was a relatively high-profile figure who’d been tipped for a more senior cabinet position, possibly related to his previous speciality, economics, where he acquired his nickname of ‘Two-Brains’. But he took to the role with gusto and quickly found himself in a position where he had to argue to maintain funding in the face of cuts demanded from all departments.

’Willetts was a vocal advocate for science and engineering, for public engagement and for the promotion of science subjects in schools

Possibly his previous Treasury experience stood him in good stead in these arguments, and maybe it was this process which convinced him of the need for a strong STEM sector to provide innovations for industry. But from that point on, he was a vocal advocate for science and engineering, for public engagement and for the promotion of science subjects in schools (which was, in fact, not part of his remit). His particular interest in space was notable; perhaps not surprising considering the presence of a large Astrium (now Airbus Space & Defence) facility in his Havant parliamentary constituency, but anyone who heard him speak on the subject couldn’t have failed to notice that he was flat-out fascinated by it.

Moreover, and despite his cerebral image, Willetts was always a friendly, courteous and approachable figure whenever we encountered him, and happy to explain his position when confronted with opposing views (which was quite often). He was also responsible for the ‘eight great technologies’ framework which now underpins the Technology Strategy Board’s funding competitions, directing investment into sectors which Willetts felt represented the UK’s best chance of a lucrative technology leadership position.

’It appears that the promotion of science, universities and skills to de facto Cabinet rank was a sop to Willetts’ personal standing and not to the importance of the sector to the UK’

His replacement, Greg Clark, is a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment, not sharing Willetts’ high profile. However, a few early signs have been a little worrying. First, Clark is adding the three elements of Willetts’ former portfolio onto an existing responsibility for cities. While there is a link between cities and STEM, in the form of smart city and smart grid technologies and concerns about air quality and energy efficiency, it does mean that Clark will have less time to devote to STEM policy.

Greg Clark
Greg Clark: please don’t argue for nonsense

Second, the portfolio has been downgraded, or rather returned to the status it occupied before Willetts took the job. While he was a routine attendee at Cabinet meetings, Clark will only attend when the agenda touches his remit. It appears that the promotion of science, universities and skills to de facto Cabinet rank was a sop to Willetts’ personal standing and not to the importance of the sector to the UK; which could be interpreted (and is, in this office) as a slap in the face to those who work in the sector.

Finally, Clark’s signing of a bill some years ago, which called for NHS funding of homeopathy and a recognition of  its value to the nation’s health, is a cause for some disquiet. To be charitable, it might have been the mark of an MP with a homeopathic hospital in his constituency rather than that of a true believer in the complementary therapy which is pure nonsense and backed by no reputable research. But for someone whose role is to promote and stand up for the interests of those who work in the fields of rationality and evidence, it’s not an encouraging sign. Mr Clark has some big shoes to fill; and with only nine months until the General Election, not a great deal of time to fill them.