Compromising science

Experts have warned that the prominence of science and engineering in the UK could be at risk following the recent merger of two government departments.

The criticism has been directed at the government’s decision to bring responsibility for the science budget under a department formed last week in a merger between the Department of Innovation, University and Skills (DIUS) and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR).

According to the government, the resulting Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will combine BERR’s remit for shaping the enterprise environment with the DIUS’s responsibility of overseeing universities and policies on science and innovation.

This strategy is hoped to build on the UK’s future economic strengths and promote the issues set out in ‘New Industries, New Jobs’: a paper published in April 2009. However, there are concerns that moving the science budget to a business-focused department could compromise scientific research in the UK.

In response, the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee has issued a report urging the government to establish a separate science and technology committee to safeguard future scrutiny of science policy.

Phil Willis, chairman of the IUSS Committee, said: ‘Despite all the reassurances we have heard from ministers about the importance of science and engineering in government planning and policy, yet again we face the reality that science could be lost in a black hole of this new, all-encompassing “super department” of Business, Innovation and Skills.

‘The desire to exploit the UK’s world-class science base in order to contribute to economic recovery is commendable, valid and not in dispute. Establishing a science and technology select committee is critical both to reassure the science community that proper examination of science and engineering across government remains a priority and to ensure MPs have an effective and transparent arena in which to hold the government’s science policy to account,’ he added.

The Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE) has welcomed the IUSS’s report. Supporting Willis’s comments, CaSE director Nick Dusic said: ‘A science and technology committee would be able to investigate science policy issues that cut right across the boundaries of individual government departments. The former science and technology committee provided an important forum for informed debate on science, technology and policy.

‘Incorporating science scrutiny within a business, innovation and skills committee would severely limit both the scope and frequency of inquiries on science and engineering issues within government,’ he added. 

However, in a speech marking the centenary of the ScienceMuseum, head of the new department Lord Mandelson insisted that the BIS would not compromise scientific research but instead place it at the centre of the government’s economic recovery plans.

He said: ‘A new world is emerging: one on the edge of a new industrial revolution that’s driven by new technologies and the world’s shift to low carbon and where global competition will be even tougher. To fully realise our potential as a country, now is the time that we need to define those comparative advantages that will secure our global lead in this future.

‘Our ability to maintain and develop our strong science base through both applied and a substantial element of fundamental curiosity-driven research will be essential to our long-term economic success,’ added Mandelson.