The United Kingdom now has a standalone ministry for science, innovation, and technology, thanks to a government reshuffle announced yesterday. The new department will house UK Research and Innovation, the United Kingdom’s main funding agency, as well as the recently formed Advanced Research and Invention Agency, which aims to fund high-risk research. The ministry’s head, former higher education minister Michelle Donelan, has a seat in the prime minister’s Cabinet.
The reorganization—the latest of many under the United Kingdom’s Conservative leadership since 2010—splits the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) into three new, distinct ministries: science, energy, and trade. This will mean “greater focus, dedicated leadership, and better-targeted resources” in the face of flagging economic growth and the energy crisis precipitated by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a U.K. government document published yesterday.
The restructure is a “positive sign that the government is taking science seriously,” said Beth Thompson, a science policy expert at the Wellcome Trust, in a statement. “A seat for science at the cabinet table puts it at the heart of the domestic and international policy agenda.”
The newly distinct Cabinet role may allow government to pay more attention to science, says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy researcher at the University of Manchester. But the restructuring could also cause disruption and uncertainty, he adds. The Institute for Government, a think tank that aims to improve the effectiveness of government, notes that the costly process of creating a new government department can be accompanied by substantial loss of staff productivity. “People are now worried about their jobs and trying to work out what desks they’re going to be sitting at, in which building,” Flanagan says.
The move could also introduce new challenges to coordinating the United Kingdom’s science, climate, and energy policies. BEIS was created in 2016 by then–Prime Minister Theresa May, who merged the ministry for business and science with the ministry for climate change, partly to align policies and priorities. An upcoming government budget announcement, in March, will be a test of whether the separate ministries can “win money from the treasury coffers” to advance their agendas, says Joe Tetlow, a political adviser at the environmental think tank Green Alliance. He notes that climate policy has always demanded coordination across different arms of government—including business, agriculture, and transport—and says the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero may make this easier. “Word on the street” is that the old climate ministry was “never fully amalgamated” into BEIS, Tetlow says, and that splitting them up again is a reflection that May’s grouping was not a good decision.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s creation of the new energy department echoes U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration’s Inflation Reduction Act in its focus on the economic benefits of climate action, Tetlow says. With the United States and European Union investing in new green technologies, there is fear “the U.K. risks falling behind.” The new energy secretary and former head of BEIS, Grant Shapps, will be “acutely aware of the need to decarbonize” the U.K. economy from his stint as transport secretary, Tetlow says.
Donelan has not previously held any science-related roles. She has been culture secretary since September 2022. Before that, as higher education minister in 2020 and 2021, she introduced legislation that would give the government more powers to track university funding from China and Russia. George Freeman, who championed U.K. participation in the European Union’s Horizon Europe funding scheme amid the turmoil of Brexit, has been promoted to a midlevel ministerial position in the new department. Thompson and other commentators have urged Donelan to prioritize negotiating for the United Kingdom to rejoin Horizon Europe.
The new structure has potential to improve the government’s ability to address problems in science and climate, Flanagan says—but realizing that potential will demand “a lot of political will, a lot of resources, and a lot of stability in government.”