Sci&Tech Editor Georgia Brooks hopes that the appointment of new science minister Nusrat Ghani will shine a light on the need for scientific research and innovation
Disclaimer: This article was written before Liz Truss resigned as Prime Minister of the UK.
Almost a month on from her appointment as Prime Minister of the UK, Liz Truss has finally appointed a new Science Minister, Nusrat Ghani, to a position that remained empty for three months in total. The absence of a science minister has undoubtedly gone unnoticed by many, as a position that holds fewer responsibilities, and therefore receives less media attention, than many other governmental offices, and is not currently a position in the cabinet.
However, within the scientific community, it has raised concerns about the state of UK scientific research in recent years and looking towards the future. On the other hand, should scientific research and innovation remain a priority in a country experiencing so much uncertainty in other sectors, such as the economy and healthcare?
The UK science community has urged Liz Truss to recommit to the previous administration’s aim to make the country a ‘science superpower,’ amid fears that she may de-prioritise research. Over the past six years of Brexit and European Union negotiations, the government has failed to come to an agreement regarding Horizon Europe – the EU’s research program that will dispense nearly €100 billion in scientific funding, and currently the world’s largest multinational research fund.
The appointment of Nusrat Ghani could provide hope, but it is looking increasingly likely that UK scientists may miss out on this invaluable funding, and many have already lost grants. There is admittedly a ‘Plan B,’ should the UK miss out on Horizon Europe, but the actual funding plan seems to be about as vague as its name: it involves four pillars and ambiguous political wording, but few actual details.
With the UK clearly lagging on the scientific research front, it is interesting that while concerns have been raised by major scientific organisations such as the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Royal Society of Chemists (RSC), and more recently from a House of Lords committee, the issue has remained out of the media limelight, and largely untackled until Ghani’s appointment. It begs the question, what should the government actually be prioritising at the moment?
With a cost of living crisis and the ongoing healthcare and political crises worldwide, for those not directly affected by a loss of funding, the lack of a science minister has been of little concern in recent months. Concerns from the IOP and RSC among others have largely revolved around the fact that the UK will fail to maintain its position as a scientific superpower, but for many there are far far more pressing concerns in the current climate.
However, scientific innovation is crucial. Whether it be the COVID-19 pandemic, the energy crisis or this summer’s heatwave, symptomatic of the far greater problem of climate change, many of the challenges faced by ordinary people, and by businesses, governments and the world, have their root in science, and hence also their solution.
Arguably now more than ever, it is vital that we maintain momentum on scientific research, as it is from here that the solutions for many of the most pressing issues of today will stem. There is far too much disconnection between science and politics in government today, as well as in wider society, and while appointing a science minister may not seem crucial, it is indicative of how the UK government is currently prioritising scientific research.
Ghani’s appointment as science minister undoubtedly provides hope and evidence that scientific research in the UK has not been completely forgotten, but she has a huge task ahead of her to get it back on track, in terms of focus, funding and prioritisation. The concerning lack of a science minister for three months is indicative of a wider shortcoming in understanding when it comes to the importance of scientific research in politics and society more generally.
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