Friday 5 June 2009

Dropping The Hot Potato

Once upon a time there was a Department of Education and Science. This worked pretty well for over 30 years, but one day they decided that they didn't fancy the Science bit so they passed it on to the Department of Trade and Industry and became the Department for Education. Then the Department for Education merged with the Department of Employment to become the Department for Education and Employment. Six years later they decided they didn't like the Employment bit much either, so gave it to the newly set up Department for Work and Pensions and rebranded themselves the Department for Education and Skills.

Then one day Gordon Brown became prime minister, and he decided to abolish the Department for Education and Skills, and instead split Education two ways between the new Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). He also made the Department of Trade and Industry into the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and decided that DIUS could bloody well have Science back.

Non-European readers may be unaware that we've had elections to elect MEPs, or Members of the European Parliament. Just before the elections (which were combined with a lot of local council elections in the UK), a lot of senior government ministers jumped ship, leaving Gordon Brown with a much larger Cabinet reshuffle than he'd obviously planned. Today is the first time since Barack Obama was elected that I have watched a streaming news channel, because there's rather a big movement afoot.

John Denham has been transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government, but no successor has been announced. There have been rumours all morning on Twitter that DIUS (yup, still sounds like a contraceptive) is being abolished, with the Innovation going to the care of Sir Alan Sugar (yes folks, he's our Donald Trump...), Science going to BERR, and who knows where Universities are going (probably absorbed into DCSF).

So science policy will be decided by a load of businessmen. I've already said why I think that it would be bad to try to run science as a business, that it just is not possible to just fund "economically viable" research. The research councils will almost certainly be part of BERR too. The research councils are our equivalents of NSF (we have arts and humanities, economic and social sciences and medical research councils as well as four science research councils).

I'm awaiting the statement that will apparently be released this afternoon stating the full reshuffle, but in the meantime I am shitting bricks at the thought that the awful Lord Mandelson is going to be in charge of NERC funding. NERC supports, among other institutions, the British Geological Survey and British Antarctic Survey. We'll get no more penguin poo research with him running the show.

16:14: Dr Ian Gibson MP has resigned as an MP with immediate effect. Given his extensive experience with science on parliamentary committees, it's difficult not to read more into his resignation than is being divulged at the moment. Still waiting on a statement from the PM.

17:12: Shit. Yes, BERR and DIUS are to be merged to form the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS?). The whole sorry situation is up on the Downing Street website. As I feared, it's going to be all about economically viable science:
Continue to invest in the UK's world class science base and develop strategies for commercialising more of that science.
Some science just isn't open to commercialisation. And I have a horrible, sickening feeling that these topics are going to suffer badly in the next few years.

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