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British science gets axed

June 9, 2009

As part of a cabinet reshuffle designed to save his political hide, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has eliminated the science and research ministry, placing responsibility for science and research in the hands of the Business Secretary. The new Department for Business Innovation and Skills (DBIS) will ‘”build Britain’s capabilities to compete in the global economy”‘, according to the government.

Reaction to the move was mixed. Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, praised the move:

Science and innovation should be the bedrock on which the economy builds as we come out of the current recession. Placing science alongside business and enterprise should help to make that happen. In the United States we have seen the positive impact of science being moved closer to the centre of the administration. It is time we followed suit.

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, disagrees:

We need to make sure science has a proper home in government and isn’t repeatedly moved from department to department — especially if that shuffling is based on personnel rather than for any strategic reason.

Clearly, governments around the world are struggling to determine what role science and research should be playing in their respective countries. The problem with science, and the reason it really needs to be distinct from other government departments, is that its reach is too broad for it to be simply allied with a single government ministry. Science/research impacts on so many elements of society, from health to industry to environment to natural resources to training and on and on, that placing it under the umbrella of some other ministry is always an awkward fit. It may reflect the desired focus of the government, and may represent the research priorities of the government, but does not capture the multitude of ways in which science serves society.

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