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Conservative MP David Willetts will take over as science minister under the UK’s new coalition government as we bid farewell to Labour’s Lord Drayson.
The appointment has been pretty roundly welcomed; Willetts, former shadow secretary for universities and skills, has stood up for science in the past and in his new role as minister of state for universities and science he should be able to keep an eye on the two deeply intertwined sectors. Having earned the nickname ‘Two Brains’, one Twitterer quipped that presumably one brain will be looking after universities and the other will focus on science…
Willetts will attend Cabinet meetings, which, as pointed out in The Times’ science blog, means he will potentially have the ear of the prime minister and chancellor on a regular basis.
Willetts will report to Lib Dem Vince Cable, who has been named as secretary of state for business innovation and skills. This doesn’t look too bad for the scientifically inclined either – Cable studied natural science and economics at the University of Cambridge followed by a PhD at Glasgow.
He has spoken out for science in the past, launching a Commons debate on the shortage of science and maths teachers, lamenting cuts to university science departments, and on several occasions he has been keen to highlight the scientific literacy of his local constituency.
Cable also has form in the chemistry laboratory. Speaking in 2006, he said: ‘I am of that generation of people who found it easiest to get into university by doing maths, physics and chemistry. I spent two years in chemistry laboratories before deciding that economics was a somewhat more amenable, perhaps easier subject. However, I have since then repaid my debt to science by having a son who is a very good post-doctoral scientist. He briefs me on the strengths of British centres of scientific excellence – for example, Imperial College, where he works – but also on some of the frustrations of academic scientific life.’
Which all sounds promising…
But what of Adam Afriyie, Tory science spokesman since 2007? A couple of high profile gaffes during the election campaign will not have won him too many friends among the science community, and he was arguably the least well-liked of the of the science ministers from the three main political parties. Despite winning his local seat in Windsor with a hefty 60 per cent of the vote, it’s perhaps not surprising that David Cameron chose not to place him at the helm of the new government’s science strategy.
So after all the excitement and uncertainty of the last week (yes, it’s only been seven days), the scientific community now has a new rep in government – how will he fare? Did the PM picked the right man for the job? Will the coalition government work in the research community’s favour, or will the hybrid leadership cause unpleasant side effects?
What do YOU think?