Drayson takes science brief while climate and energy combine in one department

UK scientists have welcomed the appointment of multi-millionaire businessman Paul Drayson (Lord Drayson) as the country’s next science minister, in a government reshuffle that also created a new department with combined responsibility for both energy and climate change.

Drayson, who replaces Ian Pearson in the Department of innovation, universities and skills (Dius), said the appointment was his ’dream job’. The science minister’s role has been upgraded: unlike his predecessor, he will now attend cabinet meetings, chair a new cabinet committee for science and innovation, and sit on the national economic council (set up in the wake of the financial crisis to coordinate the government’s economic policies).  

Drayson’s experience in engineering, technology and industry is highly regarded by scientists. He has an engineering degree from Aston University, a PhD in robotics, and in 1993 founded vaccine production company PowderJect Pharmaceuticals (now taken over by Chiron Corp). In 2007 he stood down from government positions in defence and business to concentrate on motor racing. 

"I was inspired by cool projects in the 60s and 70s like the space programme, and we now need to inspire the next generation with similar cool projects" - Paul Drayson, UK science minister

Strengthening science

’There’s no doubt he’s been very creative in recognising opportunities to move from basic research into innovation in his own career, so he chimes very much with the Government’s current focus on translational research,’ comments Colin Blakemore, former head of the UK’s Medical Research Council. ’However, I do think he can be trusted to defend the investment needed for the basic research which is essential for innovation in the future,’ he added.

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (CaSE), told Chemistry World the appointment was ’very positive’, while Phil Willis, chairman of the select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills, which scrutinises the work of Dius, called it an ’excellent move’. 

Priorities in the post would be to implement changes suggested in recent reviews by David Sainsbury (the science minister from 1998 to 2006), including developing and exploiting the country’s science base, said Drayson: ’Young people need to be inspired into opting for science and engineering careers. I was inspired by cool projects in the 60s and 70s like the space programme, and we now need to inspire the next generation with similar cool projects.’

Former science minister Ian Pearson - who spent 14 months in the role - has moved to the treasury, where CaSE’s Dusic hopes he may continue to be an advocate for science. His predecessor in turn, Malcolm Wicks, who had been moved to energy minister, has been removed from the cabinet and will be a ’special representative to the prime minister on energy issues.’ 

Climate and energy under one roof

Meanwhile, prime minister Gordon Brown has also created a new Department for energy and climate change, headed by Ed Miliband. It combines two areas previously dealt with by separate departments: energy from the Department for business, enterprise and regulatory reform (Berr), and climate change concerns from the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra). 

Martin Rees, president of the UK’s Royal Society, said the department should raise climate change up the government’s agenda, and help to coordinate action in other departments. ’A Department of energy and climate change should be well placed to make the right decisions, such as only allowing new coal fired power stations to be built on the understanding that their operating permits will be withdrawn if they do not capture 90 per cent of their carbon dioxide emissions by 2020.  It is very much in the UK’s interests to seize the opportunity to take a lead in developing clean and innovative technologies,’ he said.

’This is a surprising but welcome development - we will be watching the department’s progress with interest,’ comments Jeff Hardy, of the UK Energy Research Centre. ’The energy demand, energy supply and climate change policy teams will now sit together. Will this result in a whole systems approach to UK energy policy? We’ll have to wait and see.’

’Combining [climate change and energy security] may help identify both synergies and trade-offs, but we must avoid either one becoming subordinate to the other. And ultimately, it is sound, timely policy decisions that matter most, not departmental names or structures,’ said Neil Bentley, of the Confederation of British Industry.  

Richard Van Noorden

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