Cabinet reshuffle creates Department for Innovations, Universities and Skills (DIUS)

Science and university research funding yesterday moved into the hands of a newly created Department for Innovations, Universities and Skills (DIUS). The department will be headed by backbench MP John Denham, who resigned from the Home Office in 2003 over the Iraq invasion.

The new department has been cautiously welcomed by the scientific community.

’The task of funding scientific research can sit comfortably alongside responsibility for universities, where much of the UK’s groundbreaking work is conducted,’ said Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. ’The challenge for John Denham will now be to ensure that the department has a strong voice at the cabinet table.’

The position of the former science minister, Malcolm Wicks, was due to be announced as this article was published.

The absence of the word ’science’ in the new department’s title does not appear to have raised concerns, at least among the country’s top scientific decision makers. The one factor that has been raised repeatedly is the need for cross-department links.

The DIUS itself will link scientific knowledge from universities with softer non-scientific skills, particularly management skills, noted the RSC chief executive, Richard Pike. Linking innovation, universities and skills in this way will be valuable, he said, but it mustn’t stop there.

Three new departments

The DIUS is one of three new departments, and comes to the cabinet alongside the Department for Children, Schools and Families, with responsibility for ’everything affecting people up to the age of 19’, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, with responsibility for promoting productivity, enterprise, competition and trade.

It is essential that the DIUS interacts creatively with the schools department, said Pike, ’ensuring the supply chain into science.’ Beyond that, he said, the department must work closely with the Treasury.

The importance of linking the DIUS with the schools department was repeated time and again: by Peter Cotgreave, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (see Chemistry World, June 2007, p41); Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering; and Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

David Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Chemical Engineers, applauded the government’s commitment to science and innovation, but worried that cross-department linking was doomed to failure. ’I fear we will continue to be held back by the traditional inter-departmental boundaries,’ he said.

"It is difficult to say if science is any better off" - Peter Cotgreave, Campaign for Science and Engineering

The question of linking will be closely watched over the coming months. ’It is good to see a department in cabinet with innovation at its heart, but in order to be successful the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills will have to have strong links with the Department of Children, Schools and Families to ensure that young people are choosing to study science and engineering at a higher level,’ said Cotgreave. ’To satisfy the scientific community and ensure innovative science is developed to its full potential it will need strong links with the new Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Until these questions are addressed it is difficult to say if science is any better off.’

Bea Perks

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