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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Pearson is named science minister
Ian Pearson (Crown Copyright)
Ian Pearson is the MP for Dudley South
Ian Pearson is to be the new UK science minister in Gordon Brown's government.

He takes up the post in the newly created Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).

Mr Pearson was previously in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) where he held a climate change brief.

He takes over the science role from Malcolm Wicks who himself only held the position for eight months following the resignation of Lord Sainsbury.

DIUS was created out of part of the old Department of Trade and Industry and part of the old Department for Education and Skills. It also includes the office of the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King.

Future skills

Gordon Brown made the change because he felt it would better fuse science policy with higher education, to bring about more coordinated decision-making on research funding; and to encourage the contribution of science to industry and the "knowledge economy".

The public spend on science is roughly 5bn a year; a figure that Gordon Brown has promised to increase to 6.3bn by 2010 as part of his 10-year science and innovation investment framework.

The spending strategy, which represents real year-on-year increases, has been widely applauded but there are still issues that the science community will want Ian Pearson to address.

These concern what many see as an erosion of the UK's science base which is reflected in some worrying statistics. Examples include:

  • About one million secondary school children are taught physics by teachers who do not have a qualification in the subject.
  • Funding difficulties have led to the closure of several university physics and chemistry departments.
  • The number of science and maths degrees on offer at UK universities has fallen by a tenth over the past decade.

    Some of these trends have raised fears that the country's science base may not be able to cope with the ever-increasing competition from nations such as China and India.

    These countries' R&D expenditures as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product currently lag the UK's, but they are rising very fast and are projected to overtake Britain in the near future.

    The UK's performance has not been helped by faltering levels of investment from the private sector as the economy has moved away from manufacturing (where most R&D is done) to services.

    Political scrutiny

    "I welcome the appointment of a science minister and look forward to working with him; he's got a lot on his plate," said Dr Peter Cotgreave, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

    "I do hope Ian Pearson will support the continuing existence of the Select Committee on Science and Technology in the Commons which has been so important in maintaining interest in science in Parliament as well as scrutinising government policy."

    It is not clear yet how the Commons' committees will be re-organised to reflect the new departmental divisions.

    Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council - one of the main agencies for distributing the UK's public science money - said: "The Research Councils are looking forward to demonstrating to the new minister their important role in maintaining the breadth and remarkable quality of British science.

    "The independence of operation of research councils has been the key to the creation of the powerful science base on which innovation rests."

    Ian Pearson's full brief includes:

  • Business and Science
  • The Research Base
  • The Research Councils
  • Innovation
  • The Technology Strategy Board
  • British National Space Centre
  • National Weights and Measures Laboratory
  • The Design Council
  • The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, liaising with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
  • Liaison with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
  • Energy Technologies Institute
  • Commission for Environmental Markets and Economic Performance

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