Page last updated at 20:36 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 21:36 UK

David Willetts becomes new science minister

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

David Willetts (AP)
Mr Willetts will steer the new government's science policy

The UK's new minister responsible for research will have a very challenging brief, say science advocates.

David Willetts MP was confirmed as minister of state for universities and science late on Wednesday and will have a seat at Cabinet.

Like all government portfolios, science will have to operate in the shadow of efforts to reduce the public deficit.

The Tories promised the research sector a multi-year, "stable investment climate" in their election campaign.

However they made no commitment to maintain Labour's supposed "ring fence" of science funding.

Nonetheless, Dr Hilary Leevers, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), said she was encouraged by Mr Willetts' appointment.

"I know we've got a tough time coming but I think we've got some good people in place, to explain and make the case to invest well in science and engineering, and research and development; and those people all recognise the importance of innovation to drive forward growth," she told BBC News.

'Two brains'

In naming David Willetts in the role, the new Conservative-Lib Dem government has passed over the man who did science spokesman duties for the Tories prior to the election - Adam Afriyie.

Mr Willetts, the MP for Havant, has a reputation for intellect, and picked up the nickname "two brains" among the Westminster press corps.

In opposition, he was a shadow minister for universities and skills and so is well acquainted with the research brief. And although not a scientist by training, he has impressed many who are with his grasp of the issues.

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition intends to proceed - certainly in the short term - with the present arrangement of departments with responsibility for science.

Mr Willetts will report to Lib Dem Secretary of State Vince Cable, who takes charge of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) created under the previous administration.

Labour spending on science more than doubled during its three terms, rising to just under £4bn in the current spending round.

A key beneficiary of this expenditure was the research infrastructure. UK universities now have some of the most modern labs in the world.

Scientific literacy

When the election results were announced last week, some commentators claimed the outcome could make life more difficult for science in the years ahead.

The Times newspaper carried out an analysis which showed that some 71 MPs with scientific backgrounds had been returned to the House of Commons compared with the 86 (out of 650) that had been in the chamber previously.

New Scientist magazine also published the statement "science is the loser".

Much of this consternation seemed to surround the unseating of the Oxford West and Abingdon Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who was recognised across the political spectrum as being an outstanding advocate for science.

The new government says it wants to reduce the public deficit by £6bn in the coming financial year. The details are expected to be announced in a budget statement that will be made inside two months.

Longer term, the new government will have a Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn when it should become clearer how funding will evolve beyond 2011.

Space matters

One major policy change affecting science in the UK which was initiated by the outgoing Labour science minister Lord Paul Drayson was the establishment of a UK Space Agency.

This body, which would supplant the authority (and assume the budgets) of the various research funding councils on space matters, was in the process of being structured as the election was called.

The need for an executive agency had wide support, particularly in industry which has recently set out a 20-year vision for innovation and growth.

"Momentum is the key thing," said Richard Peckham, the chair of UK Space, an umbrella group for the space industry.

"We know David Willetts well. As a local MP, he has visited my company EADS Astrium in Portsmouth, so he's certainly aware of space and its potential to drive growth in the UK," he told BBC News.

Neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems gave any indication before the election that they would roll back the establishment of a space agency.

Important review

The Royal Society, the UK's academy of science, welcomed the appointment of David Willetts.

The President, Lord Martin Rees, said the minister was recognised as someone who had "strong links to universities and a clear appreciation of the value of research".

He added: "There clearly will be some tough choices to be made over the coming months.

"As the countdown begins to the most important spending review in a generation, the minister should bear in mind two important messages.

"The first is the need to place science and innovation at the heart of any long-term strategy for economic growth.

"The second is the fierce competitive challenge we face from countries which are investing at a scale and speed we may struggle to match."

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