IDS welcomes new science minister as ‘fantastic opportunity’

Truss ‘not a major departure’ says Iain Duncan Smith

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Former Leader of the Conservative Party Sir Iain Duncan-Smith has welcomed the appointment of new Science Minister Nusrat Ghani after the position was left unfilled for three months. Ms Ghani, a member of parliament for Wealden, will take on key responsibilities including science and research on a domestic and international level, space strategy, and Horizon Europe membership, the EU’s £80billion flagship innovation programme the UK was excluded from over a Bexit dispute. Sir Iain, who co-authored the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform independent report, says that the appointment signals a “fantastic possibility” for the country. 

It comes after there were various pledges from Conservatives such as former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to make Britain a “science superpower”.

Sir Iain believes that Ms Ghani can help the UK to fulfil those pledges. He told “I’m sure she will do it. I think the number one thing she has to do is work with the science community to create the UK as the medical technology (med-tech) hub of the world. 

“This should be the ambition. Through regulation change, if they do it properly, they will end up creating a new market in the UK that will dwarf the financial services market. We have the best scientists, and second only to the US the best universities in the world.

“And we are capable, as we showed with our Brexit freedoms that we were able to get vaccines out the door quicker than the EU who got into a mess during Covid. Most of the science community accepts that and we have a fantastic possibility now.

“I have got great faith in Nusrat, we have a great opportunity now and we should get on with it as a matter of urgency.”

But Ms Ghani’s appointment after the three-month vacancy of the position caused concern for the research community in Britain who feared that Prime Minister Liz Truss may not be taking science seriously.

Martin Smith, head of the Policy Lab at the biomedical-research funder Wellcome told Nature: “It’s really important that the new government sends a really strong signal to the community that the ‘science superpower’ agenda is alive and well. 

“It was a very strong part of [previous prime minister] Boris Johnson’s rhetoric and we haven’t seen evidence of that so far from the new administration.”

And stepping into the role may not be easy, scientists have warned. Prof James Wilsdon, from the University of Sheffield, said that Ms Ghani has inherited “a mounting to-do list, which is long and growing”.

He warned: “The real worry now with all the fresh talk of cuts to existing spending commitments is that aspects of [the] science [funding] settlement made in 2021 may be up for discussion, particularly if association to Horizon Europe does not happen.”

Many British scientists were promised prestigious EU grants to work on crucial research projects after Britain negotiated to contribute £15billion to participate in Horizon under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). 

But the EU told Britain it cannot join until the Northern Ireland Protocol feud is smoothed over, despite this political dispute having nothing to do with science. Now, UK researchers are still left in the dark after a 20-month delay. 

The UK is still banking on rejoining the EU scheme and has launched “formal proceedings against the EU for blocking it, in what it claims is a “violation” of the TCA.

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Sir Iain has previously described this as “one last throw of the dice” before the UK launches its “Plan B” for Horizon Europe. He said: “This is one last throw of the dice to try and get the European Union to stop messing around and stick by the rules. Horizon has nothing to do with the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, absolutely nothing.

“And Horizon includes countries that are not part of the EU. Let’s get on with it and tell the world that we tried. If they don’t want anything to do with it, then it shows the EU up in a bad light.”

“Plan B” was the blueprint that former Science Minister had drafted up, which involves the UK striking deals with other countries, while promised EU grants would still be covered by the Government. While Ms Ghani may now face a huge task of reassuring the science community that this plan will be safe in her hands. 

But Sir Iain said: “The reassurance will come from the opportunities that now arise for the UK to be the hub for medical technology for the world – that will bring huge investment into the UK.” 

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