THE BLOG

Two Ministers to Replace 'Two Brains'

17/07/2014 16:56 BST | Updated 16/09/2014 10:59 BST

The universities and science minister, David 'Two Brains' Willetts, has resigned. David Cameron has had to replace him with two ministers.

Greg Clark takes over Willetts' old brief, and George Freeman will be the UK's first 'Minister for Life Sciences'. What does life hold in store for them, and for the science sector they'll be responsible for?

David Willetts - for all the protests that dogged him over Higher Education reforms - was an almost universally-liked figure amongst the UK science community.

As well as (sort-of) protecting spending on research, Willetts won plaudits for being proactive on everything from open access, science engagement, space, and science diplomacy. He convinced everyone early-on that, despite not having a scientific background, he was a science geek at heart, becoming a regular at science festivals and conferences.

Norfolk MP George Freeman won't have any problems on that front; he's steeped in science thanks to his background in biomedical companies, and well-networked with the science academic and investment community next door in Cambridge.

But science minister Clark has already landed in hot water thanks to something which he probably didn't give a moment's thought to. Back in 2007, he joined over 200 other MPs in signing a (relatively pointless) Parliamentary motion backing the use of homeopathy on the NHS.

For the uninitiated, homeopathy is a lucrative alternative medicine industry based on selling sugar pills. Absolutely no scientific evidence exists to suggest it is more effective than a placebo (sugar pill). Support for homeopathy is often therefore taken as a sign of 'quackery'.

It's not a view I subscribe to myself. Homeopathy markets itself quite cannily, and if you haven't looked into it then you might easily think it's legitimate. Even if an MP knows it's a type of snake oil, they could easily be swayed by their constituents demanding 'choice'; particularly when signing a parliamentary motion has no cost and - usually - no effect.

Having a science minister who ignored the scientific consensus on something like climate change would be catastrophic. Having one who didn't know the scientific consensus on homeopathy, on day one, is entirely forgivable.

But to establish his credibility Clark will need to need woo scientists who got used to his simultaneously charming and cerebral predecessor. Addressing the British Science Festival in September wouldn't be a bad start.

Thoughts will, however, turn quite quickly to the General Election in May 2015. Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem's science spokesman, has already been passing papers on science policy at his party conference; Liam Byrne, the shadow Universities & Science minister, is busily preparing Labour's pitch to voters on science should his party win a majority. So it's vital that Clark and Freeman help the Tories do the same.

Funding, education, use of evidence, and support for business will already be on the science policy radar for the new team to address. But science also has a habit of throwing politicians unusual challenges - think of hybrid embryos, drugs policy, ash clouds, earthquakes, GM, fracking, or care.data.

Should issues of similar scale arise between now and the election, both of the new ministers (cabinet-level Clark, especially) will be expected to be a voice of scientific reason at the top of government when their colleagues might be focused on the politics of the situation.

They'll have heavyweight support, with Sir Mark Walport still in post as the government's Chief Scientific Adviser, but it will be interesting to see how they handle that kind of test - and very instructive to science-minded voters everywhere.

On a personal note, I hope the new regime continues to back the idea that engagement is a critical part of the scientific process. If we're going to be a scientific nation, then we need to incorporate science into our society and our culture. The British Science Association is pleased to be involved in Sciencewise, for instance - a program which encourages government departments to talk to the public about their opinions on scientific issues before a policy is decided.

The job of science minister is one of the most varied and challenging, but also exciting, roles in government - I wish both Greg and George the best of luck.