The science budget crisis and the role of ministers and senior officials in the UK research-policy ministry: a fresh look at the scientific advisory system
The UK finance minister, Jeremy Hunt, has said that the economic crisis will not harm ambitious plans for research spending, much to the relief of researchers.
Universities and scientists were concerned that the government might use funds promised for science to plug the multibillion-pound black hole in the country’s finances caused by interest-rate rises that resulted from budgeting decisions made by the previous prime minister, Liz Truss.
Stephanie Smith, head of policy at the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK research universities, tweeted: “Big sigh of relief” at the news the science budget would be protected.
Anne Johnson is president of the Academy of Medical Sciences in London. But she warned that there could still be problems ahead for research. We must protect collaborations between UK researchers and partners global, as inflation will put pressure on budgets in real terms.
Geneticist Paul Nurse, who runs the Francis Crick Institute in London, said that the announcement was “very good, particularly in the present circumstances”.
The move from Vallance to McLean “follows hot on the heels of other machinery-of-government changes”, says James Wilsdon, a research-policy specialist based at University College London. The government created a new department that deals with science and technology. There is still a question mark over “where the lines of responsibility fall between ministers, senior officials in that department”, Wilsdon adds.
Hunt has pledged to spend 2.4% of gross domestic product on research and development by 2027, which is one milestone in an earlier pledge. But, according to the UK Office for National Statistics — a non-ministerial government body — the government has already met this target. Changes in the way that research and development spending is calculated has made this difference.
The website for the government department that oversees science spending, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), lists both Freeman and Ghani as “minister of state”, with Ghani also listed as “minister for science and investment security”. A spokesperson for BEIS could not say who has overall responsibility for science, stating that the ministerial portfolios “are not formally confirmed”.
Wilsdon thinks the inquiry offers an opportunity to look at what has worked well and what has not in the scientific advisory system. McLean will need to “step back from the immediate aftermath of that crisis and look afresh at how well our system is working, what can be done to strengthen it and make it fit for the challenges that lie ahead”.
The members of Congress tried to look at the crisis. On Friday, the House subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis released its final report, which was sharply critical of the Trump administration. On Thursday, Democrats on the Senate homeland security committee issued a study of the pandemic’s early months. The Republicans on Senate health committee released an examination of the origin of the flu that suggested it was a lab leak, which most scientists disagree with.
But those inquiries are partisan. The bill to create the independent commission would establish a 12-member expert panel of “highly qualified citizens” appointed by congressional leaders from both parties. It would hold public hearings and have subpoena power, the same as the Sept. 11 panel. It was charged with examining the origins of the Pandemic as well as the response by the administrations of Trump and Biden.
What Can We Do to Fix? Dr. Burr, the Covid Commission Planning Group, Dr. Shameem, a Scholar, and Highlights from Nature Briefing
“There’s no substitute for showing the vision that we showed in the early 2000s at creating an architecture that fixes things that we got wrong then, that addresses things that we didn’t think of then that we’ve learned, having gone through it,” said Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the health committee’s top Republican, who is sponsoring the measure with Ms. Murray.
Mr. Zelikow now leads the Covid Commission Planning Group, a privately funded effort involving about three dozen independent experts who have spent the better part of the past two years conducting research to lay the groundwork for a national inquiry. The group, which has held several hundred interviews, grew tired of waiting for Congress and plans to publish its findings in a book this spring, Mr. Zelikow said. He did not talk about the details.
The team of researchers from the World Health Organization have used statistical Modelling to estimate the number of excess deaths in the next two years. The work estimates that there were almost 15 million deaths either directly or indirectly attributed to the pandemic, almost three times higher than the official toll.
Stark figures show that the representation of scientists from minority ethnic groups dwindles at each stage of UK academia. To get a sense of the issue and what can be done to tackle it, we spoke to Mahrukh Shameem, a PhD student and an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion.
There were some highlights from the Nature Briefing. The success of the test of the NASA’s Orion capsule and how text-generating Artificial Intelligence could be used in student essays are topics this time.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies: McLean’s role in science, technology and innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic
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The prime minister and the cabinet will be able to get guidance on science and technology policies from the mathematical Biologist.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, McLean was a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and co-chaired the subgroup that used epidemiology, data analysis and mathematical modelling to guide the government’s response to the pandemic. She has worked for the Ministry of Defence as a chief scientific adviser.
Patrick Vallance, who has held the role since last year, will be replaced by a new one on 1 April.
“I am delighted to take on this role at such an important time in our country for science, innovation and technology,” she said in a press release accompanying the announcement of her appointment on 20 February.
According to a science-policy researcher at University College London, there is expectation that McLean’s role will be quite broad. It will address economic growth in priority areas for the government to make science, technology, and innovation relevant to a broad economic and social infrastructure.