Continental drift or moving target?

Science would seem to be on the move again.

Last week’s reshuffle saw the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) – including the science portfolio – merge with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to become the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) under Lord Mandelson.

Its worth reminding ourselves at this point that this move is only two years – and three ministers – since the last set of departmental changes.

So is science going through some sort of continental drift across government?  Does it reflect something more worrying?

I suppose only time will tell.  But, in the meantime, Peter Mandelson would have us think not.

By all accounts he gave a bullish speech at the Science Museum’s centenary event this week.  His basic message was: science is at the heart of government.   And probably, if you were sat in No10, you would see logical reasons for knitting the business, science and education agendas more closely together if your aim was to innovate your way out of recession.

In fact Lord Mandelson’s speech and the arguments put forward for changing departments all seem pretty much in line with the government’s philospohy of the last twelve months.  Its also good that science has kept its minister  (and cabinet attendee) in the shape of Lord Drayson.  It’s just the roof over him that has changed.

But one of my members asked me this week if it all didn’t give the impression of drift rather than evolution, of a loss of corporate memory that became one of the most valuable assets of Lord Sainsbury’s long tenure as science minister.

Perhaps.  As I say, we’ll see.  In my experience these sorts of departmental changes are more frustrating than anything else in that they upset the momentum behind policy and continuity in the officials delivering it (although we shouldn’t forget that they can also have the reverse effect).

But I do think that the new department needs to go on something of a commmunications offensive so that no one can be in any doubt about the plan.  And I also important think that its crucial we have robust mechanisms by which to scrutinise what is going on.

So, three cheers for today’s report by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee.  They have called for a separate science committe to be set up in parliament to ensure thorough cross-examine what is going on.

For if science in government is to continue being a moving target we will need a place to hold it still and question it closely.

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