“Good heavens! I don’t think he knows anything about science,” Stanley Johnson said on hearing that his son Jo had been appointed minister for universities and science after the 2015 general election.
Politicians are put in charge of defence, foreign affairs and the economy without previous careers in these fields. Should science be treated differently? Should science ministers be experts in science? And if not, what characteristics should we ask for in a science minister?
Looking back at the past 25 years, the model for a science minister is elusive. In that period, at least 11 ministers in five government departments have had science as part of their headline responsibilities. Many have overseen other areas too: defence procurement; cities; universities; the Duchy of Lancaster; and business innovation. Science has been interpreted widely, covering the full span of academia, including the arts and humanities.
Most science ministers have served for around two years, although some have lasted less than half that time, thanks to general elections, reshuffles and other events. By these standards, three years counts as long service and the terms of David Sainsbury, 1998-2006, and David Willetts, 2010-14, were exceptionally long.
Some passed through the job quietly and went on to pursue other interests. A few, including Sainsbury, Willetts and Ian Taylor, 1995-97, continue to make substantial contributions to science and research even now. Only one, Paul Drayson, 2008-10—who has a PhD in robotics—had worked in science.
I find no obvious correlation between the career origins of science ministers and their record in, say, winning financial support from the Treasury, negotiating agreements with international partners, or engaging political colleagues and the wider public on scientific issues. Insofar as international comparisons are possible, a skim through other nations that are strong on science—such as Japan, Switzerland and the United States—reveals broadly similar pictures.
A science minister’s success is determined far more by his or her personal strengths and the political environment than by choice of degree subject or earlier career. Nick Hillman, special adviser to David Willetts during his time as science and universities minister, told me that “You don’t have to be a pensioner to be a good pensions minister or ill to be a good health minister so why should you have to be a scientist to be a good science minister?”
Indeed, there are at least five arguments in favour of science ministers who do not have a scientific background. First, they must debate scientific issues with political colleagues and journalists. Having no specialist knowledge makes them better placed to develop robust, plain-language arguments rather than hide behind jargon.
Second, they are less vulnerable to unintended bias for or against particular areas. Third, a scientist minister arguing for more science funding might look like a special-interest lobbyist to political colleagues. A non-scientist may be more convincing as a voice of objective evidence.
Fourth, in the ministerial seat many capabilities matter more than scientific prowess: negotiating skills, consensus-building, political antennae, media handling and networking in parliament—not to mention the stamina and resilience to cope with a ministerial schedule.
Fifth, experts can advise on the details: chief scientific advisers, academic specialists and research council leaders can support a science minister. The relationship between professional adviser and political decision-maker gets muddled if the minister is a specialist too.
In other words, the characteristics of a strong science minister look like those for many other ministerial positions. In its 2011 report The Challenge of Being a Minister, the Institute for Government described an effective minister as one who has clear goals and objectives, builds constructive relationships and gets the best out of people.
James Wilsdon, director of policy, impact and engagement at the University of Sheffield, adds another point for science ministers: “A genuine intellectual curiosity across a wide range of subject fields, an openness to novel ideas and an appetite to read widely; this is the best route to winning the respect—and even affection—of the research community.” Rick Rylance, chairman of Research Councils UK until recently, adds a further point that a minister should be someone who “doesn’t mind asking questions when he doesn’t understand things: Jo Johnson has that quality ”.
Two final characteristics are also a must: surviving long enough to get things done and the good fortune to encounter the right challenges. A minister arriving shortly after a major policy review may find their portfolio nailed down and scientists busy reacting to their predecessor’s policies. In such circumstances, a lively minister may be rather more likely to break things than fix them.
Professor Graeme Reid is the National Centres’s Strategic advisor and chair of science and research policy at University College London.