U.K. Cabinet Reshuffle Raises Fears About Science Oversight

British scientists are closely following the fate of the influential House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which had broad oversight of government actions related to research. Its future is in question after Gordon Brown became prime minister last month and shuffled departmental authorities.

Parliamentarians scrutinize the activities of government through Commons committees; one committee follows each department, such as that for trade or the environment. The Science and Technology Committee was an exception, looking at research and the use of scientific evidence across the entire government. The committee was often in the news for its outspoken reports, including those focusing on embryo research, terrorism, and open-access publishing.

After Brown assumed power, he created the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), which gives science a more prominent position at the Cabinet table. (Before the reshuffle, the government's Office of Science and Innovation--responsible for funding the seven grant-giving research councils--sat somewhat uncomfortably within the Department for Trade and Industry.) Parliament will now likely dismantle and replace the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. Today, 38 prominent British scientists, including four Nobel laureates, protested the move in a letter appearing in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. The authors write that "just as peer review is important in science, so is adequate oversight of the use of science in policy-making."

Next week, Parliament will announce new members for all committees, including the new DIUS oversight committee. According to Phil Willis, chair of the existing Science and Technology committee, government whips have worked out a compromise. Willis's committee will be scrapped and the DIUS committee will deal with any research matters that fall within the remit of DIUS, such as research council funding. But the committee will have three more members than a normal committee and will have the power to set up a science and technology subcommittee for any matters that cross departmental boundaries.

Cosmologist Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society and an author of the letter, says that the new arrangement could retain the strength of the old committee as long as it has adequate resources and covers the same broad sweep of subjects. "In principle, this could meet our needs," he says.