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Jo Jonson

Jo Johnson

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A week of political bloodletting, but U.K. science minister keeps his job

For researchers worried about the future of science in the United Kingdom, the news was something to hold onto. Late on Friday, Jo Johnson announced he will remain as science minister, despite a massive shakeup of the government cabinet. “I’m happy he’s kept the same job,” says Sarah Main, director of the advocacy group Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. “It’s good for continuity.” It’s not exactly the same job, and it may have become harder, because Johnson will have two bosses—one for research and one for universities—in the new government. Main and other lobbyists say it will be crucial to keep these two sectors closely linked as the United Kingdom slowly figures out what last month’s referendum to leave the European Union means for its future.

Theresa May became prime minister after the vote for a Brexit, which has created great uncertainty about research in the United Kingdom. The tumult continued last week as a raft of senior ministers were fired and hired. As part of the major reshuffling, May separated science and higher education into two departments. (The university portfolio has moved into the Department of Education, while the research portfolio remains part of what has been renamed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.)

One reason why Johnson may have escaped the ax is that science minister is a relatively low-profile position in the government. Another possibility, Main says, is that Parliament is deliberating over a higher education reform bill. Johnson was a lead author and advocate for this bill, which is intended to improve the evaluation of teaching and make other changes to universities. The bill would also restructure the research councils, which provide peer-reviewed grants. 

Johnson, who has been in the job for a year, will now report to both departments. Main says that the split brief makes the best of the situation, because Johnson will be able to advocate for keeping the research and university sectors well connected. The Russell Group, an association of 24 research universities in the United Kingdom, also hopes the two departments will work together cheek to cheek. “[S]cience and research are fundamental functions of our universities and one of our key objectives is to ensure that research informs teaching and vice-versa,” Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group in London, wrote in a statement