Two replacements for ‘Two Brains’ Willetts in reshuffle

Michael Gove’s surprise departure from the Department for Education has dominated this week’s headlines following David Cameron’s reshuffle on Tuesday. But another surprise this week was that the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has resigned.

While the reaction to Gove’s demotion was polarised, the scientific community’s response to the news of Willetts’ departure was in overwhelming unison. The man whose intellectual approach to politics earned him the nickname Two Brains drew tributes from several public figures in science.

Imran Khan, head of the British Science Association, championed the passion Willetts
showed for science, despite not having a scientific background. He said: “You’d be hardpressed to find many in our sector who have a bad word to say about him.”

The president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, called Willetts an “outstanding science
minister, respected not only in the UK but throughout the world … His commitment, energy
and pure enthusiasm for science will be sorely missed.” Another tribute came from Jackie
Hunter, chief executive of the BBSRC, the research council that funds much of the John
Innes Centre’s research. She said: “As science minister, David Willetts has helped to place research and innovation at the centre of rebalancing and rebuilding our economy.”

Science in government: former Universities and Science minister David Willetts; his replacement, the Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, Greg Clark; and George Freeman, the newly-appointed Minister for Life Sciences. Photograph credits (from left): Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters; The CBI/Flickr; Ian Burt/Dereham Times.

Science in government: former Universities and Science minister David Willetts; his replacement, the Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities, Greg Clark; and George Freeman, the newly-appointed Minister for Life Sciences. Photograph credits (from left): Alessia Pierdomenico/Reuters; The CBI/Flickr; Ian Burt/Dereham Times.

In the greater academic community, outside science, however, some felt that Willetts was
leaving behind a more sour legacy. His impact on universities was criticised by many
responders to Times Higher Education’s call for #WillettsLegacy tweets.

Others felt that Willetts had managed to defend higher education against the worst of the
austerity seen by other government departments.

On Tuesday morning, David Cameron announced that Willetts would be replaced by Greg
Clark.

Soon after his appointment was announced, Clark’s views on homeopathy came under scrutiny. Clark had lent his signature to a 2007 motion in support of the provision of homeopathy on the NHS.
But in an interview
with the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, Clark denied that he supports homeopathy, saying that
he signed out of protest against cuts to the NHS’s local services budget.

Clark will take on his new responsibility for science and universities in addition to his current role as Minister of State for Cities and Construction in the Cabinet Office.

This announcement was met with concern that the role was seen by David Cameron as half a job – one that could be done by a minister splitting his time across two separate
departments in Whitehall.

However, Number 10 also announced that there would be a new Minister for Life Sciences, George Freeman. Freeman, the MP for mid Norfolk, was formerly an advisor on the life sciences to Willetts, but will now take on the role in a ministerial capacity. His appointment was welcomed by many, including Imran Khan and the writer and science campaigner Ben Goldacre.

Only time will tell what legacies Clark and Freeman leave behind them. But with only 10
months until the general election, it is unlikely that they will be able to see their ideas through from legislation to implementation before another reshuffle – or a change of government.

By Mabon Elis, a first year PhD student in the lab of Rico Coen

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