UK government sets up dedicated department for science and technology
The UK government has for the first time established a Whitehall department dedicated to science and technology policy.
As part of a reshuffle that sees the creation of four new departments, prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced the formation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), combining responsibilities for tech-related policies that were previously split across the former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Michelle Donelan, previously secretary of state at DCMS, will take charge of the new department.
“A dedicated Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy,” said a statement from 10 Downing Street.
“Having a single department focused on turning scientific and technical innovations into practical, appliable solutions to the challenges we face will help make sure the UK is the most innovative economy in the world.”
For many years, tech sector leaders have called for a Cabinet-level role for science and technology as the industry became an increasingly important part of the UK economy. Recent Conservative administrations have repeatedly stated a goal of making the UK a “science and technology superpower”.
In June 2022, DCMS launched a digital strategy to help co-ordinate and focus efforts around the £150bn UK digital economy, with the aim to “grow the UK tech sector’s annual gross value added (GVA) by an additional £41.5bn by 2025, and create a further 678,000 jobs”.
The new department will have a wide variety of challenges to address in the tech sector, including ongoing skills shortages, controversy over the future support arrangements for tech startups, and low levels of investment in research and development activity.
In the 2022 Autumn Statement, chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt said the government wanted to “combine our technology and science brilliance with our formidable financial services to turn Britain into the world’s next Silicon Valley”.
Hunt vowed to bolster the UK’s science and technology sectors, saying that the 21st century economy will be defined by “new developments in artificial intelligence, quantum technology and robotics”, but argued that the country needs to get much better at turning its technical expertise and world-class innovative nous into world-beating companies.
Sunak has been a strong supporter of the UK’s digital and tech sector. As chancellor, he set up a Treasury initiative to reach out to leaders in the UK tech sector, such as CEOs, investors and startups, to better understand what the industry wants from the government in the post-Brexit world of “Global Britain”. He has personal links to tech too – his father-in-law was the founder of Indian IT giant Infosys.
In a 2021 interview with Computer Weekly, Sunak said: “It’s not always easy in politics to do things, and then they don’t work out. That’s part of learning rather than failing – and that’s how we get better. We think this is really important, we want to try and support [the tech sector]. And we’re willing to be innovative about how we do so.”
The wider reshuffle also saw the creation of new departments for energy security and net zero, run by Grant Shapps; business and trade, under Kemi Badenoch; and culture, media and sport, headed up by Lucy Frazer.
“The changes will ensure the right skills and teams are focused on the prime minister’s five promises: to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats,” said Number 10.