Following the formation of the United Kingdom's Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government, Conservative Member of Parliament David Willetts has been named as the new minister of state for universities and science. Like his predecessor, Paul Drayson, Willetts will attend cabinet meetings without being a full cabinet member. Although he doesn't have a science background, he has strong connections with academia and has spoken strongly in favor of science and so has been cautiously welcomed by researchers.
Willetts studied philosophy, politics, and economics at the University of Oxford and later served in a number of government departments as a policy adviser. Elected to parliament in 1992, he held a number of minor government posts and, because of his policy background and cerebral approach, earned the nickname "two brains." With the Conservatives as the leading minority party since 1997, Willetts held various "shadow" cabinet jobs, including shadow education secretary and, most recently, shadow minister for universities and skills. Among the pressing research issues he will face will be determining the level of funding for Britain's research councils, which will be laid out in a comprehensive spending review this autumn. The new government is looking for £6 billion in cuts across government spending this year to tackle the huge budget deficit, so he will have to work hard to protect science. There is also the question of how to allocate funding for research in U.K universities. This was previously allocated on a department-by-department basis according to a peer-review assessment of research strengths. The previous government was due to replace that assessment system with one based on metrics. The Conservative manifesto pledged to delay the implementation of the new system, but to what end? (A previous ScienceInsider noted the Conservative Party's plans for science.)
Also in the science spotlight will be Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, the new secretary of state for energy and climate change. Huhne was the Lib-Dem spokesperson on the environment a few years ago and has spoken in favor of green taxes. He has the unenviable position of being in charge of the coalition government's policy of promoting new building of nuclear power stations, whereas Liberal Democrat policy opposes them.