David Willetts resigned from his post as U.K. universities and science minister yesterday as part of a government reshuffle. Today, Greg Clark, a conservative minister responsible for cities policy and constitutional reform, has taken over Willetts' portfolio.
Prominent U.K. scientists and policy leaders have praised Willetts, who was appointed in May 2010, as a strong advocate for research funding after the financial downturn. “Despite the fact that he's not a scientist, he went native. His personal affection and enthusiasm for science have been crucially important in sustaining the government's commitment to science through challenging times,” said Colin Blakemore, a neuroscience and philosophy professor at the University of London, in a statement to the Science Media Centre (SMC).
Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, lauded Willetts as one of the country's “sharpest and most talented politicians.” “You'd be hard-pressed to find many in our sector who have a bad word to say about him,” Khan wrote to SMC.
Under Willetts's watch, science dodged expected budget cuts and was guaranteed a flat-cash annual envelope of £4.6 billion for the following 4 years. But because this figure is not adjusted for inflation, in real terms the science budget has lost about £1.1 billion from October 2010 to 2015–2016, according to the U.K. Campaign for Science and Engineering. As BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh put it: “Critics say [Willetts] oversaw a cut to science spending. His fans say he protected research in difficult times.”
His higher education reforms—including allowing universities to charge higher tuition fees—were less popular with students. “[I w]ill always be a huge critic of Willetts' reforms to [higher education], but he was a genuine politician who never questioned [the] legitimacy of [the U.K. National Union of Students],” said Rachel Wenstone, the union's former vice president for higher education, on Twitter yesterday.
Willetts's successor, Clark, holds an economics degree from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and worked for a business strategy firm before entering politics. He was appointed minister for cities in July 2011 and will keep this portfolio in addition to the science policy brief.
Critics pointed out this morning that Clark backed a 2007 parliamentary motion calling on the government to support homeopathic hospitals; they suggest that this pro-homeopathy stance could make Clark a poor fit for the science ministry.
The whole reshuffle is seen as an effort by Prime Minister David Cameron to bring in more women and younger ministers in his government ahead of next year's parliamentary elections. Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Willetts said he would not run for reelection as a member of Parliament.