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February 7, 2023updated 17 Mar 2023 8:32am

Reshuffle sees government create new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology

The Department of Science, Innovation and Technology has been announced by PM Rishi Sunak, but is it a good idea?

By Sophia Waterfield

A new Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (SIT) has been created by the government following a cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. It means responsibility for the digital economy has been removed from the former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), but an expert who spoke to Tech Monitor questioned whether the timing of the move is right.

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak chairs the Cabinet following his departmental re-organisation (Photo courtesy Number 10 Flickr)

SIT will be asked to “drive innovation that will deliver improved public services” as well as create “new and better-paid jobs”. Announcing the changes earlier today, Sunak’s office said the department would also be focused on turning “scientific and technological innovations into practical, applicable solutions” to everyday challenges the UK faces in becoming an innovative economy.

But the changes, which were welcomed by some tech stakeholders, may be difficult for the government to implement.

Reshuffle: Donelan keeps digital as DCMS is dispatched

Another three departments – Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (ESNZ), Department for Business and Trade (BaT) and Department for Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) – were also announced as part of the cabinet reshuffle, the latter of which formerly had the remit of digital. BaT will support growth by “backing British businesses at home and abroad” as well as promoting investment and free trade, the PM’s Office said.

As part of the newly created departments, Sunak appointed Secretaries of State to take responsibility for areas such as technology and energy security.

Michelle Donelan, who previously served as the Secretary of State for DCMS, will take the same role at SIT, with Lucy Frazer taking over the new CMS department. Grant Shapps will head up EZNZ and Kemi Badenoch will run BaT, as well as keeping her role as President of the Board of Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities.

Donelan’s credentials for leading the new department are questionable. According to Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), there are currently 103 MPs who have a STEM and medicine background; Donelan does not feature as part of the list, and worked in marketing before entering politics.

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Will SIT make the UK the world’s next Silicon Valley?

The cabinet reshuffle is part of an oft-stated government ambition to make the UK a global tech hub. Last month, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt spoke of his desire to turn the country into the “world’s next Silicon Valley” saying he believes it to be an achievable long-term ambition for the UK.

However, Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech Nation, says that for this to happen the government will need a “singular focus”.

“The government has set a bold ambition for the UK to be a forward-facing science superpower,” he told Tech Monitor. “It hopes to take on Silicon Valley and become the most innovative country in the world. For this to become a reality, the Government must match its rhetoric with policies and support mechanisms. Most importantly, it must engage with the grassroots tech community and be responsive to their specific needs.” He believes having a dedicated department to aggregate policy can drive the UK to become disruptive.

Other stakeholders have seen this push for tech innovation as a “reaffirmed commitment” to the sector. Katie Gallagher, chair of the UK Tech Cluster Group, said that the news of the new department was “welcome.”

“Research in 2021 found that the digital sector employs around 1.66 million people: accounting for 4.9% of all jobs. It also contributed £148bn to the economy – amounting to 7.6% of the UK total,” Gallagher says.

“Working with industry and government on the Digital Skills Council, I see the critical importance of keeping momentum and ensuring businesses can start, grow, and innovate through technology, while more people are supported to build digital careers.”

Transitioning digital to SIT isn’t going to be ‘smooth’

While the industry rejoices in the creation of SIT, analyst Rob Anderson, research director for public sector at GlobalData, cautions that the road to moving the responsibilities of digital over from the former DCMS isn’t going to be plain sailing.

“[Departmental changes] are not smooth – they can take up to two years to bed down,” he told Tech Monitor. “And if you look forward to two years ahead, it’s a General Election, and everything is going to be thrown up in the air again.”‘

Anderson warns that these changes come with a price tag and with Whitehall budgets already being tightened, which could impact grant funding, he feels it’s an “odd time” to commence a significant reorganisation.

He believes the move may be a “distraction tactic” aimed at taking attention away from the problems the government faces elsewhere, with widespread strikes as well as negative headlines concerning the behaviour of ministers, and questions whether the government has followed its own Machinery of Government Guidance, which sets out the procedures that should be followed when departmental changes are made.

“They may have been working on this for a while, but I suspect from the way it’s come about that they haven’t,” Anderson says.

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