After several days of turmoil, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on July 7 that he would step down as leader of the country after the Conservative Party elects a replacement. In his resignation speech, Johnson said, “I have today appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place.” But that could take months. Meanwhile, the country—including its scientists—is left with much uncertainty as that process plays out.
As members of Parliament sought to force Johnson’s resignation, an unprecedented number of cabinet ministers resigned, necessitating new appointments. The resignations had cascaded, with Michelle Donelan resigning as secretary of state for education on July 7, barely 36 hours after being promoted to the post after the first round of resignations. Johnson replaced her with James Cleverly in his caretaker cabinet before making his speech.
While all cabinet positions have been filled for the interim period, other, more junior, posts remain empty, including the position of minister for science, research and innovation. The previous incumbent, George Freeman, also resigned on the morning of Jul. 7.
“George Freeman has been a great champion for UK biotech and the wider science community,” Martin Turner, head of policy at the UK BioIndustry Association, says in a statement. He added that Freeman’s work “has been tireless and enjoys cross-party support. Progress must continue on these key agendas.”
The caretaker cabinet has pledged not to enact any significant policy changes until a new prime minister is in place. That, combined with the lack of a science minister, leaves multiple decisions affecting science up in the air. Several reports due by the end of this month now could be held until autumn, including an independent review of the UK’s research landscape led by Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, and a review of research bureaucracy. The government’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) for funding high-risk, high-reward science also still lacks a chief executive.
Whether the government will try to get as much published as possible in the next 2 weeks, or whether it will wait until the fall, remains to be seen. “The civil service, I think, will prefer the latter because they don’t like rushing stuff out and then finding that the political context has changed,” says James Wilsdon, who studies research policy at the University of Sheffield.
The most prominent—and pressing—question relates to whether the UK participates in the European Union’s prestigious Horizon Europe program. The UK’s involvement in the program has been on hold after the country failed to implement specific post-Brexit trading agreements relating to Northern Ireland. UK-based researchers lost access to prestigious grants and large consortia programs that promote research across multiple countries.
The UK government had threatened to pull out of Horizon Europe altogether, and Freeman was set to present details of a “plan B” scheme on July 21. The UK government has been covering the shortfall for researchers who were awarded but have been unable to receive EU grants.
Wilson sees multiple outcomes for these funding commitments in the next few months. For example, announcing how the UK government will fund UK science without Horizon Europe could be a way for Johnson to end his term as prime minister on a high. “From Boris’s perspective, a good plan B announcement is a great part of a sort of farewell jamboree,” Wilsdon says, pointing out that Johnson has pushed a “science superpower” agenda during his tenure. However, if funding decisions are delayed until a new leader is elected, domestic considerations such as the cost of living crisis could prompt the new leader to redistribute money earmarked for science to other competing priorities. “I think the whole thing is quite fragile,” Wilsdon concludes.
This article was updated on July 14, 2022, to note that the UK failed to implement trading agreements related to Northern Ireland, not Northern Island.