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.”
Sunak said that DSIT will “make sure the UK is the country where the next great scientific discoveries are made – and where the brightest minds and the most ambitious entrepreneurs will turn those ideas into companies, products, and services that can change the world.”
A statement outlining the remit for the new department said it will “focus on positioning the UK at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement… build on our strong foundations of world-class research, a thriving technology scene and global networks of collaboration to create a golden thread from outstanding basic science to innovations that change lives and sustain economic growth. It will direct record levels of R&D, and deliver talent programmes, physical and digital infrastructure and regulation.”
Sunak highlighted six “priority outcomes” for DSIT:
- To increase the level of private research and development (R&D) to make the UK economy the most innovative in the world;
- To deliver gigabit broadband, make the UK the best place to start a tech business, and attract and develop the best talent;
- To put public services at the forefront of innovation, with in-house science and technology capability;
- To strengthen international collaboration on science and technology;
- To deliver key legislative and regulatory reforms such as the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill and the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill.
- To pass the Online Safety Bill.
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.