The election of Liz Truss as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has sparked unease in the already troubled British scientific community and concern among conservationists. Truss, whose election was announced by the Conservative Party today and who previously served as Foreign Secretary under outgoing leader Boris Johnson, has said little about science. But she said she wanted to review government spending, and science is “potentially a big money maker to plunder”, says James Wilsdon, science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield.
Johnson, who resigned from office in July after a series of scandals and the shock resignation of several of his ministers, had championed what his government called a “science superpower” agenda. He promised to double public spending on research between 2020 and 2024, boost open access publishing and cut the bureaucracy that prevents British science from recruiting overseas talent. His government had taken steps to deliver the promised funding increases.
Truss’s opponent in the leadership race – decided by Conservative Party members – was Rishi Sunak, who served as Johnson’s chief finance minister. Sunak had promised to support the “science superpower” agenda, and as the minister who chaired the current science budget, he might have felt more pressured to deliver on the promises of the previous government, Wilsdon says. But Truss has also made favorable comments about science during her campaign, says Sarah Main, the campaign’s executive director for science and engineering – and she can argue for the role of R&D in her budget policy, which emphasizes growth and innovation.
Truss inherits the lingering uncertainty over whether and how the UK will participate in Horizon Europe, the European Union’s seven-year, €95 billion science funding scheme, following Brexit. A late 2020 deal paved the way for the country to join, but the EU withheld approval due to ongoing trade disagreements, particularly over Northern Ireland. In August, Truss launched a month-long formal dispute resolution process over the standoff. That could put her in a position to opt out of the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe while saying she has done everything in her power to join, says Wilsdon. The £15bn set aside for the UK’s contribution to Horizon – or for a national alternative called “Plan B” if negotiations fail – could become another source of money to plunder. “I’m not very optimistic,” says Wilsdon.
Truss’ hardline stance on the Northern Ireland issue points to “challenges ahead” in resolving the Horizon issue, Main says. But the new administration could also trigger a reset and improvement in relations with Europe, she says. Certainty over participation in Horizon is needed, Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said in a statement today: ‘While we wait, trust in and around UK science is diminishing and we are losing talent. It would be a real victory for the new Prime Minister to finish the scientific part of Brexit now. »
Shaun Spiers, executive director of think tank The Green Alliance, said both Truss and Sunak were “really depressing” about their commitment to climate action and environmental protection. A particular cause for concern has been the desire of both candidates to get rid of EU legislation, including regulations on environmental protection, food safety and chemicals. The loss of these regulations – which the UK is now free to remove from its national interpretation of EU laws – would be “very bad news for the environment”, says Spiers, although it is unclear that the British public supports a rollback on environmental protection.
But Truss can still come back. Johnson, famous for his years of writing climate denialist columns, described a “road to Damascus” moment after his science advisers confronted him with the facts. Johnson went on to try, “albeit intermittently, to make climate and nature an important part of his premiership,” Spiers says. Theresa May, who preceded Johnson as prime minister, also gave no indication she was serious about the climate before being elected to the leadership but later set the net zero target of the government for 2050 into law and launched a 25-year environmental plan, he says. “So I guess we’re starting from a clean slate.”
The British Conservative Party is not as fiercely opposed to climate action as Conservative parties, for example, in the United States and Australia, Spiers says, but the party has a hard line of climate deniers and agitators. Both Truss and Sunak distanced themselves from this group during their leadership campaigns, signing a pledge from the Conservative Environment Network that committed them to climate and environmental action. And one of Truss’ rumored cabinet appointments offers reason for optimism. Kwasi Kwarteng, who as a former energy and industry minister “understands the issues and is committed to action”, Spiers said, is likely to be appointed chief finance minister. “All is not lost, by any means,” Spires says.
The next general election is due to be held in January 2025 at the latest, giving Truss only two guaranteed years as prime minister. “She has a pretty short window to make her mark,” Main says. “I think we can expect to see her move quickly.”