Sunday thoughts: What should DSIT and Michelle Donelan *not* do?

Jonathan Simons
4 min readFeb 19


John Gill’s editorial in this fortnight’s Times Higher sets out the challenges for the new Secretary of State for DSIT (apparently known in Whitehall shorthand as ‘Technology Secretary’, ugh). As opposed to the normal “these are some things you can do”, he’s terribly meanly gone for “things you should not do”, and his list includes: undermine the dual funding system; defund things which aren’t STEM; cut blue sky research; abandon the Haldane principle; give up on Horizon Europe association; cut funding to post-92s; stop pushing for R+D spend even if we have hit 2.4%; and clamp down on international students.

He asked me for some thoughts on the list, which I agree with entirely. But it also got me thinking about other things I’d add. Here, unencumbered by word limits for a THE editorial, they are:

1. Don’t just blindly implement the Nurse review (Nurse II). This is widely expected to land in Whitehall imminently, and set out potentially significant recommendations around the structural landscape of R+D institutions — also known as “should we give less research funding to universities and more to independent institutions like the Crick”. In principle, the analysis of creating more clusters of excellence by aggregating talent and facilities, and in some instances separating out the fundamental task of research from institutions and people that also have to teach, is sensible. And the Review panel itself are obviously first class. But reorganising, even in part, the landscape, is likely to be one of the biggest things which DSIT might do, and needs very careful thought and planning, rather than wholesale acceptance and a push for quick implementation before 2024.

2. Don’t forget the Science and Innovation Network, funded by the FCO, and which operates as a worldwide network of people and offices linking back scientific expertise to the UK. In my two brushes with it, it’s been exceptionally well targeted at delivering both research benefits and commercial benefits to the UK, and because it’s a lot smaller and more targeted than the broader DIT style outreach, it can be more effective. And did I mention that from DSITs perspective, they don’t pay for it? It’s a large bit of soft power for the UK as well, providing a vehicle for externally promoting the UK’s scientific and innovation expertise. This network should be used hugely by DSIT and be the primary ‘shop window’ for a lot of what it seeks to do as a department across digital, technology, science and innovation.

3. Don’t underplay access to the UK R+D network as a condition of trade deals. There’s lots of debate about the extent to which trade partners will want some form of preferential access on student visas as a condition of deals. That one, fortunately, is not DSITs problem. But access to the R+D network — whether that is researchers in universities, or new institutes, or funding flows, or collaborations, or even the opportunity for research using the unique capabilities of the NHS — is also likely to be highly prized, and also welcomed at the UK R+D end. (I do NOT mean “sell off the NHS to UnitedHealthcare as a condition of a US trade deal”). But such a prize should be deployed carefully, in a way that doesn’t cut across either Horizon association (hopefully) or broader cross border collaboration by academics and researchers anyway — and crucially, not given away easily.

4. Don’t forget you’re the new kid on the block. I’ve stolen this one shamelessly from Andy Westwood, in his DIUS fever dreams when the reshuffle was announced. New Departments suffer from a number of institutional issues, which is that they’re a new creation and they’re trying to sort themselves out (staff coming together, sometimes new senior staff as well as new Ministers, sorting out the back office and portfolios etc) while also engaging in intra Whitehall discussions immediately, some of which they will have been part of from previous incarnations and some of which are new. Processes and habit being what they are, the natural inclination among other departments will be to not think unduly about looping you in. From a political level, Michelle Donelan will also have to (politely) fight to make sure people know what she and her department care about, while not throwing her weight around too quickly and irritating her colleagues. The danger of replicating DIUS is that DIUS suffered from being a small headcount department and a narrow focus, and ultimately never putting down sufficient roots in Whitehall to guarantee its existence. DSIT will have to show that it has an interest across more of Whitehall than simply spending R+D money.

5. And don’t irritate DfE. Michelle Donelan obviously has some history with the Department and with the HE sector. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. In her new role, Donelan will need to be more good cop than bad cop — more about scientific and innovative excellence, less about bashing the Race Equality Charter. This is both for Whitehall territory reasons (if DfE start arguing against you, then you’re in trouble to advance your agenda) and also practical reasons, which is that universities and their surrounding ecosystem are the key absorptive infrastructure for the R+D you want to spend, private R+D and other private money that you want to bring into the system, and new businesses and scale ups that you want to see. In other words, DSIT can’t succeed unless DfE also succeeds (and that includes on flows of international student and academic talent into the UK).

I’m obviously hugely excited about the new Department — and if it can navigate the risks facing it, I’m hopeful that over the next decade at a minimum (if not necessarily before 2024), it can start to deliver on this vital agenda.