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New U.K. Prime Minister brings worries about research funding and climate measures

The election of Liz Truss as the United Kingdom’s next Prime Minister has stirred unease in the already-troubled U.K. scientific community and concern among environment advocates. 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 has said she wants to review government spending, and science is “potentially a fat source of money to raid,” says James Wilsdon, a 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 many of his ministers, had championed what his government called a “science superpower” agenda. He promised to double government spending on research between 2020 and 2024, boost open-access publishing, and reduce the bureaucracy that hampers U.K. science from recruiting foreign talent. His government had taken steps towards delivering the promised funding boosts.

Truss’s opponent in the leadership contest—decided by the members of the Conservative Party—was Rishi Sunak, who served as Johnson’s chief finance minister. Sunak had promised to uphold the “science superpower” agenda, and as the minister who presided over the current science budget, he might have felt more obliged to make good on the previous government’s promises, Wilsdon says. But Truss has also made supportive comments about science in the course of her campaign, says Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering—and she may make a case for the role of R&D in her fiscal policy, which emphasizes growth and innovation.

Truss inherits the ongoing uncertainty over whether and how the United Kingdom will participate in Horizon Europe, the European Union’s seven-year, €95 billion science funding scheme, in the wake of Brexit. A deal at the end of 2020 opened the way for the country to join, but the E.U. has withheld its sign-off because of ongoing trade disagreements, particularly over Northern Ireland. In August, Truss initiated a month-long formal dispute resolution process over the impasse. That could put her in a position to give up on U.K. participation in Horizon Europe while saying she has done everything in her power to join, Wilsdon says. The £15 billion set aside for the U.K. contribution to Horizon—or for a domestic alternative named “Plan B” if negotiations fail—could become another pot of money to raid. “I’m not terribly optimistic,” Wilsdon says.

Truss’s hardline position on the Northern Ireland issue indicates “challenges ahead” on resolving the Horizon question, Main says. But the new administration may also trigger a reset and improvement in relations with Europe, she says. Certainty on Horizon participation is needed, Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said in a statement today: “While we wait, confidence in and around UK science is ebbing away and we are losing talent. It would be a real win for the new PM to get the science part of Brexit done now.”

Shaun Spiers, executive director of think tank The Green Alliance, says Truss and Sunak were both “really depressingly trivial” on their commitment to climate action and environmental protection. A particular cause for concern has been both candidates’ desire to shed E.U. legislation, including regulations on environmental protection, food safety, and chemicals. Losing these regulations—which the UK is now free to remove from its national interpretation of E.U. laws—would be “seriously bad news for the environment,” Spiers says—although it’s not clear that the U.K. public would support a retreat on environmental protections.

But Truss may yet come around. Johnson, famous for years of writing climate denialist columns, has described a “road to Damascus” moment after his scientific advisors confronted him with the facts. Johnson went on to try, “however fitfully, to make climate and nature a major part of his premiership,” Spiers says. Theresa May, who preceded Johnson as Prime Minister, also gave no indication of being serious about climate before being elected to leadership, but went on to set the government’s 2050 net zero target in law and launch a 25-year environment plan, he says. “So I guess we start from a clean slate.”

The U.K. Conservative Party is not as staunchly opposed to climate action as conservative parties in, for example, the United States and Australia, Spiers says, but the party has a hardline element of climate denialists and agitators. Both Truss and Sunak distanced themselves from that group during their leadership campaigns, signing a pledge by the Conservative Environment Network that committed them to climate and environmental action. And one of Truss’s rumored cabinet appointments offers some cause for optimism. Kwasi Kwarteng, who as ex-minister for energy and industry “understands the issues and is committed to action,” Spiers says, is likely to be made chief finance minister. “All is not lost, by any means,” Spiers says.

The next general election must be held in January 2025 at the latest, giving Truss only two guaranteed years in her premiership. “She has a fairly short window in which to make her mark,” Main says. “I think we can expect to see her moving quickly.”

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