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Scientists praise outgoing UK science minister

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An undated picture from davidwilletts.co.uk.

Update: Conservative MP Greg Clark will replace David Willetts as minister for universities and science. 

UK universities and science minister David Willetts resigned from his role on 14 July as part of a cabinet reshuffle.

A replacement has yet to be announced for the popular minister — known as ‘two brains’ because of his reputed intellectual abilities — who has served in the role since 2010. Willetts is reported to also be standing down as member of parliament for Havant at the coming election.

Leading voices from the UK scientific community were quick to praise Willetts.

“David Willetts is one of the UK’s sharpest and most talented politicians; we’ve been extraordinarily privileged to have him as the UK’s science minister for the past four years,” said Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association and former director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, in a statement.

“We in the science sector like to moan about there not being enough scientists in Parliament, but it was obvious from early on that Willetts — despite not having had much to do with science previously — developed a genuine passion for the subject. You’d be hard-pressed to find many in our sector who have a bad word to say about him,” he added.

Under his watch, science received a static £4.6-billion (US$7.9 billion) budget in 2010’s austere spending review, seen as such a good settlement at the time that it earned the new minister a bouquet of white lilies and roses from one awaiting journalist.

In-depth knowledge of his brief and advocacy for science mean Willetts has remained popular throughout his term. This is despite a rising clamour around the impact of the ‘flat cash’ budget — which inflation is set to erode by an estimated £1 billion by the end of 2015–16 — as well as the instability caused by slashing and rebuilding piecemeal of infrastructure spending.

The president of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, said in a statement that Willetts had been “an outstanding science minister, respected not only in the UK but throughout the world”.

John Womersley, head of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, one of the government’s main research spending bodies, said he hoped the minister’s departure would not in any way compromise the government’s recent commitment to spend £1.1 billion in capital investment annually, rising with inflation.

Willetts’ personal impacts on science policy in the United Kingdom included a push towards open access, the drafting of a list of ‘eight great technologies’ that became the focus of capital and industry spending, as well as a beefing up of the government’s innovation body, the Technology Strategy Board.

The minister will also be remembered within the higher education sector for raising the cap on student tuition fees to allow most universities to charge £9,000 a year.

The reshuffle has been widely seen as a move by Prime Minister David Cameron to promote a new generation of Conservative politicians, especially women, into senior positions ahead of the 2015 election. Also quitting the cabinet are Tory stalwarts foreign secretary William Hague and justice secretary Kenneth Clarke.

Liz Truss has been appointed as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, and Nicky Morgan has been brought in as secretary of state for education.

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