UK science minister George Freeman quits

14 Nov 2023 | News

A surprise reshuffle heralds even more upheaval in UK science and technology policy. Meanwhile, the return of former prime minister David Cameron could see an easing of tensions with China, including in research

Former UK science minister George Freeman. Photo: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills / Flickr

UK science minister George Freeman has quit during a tumultuous 24 hours in British politics, which saw former prime minister and China-dove David Cameron return to government as foreign secretary.

During a ministerial reshuffle, Freeman, who oversaw London and Brussels finally striking a deal to allow UK association to Horizon Europe, said he was stepping down to “focus on my health, family wellbeing and life beyond the front bench.”

Freeman also helped push through the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a new UK body modelled on the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).  

A former life sciences entrepreneur, Freeman was seen as a knowledgeable advocate for research and innovation in a period of intense political turmoil in the UK.

As Freeman acknowledged in his resignation letter, he had five ministerial roles under four prime ministers, and served as science minister twice, once under former prime minister Boris Johnson, and then later reappointed in September last year under Rishi Sunak.

He was minister during two and a half years of hiatus as political deadlock prevented the UK from associating to Horizon Europe. Although a deal is now done, the UK sector needs help in reforging links with the EU that were damaged during the country’s long, partial absence from the programme.

Freeman is replaced by Andrew Griffith, previously a minister in charge of the City of London and financial services. “We’re on the forefront of revolutionary technological development and I look forward to building on my work as City minister to unleash capital to support these exciting opportunities,” he wrote on X.

Cameron returns

In a surprise move, former prime minister David Cameron returned as foreign secretary, in a move that could have implications for the UK’s China policy.

Whether to cooperate with China in research is one of the toughest policymaking dilemmas in western capitals right now, and Cameron’s appointment suggests the UK could soften its hardening line against Beijing. The current prime minister Rishi Sunak, when campaigning for leadership, pledged to ban Confucius Centres at UK universities, but nothing has become of the plan.

As prime minister, Cameron heralded an ultimately ill-fated “Golden Age” of relations with China, taking selfies with Xi Jinping and inviting the Chinese leader to the pub.

After leaving office, he has developed multiple financial connections to China, too, including as vice president of a £1 billion China-UK investment fund.

These connections to China were so close that earlier this year the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee warned that this type of Chinese influence was so pervasive that it risked compromising the British political system as completely as Russia had done through oligarch money.

“We know that China invests in political influence, and we question whether – with high-profile cases such as David Cameron (UK–China Fund) […] a similar situation might be arising in relation to China,” it said.

The committee also said it was possible that Cameron’s role in the fund was “in some part engineered by the Chinese state to lend credibility to Chinese investment, as well as to the broader China brand”.

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