15 Jul 2014

Fond and not-so-fond farewells to ‘four brains’ and OPatz

So after famously accusing the badgers of moving the goalposts, it is Owen Paterson who ended up getting the red card. The badgers are victorious – at least according to Greenpeace, who never made much secret of their loathing of the least green environment secretary in recent memory:

“The badgers have outlasted Owen Paterson. If history remembers him, it will not be kind.” Ouch.

While he was chiefly loathed by environmentalists and animal lovers over his dogged pursuit of Britain’s favourite omnivore, he had other qualities they didn’t admire. While never exactly denying climate change, Paterson was decidedly lukewarm on global warming. He publicly attacked on-shore wind turbines.

Britain's Environment Secretary Paterson arrives on Downing Street in London

In addition to the omnivoreshambles that was the government’s badger cull policy, Paterson oversaw some high-profile environment policy crises.

Early in office there was the ash dieback trees disease outbreak, coinciding with his efforts to dismantle England’s Forestry Commission. The horsemeat scandal saw his department lay the blame squarely on to the Food Standards Agency, and then when the floodwaters rose in winter 2013-2014, Defra saw the buck pass straight to the Environment Agency. His department criticised the flood protection body’s priorities while refusing to admit it had savaged the flood defence budget.

Two significant sectors that might miss Mr Paterson are Britain’s farmers and fishermen. The ex-military man stuck doggedly to the objective of delivering the badger cull policy. The plan, with no good scientific evidence supporting it and passed on to him like a case of TB, was the responsibility of his Defra predecessors Caroline Spelman and Jim “farmer” Paice. Paterson’s fisheries ministers have also worked hard in Brussels to secure better deals for British fishermen and more sustainable fisheries.

Former Shell employee Liz Truss becomes his successor. Her leanings on the environment aren’t exactly clear but she would have to try hard to make herself less popular among greens than Owen Paterson.

Universities Minister David Willetts speaks at an event in central London

If Owen Paterson was unpopular with his department’s key demographic, the opposite is true of Universities and Science Minister David Willetts. Upon coming to the job, “Four Brains” (as he was already nicknamed) became the darling of most academics he met. Scientists were immediately impressed with how he had often read their research – and actually understood it. Willetts went further than flattery by managing to protect the bulk of the UK’s science and engineering research budgets from cuts.

Mr Willetts was particularly popular among Britain’s engineers. He was due to make an announcement today about a new  spaceport for the UK designed to help accelerate the work of the UK Space Agency he introduced. But now, it seems, Willetts has achieved escape velocity himself.

No word yet on his replacement, but Britain’s scientists are worried no-one can quite do for them what Mr Willetts has done. Neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore lamented: “Despite the fact he is not a scientist, he went native. His personal affection and enthusiasm for science have been crucially important… We all hope his departure doesn’t signal a reduction in that commitment.”

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