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UKtech50 2023 winner: Michelle Donelan/Chloe Smith, secretary of state, DSIT

Computer Weekly looks at the achievements and successes of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, as its secretary of state is recognised as the most influential person in UK technology for 2023

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: UKtech50 2023: The most influential people in UK technology

The past year has seen plenty of turmoil in government, but perhaps one of the most positive outcomes of the latest Cabinet reshuffle was the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), led by secretary of state Michelle Donelan.

For the first time in history, there is a department dedicated to science and technology policy, and Donelan, who is the winner of the UKtech50 2023, the 13th edition of Computer Weekly’s annual list of the most influential people in UK technology, has jumped head-first into the role.

Five weeks after taking on the role, Donelan promised that DSIT would move away from the old ways of government.

“Our department will do things differently and will be a model for how modern government departments should run,” she said, speaking in the House of Commons shortly after her department, still in the throes of creation, launched the UK Science and Technology Framework, a 10-point plan on how to boost investment in innovation and seize the potential of new technologies, including a £370m investment.

Donelan, who came from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), did not always plan on becoming a politician.

The first in her family to go to university, Donelan made a career for herself in the media and entertainment industry, both abroad and in the UK. However, keen to make a difference, she joined politics in 2015 as an MP for Chippenham. In her maiden speech in Parliament, she made it clear that she was not one to rest on her laurels, and was determined to “knock down barriers, open doors and create opportunities for all”.

She spent a good chunk of her political career as a minister in the Department for Education, with equal opportunity to education and building skills being issues for which she burns passionately – a passion that translates easily to her current role. This mantra of “opportunities for all” has stayed with her throughout her political career.

In her speech to Parliament in March 2023, Donelan hailed the creation of DSIT as a “watershed moment”.

“For the first time in our history, we have created a government department that concentrates our best minds around a single mission: making Britain a science and technology superpower – one that uses discovery and innovation to solve the problems that are priorities for the British people,” she said.


“For the first time in our history, we have created a government department that concentrates our best minds around a single mission: making Britain a science and technology superpower – one that uses discovery and innovation to solve the problems that are priorities for the British people”

Michelle Donelan, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology

Donelan is keen for the department to be seen as one that gets stuff done, in a way that enriches people’s lives. In her first few weeks as “tech secretary”, she, in her own words “focused relentlessly on action and delivery”.

“We have an incredibly unique and powerful platform from which to grow and innovate for the benefit of the British people, which is why I plan to take a ruthlessly outcome-focused approach to this new department – ensuring that in both the short-term and the long-term, our work is improving people’s daily lives in ways they can feel and see around them,” she said.

Industry collaboration

Announcing DSIT’s creation, prime minister Rishi Sunak set out six priorities for the department, including strengthening international collaboration on science and technology, passing the Online Safety Bill, delivering legislative and regulatory reforms, and putting public services at the forefront of innovation, with in-house science and technology capability.

Coming into her role as technology secretary, Donelan quickly understood that industry engagement would be key to the department’s six priority outcomes being successfully delivered.

In March 2023, the government introduced the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, co-designed with industry. Introducing the bill to Parliament, Donelan said the plan “seizes our post-Brexit opportunity to create a new UK data rights regime, tailor-made for our needs. The bill reduces burdens on businesses (especially SMEs) and researchers, and crucially, boosts the economy by a staggering £4.7bn over the next decade”.

However, not everyone has welcomed the bill, amid concerns that lightening the rules for UK businesses created a gap between UK law and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which they say could be problematic both for citizens and businesses.

Michelle Donelan's UKtech50 acceptance speech

Secretary of state for science, innovation and technology Michelle Donelan kindly interrupted her maternity leave to provide an acceptance speech to be read out to guests at the announcement of the UKtech50 winner - this is what she said:

Words cannot express my gratitude for having been awarded this year’s title of the Most Influential Person in UK Technology.  

I’m just sorry that I’m unable to accept this generous award in person as I am only a few weeks in to being the mother of a beautiful baby boy. One who is determined to give even the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology a run for its money in keeping my hands full!    

But I am both humbled and grateful that Computer Weekly readers voted for both me and Chloe Smith who I know has been working diligently and determinedly while I have been on maternity leave.

And I would like to take this opportunity to thank her for driving forward this government’s mission to transform our R&D sector, to seize the opportunities presented by new and emerging technologies, and to cement the UK’s position as a global science and tech superpower.

But I am also thankful to all the nominees for tonight’s award...

…The innovators, entrepreneurs and trailblazers from right across the public, private and third sectors who have helped make the UK one of the most dynamic and business-friendly places anywhere on earth for tech. 

Thanks to your efforts, we are the third country in the world to have a tech sector valued at over $1tn.

The digital sector contributes over £140bn to the UK economy every year, accounting for almost 10% of GVA.

And when it comes to AI, fintech and biotech, the UK is comfortably punching above its weight, having created more billion-dollar "unicorn" tech startups than Germany, France and Sweden combined.   

These achievements are not my achievements or the government’s achievements. They are your achievements.

And, as I collect this award, I’ll echo the words of Sir Isaac Newton in saying that I very much stand before you today on the shoulders of giants.

I can leave you with a promise that this award – which will take pride of place on my desk – is the most powerful of motivators for me to continue championing all that our unrivalled tech sector has to offer.

And to ensure that you have everything you need to continue leading the world in our digital age. 

Thank you.

Donelan has an “open door policy” as a minister, and sees industry engagement as a primary focus. Speaking at a data protection event hosted by the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), Donelan also noted that the bill is not all about industry, and that prior to the bill being published, “many commentators made the mistake of assuming that prosperity for businesses and privacy for individuals is a zero-sum game”.

She added: “I don’t see it as a trade-off at all. Successful businesses need competent consumers who are clear about what happens to their data and need to trust that it will be handled with transparency, with integrity and, of course, with responsibility.”

A short break and a new minister

At the end of April, only a few months into her new role, Donelan was required to take a break from her role as technology secretary, to focus on something even more important – the birth of her first child. As she prepared to go on maternity leave, Donelan noted that the introduction of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was one of her proudest moments so far in DSIT.

“It will reduce cookie pop-ups, tackle nuisance calls and improve trust in data handling, while also reducing burdens on businesses and unlocking innovation,” she said on Twitter.

In 2021, the government introduced the Maternity Allowances Act, allowing ministers to take maternity leave, rather than “informal leave” – and essentially leaving their post, as ministers were previously forced to do. Taking a 10-week break, Donelan has become part of a small circle of ministers who have taken maternity leave since the act became law.

Stepping into the role while Donelan is on maternity leave is Chloe Smith, who comes with a wealth of experience, having spent her career in politics. She first became an MP in 2009, at the age of 27, making her, at the time, the youngest MP in the House of Commons.


“DSIT has been harnessing the power of transformative science to grow a more innovative economy, with stronger businesses, better jobs and better lives for the British people”

Chloe Smith, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology

Since then, she has continually won the local elections in her Norwich North constituency, and has served in several departments, including as the minister for the constitution and devolution at the Cabinet Office and minister of state for disabled people, health and work at the Department for Work and Pensions, as well as leading the UK delegation at the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

With her experience, Smith is very well-placed to continue Donelan’s work, and she is proud of her department. In a speech in the House of Commons, marking the department’s first three months in existence, Smith said: “DSIT has been harnessing the power of transformative science to grow a more innovative economy, with stronger businesses, better jobs and better lives for the British people.”

She added that the department’s £2.5bn strategy on quantum tech, introduced by Donelan in March 2023, would “unlock its vast potential to the benefit of the British people”.

In May 2023, the government unveiled a national semiconductor strategy with funding to support what it sees as the UK’s unique strengths in compound semiconductors, research and development, intellectual property and design. Launching the strategy, Smith visited the world’s first compound semiconductor cluster in South Wales, getting a first-hand look at how organisations in the UK are helping to position the country as a leader in the industry.

“Britain is already a leader when it comes to researching and designing semiconductor technology,” she said during her visit to the cluster. “Our new strategy, which will create a national semiconductor centre, will double down on these core strengths to create more skilled jobs, grow our economy, boost our national security, and cement the UK’s status as a global science and technology superpower.

The future of the department

While the technology industry warmly welcomed the creation of DSIT, some wondered whether the department would really make a difference, or simply continue to wave a flag for science and technology without considering the current economic challenges faced by our country and its industry, where the digital technology sector plays a huge part.

While it may be too early to say for certain what long-term impact the department and its strong, female leadership in Donelan and Smith, will have, there is no doubt they have both hit the ground running, with the desire, clout and energy to make DSIT a success story in government. Nothing sums it up better than Donelan’s own words to Parliament: “It is just the start of a constant drumbeat.”

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