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Research And Development

Volume 113: debated on Wednesday 25 March 1987

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11.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what has been the change in real terms in Government support for civil research and development since May 1979.

My Department's support for civil research and development in this financial year is forecast to be £372 million. This is some 60 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1979–80.

Does the Minister accept that the expenditure on civil research and development in this country lags far behind that of our major competitors in other parts of the world? Will the Minister tell the House why the Government have not done more to increase that expenditure and to encourage companies to increase their research and development expenditure? Does the Minister not hang his head in shame at the way in which he and his colleagues have, in the past 24 hours, torpedoed the European Commission's proposals for increasing expenditure on research and development?

If I can take the last point first, having just returned from the particular research council, we have not torpedoed anything. What we are insisting upon is that, before we agree an expenditure of more than £5 billion, the Commission should have a sensible series of programmes with which it can convince us about what it is trying to achieve. We must also know whether the proper methods of evaluation have been put in place and whether it is possible to turn off some of those programmes if they are not achieving their targets.

As regards the hon. Gentleman's other points, he will be interested to know, from a press release from my Department on 26 February 1987, that civil expenditure on research and development in 1985 was £4·8 billion at current prices. That represents an increase of 16 per cent. on the £4·2 billion figure in 1983—two years before.

Despite the increase in 1979, does my right hon. Friend agree that scientists become somewhat blinkered about the value of projects? Is it not necessary that projects are correctly evaluated for their commercial potential? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the evaluation process that is carried out by the Government is sufficient, bearing in mind the vast sums of taxpayers' money involved?

Quite frankly, I do not think that one can ever be satisfied. The evaluation and monitoring procedures have improved a great deal in recent years. My hon. Friend is right. I do not see why, in the public sector, one should accept lower standards than one would in private business or, indeed, in one's personal life. If public money is involved, lower standards of monitoring and evaluation seem to obtain.

Will the Minister accept that the money that is made available for civil research and development is not fairly distributed throughout the regions of the country, because there is a tendency to go where the head offices of industries are located—in the south-east? Will he take some positive steps to ensure that regions such as the north-west get a fairer distribution of this important work?

It is not actually the head offices that do research, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is where the laboratories are situated. I visited several excellent research establishments in the hon. Gentleman's part of the country, which shows that some good research is going on in the north-west as well.

Although I welcome the increase of 60 per cent. in real terms that my right hon. Friend announced, does he agree that a great deal more could be done by private industry, particularly when its profitability is sharply increasing?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The House will he interested to know that, although British industry expenditure on research and development has gone up 20 per cent. in the past 20 years, during the same period industry expenditure in Germany and France has doubled, and in Japan it has trebled.

What does the Minister intend to do about the figures that he has just given? Is he not worried that we have an escalating brain drain of our top scientists? What does he intend to do about that? Does he realise that that is an absolutely essential area for Government activity? What proposals does he have to offer?

The right hon. Gentleman may have forgotten the Link programme that was announced in November, which is a £420 million programme designed specifically to attack the exploitation problem that we have in this country of the extra time that it takes to develop an innovation or an idea into a marketable product. It is a large programme, working with the academic sector, Government and industry, and is designed to bring everyone together and to pull new products through.