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Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how much his Department plans to spend on science in 1992–93.

In 1992–93 the science budget will total £1,050 million.

I direct the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the Government's overall spending on research and development. Will he address himself to the fact that no less than 44 per cent. of all Government-funded research and development has a military purpose and next year that figure is due to rise to 48 per cent? How can that be right?

Obviously, military research is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but I am sure that he would argue, as I would, that there is considerable civilian spin-off from all the advances made in the development of military equipment, and that includes the consequences for the electronics industry and others. I have just described the level of the science budget in my Department, which is spent for civil research purposes on environmental, medical, scientific, engineering, economic and social research. That amount has just passed £1 billion per annum for the first time, representing a real terms increase of 2·5 per cent. this year, and we have given the research councils a rising profile for expenditure in future years. We are also expanding our efforts in civil science. The defence expenditure to which the hon. Gentleman referred has considerable benefits for the scientific world and for British industry.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, no matter how large the science budget of his Department may be, it will be a great waste of money in the future if there are no young people interested in science? Does he agree that when Kent County Engineering Society recently held a seminar for primary school heads and local businesses, it turned out that not a single local business had thought of trying to interest primary school children in science and engineering. Surely, it is at that age that interest has to be aroused because later those subjects will fall on the other side of the divide.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We have to interest more young people in scientific and engineering education and training. The development of the national curriculum will do a great deal to stimulate more interest in science because more pupils will have to sustain well-judged scientific programmes of study until at least the age of 16. Although we have now developed good links between business and secondary schools where companies try to interest pupils, we do not yet have enough tie-ups between primary schools and local businesses. I agree that more businesses should contemplate approaching younger children and at an early stage arousing their interest in what science or engineering may hold for them.

Will the Secretary of State keep in this country what James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA basis of the genetic code, has described as the jewel in the crown of British science? Will he authorise the Medical Research Council to plan on the basis that the funding needed by Dr. John Sulston of the laboratory of molecular biology of Cambridge will be available to keep in this country work on the nematode project, as that work is the foundation of the human genome project which is the foundation of the future of medical research and biotechnology? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the United States has made a bid for that work? If funding is not available, and it cannot be found within the present budget, the Secretary of State will be guilty of the loss of that work?

With the greatest respect, it would be a pathetic science policy that suggested that the Secretary of State of the day should intervene to give funds to named scientists—whose names, no doubt, the hon. Gentleman picked up from cuttings in the learned journals. Science nowadays is an international community and British science is pre-eminent in the world. We are one of the leading science nations and we attract many more talented people to this country than we lose. It is no good citing one or two cases. The Medical Research Council will no doubt consider particular claims on scientific merits to counter the fact that Britain has achieved great success in science because of the increasing sums that the Government have made available for that purpose.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the best universities in the United Kingdom for scientific research is Southampton university? It is second to none and it is grateful that the figures that have been released today show that it will receive 10·2 per cent. of its budget for research. I am sure that that money will be used with the utmost effect to promote more and more scientific developments at Southampton university.

My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the Universities Funding Council has considerable funds which it receives from the Government and distributes partially for research-based purposes. This year, the funds have been allocated very much according to the UFC's grading of the quality of research carried out at each university. I congratulate Southampton university on its success in obtaining funds way ahead of the rate of inflation in order to sustain and increase the work that it carries out.