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Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

The Government are committed to increasing the number of young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths at higher education level. The Department works closely with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and funds STEMNET, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, which promotes awareness of those subjects and engagement among young people.

I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is working closely with his colleagues in the sister Department. I often hear criticisms of the careers advice given to young people in schools, which is said to be not all it should be when it comes to steering people into STEM subject areas. Is my hon. Friend aware of the excellent work that some trade associations and learned societies, such as the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, do to promote such subjects so that people are encouraged to go to university to study them?

A lot of good work on the STEM agenda has been going on for a number of years and I pay tribute to all those who have been working in the area. Progress has been made and the number of STEM qualifiers has increased by 10 per cent. since 2002-03. The situation is very patchy but a lot of people are working in this area, including the learned societies. My hon. Friend will know that I was at the recent Bill Bryson awards launch from the Royal Society of Chemistry, a terrific programme encouraging young people to take an interest in science. We want more people to be excited about science and taking science at GCSE, A-level and university. That is important for our society as a whole and for our economy.

I share the sentiment expressed so eloquently by the Minister at the end of his answer, but does he accept that getting the data right is key? Does he also accept that it is progress since 1997 that should be measured, rather than picking out what might appear to be a random year for each individual subject? Will he stick to a constant set of data on STEM entrants and base it to 1997 so we can all monitor progress effectively?

We are always happy to publish time-series of data in these areas. I was trying to indicate that there has been an increasing problem but that there are some signs that the situation is getting better. It is particularly pleasing that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service acceptances are up by 9 per cent. for maths, 9 per cent. for chemistry and 12 per cent. for physics compared with the previous year. But there is a problem, particularly in computer science, and in that we do not have enough qualified physics teachers in our schools.

Let us not forget some of the progress that has been made, or that the level of science graduates aged between 25 and 34 in the UK work force is higher than in the United States, Germany or Japan. In fact, our figures are 50 per cent. higher than the European Union average. There are a range of further things that we as a Government need to do to encourage the STEM agenda, but we should not forget where we are today in terms of the labour market.

I praise the Minister and the Government for all they have done to promote science. Never in my lifetime have I seen a Government promote science as well as this Government have. Given that nuclear power is once again on the political agenda, I am seriously concerned that there are no undergraduate courses in nuclear engineering in this country. I urge the Minister to talk to the universities and to explore the possibility of setting up nuclear engineering courses, as there is no doubt in my mind that we will need far more nuclear engineers in the future.

There is a lot of nuclear engineering research capacity, particularly in the north-west, and we had the recent announcement of the development of a nuclear skills academy. This is an important area, not least because the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency is doing substantial work and will continue to do so over the next 20 to 30 years. The Government will have to make decisions on a new generation of nuclear power capacity. Those decisions have not been taken yet, but I would expect the academic community to want to do its bit to ensure that we have the high level of skills that will be required in the future if the Government make those decisions.

We certainly welcome the Government’s recognition that the number of students studying science at university is a key part of the overall investment package for science. Indeed, the Minister and the Government has been almost evangelical in preaching to higher education institutions and industry about the virtues of investing in scientific research and development. However, since 1997 the Government’s departmental spending on scientific research and development has been falling, both in percentage terms and in real terms, over the last few years. Why is that?

My Department has been in existence for only just over three months so it is a little difficult to refer to such figures. The simple fact of the matter is that the science budget was £1.3 billion when we came to power in 1997 and it is £3.4 billion now, so it has more than doubled—and it will have more than trebled by the end of this comprehensive spending review period. We now have 150,000 more undergraduate students studying science subjects than in 1997-98, so we are making considerable progress. There is a challenge, however. David Sainsbury’s report, which the hon. Gentleman is waving around, talks about the race to the top, and that is exactly where we need to go. That is why the Government are implementing in full the findings and recommendations of the Sainsbury review, and we are launching a debate on how we can move beyond Sainsbury. I want us to have the world’s best innovation ecosystem. We are starting from a strong position, but we can and must do better.

If we are to have enough science graduates to meet the needs of a globalised society and the challenges from China and India, we cannot leave it all to the boys; we will have to ensure that we encourage girls to take up science subjects. I am encouraged that my hon. Friend is having discussions with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. There is some evidence that teaching science in a single-sex environment encourages more girls to come forward. Will my hon. Friend please have more such discussions on that subject?

I am always happy to have discussions with my colleagues in the DCSF on the STEM agenda and how we can encourage both more young men and more young women to take science subjects. We currently fund a UK resource centre that is specifically targeted at encouraging more women to take up science subjects, but I will be happy to have the discussions my hon. Friend recommends.