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Science Funding (Universities)

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on regional development agency funding for science in universities. (213860)

We have regular meetings with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform at ministerial and official level on a wide range of issues, including joint meetings with the chairs of the regional development agencies.

Scientists engaged in research at universities do not only produce good results but help to create an atmosphere that encourages economic activity in the regions. Given the reorganisation of the science budget and the Science and Technology Facilities Council and given the £80 million shortfall, will the Minister perhaps consider exploring avenues with the regional development agencies to make up that shortfall and allow scientists in my university of Lancaster, for example, to carry on with the excellent work that it does and create the right atmosphere for job creation throughout the country?

The budget for the Science and Technology Facilities Council is actually going up over the next three years. Compared with its baseline, it is going up by 13.6 per cent.; that is perhaps not as much as some in the community would like, but to suggest that there has been a cut is simply wrong. It is important, however, that the university research base talks to and deals with the regional development agencies. We already have commitments to Research Councils UK, for example, by working together with the regional development agencies and the Technology Strategy Board. That is happening as we speak in Manchester and in other universities in the north-west. Such links are important because we need to ensure that our strategy is co-ordinated.

Per capita, Wales has fewer than half the number of scientists and engineers working in world-class universities in comparison with England and about a third fewer than the comparable figure for Scotland. Will the Minister explain what is being done at a UK level to reduce that science gap between the different nations of the UK?

We continue to see sustained investment in science at a UK level. The science and research budget has doubled since 1997 and it will have tripled by 2010-11. What we have to do is invest in excellent science. At the Government level, we take strategic decisions about the overall direction of science funding—on full economic costing, for example—but it is really up to the Research Councils and the peer review process to determine what is the best research and to fund that accordingly.

I welcome the increase in research funding under the Government, but for a university to be a university, it needs to engage in research as well as teaching. The Government have adopted the policy of concentrating research on certain universities and markedly lessening the funding for research at other universities. Will my hon. Friend have another look at that policy in the hope of redistributing some of the research funding to universities such as the excellent university of Wolverhampton?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Wolverhampton is an excellent university. What is important for the Government is that we fund excellent research. I am tremendously proud of the world-class research conducted in our universities. We have to ensure that the people taking the decisions on what is the best research to fund are independent of the Government. That is why we have the Research Councils and why there is an extensive peer review process. That is the right approach for taking decisions on individual research projects.

In the Government’s proposals for 20 new universities or higher education establishments, how much importance is attached to getting the support of the local business community in making the bids successful?

I am sure that a great deal of importance will be attached to ensuring that businesses are involved in the bids for these new universities. I want to make the basic point that we as a Labour Government will have tripled the science budget by 2010-11—an increase way above the trend rate of growth of the UK economy. The Conservative party policy, as I understand it, is to share the proceeds of growth—

Order. I do not want to hear about Conservative party policy—at least not on the Floor of the House at the moment.

I am somewhat surprised by the gloating and boasting of the Minister about science in the UK. He will be aware of the worry and concern among university scientists, researchers and academics about their future. Given the Government’s £80 million shortfall for the STFC, the STFC has said that it will scale back the number of research grants that it provides. Will the Minister have the courage to answer this question directly, without beating about the bush: on his watch, will the number of Government-funded post-doctoral research assistants be higher or lower by 2010?

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to accuse the Government of boasting when a campaign to save British science had to take place back in 1997. He must answer whether he is prepared to meet the Government’s spending commitments—the commitment to real-terms growth by 2014. The difference between sharing the proceeds of growth and our plans amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. The scientific community has a right to understand where the Opposition stand.

On post-doctoral research grants, the figures for astronomy and particle physics are massively up compared with 2005-06. It will be up to the STFC to take the detailed decisions on research grants. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is going through a programmatic review process, and we will await the outcomes of that.