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Scientific Research

Volume 480: debated on Thursday 16 October 2008

Earlier this year, when I addressed the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, I said that our ambition should be to go further than scientific literacy to a more mature relationship between the public, the media and scientists, where everyone understands each other. In particular, that means the public and the media maintaining the same healthy scepticism towards science that they do towards other information that they consume. We are currently consulting on a new vision for science and society, with a key strand focused on creating a society confident in the use of science. That will build on the good work that we already support such as funding the Sciencewise Expert Resource Centre.

I thank the Minister for that response. One of the less welcome consequences of the UK’s success in scientific research has been the increase in the number of animal experiments being carried out year on year. I welcome the fact that his Department has increased funding to look at alternatives to the use of animals in research, but can he assure the House that, as we seek to promote and support our scientific research sector, we will also try to ensure that that research is conducted as ethically and humanely as possible?

Yes. I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed, which are quite widely held across society. We believe that there is potential to make advances in science and to reduce animal use. Some recent scientific advances, including tissue engineering, stem cell research and imaging technologies, have that potential. She will be aware that the Government have funded the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, or NC3Rs as it is known, which is the first centre of its type in the world. The two research councils will give £12.8 million to that centre over the coming three years.

The Secretary of State will know that, in 2002, in a speech to the Royal Society, Tony Blair said:

“The benefits of science will only be realised through a renewed compact between science and society.”

The Secretary of State set out some recent things that the Government have done, but what did they do over that six-year period to renew that compact between science and society?

We did a number of things. The development of the sciencewise process meant that the Government increased not only their ability to consult with the public carefully and sensitively on controversial issues, but how to handle them. We were involved in encouraging the setting up of the science media centre, which is independent of Government, as it needs to be, and it has been critically important.

In some of the major issues, for example, the MMR vaccine case, one of the problems was that the media coverage lacked any independent source of scientific evidence. We all know that real damage was done by the way in which that issue was handled in the media. Since the science media centre has been in place, the quality of public debate has been much better. I refer hon. Members to the House’s recent discussions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where the level of public and scientific understanding displayed was much higher. Therefore, I think that over a period of time a lot has been done by Government to improve things.

One of the ways that we have attempted to build public confidence in scientific research has been through the development of partnership with the business community. As we are facing an economic turndown, one of the areas that we must protect is that research; we must ensure that our companies are at the cutting edge of technology. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department going to do to ensure that companies do not see saving on investment in research and development as one of the ways to save money, so that we keep our companies and our country at the cutting edge?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. In “Innovation Nation”, the White Paper we published in the spring, we recognised the importance of Government procurement in creating the markets for innovative products and services. We will shortly publish the first annual innovation report, and Departments are currently actively working on their procurement planning and on identifying how they will create a demand for innovative products. We have also revamped the small business research initiative, and Departments are now starting to offer new contracts to small start-up businesses for developing innovative technologies. One of the ways we can respond, therefore, is by making sure that Government procurement money is used in ways that reward research and encourage people to bring new products to market.

We were surprised to learn from The Guardian last Monday that, after 50 years of consistent Government policy in space research, the new Science Minister in the other place, who had been appointed on the previous working day, made a hasty multi-billion pound pledge to send UK astronauts into space. Does the Secretary of State agree with this policy U-turn, or is the new Science Minister speaking out of turn?

I am delighted to have Lord Drayson as a member of my team. His record both in business and in science as a Minister is outstanding. He made it clear in his interviews that his personal view, which he had expressed prior to being a Minister, was that we should join a manned space programme. The position of the Government, which he supports and understands, is that we have a review of—[Interruption.] We are currently setting out a review, and we established it for a good reason. Twenty years ago, Baroness Thatcher took the decision that this country should not participate in manned space flight. I have to say that I think that decision has stood the test of time, because while we were not participating in that programme we have become a world leader in satellite technology, robot-exploring devices and so forth. In the future, we will have to look at the issue of whether the opportunities that would come from participating in manned space flight now outweigh the other opportunities and costs of investment in other research areas. It is right that, 20 years on, we approach this with fresh minds, but there are no predetermined decisions.