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Research and Development

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009

9. What steps he plans to take to maintain levels of spending on science, research and development initiatives in higher education institutions during the economic downturn. (252522)

Government investment in research is rising to a record level of £6 billion by 2010-11. Yesterday, the Higher Education Funding Council for England set out to the sector how it will distribute research funding to universities, reflecting the approach in my grant letter to the council. I believe that in the current economic climate, it is vital to continue to invest in science and research. We will resist calls from others to reduce the amount of money that we spend in our Department.

My right hon. Friend has practically answered my next question. In the new economy, we are dealing with issues such as “Digital Britain”, renewables and nuclear. The universities in Scotland are underfunded. We are not getting the same funding as universities down south, yet we supply some of the best research and development in the whole world. Will he look into that issue and find some way to help those universities, which in the end will help the economy and this country?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is actually the case that the excellence of research in Scottish universities at present means that Scotland gets a disproportionately large share of the UK science budget. The problem is that for a year or two now, there has been a systematic approach to underfunding those universities. The real concern that people in Scotland should have about the universities and all of us in the UK should have about world class research is that that approach cannot go on for ever without undermining the very excellence that we will rely on for the nuclear industry, renewable energy and low-carbon manufacturing in the future. I hope my hon. Friend will continue his campaign to change those policies, which are threatening those universities.

On that last point about the Scottish universities, I want to follow on from the question of the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), having declared my interest as rector of Glasgow university. May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the comment reported in The Herald today from the principal of Strathclyde university? I am being very inclusive. The comment is a reflection on the debate—I put it no more strongly than that—within the Russell group and further afield in Scotland in particular about the perceived efforts of the Executive to shift research and its funding into their assessment of the needs of the Scottish economic situation and jobs market? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the flexibility and the independence of the universities to concentrate on their perceived research needs must remain absolutely to the fore?

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier about the Haldane principle, which I hope achieves the right balance between ensuring that the research councils can determine who gets which research grants and what gets funded, and that there is space for the fundamental blue-skies research that might appear today to have no future use at all, but will turn out to be the key to economic developments in 20 years’ time, within a sensible discussion about ensuring that we have sufficient capacity across disciplines in areas of great importance to us, as we are doing with the Living with Environmental Change programme. I believe that that balance is the right one. I do not believe that a directive approach from Ministers, thinking that they can second-guess the entire scientific community, would ever be the right way forward.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the funding of Welsh universities? I am sure that he is aware of the massive improvement in the level of world class research in Welsh universities revealed in the last research assessment exercise. It has gone up from 70 per cent. of the English level to 93 per cent. since 2001, but Wales receives disproportionately less money per head of population. Is there anything he can do to nudge the research councils into giving more money to Wales?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. I have discussed higher education policy with my opposite number at the Assembly; we are keen to work collaboratively, particularly on co-operation between English and Welsh universities. As far as research councils are concerned, we have to defend the principle that the money will go where the excellence is. The research councils will not distribute money on a geographical, regional, national or sub-national basis; it has to go where the excellence is. It is, perhaps, for the Assembly to work with the universities in Wales on how money is distributed, to make sure that the places where excellence can best develop are supported. The money will follow.