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Science and Innovation

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010

7. What steps he is taking to ensure that Britain’s science and innovation sector contributes to economic growth. (17258)

Science and innovation are critical to our future prosperity and strongly supported by this Government. As part of the spending review, we are continuing to strengthen the way we support science and innovation, and improving the way they contribute to economic growth.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am sure that we all agree that the Government have a very important role to play in supporting science and innovation, but there are many other organisations and businesses that need to come together to support more scientific research. What steps can his Department take to foster the big society approach to more research and development?

In Britain we are very fortunate to have some very substantial charities that support scientific research, especially medical research, such as the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. Indeed, only this week I was able to announce a £50 million joint project on tumour profiling to improve cancer treatment between the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.

The Minister will be aware that knowledge transfer partnerships mean that the Russell group universities contribute £2 billion to British exports. Is he surprised, therefore, that Lord Browne dedicated just 300 words in a 30,000-word report to the employer contribution? Will the Minister say more than his colleagues have about the contribution that employers will make to higher education funding?

It is good to see the right hon. Gentleman in the House, and I look back to our exchanges when he was a Minister with responsibilities in this area. Of course, when he was a Minister in the Department, he was one of the people who commissioned Lord Browne’s review and agreed its terms of reference. I very much regret that in his first intervention on the review, he has not welcomed the fact that Lord Browne discharged the remit that he was set. It is very important that businesses contribute, alongside individuals and the taxpayer, and we are pursuing that as part of the CSR.

Does the Minister accept that the performance of higher education in engaging with the private sector varies considerably? Will he consider making the handing out of research grants conditional on institutions finding private sector partners?

That is a very important point, and we certainly welcome business backing for research, alongside public funding. There is very important evidence that public funding for research can be complemented by business backing. If I recall correctly, one of the best pieces of evidence on the subject is a research paper where one of the authors is now an official in Her Majesty’s Treasury, so it is a document that we particularly value.

In mid-September, apparently preparing the way for big cuts in the science and research budget, the Secretary of State managed to insult hundreds of hard-working British scientists by implying on the “Today” programme that

“something in the order of 45 per cent of…research grants…were going…to research that was not…excellent”.

As the US, France, Germany and China are increasing their investment in science and research to drive economic growth, is not this just one more reason why those who thought we had the Sage of Westminster and Two Brains running the ship are finding that we actually have Arthur Daley and the rest of the cast of “Minder” running the sails?

The countries that the hon. Gentleman cites—incidentally, I welcome him to his new position on the Front Bench—do not have the mess in the public finances that we inherited as a result of the performance of his Government. None of them is borrowing at the high level that we inherited, yet despite that, we remain strongly committed to science and excellent research in our universities.