[Annette Brooke in the Chair]
I am absolutely delighted to have secured today’s debate on science research. The contents of my inbox show that Oxford West and Abingdon is a constituency that surely must contain more STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—researchers and science-based companies per square mile than any other, and it is a great privilege to represent them today. My predecessor was a great advocate for science and I aim to continue his excellent work to the best of my ability.
Although I am not a scientist, as the daughter of a very single-minded doctor, I spent many a breakfast time having the parasympathetic nervous system or the role of the white blood cell explained to me in great detail—Rice Krispies were never quite the same to my seven-year-old mind. Despite my father’s best efforts, I did not follow him into medicine, but he succeeded in instilling in me a deep respect for the value of science research—not only for the future of medicine, but for giving our industrial sector a competitive edge, for developing a greener transport system and a more advanced telecoms infrastructure, and for giving our troops the best intelligence and protection possible. Most importantly, my father taught me the intrinsic value of looking at the world as a problem solver and about the innate desire in all scientists to understand better how the world around us works. We must protect and strengthen that sense of curiosity. Perhaps speaking up for this issue today will make up just a little for my non-medical career path.
Medic or not, I understood from the moment I was selected and had knocked on my first door as a candidate the value that my constituents place on science. As a candidate, I visited Begbroke science park with my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts)—he is now the Minister for Universities and Science—where we glimpsed just the tip of the iceberg of the richness of STEM-based research and industry in Oxfordshire. Since then, I have had the opportunity to meet businesses such as Nexeon, which is developing next-generation lithium batteries. I have also met Professor Rawlings and some of his team to hear about the role that Oxford university’s astrophysics department is playing in the extraordinary square kilometre array project. In addition, I have visited the Joint European Torus at the Culham centre for fusion energy, where many of my constituents work.
Just last week, I took part in the Royal Society’s MP-scientist pairing scheme, which does exactly what it says on the tin. The scheme was set up in 2001 to help build bridges between parliamentarians and some of the best science researchers in the UK by pairing MPs and scientists in an exchange programme. More than 200 MPs have taken part in the scheme including, I understand, the Minister himself. The pair spend one week in Westminster, during which the scientist has the opportunity to observe an MP in their natural habitat, while in the second week the politicos venture into the laboratories, so both scientists and politicians get a chance to walk for a week in the other man’s shoes. Such a scheme offers the hope of better networks between Westminster and the science community and aims to lead to more evidence-based decision making in Parliament, more targeted lobbying from the science community, and far better communications between both sides. Perhaps it might even tempt a few more scientists into Parliament.
When I participated in the scheme, I had the good fortune to be paired up with no less a luminary than Professor David Wark, who is fellow of the Royal Society, a leading international authority on neutrino physics and—along with his family—my constituent. I obviously cannot speak for him but, so far, I have found the experience extraordinarily eye opening. The Government’s statement on higher education, my meetings with Oxfam about the situation in southern Sudan and my meetings with the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the challenges facing policing have all been reflected back to me through the prism of a particle physicist’s perspective. I have yet to find out what I will learn from accompanying Professor Wark to his work at Rutherford Appleton laboratory, but I can only hope that, during that time, I will gain a deeper insight into how Government policy can better encourage and support science research and development in the UK.
One of the ways the Government can do that is, of course, is to keep funding science. Before the comprehensive spending review, my inbox was filled with e-mails from science supporters who were deeply worried that the cuts would fall especially hard on science. The Chancellor’s extremely welcome decision to freeze the science budget in cash terms at £4.6 billion a year was therefore a great relief to many. I thank the Minister for the role I am sure he played in securing that commitment, but it still represents a cut of roughly 10% over four years. Even with the speculated savings, that will be a challenge for a historically underfunded area. We also need to consider the announced reductions in university funding. Although such reductions are sustainable, they do not represent any real closing of the funding gap for major research universities competing on an international stage, and that is cause for concern.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that UK scientific research is among the best in the world. With just 1% of the global population, the UK produces 11.8% of the world’s scientific citations, which are the most reliable measure of academic excellence. The UK also has three of the world’s top 10 research universities, one of which is, of course, in my constituency. All that has taken place despite the comparatively low funding that UK science receives. In 2007, for example, Germany, the USA, and France spent 0.71%, 0.77% and 0.81% of their gross domestic product on public research and development, while the UK spent just 0.55%.
Clearly, UK science already does extraordinarily well with less, but just think what we could do if there were a level playing field. In the context of the current fiscal situation, increasing research and development spend might not be immediately possible, but it is worth noting that our competitors, such as Germany and the US, are both increasing science funding in real terms. They recognise, as I believe the Government do, that STEM funding is not a net loss to the country, but an investment in the smarter, greener and more sustainable growth that all hon. Members agree should be our aspiration.
To achieve that growth with the kind of investment we are able to make right now, we have to make absolutely sure that we spend the money in the best possible way. One of the key concerns raised with me is that the short-term funding models of our four or five-year Governments are naturally at odds with the more long-term investment that is typically needed to reap significant results from STEM R and D. Moreover, the frequent changes of funding models and strategies undermine the stable growth in STEM fields. Our top priority, therefore, must be to outline as clearly as possible the entire funding structure and the Government strategy for STEM, not only so that current researchers will be on solid ground with their planning, but so that graduates and students deciding on their career paths will know that the Government value them and that they have a secure future in the UK.
We are in an environment in which we risk losing our best graduates to other countries’ facilities if we cannot assure them of our long-term commitment to funding research programmes in the UK. Inward investors must be shown that this is a sector to which the Government are fully committed, both through funding and by creating a competitive and attractive R and D environment.
In that spirit, will the Minister clear up a few uncertainties that have remained following the spending review? Research councils’ capital expenditure has been excluded from the science settlement. The total capital budget available to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills next year has been set at £1.8 billion and will fall to £1.1 billion the following year. However, it is not clear how much of that will be made available for science and research. As well as investment in bricks and mortar, such as new labs, that capital spend supports the maintenance of existing facilities, training, and investment in essential but non-tangible infrastructure, such as digital. A significant reduction in capital expenditure funding will potentially lead to funds being diverted away from research and into facilities maintenance.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council is the research council that relies most heavily on capital expenditure. By way of background, it is worth noting that it is also the research council that the previous Government created in 2007 from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. That merger was administered in such a ham-fisted way that it led to an almost catastrophic funding crisis in particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy, which arose in part because the capital liabilities of the CCLRC meant that funding for research had to be diverted into funding expensive facilities. Today, those facilities—such as the Diamond synchrotron and the ISIS neutron source in the Minister’s constituency—are the responsibility of the STFC, along with the experiments now running in CERN, the Institut Laue-Langevin and the SKA project I mentioned earlier. In short, capital expenditure makes up more than a sixth of the STFC’s entire expenditure.
In case anyone listening thinks that spending on such physics experiments is a luxury that can be forgone in times of austerity, let me assure them that that is not the case. The Wakeham review of physics found that 6.4% of the UK’s GDP came from physics-based industry. A constituent recently sent me some excellent examples of the valuable real-world outcomes of research at the ISIS neutron source. The ISIS has improved the medicine that is sprayed into new-born babies’ lungs to help them breathe and has created a new technique to fix cleft palates in babies. It is performing vital research that is needed to make hydrogen fuel cells market-ready so that they can play their role in solving the energy crisis. It also performed the majority of world research on data storage and LCD screens more than 20 years ago, which led to innovations such as the iPod and the modern laptop, which illustrates the role that physics plays in major industry. In addition, it studies why oil companies’ pipes clog, which is a problem that leads to billions of pounds of losses for those companies and the UK economy each year.
Despite the Government’s commitment to the Diamond synchrotron, which I know the Minister welcomed as much as I did, he will recognise that there are many worried STEM researchers who are awaiting clarification on capital expenditure, because the ramifications go well beyond just keeping up the buildings in which they work. We do not want to make the same errors that the previous Government made and fail to attach sufficient significance to the availability of capital funding.
In addition to capital spend, there is the issue of the funding that reaches STEM via the Technology Strategy Board and R and D tax credits. So far, the Government have not announced plans for those funding routes. While that uncertainty remains, companies cannot include such support for innovation on their balance sheets as an incentive for investment. However, the Government have announced that they will spend more than £200 million over the next four years to establish a network of technology innovation centres that will be overseen by the Technology Strategy Board. I understand that those centres will be based on the recommendations of the Hauser and Dyson reports, which in turn were loosely modelled on the German Fraunhofer centre networks. Given the prohibitive cost of such undertakings, it is unlikely that Government funding alone will be able to achieve that. The Government have said that they wish to encourage private investment, but so far they have not released a target for such investment or explained how they intend to attain it. Will the Minister go into further detail on that point?
My father would not forgive me if I did not take a moment to mention the importance of world-class medical research. Charitable organisations contribute greatly to scientific inquiry in the UK. The recently announced £50 million project on tumour profiling, which is funded jointly by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK, is a great demonstration of the continuing commitment of DBIS to supporting charity-based medical research. I know that the Minister will be aware of the charity research support fund, which is a programme through which the Government support the infrastructure costs of charitably-funded pure research. However, for those in Oxford West and Abingdon and elsewhere whose hopes are pinned on the research coming out of these projects, I hope that the Minister will clarify the Government’s plans for the future of that fund.
The Government have also announced the introduction of a £1.4 billion regional growth fund over three years. Local enterprise partnerships will be able to make bids to that fund, and they will have a role in supporting regional R and D. As the Oxfordshire city region has deservedly won its bid to be an LEP, and because Oxfordshire is well placed to lead as we seek to achieve sustainable growth in the STEM sector, will the Minister give an insight into the Department’s strategy for the role that regional growth funds and LEPs will play in creating an internationally competitive environment for UK R and D and innovation?
Clarification of these funding questions will be valuable to the STEM community. If the Minister is unable to answer my entire shopping list of questions today, I know that he and his Department will be working hard to clear them up as soon as possible. However, the fact is that without a clear, long-term strategy that sets challenges and the direction for UK science, we will not achieve the stability and certainty that is needed to attract inward investment and retain the brightest and best graduates in UK institutions.
On the other side of the question about exactly how much research funding will be available is the question of exactly how the money will be allocated. Some scientists have expressed concern that if they are to receive research council funding, they will have to demonstrate the short-term economic benefits of their work. I am perfectly sure that that is not the intention of any part of the Government or the research councils, and I know that the Minister for Universities and Science has expressed his support for a dual funding system based on scientific independence and excellence. However, there has been some uncertainty over the past few years about the interpretation of the Haldane principle, and I know that the Minister for Universities and Science has recently announced that he will, in consultation with the scientific community, develop a clearer statement on the principle. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), today reiterated the Government’s position on the role of pure research in our STEM strategy. Neither lasers nor MRI scanners would be saving lives today were it not for the blue-sky research that began their development into applied technologies. When determining exactly which streams of research receive funding, we need a strategy to ensure that we do not exclude the research that will lead to the vital discoveries of tomorrow.
Such a strategy cannot be achieved by DBIS alone. The key growth sectors of low-carbon technology, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and electronics will rely on a good supply of scientists, engineers and technologies, and that goes far wider than the Department.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that, in relation to those future innovations, subjects beyond those that are traditionally described as STEM are of critical importance, and that we need design and creativity, including the overall arts and humanities? Is she therefore concerned about the decision to withdraw state funding for teaching anything other than science? We need interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary practice in our universities if we are to pioneer the innovations of the future.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. As a musicologist, it is hard for me to disagree, so I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to those points.
To continue with my range across the Departments, the Home Office must take a wider strategy into account when setting the permanent cap for tiers 1 and 2. We all know that STEM research is a highly international and mobile field and that we need sufficient flexibility in our immigration system to enable the UK to recruit the brightest and best into key areas that the domestic work force cannot fill. That point has already been made by a number of groups, including the Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, and I know that it is something of which the Minister for Immigration is well aware.
The role of the Department for Education is also integral to creating an environment in which our young men and women are excited about pursuing careers in science. I heard from dozens of constituents earlier in the year about the need for more specialist physics teachers, as a quarter of all schools for 11 to 16-year-olds in England have no specialist physics teacher. A sixth of those schools—more than 500 institutions—fail to send a single pupil on to study physics A-level. It is important that our schools ensure that the invaluable subjects of science and maths are taken up and that students are given the support necessary to allow them to excel.
The Department for Education must ensure not only that schools are able to achieve that—for example by offering triple science—but that the right careers and financial advice is available to both girls and boys. That advice must give them the best possible options, whether that is to pursue science degrees through an entirely academic route, or to take up an apprenticeship, or through a combination of the two. The Government’s commitment to offer 75,000 more apprenticeships is welcome, but it will improve student choices only if the right information gets to the right students at the right time and with the right funding support. The previous Government’s record on that count must stand as a warning that things can go wrong if the information does not reach the students at the right time.
Even after education, we must consider how we support researchers and scientists as they go into the work force, and that is especially important for female scientists. Although, according to Research Councils UK, the number of women studying STEM subjects at undergraduate level has increased at a greater rate than that for their male counterparts over the past six years, the drop-off rate between qualification and employment in science, engineering and technology is still higher for women graduates. Of the 600,000 SET-qualified women in the UK, 97,000 are inactive and 70% are employed elsewhere in the economy. Women still make up just 9.1% of the total SET work force in the private sector.
Most barriers affect women and men, but they are often more decisive for women. After a break to take up caring responsibilities, for example, women commonly lose their place on the career ladder and are unable to regain it. Women do not reach senior levels in the same proportions as men with the same qualifications. A number of businesses, labs and institutions, including many in my constituency, are making positive improvements in their workplace and trying to create viable career paths through increasing flexible working, through fair, transparent and anonymous recruitment processes, by offering parental leave, or quality part-time or job-share roles, and with inclusive workplace cultures.
However, DBIS and the Government Equalities Office can play a role by finding ways to support better practices by employers and to provide better indicators to measure progress. Of course, UK Trade and Investment must also play its role in working effectively with UK STEM-based business to attract inward investment and advise innovative start-ups in how to leverage that crucial early years financing. The best research in the world will be lost to the UK if start-ups and entrepreneurs do not get the right advice to support such development at the outset.
I could continue my speech for some time, but I am aware that many Members would like to speak and I think that I have made my point. The role of science in our society is not just a matter for DBIS. Science touches on so many parts of our society that it needs to be on the agenda for all parts of the Government. Now that the Treasury, by protecting the science budget, has sent the message that science research is a priority, we need to fill in the details and move to a cross-departmental strategy that can create the long-term certainty that is needed for sustainable growth and investment in STEM research and development. UK science is already world class—the growth rate of the space sector is evidence enough of that. With a Parliament and a Government who are behind it, there are no limits to what it can achieve.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on securing this debate and on making a splendid speech. There are two sentences I would delete from it, and I would be happy to claim the rest as my own. She was perhaps misled while eating those Rice Krispies. It is a great pity, because there is a huge link between music and mathematics, and it is always great to see more young women, in particular, coming into science and engineering. It is a pity that perhaps she missed her vocation. We might attack her on other things as time goes on, but I congratulate her now.
On the hon. Lady’s general points, she was absolutely right about the importance of the Royal Society pairing scheme. It is a huge asset to the House because so few Members have had any experience of working in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector. I would encourage as many Members as possible to think about signing up for it next year, particularly colleagues who do not have a STEM background. The scheme is hugely beneficial to us, and to the science community, who can see how we solve the problems that face us.
Not the least of those problems is the challenge of the comprehensive spending review. I agree with the hon. Lady: the Minister for Universities and Science did a splendid job in arguing the case for the core science budget. She was right to say, nevertheless, that there will be a 10% reduction over the four-year spending round. More important is a point on which I would press the Minister; in fact, I have pressed his colleagues on it during successive Question Times—[Interruption.]
As Members can tell, there is a Division in the House. The sitting will be suspended and will resume in about 15 minutes. Ten minutes will be added for any immediate subsequent Division. I was intending to call winding-up speakers at 20 minutes to 4, so if you add the time that we take out, you will be aware of when the winding-up speeches will occur. Also, people need to be mindful of how many Members wish to speak.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before I was rudely interrupted—not through any fault of yours, Mrs Brooke—I was going on to draw something from the observations that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon made about this being a cross-governmental issue. I have been trying, in a series of questions—three of which I raised on 1, 2 and 3 November with different Ministers—to find out what happened with the cross-departmental analysis of the impact of the whole comprehensive spending review. The CSR’s impacts on science will not only be seen in the block grants to the research councils; very serious impacts will be caused by any cuts that might occur in departmental science spending, the details of which have yet to be announced. The Browne report—I say that loudly, given the noise of the students drumming away outside—also has an impact, as does, perhaps in a slightly more sensitive way, the migration cap, which is a cause for concern. All those items together need a cross-departmental analysis, so that we can be certain that none of them causes long-term damage to the science base. I hope the Minister will be able to throw some light on that, because I am trying very hard to get to the bottom of what analysis has occurred, and to find out what contingency plans there are for any unforeseen effects of the impact of any of those items on another one. That is hugely important.
I also want to comment on the hon. Lady’s remarks about education, which is a significant area for us. I appreciate that this goes well beyond the Minister’s brief, but we need to look deeply at how we incentivise young people to switch on to science. The hon. Lady went into music despite the efforts of her father. We have to go right down to the core of how primary education is taught, how we train our primary teachers and keep them up to date, and how we partner them with industry and academia to inspire them to pass on the exciting things that are happening in the world today to the children around them. One of my favourite examples, which happens to be led by a constituent of mine, Professor Mike Bode, is the National Schools’ Observatory. It is hugely disappointing how few primary schools use that tool. It is there, it is free and it is hugely exciting, so we have to ask ourselves, “What is it that is frightening teachers?” It is not the curriculum, because the tool can be used in the context of the curriculum without any difficulty, but there must be problems and we need to work with our colleagues in the Department for Education to find out what the underlying problem is, and solve it.
The hon. Lady touched on technology innovation centres, which are, in principle, a very important development. She was right that the development stemmed from Hermann Hauser’s report to the previous Government and James Dyson’s to the current one. Both those reports picked up on the same theme. As shorthand, a number of people have said that this is like lifting them out of the Fraunhofers and planting them in the UK, but it cannot be that, because it would miss the point about what is here already. We do need to learn, however, from what happens elsewhere in the world: for example, how it is that venture capital works better on the west coast of the States, and how it is that state involvement in the Fraunhofers seems to help more longer-term finance to emerge in the German market. Those are hugely important issues. We need to learn from them, and we need to apply the British solution using tools like that in our economy. The technology innovation centres provide a way forward, but we should not go for a one-size-fits-all solution. Alternative models might evolve, based on the structures that are already in place, in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.
I shall make one more remark on the CSR, which I know will get support from my colleagues from outside the golden triangle—apologies to my colleagues within it. I welcome the four big capital projects in the CSR, as they are very important to UK science, but I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will not forget that science occurs right across the nation, outside the golden triangle. We must not forget the centres of excellence in universities in the regions of this nation outside that area, for example the Daresbury laboratory.
My final point stems from the privilege—it is a privilege—I have as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. Doors have been opened to me that I did not know existed. Just yesterday I found myself sharing a platform with Professor Brian Cox, which was a fantastic honour. We were addressing a group of engineers in an innovation competition run by National Instruments, and he made the point that the hon. Lady has just made: that we ignore blue-skies thinking at our peril. On the panel with me were a very successful entrepreneur, someone from National Instruments and Professor Cox, and all four of us saw the link between the small entrepreneur and blue-skies thinking. For goodness sake, I hope that at no stage during this Parliament will anyone inside the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or elsewhere start to make suggestions against blue-skies thinking, against the need to support some of the big science projects such as Rutherford Appleton, Daresbury, the space programme and CERN.
Those hugely important projects have direct benefits for some of our smaller companies, so let us make sure that we join up the needs of our business and academic communities. Let us find ways further to inspire young people to take up exciting careers in science and engineering and to make sure that this Parliament goes down in history as the one that really sought—on a cross-party basis, I hope—to make a difference in this hugely important field.
There is no doubt that the success of our economy in years to come will depend on our continual investment in science and engineering and in all the education programmes I have touched on. It is vital that Parliament take the lead in ensuring that there is no diminution in investment; in fact, investment should move in a positive direction, and we should drive it up in the sectors we are talking about.
It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Brooke. Before I start, I should declare an interest as a member of the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, as well as a Research Councils UK academic fellow, although I am on long-term leave. [Laughter.] This feels like the Floor of the House during Prime Minister’s questions earlier. I was, therefore, an academic scientist before I fell in with a bad crowd and ended up here.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who is the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), whom I congratulate on securing a debate on this important topic. As she commented, her predecessor, Dr Evan Harris, was a great champion of science in Parliament, and, in that respect, there is a lot of work to do to replace him.
It is great that the hon. Lady gave such a well-researched speech, which dealt with so many of the issues that are dear to the hearts of many scientists around the country. I would, however, take issue with her description of Oxford West and Abingdon as having the highest density of STEM researchers and science-based companies. We will have to measure that properly, because I suspect that Cambridge could do rather well, given that it is the best university in the world, according to one recent rating.
I have experience in a number of areas of science, which says a lot about how we can do interdisciplinary science. I am a chemist, and I used to work on biology in a physics department. It is becoming much easier to break through. If I have any issue with triple science, it is with the idea that there are three separate sciences. We need much more integration.
I should also tell hon. Members that I set up a spin-out company. If they are interested, I will tell them later exactly what it was trying to do.
We were aiming to make it easier to collect virgin female fruit flies, and I will explain later exactly why we wanted to do that.
Scientific research is extremely important. This country has a proud history of scientific research. We have Newton, who was, of course, also a Member of Parliament, Watson and Crick, a whole series of people based in Cambridge and the fantastic glut of Nobel prizes that we won this year, although, in some cases, the work involved was not based in Cambridge.
As well as our history, however, there is also the issue of our future. What is our economic future? What will this country be doing in 2050? If we actually mean it when we say that we want to rebalance our economy, science and high technology will surely be how we do that and where we go. I have been working on this issue with various people, and I draw hon. Members’ attention to an article that I have written with another new Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), about the appliance of science. We discuss some of the issues and some of the blocks, and the article is available in selected newspapers, possibly near you, depending on where in the country you are. We look at how we can advance in biotech, cleantech, agritech and digital technologies, in which we really have the capacity to be world leading and to change what happens over the next 40 years.
I do not, however, want to talk about all those issues. Instead, I want to pick up three key issues that feed into our scientific research, and I apologise in advance if I give them a slightly more academic than industrial slant. Those three issues are people, money and freedom.
We cannot do scientific research without good people or the right people. As we have heard, we have problems right at the beginning, at school. We have problems in teaching STEM subjects, and the shortage of physics teachers has been mentioned. Work is being done to alleviate that; in fact, there are possibly too many different initiatives. I am delighted to be shadowed today by James Glover, from Mott MacDonald, who is an ambassador for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network. It is sheer coincidence that he is here today, but STEMNET does a lot of work linking industry with schools to make sure that they are aware of what can be done, so that practicals become exciting, relevant and interesting, unlike some of the staid practicals that many of us had to experience.
We have problems at school with people falling out of STEM subjects. We possibly make people make decisions about A-levels too early, and we lose them that way. We then have problems at universities with the perceived ease of STEM subjects and their relative attractiveness. Increasingly, many courses are for four years, which automatically makes them less attractive than three-year courses, and Browne, if I can mention it—it has suddenly gone quiet outside—will make the problem worse. If fees go up to between £6,000 and £9,000, people will think about what they should do. Will they do that fourth year, which is so necessary to have a full grounding in a subject? I worry about that. For the record, I do not support increasing the fees, and I have campaigned against it for many years, since Labour first brought fees in.
I want to add something on that specific point, although I think that the hon. Gentleman will welcome what I have to say. The House will continue to have a big debate about the level of fees, and we are aware of what is going on outside. However, we have not discussed what student debt at the end of the undergraduate experience will do to domestic students who want to go on to postgraduate study. Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am that UK students will be put off going into postgraduate study and engaging in the innovation that we really need?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. Indeed, that was my next point, so it was very helpful. We do have a problem. I used to teach students, and they were concerned about debt. We can discuss to what extent it is a debt and so forth, but they were concerned. The issue of whether to go on to relatively low-paid PhD positions is a real concern. Furthermore, I welcome the fact that PhDs are changing from being typically three years long—or at least paid for for three years, although they normally overrun—to four years long. Although that gives a more rounded experience by the end, however, it also means that people are delaying serious earning potential for a lot longer, and I worry about how that fits with the increase in debt.
There are issues about the quality of PhD programmes. I was recently told that one university has given out one PhD in the past seven years. Although I have not verified that figure, I would be concerned if we had institutions that gave so few PhDs, because there would be questions about the quality of such qualifications. There is also a problem with availability in some subjects, and some very good students struggle to get positions or funding. We therefore have problems attracting people to do science-based PhDs.
If those who go on through PhDs, having sacrificed many years of earning potential, want to stay in academia, they will look for a post-doctoral position, but we have a big bottleneck in terms of the availability of such positions. Even if someone gets one, such positions tend to involve very short contracts—two or three years are typical. That causes problems getting money for the next position. It takes such a long time to find money for the next job—I will come back to this later—that a lot of postdocs do not have the freedom to focus on their work. The fellowship schemes that exist are fantastic, partly just because they allow postdocs to focus on their work.
That uncertainty—that hopping from one short-term contract to another—has real issues for gender balance. We talked about the gender balance at earlier stages, but there is an issue at the post-doc level as well. Women in general do not like this process, and it is a real disincentive for them.
Once people finally make it through the post-doctoral position, they may be fortunate enough to get one of the few academic positions available. That will finally complete the process, but the steps at every stage make it harder to attract and keep people.
So far I have talked only about domestic students. Of course we do not get all our scientists from Britain. We get a huge number from overseas, and that is essential. Science is a global activity. It does not make sense to say that Britain should supply all the skills it needs for science. We cannot draw up barriers. I have been very concerned about the Government’s proposed immigration cap, and many hon. Members will know about concerns that have been expressed. The cap causes problems; it makes it hard to get good quality people from outside. There are many stories of people not coming, and others of people who have made it clear that they would not have come under such a system. Venki Ramakrishnan is one example. We have heard some instances already, and I have heard of students not being given visas to come to Cambridge for a four-day conference, because the UK Border Agency was not satisfied that there was sufficient evidence that they would not require benefits while they were here. Given that they had already paid the fees for a four-day conference I think that it would be safe to assume that they would have come to the conference and then gone again. There is increasing concern from the university of Cambridge that we cannot get PhD viva examiners from outside the EU, because that is classified as work. We do not want to stop that activity. I find it bizarre that the cap includes exemptions for elite sports people and ministers of religion, but not for doctors, scientists or engineers, who contribute much more to our economy.
Another issue is people—just as people. When I talk to representatives of high-tech companies around Cambridge, I find that many of their concerns are not just about the things we have discussed already. The No. 1 concern that people talk about in Cambridge is housing—the cost of affordable housing there, by which I mean affordable for science researchers, and not in the sense that was used in the rather ill-informed debate that we had in the House yesterday. People also talk about transport problems and how to get where they want to go. They talk about the problems of finding good education for their children, and the issues of the environment that they live in. Those issues affect scientists and their choice to continue working in this country rather than moving elsewhere.
Money, of course, is another factor, and scientists, like all people, are motivated by money. We had a freeze on the total science budget, as has already been discussed—the £4.6 billion. That is good news. It is not as good as it could be. Other countries, such as Germany, invest more in their science funding. However, it is helpful, and I thank the Deputy Prime Minister in particular for getting the last £200 million that came into the science budget on the Sunday night just before the comprehensive spending review. I share hon. Members’ concerns about lack of knowledge about the capital budget. A comment was also made about long-term security, and I have in the past asked the Minister for Universities and Science whether we can have at least a 10-year funding horizon, because science projects often take that long.
There are also problems with the cycle of allocation of money by research councils. I am well aware of the Haldane principle and would not dream of telling research councils how they should operate. They did not give me the grants I deserved and I am sure that they will continue not to give people the grants that they deserve in future, but the real problem is the slow pace. An application goes in, and it takes six to nine months, typically, to get a response. If people are on contracts of one to two years, that is a huge amount of time for them not to know the result. Success rates are phenomenally low. Academics apply for grant after grant, driving up the number of applications that must be studied, and filling up the system. There must be a way to run the system faster and more efficiently.
We need financial support from industry, and good relations with it. Cambridge is fortunate because we have an excellent cluster. One of the features of that is to do, again, with people. People can work in industry or academia and can move between them. Scientists are often married to other scientists, so both partners can have jobs in the same area, with the same level of security. We have a number of successful spin-outs. Research and development tax credits were also mentioned. They play a critical role in supporting industry systems. Companies have highlighted that time and again as essential.
I support the moves for greater procurement by small and medium-sized enterprises. A detailed analysis by entrepreneurs in Cambridge shows that if there is a client when someone sets up a company, it works. It is much better to have a client. The success of silicon valley has been largely due to Government procurement with small start-up companies, really giving them the initiative to go. However, the issue is not only public. I think that Max Perutz was responsible for the excellent comment:
“We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.”
[Hon. Members: “It was Rutherford.”] I am grateful that so many hon. Members can correct me on that: my thanks to them. The sentiment stands, none the less. It is the freedom to think that makes a difference. We cannot predict which research will be world-shattering. We cannot say that lasers or the internet will be the thing that matters. DNA was first discovered in pus, and was a curiosity. It was believed to be the way in which phosphate was stored by the body. It was completely uninteresting; and now it leads to all the advances in genetics, health and biotechnology. We cannot predict such things, so we must allow academics the freedom to explore. There is a false split between pure and applied research, which I am very concerned about. Pure research often leaps into applications and I am very concerned about the increasing drive to impact. It does not make sense to ask people to estimate the economic impact of a piece of research.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. Does he agree with Professor Cox who said when he came to the previous Select Committee on Science and Technology that he found it impossible to know what to put when assessing impact? It is not do-able.
I am about to finish, Mrs Brooke. I think that Professor Cox is to some extent right, and to some extent wrong, because universities have begun to provide the text to put in those boxes. I think that a form-filling exercise is developing.
I join in the support for the technology and innovation centres, whether they are Fraunhofer or Hauser models. That will make a big difference in enabling us to do true translation that works.
We know what we need. We must make sure that we provide it, whether it is money, freedom or support for the people involved. I take the point that we should look more broadly than just to the sciences. Humanities, classics and other subjects have a lot to provide. I have one last request to the Minister. I have asked before whether the Treasury could have a chief scientific adviser so that its staff could understand science. They say they cannot see why they need one: that is exactly why they do.
I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), on securing the debate, and on her speech. Her timing is exquisite, whether by accident or design, as she has picked the day when more than 50,000 students are protesting outside at the damage to be inflicted on higher education by the 80% cuts in teaching grant and huge increases in student fees. I particularly welcome and support the students from the university of Oxford and Oxford Brookes university, both of which have most of their students, and key science facilities, in my constituency. Those include the Oxford science area and the Oxford science park, although of course the Begbroke science park is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, the Diamond synchrotron is in the Minister’s constituency of Wantage, and the Culham science centre is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). There is a huge Oxfordshire-wide and cross-party interest in the health of scientific research. The work of scientists in our area is of global as well as national importance, and makes a huge contribution to the economy, which is crucial to the competitiveness and future prosperity of our country.
It is to the credit of the Labour Government that they were responsible for record investment in science. [Interruption.] I am pleased to hear the Minister applauding that. The Government’s investment was amplified by the invaluable contribution of the Wellcome Trust, the medical research charities and others. However, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon pointed out, when we consider publicly funded science as a share of GDP it is not as though no more needs to be done. I echo the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) for us to pull together to do more.
Given the context of massive and ill-judged public expenditure cuts, it is also right to recognise that the Government have afforded science and research a measure of protection in the recent spending review. I know that that the higher education Minister fought for that, and I thank him. I am sure that the Minister who is present today fought for it too, and if so I thank him too. I am not going to let them off the hook, however, given the real cuts, the big outstanding uncertainties still affecting science funding and the challenging context in which scientists will be working in the years ahead.
I should like the Minister to answer a number of questions. First, as we have heard, the cash freeze over the next four years represents a 10% real cut. Although welcome protection for medical research is provided, there are worries that that could involve bigger real cuts in other areas of science, such as physics and engineering. What is the position on that?
Secondly, the Science and Technology Facilities Council has already, as we have heard, had a tough three years and is not facing further cuts from a position of enormous strength. It is not clear whether the commitments to improve STFC’s situation, made by Lord Drayson last January—to cover exchange rate fluctuations in the costs of international subscriptions—will be honoured by the coalition Government. It would help if the Minister confirmed that that undertaking still stands.
Thirdly, the severe cuts to the Minister’s capital budget could, as we have heard, have a serious impact if they feed through directly to research council funding. Capital is not just about new projects, which can of course be delayed, albeit at some cost to our international research competitiveness. A significant proportion of the running costs of facilities, for example, the routine replacement and upgrade of equipment, are classified as capital. Almost a quarter of the running costs of the ISIS centre at Rutherford Appleton, which does cutting edge atomic work advancing a range of physical, biological and material sciences, are classed as capital costs. Cuts would reduce the amount of time that that vital facility could operate each year. Can the Minister assure us that such factors will be given sympathetic attention when his Department makes its capital allocation?
Fourthly, what is the position on the overall budget of the Technology Strategy Board over the spending period and how much redirection of current funds will be required to support the operation of the new technology innovation centres that were recommended by the Hauser report? Obviously, if that amounted to a big sum—tens of millions of pounds a year, or whatever, from a static TSB budget—it would represent a significant cut in other important areas of its work, such as collaboration with business on knowledge transfer. Can the Minister clarify that position?
As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) said, success for science research depends on more than the science budget, critical though that is. I should like to mention a couple of other areas. Keeping up the high quality of our science depends in no small part on the quality of science teaching in our schools, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said. In a written parliamentary answer on 26 July, to my question on incentives for physics graduates to enter teaching, the Minister of State said:
“We are considering a scheme to repay the student loans of science and mathematics teachers.”—[Official Report, 26 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 817W.]
Where has that consideration got to? It is clearly all the more relevant, given the huge increases in fees that the Government are now imposing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston and the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the immigration cap. I would like to press the Minister on what representations he is making across Government on the real threat to our scientific excellence and standing posed by the coalition Government’s proposed annual limit on economic migration and changes to the visa regime. Nearly a third of Oxford university’s academic teaching and research staff, and 46% of its research-only staff, are from overseas. Although some of those people are of European economic area origin, a lot of academic staff hold tier 1 highly skilled migrant programme visas, and more than 700 are work permit/tier 2 visa holders and sponsored researcher/tier 5 visa holders. As the vice-chancellor of Oxford university said in his evidence to the Migration Advisory Committee:
“Most of our current Tier 1 visa holders are in highly specialised research areas, and many are working in strategically important subject areas such as engineering and technology, environmental science and the biosciences…It would be disastrous for international relations and research programmes if we at Oxford were not able to continue to welcome overseas researchers at current levels under all tiers. This would seriously affect recruitment and retention particularly in all the physical, bio and clinical sciences, and in technology, engineering and mathematics”.
I hope that the Minister is concerned about this as well. Can he assure me that, in view of the contribution that their teaching and research make to knowledge, the economy and society in general, top internationally mobile academics and researchers will be exempt from the immigration limit or, at the very least, that the visa and work permit regulations will be operated in such a way that Oxford and other universities and research institutes will be able to recruit all the people they need to sustain their international standing?
Science and successful business spin-offs do not just need funding, research facilities and the best researchers; their staff—managerial and technical as well as scientists—need somewhere to live, a good environment, transport infrastructure and room for businesses to grow. However, these things are all too likely to be a casualty of the coalition Government’s decision to abandon all the evidence and careful consideration that went into the south-east and other regional plans and leave planning up to district councils. An example of the disastrous effect that this is having is that a significant housing development to the immediate south of Oxford, in the planning jurisdiction of South Oxfordshire district council, is now most unlikely to go ahead, given that nimbyism seems to be that council’s principal planning policy. [Interruption.] The Minister may laugh, but if I recall correctly, he once famously told the Conservative party conference that he was greatly in favour of additional housing in Oxfordshire, as long as it all went into my constituency, although it is not quite big enough to take it all. I welcome the expansion of my constituency to make room for the growth south of Grenoble road.
Part of the development that I have mentioned was an expansion of the Oxford science park, providing exactly the sort of facilities that are needed to harness our scientific excellence to business success, jobs and prosperity. Will the Minister consider that, bearing in mind his comments to the Conservative party conference, and chat about it with his colleagues in Department for Communities and Local Government?
The right hon. Gentleman has asked the Minister a number of questions—I agree pretty much with all of them—and I should like him to ask one on my behalf. For every leading research scientist there are dozens, if not hundreds and thousands, of lower-level lab technicians, who are just as important a part of our national science research base as those guys at the top. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will ask the Minister what he is doing to ensure that we get 17 and 18-year-olds into science research, through apprenticeships, further education and workplace training, because these guys are just as important as the people at the top.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I shall add to my list of questions. We will all be looking carefully at the announcement of the Government’s skills strategy next week to see what specific component it contains to address those important issues.
We can have higher, sustainable economic growth if we really want it. But if we are to achieve it we need more housing and better transport in places such as Oxfordshire, across the south-east and in other regions where science is so important, so that business can do still more to make the most of the scientific excellence that we are investing in.
Those are a few questions for the Minister to consider. If he does not have time to answer them all this afternoon, I should be grateful if he wrote to me. It is important, as other hon. and right hon. Members said, that we keep up the pressure in the cause of science, which it is no exaggeration to say is vital to the quality of life, living standards and our whole civilisation, now and for generations to come.
Thank you for those clear instructions, Mrs Brooke. I will watch the clock carefully. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on her excellent opening speech, and all hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken in this high-quality debate.
I start by declaring a personal interest: I am a science graduate. I studied theoretical physics at Cambridge, although I am ashamed to say that I have not used a great deal of that study since I graduated. However, I now have the opportunity to do so because I was recently elected to the Science and Technology Committee. I am also taking part in the Royal Society pairing scheme, and I echo the comments made by several hon. Members about its importance. I am paired with Dr Emily Nurse from the high energy physics group at University college London. I represent a London constituency, and while we have heard a great deal about Oxford and Cambridge universities throughout the debate, London has Imperial college, UCL, and other leading institutions.
I have been asked to stick to time but, luckily, those hon. Members who have spoken have covered many of the points that I wished to make, so I can be relatively brief. There is political consensus about the need to diversify our economy, and one of the lessons we must learn from what has happened over the past few years is the need for a broader economy. One of the strengths of UK plc is our scientific base.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon cited figures from “The Scientific Century”, which is an excellent report by the Royal Society. Let me set out the full figures for the world: we have 1% of the population; 7.9% of scientific papers; 11.8% of world citations; and just under 15% of the most highly-cited papers. This is an area of excellence, and we also have the second strongest higher education sector in the world, after the USA, so we must build on that strength.
Like other hon. Members, I am grateful for the work carried out by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science and the relative protection of the science budget. I echo the points raised about the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and the issue of capital funding, which accounts for just more than a third of its budget.
It is good to see science supported and to ensure that science works with business. Many business men have asked me how we can protect our patents and our value in an international sphere, so the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills needs to think about that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point to which I am sure that the Minister will respond. My point is that the Science and Technology Facilities Council has a high dependency on capital funding. If we do not have clarity on that matter, there is the danger that we will see significant cuts in the general grant spend. Its dependence on capital is higher than that of other councils.
Although it is important that the Government look at the benefits of science—economically and to wider society—there is also a benefit to society from knowledge in its own right and from pure research that is designed to extend the sphere of human knowledge. It is sometimes difficult to quantify that, and I appreciate that the Government have to cost such matters. However, it is important to put on record the significance of knowledge in its own right, which is often the primary motivation of scientists, rather than some putative economic return.
Let me echo the points that have been made about the immigration cap. I am a strong supporter of the cap, and although my constituents feel strongly about immigration, they are not worried about leading scientists coming into the country to drive our economy forward. Their concern is about the numbers of people who have been brought into the country and take jobs that should have gone to economically inactive British people who could have gone back to work during the last boom but failed to do so. Their concern is not with people who come in to create businesses, opportunities and jobs for other people, and I hope that the Government will be sufficiently flexible on that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon pointed out that these matters are not only ones for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I echo that sentiment. A number of members of the Science and Technology Committee have spoken about whether the Government office that deals with science would be better located in the Cabinet Office because of the overarching role that science plays across Government activity.
I shall conclude with a point about education which, again, several hon. Members have touched on. I have read a piece by Simon Schama about the teaching of history in our schools. It contrasted children’s great fascination with detailed works such as “The Lord of the Rings” with our failure to make the story of our history sufficiently interesting to children. The same is true of science education. I have an eight-year-old son. Any conversation with him quickly becomes a succession of “Why?” questions. He has complete fascination with the world around him and why it is as it is. As children get older, however, we somehow fail to maintain their enthusiasm to find out about the natural world. Developing that passion for science in the critical phase of secondary education is a key area that the Government must look at.
I am conscious of the time and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) wishes to speak. I end by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon on securing the debate and thanking other hon. Members who have taken part.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) for giving me the chance to speak. I am one of three hon. Members in the Chamber from Imperial college—I think that there are only three of us—so we should get our retaliation in first—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) is one of them.
I wish to talk about the application of science. We have heard a lot about pure research and so on, but when we think about the economy over the next 20 or 30 years, and the fact that we can no longer rely on the City and North sea oil to the extent that we have over the past two decades, we must ask where the innovation will come from. With respect to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the large contribution made by arts graduates, that innovation will, to a great extent, come from science.
My constituency, like many in the north-west, will lose around 2,000 public sector jobs over the lifetime of this Parliament. The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that it will gain 5,000 private sector jobs. All north-west Members, and those more widely, must think about where those jobs will come from and what we can do to help their creation.
Hon. Members have mentioned silicon valley, and it is interesting to note that companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Dell, Apple and eBay, and their supply chains, have probably generated in excess of 1 million jobs over the past two decades. For the most part, those companies did not exist 30 years ago. In 20 or 30 years’ time, there will be another list that people will talk about. I do not know what companies will be on it—if I did, I would probably not be in the Chamber—but they will come from innovation and science. We must do what we can towards achieving that.
On the border of my constituency is a place called Daresbury. We have heard something of the golden triangle, which makes me feel a bit outnumbered, but Daresbury is a fantastic place that, together with Harwell, is one of two SFTC locations in the UK. Daresbury is a little different from Harwell because it focuses strongly on innovation as well as on pure science. There is also pure science, however, and Daresbury has a fourth-generation accelerator—a lot of the design work on the Diamond synchrotron was carried out there. However, the distinctive thing about Daresbury—if the Minister has not seen it, he should come and visit—is that there are about 100 small companies that are growing, taking output from the universities and turning that into commercial exploitation. On average, those organisations have grown by 20% over each of the past two years. That has happened through the recession, so it is quite a thing. A 36,000 square feet extension is being built and is already nearly full. There is a significant chance that 10,000 jobs will be created by those 100 companies and the public-private partnership that is being put into place.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those 100 or so tiny companies are in Daresbury as a result of the magnet provided by the research facility? They would not have come there on their own; this is part of the integration between very small and very large companies that I was speaking about.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The key term is multidisciplinary. Those companies interact with each other, and the pure science laboratory, which was there in the first place, has been the driver.
I want to contrast the multidisciplinary model of the Daresbury campus with some of the ideas that have come out of the Hauser review. That is more about excellence, with the Government picking areas in which they want to invest and going for it. I am not against that, but there are two models to determine how we invest in science and applied science. One is what could be called, “Let’s pick a winner and go for it,” and the other is, “Let 1,000 flowers bloom. Let’s try lots of things. Some of them will be brilliant and some of them won’t.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) pointed out that silicon valley was created by Government procurement, but I do not think that that is true. I think that it was created by innovation, entrepreneurship, encouragement and the linkage of money to brilliant technologists.
I do not wish to overrun my time, but I have two minutes left and a couple of concerns to raise, to which I shall be interested to hear my hon. Friend the Minister’s response. I welcome the local enterprise partnerships as a way forward. There is a risk, however, that they will be quite fragmented in a way that the regional development agencies were not and other things are not. I recently had a ridiculous conversation with a colleague who said to me, “Which LEP is Daresbury going to be in?” That is not the right way for us to think about how we do all this, and if we let that mindset grow, it will be quite dangerous.
I mentioned the Hauser review and technology and innovation centres. It is not clear to me how they will interact with what we call regional growth hubs—or at least there is a lot of language in this area that seems to be quite loose—so I would welcome input on that.
With regard to the success of Daresbury, I have a bit of concern about the way in which the Science and Technology Facilities Council funding goes between Daresbury and Harwell. I am not an expert in how that works, but I think that nearly all the members of the board of the STFC are Harwell-based, not Daresbury-based. We must be careful that we do not have a south-centric civil service and a south-centric triangle driving science in a way that we do not want.
You will be pleased to hear that I shall stop speaking shortly, Mrs Brooke. I just want to reiterate that this has been a good and positive debate, principally because it has not been party political. We have much more in common with one another—especially those of us who went to Imperial college—than party politics allows, and it is extremely important to us all and to our children that we get this right.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on securing a debate on such an important subject and on the excellence of her speech. As one of those STEM-qualified women who are no longer working directly in STEM, I was very impressed by the breadth and depth of her analysis, even if I do not agree with every one of her conclusions. Her constituency certainly has an excellent advocate.
Oxford West and Abingdon is home to excellent science research, as are many of our great university towns: London, Manchester, Cambridge, Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, Edinburgh and, of course, my own constituency of Newcastle, to name but a few. However, it is clear from the speeches and interventions made today that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have concerns that go wider than the science research carried out in their constituencies.
I am sure that even if his colleagues in BIS had not been in China or otherwise engaged, the Culture Minister would still have been eager to come to this debate and set out the Government’s policies on science research. That is recognition of the hugely important role that science plays in our society. From the sharpened stone to the mobile phone, scientific developments have changed society and brought new opportunities. Indeed, I am sure that if decent research grants had been available in prehistory, it would not have taken 2 million years to go from sharpened stones to the stone axe. Equally, the Egyptian pyramids would not have required quite so much slave labour—the wheel could have taken a bit more of the strain.
To take an example closer to our own day and age, the mobile phone—we all have one—is a result of decades of public sector defence research into wireless transmissions; billions of private sector investment in R and D, infrastructure and commercialisation; academic research into cutting-edge modulation techniques; and Government-led access to spectrum and global protocol standardisation. The result is a technology that enables a farmer in Kenya to know the market price of corn on the Chicago stock exchange, and ensures that information about voting irregularities in Burma or Iran can be tweeted across the world before the voting is over.
Science changes society, and generates wealth. The Campaign for Science and Engineering has estimated that investment in science research gives a return of 30% a year in perpetuity. Right now, we need that return more than ever, so we are right to treat this debate as hugely important. To be fair, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the comprehensive spending review statement, claimed that he was protecting the science budget, as many hon. Members have gratefully commented. In his final flourish, under the sub-heading “growth and promoting a private sector recovery”, he said:
“I have decided to protect the science budget. Britain is a world leader in scientific research and that is vital to our future economic success. That is why I am proposing that we do not cut the cash going to the science budget.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 961.]
Now let us consider what the Chancellor did not say. As has been pointed out, a cash freeze means a 10% cut—assuming current rates of inflation—in real terms, or £460 million, at a time when the rest of the world, including the US, China, France and Germany are increasing their science spend. Also, what the Chancellor calls the “science budget” is only 50% of Government science investment in the UK. The rest, including departmental R and D, capital expenditure, R and D tax credits and RDA spending, has not been frozen or ring-fenced and therefore is vulnerable to cuts. In the case of the RDAs, we know that their science funding of £440 million a year has been lost. If other expenditure is cut at the same rate as departmental expenditure—let us remember that this is science funding that has deliberately not been ring-fenced—we are looking at a cut of 10% in cash terms.
In July, the Royal Society said that
“severe cuts of 10% or more in cash terms...threaten to devastate British science, impair the future growth of the economy and derail the UK’s ability to govern effectively and tackle global challenges. Regaining our scientific pre-eminence, with all the economic and social benefits that this brings, would be impossible or cripplingly expensive for future generations.”
Although the upgrade of the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in the Minister’s constituency has been secured, the rest of the capital budget, as has been pointed out, has not been safeguarded. Nature reports that the research councils have been warned to expect at least a 30% cut in their capital funding. Hon. Members have pointed out that as a result of those capital cuts, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which funds the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in the constituency of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon—
I apologise. The STFC, which funds that laboratory in the Minister’s constituency, is likely to be hit as the bulk of its budget is capital. High-tech European partnership projects such as JET—the Joint European Torus at the Culham centre for fusion energy in neighbouring Henley—are funded through the capital budget. They will need to find extra money to cover inflation. That might result in UK researchers having to cut usage while still paying high fixed costs, or to cut other areas. As the Royal Society says, that would dramatically reduce the efficiency of our investment.
Overall, there could be far-reaching consequences in the UK economy. Research Councils UK has calculated that a cut of £l billion in science spending results in a drop of £10 billion in gross domestic product. Therefore, the protection offered by the Chancellor seems rather flimsy, especially in the competitive world of global science. China is stoking its engine of innovation with 2.5% of its GDP and an 8% rise this year. I hope the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will be listening to his hosts in China in that regard at least.
The situation is somewhat worse than it first appears. We have agreed that we need to rebalance our economy, but we do not want to do that by reducing the financial sector—absolutely not. We want to do it by growing other sectors, such as advanced manufacturing.
In addition to the cuts to science funding, we have further cuts disabling the vital economic levers that translate scientific understanding into commercial ideas. For example, programmes funded by the RDAs, which supported the commercialisation of scientific discoveries, which we have discussed, have already been cut—such as the Innovation Machine in Newcastle.
It was mentioned that the Prime Minister announced funding for the technology and innovation centres to the tune of £200 million. However, in Germany, where the model they are based on is located, six times more is spent each year on running costs.
Given that our situation and the funding for science are under such threat, I ask the Minister to confirm a number of points. Will Government spending on science that is not in the £4.6 billion be safeguarded? Are the Government intending to increase science spend as a proportion of GDP, in line with European targets? Do they acknowledge the vital role they must play in helping to commercialise new technologies? Finally, will R and D tax credits be safeguarded?
We need the jobs that come from the timely exploitation of scientific discoveries. The Government’s plans for science and research endanger all our futures.
I am grateful for the chance to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. The last times I spoke in a debate, I had the full might of the Welsh Labour party ranged against me, so 50,000 students making noises off is slightly easier to deal with.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) on securing this important debate. One of the great advantages of having new Members of Parliament is that those of us who have been in Parliament for merely five years get the chance to patronise them, so let me say what a pleasure it was to be at her parliamentary birth, at the Abingdon leisure centre on that momentous night when she became the Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon.
I put on record what a hugely successful job my hon. Friend is doing—slightly too successful, as my Conservative association in Wantage keeps asking whether we can have her to speak instead of me. Also, almost all the companies in my constituency seem to want her to come and visit them. In fact, she mentioned one that I, too, visited on Friday—she had got there before me—Nexeon, in Milton park in Didcot.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) wants to know what the future is, he should resign his seat and go and work for Nexeon. It is making extraordinary lithium ion batteries, which are another example of British scientific expertise. The discovery was about the use of silicon, which stores more energy, and Nexeon’s way of putting silicon into batteries promises the future—houses powered by batteries, apparently.
One of the great pleasures of representing my constituency is that I wish I had won the lottery and could invest in almost every company that I go and see there. One is literally “The Man in the White Suit” company—coat a shoe or shirt with its material and water literally drips off without leaving any damp patch at all. However, I digress, and we do not have much time.
We have had a fantastic number of excellent contributions to the debate, such as those from the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), and from the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who reminded us why it is so important to have scientists in the House, because of his chalk-face experience, if I may put it that way, and his ability to talk us through what happens with scientists on the ground.
Another such contribution came from the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) who, as I have said many times before, is only in the House because I was the press officer of the Oxford university Conservative association when he was fighting Steve Norris in 1987. However, what is absolutely true is that he, I, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) all work well together on Oxfordshire interests, even if we might clash on national policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) made a valuable contribution to the debate, and I have renewed respect for him now that I know he is a theoretical physicist, while my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South has a distinguished degree in engineering, although he left it for accountancy. I propose a twinning arrangement with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South: I would certainly like to see his facilities in Daresbury, if he will come and see my facilities in Harwell.
The debate covered a huge range of subjects. We even got on to housing shortages, nimbyism and transport networks. However, what it boils down to—stating what I regard as the highlights—is essentially: the myth and reality, as it were, of the science budget; the need to engage young people in science, even those in primary schools; concerns about whether the coalition Government’s immigration policy will impact on scientific research in the future; and some specific Government policies, notably on technology and innovation centres.
May I bring the Minister’s attention to another point that was raised? In my time as the shadow Minister for Science and Innovation, I was keen to have a chief scientific adviser in the Treasury. Can he shed any light on that matter or on any progress that might be taking place in that regard?
If I can make a career-ending response to that, in my short experience as a Minister I have discovered that the Treasury thinks it knows absolutely everything, so the idea that it needs to be advised on science or, indeed, any other subject would clearly be anathema to it. That, I am sure, is why it is resisting the appointment of a chief scientific adviser—I shall turn to the role of the Government’s chief scientific adviser in a minute. I also congratulate my hon. Friend, because he was a distinguished shadow science spokesman for us. I have no doubt that, behind the scenes, he influenced the Government’s approach to the science budget.
To give credit where it is due, however, the Minister for Universities and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who cannot be here because he is flying the flag for UK plc in India, I think, ought to be hugely credited with securing the important settlement that we have had for science.
I would like to say that I played a role in that settlement. There was a moment when I was in the Secretary of State’s office and I noticed a paper on the Diamond synchrotron, so I said to his private secretary, “You really want to sort out the Diamond synchrotron because they have a really effective MP and you don’t want to cross him.” He looked at me and said, “Who’s that?” So, I am not sure how much influence I had, although as a politician I would like to take the credit.
Other issues raised were the allocation between specific research councils—the charity research fund referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon—and the capital funding. The debate was not partisan and has been conducted on a good cross-party basis.
One of the things that I note about science, which we should all treasure, is that people from different places work together. [Interruption.] That is probably my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science ringing—
Yes, that is the Treasury on the phone.
Going to such large scientific facilities—I was struck in particular going to the large hadron collider—one sees Iranian scientists working next to Israeli scientists. That for me, if we are talking about bringing science alive, brings alive the global, co-operative nature of science.
I can tell hon. and right hon. Members that I cannot tell them anything about some of the questions they asked, because the negotiations are still ongoing. I can tell them that we hope to conclude them by Christmas.
I thought about standing up and simply saying that I would write to the right hon. and hon. Members, given that approximately 35 questions were asked in the course of the debate. However, I will certainly ensure that we give a comprehensive response to all the questions of right hon. and hon. Members who attended the debate.
We talked about research budgets from other Departments. Yesterday the Department of Health signed an agreement for a UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, with £220 million for the construction of this new centre, which will bring together the Medical Research Council, University college London and medical charities.
Reference has been made to the £69 million secured by the Diamond synchrotron, as well as other important innovations such as the European Space Agency, which is also in my constituency. I was delighted to see the report this week, pointing out that space success has rocketed in this country; the industry is now worth £7.5 billion, and it employs 25,000 people, which is an increase in a year of 11%. When the right hon. Member for Oxford East said that our scientists have a global reach, I would correct him and simply point out that they now have an intergalactic reach, which we should praise.
The important question of immigration was raised. It is absolutely part of our strength as a scientific nation that we attract the best scientists to live and work here. As I said earlier, scientists working together from different countries that may be politically hostile to each other is very important. It is an extraordinary experience to visit leading scientific institutions and see the range of people from across the world who have been attracted to them. We must secure that sort of international work force working together.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science met representatives of further and higher education and of the UK Border Agency, and had the opportunity to hear their concerns directly. My Department is working closely with the Home Office to develop a system that, while delivering the Government’s objective—as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central pointed out, it is strongly supportive of reducing the overall level of immigration—allows those who can make a positive contribution to the UK, such as researchers and academics, to continue to come here.
The hon. Member for Cambridge spoke about people being denied a visa to attend a legitimate high-profile conference. I understand his frustration. We need to establish a system under which reputable institutions should be trusted to vouch for those who attend conferences.