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UK’s Science Base

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 15 March 2012

Britain’s research base is the most productive among the G8, and the Government are committed to maintaining that world-leading position. That is why funding for science and research programmes has been protected with a flat-cash, ring-fenced settlement of £4.6 billion. On top of the £1.9 billion capital funding announced as part of the spending review, we have since announced a further £495 million of capital investment in science.

It is national science and engineering week, and the Minister and I are both taking part in a mathematics event today. Does he agree with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, however, in the letter to the Prime Minister that was reported last week, that the Government’s science policy is “piecemeal” and:

“The Technology Strategy Board…is operating on a shrinking core budget and thereby missing valuable opportunities”?

Do we not need a long-term strategy, such as the one that was set out in 2004?

The Technology Strategy Board does an excellent job and has a crucial role, and if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the board’s core funding, together with the funding that is available for its new technology and innovation centres, he will see that its funding has increased.

The Minister will be aware that Britain produces tens of thousands of enthusiastic and bright science graduates every year, yet the majority of them go into non-STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—jobs. What can the Government do to ensure that more of these skilled science graduates go into manufacturing and engineering?

Ultimately, of course, these decisions must be made by individuals, but we want to make it absolutely clear that students have the opportunity to understand the options available; that is why there is going to be an enterprise society in every university. It is also very important that in the recruitment milk round during the months up until taking their final degrees, students have the opportunity to learn about work in SMEs and work in manufacturing, alongside work in the other classic recruitment areas.

Research undertaken by the House of Commons Library this week shows that our science investment is being cut by 14% by this Government, while Germany and China are increasing theirs. Moreover, it says that the UK is becoming an innovation follower, as one of only a handful of countries in Europe to cut its science investment—and the Secretary of State would appear to agree. In this science and engineering week, will the Minister finally explain why he is damaging our science and engineering base?

Given that we had to sort out the mess in the public finances that we inherited from the previous Government, the cash protection for our science budget is evidence of the coalition’s commitment to science. We can be proud of the fact that with only 1% of the world’s population we produce 14% of the world’s most important science articles. We are increasing investment in capital. It is a great pity that the hon. Lady did down what is still the world’s finest science base.

The Government’s investment in the new technology and innovation centres will allow the excellence of UK science to be used to develop commercial technologies. Will the Minister give us a short update on the setting up of these important institutions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will be setting up seven such centres, which will tackle the long-standing problem that we have excellent science in Britain but do not always make the connection between research and its commercial applications. These new centres, all across the UK, will bridge that gap and strengthen our economy as a result.