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UK Science Budget

Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UK science budget and the 2015 Spending Review.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Let me say at the outset that the Government face a difficult situation in balancing budgets, but scientific research is one of the UK’s biggest assets. It has transformed the way we go about our everyday lives—from the technologies we use to communicate to the tools we use to diagnose, prevent and treat illness. Stable, long-term Government investment—capital and resource—will cement this country’s global competitiveness, give confidence to the private sector, make the UK an even more attractive place to do business, increase employment opportunities and deliver wide-ranging societal and health benefits.

In recent weeks, we have seen the news of a simple blood test that can rapidly diagnose whether chest pain is being caused by a heart attack. For the 1 million people suffering from chest pain who visit the UK’s accident and emergency departments each year, the test will make a real difference at a distressing time. A new study, which was funded by the British Heart Foundation, shows that the test can diagnose a heart attack much more rapidly than current tests, allowing patients to receive the treatment they need or to return home quickly, avoiding an anxious and sometimes unnecessary wait. The test would not only improve patient care, but free up capacity in our busy A&E departments, saving the NHS money.

Such breakthroughs have made, and continue to make, a profound difference to our lives as individuals and to the UK economy as a whole. If we are to keep hearing such stories, we must protect investment in UK research. The Government have an opportunity to renew their commitment to it in this spending review.

A successful research base relies on stable, long-term investment by a network of funders across the public and private sectors. Each funder has an important role to play, and if one moves away, the others would be unable to step in and compensate. The Government are a key part of that funding network. By providing underlying support to our world-class universities and research institutes, as well as individual support to talented researchers, Government investment creates a healthy research environment, in which industry and charities can invest.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, with the new £235 million Sir Henry Royce Institute and the £65 million Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre in Manchester, and the £113 million cognitive computer research centre in Warrington, continuing to support UK sciences is an essential part of securing the northern powerhouse?

As a northern MP, I would certainly agree. That just goes to show that this budget can really help us achieve more than one of our aims.

The Government also provide funding in partnership with industry and charitable funders to bring together the power and expertise needed to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing society and to develop the UK’s expertise in areas of real promise, and we have seen just how powerful such joint funding can be. We have pioneering projects such as the UK Biobank, which is now following the health of half a million people across the UK, and the Farr Institute, which is unlocking the full potential of health data.

The innovation at Queen’s University in Belfast includes perfecting new drugs for cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It is important that we have a relationship with not only Queen’s University but universities across the UK mainland, and I want us to make sure that these moneys will enable that to happen, so that everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can benefit. Does the hon. Gentleman agree? I am sure he does, but I just wanted to ask him.

I have no choice—of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right: this is about supporting the whole United Kingdom.

Evidence has shown that public sector investment in research encourages the private sector to invest too. Analysis has shown that an extra £1 of public funding would give rise to an increase in private funding of between £1.13 and £1.60.

The Government’s decision to protect science in 2010, at a time of significant savings, has been appreciated by the sector. It has enabled researchers to continue to push the boundaries of research and to transform exciting scientific discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy. However, there are concerns that, with the true value of the science budget eroding, and with more savings in the pipeline, research could be at risk. Almost 200 life science organisations recently raised those concerns in a letter to the Chancellor.

Why should the Government invest in research? First, research saves lives. Across a number of different conditions, we have seen huge improvements in the range of treatments available, with people surviving conditions that would have been death sentences in the past. According to statistics from the British Heart Foundation, seven out 10 people now survive a heart attack.

The UK punches above its weight in terms of the outcomes its research sector achieves relative to the amount of money invested overall. On many measures, the sector is the most efficient in the world, and strikingly better than many of its competitors. The excellence of the UK science and research base results from universities’ autonomy and responsiveness; the competitive, dynamic funding system; the dual-support funding mechanism; an effective governance and research infrastructure; and the critical role played by universities in the science, research and innovation ecosystem.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the changing nature of the research model in the life sciences industry generally, it is even more vital that the Government maintain their investment in universities? Such is the burden of regulation and the investment model required by the private sector that molecules drugs therapies, often co-researched by the private sector, have to spend much more time in academia. If we withdraw funding at that stage, the research will simply not happen and will not transfer elsewhere.

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important and valid point, which emphasises the points I am making about Government investment in this important area.

An investment in research is an investment in our economy. The UK life sciences industry generates an estimated annual turnover of £56 billion and employs 183,000 people across the UK. Investment encourages innovation, attracts business to the UK and leads to treatments and technologies that allow us all to lead healthier, more productive lives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making an excellent case for science. He will know that the Science and Technology Committee is conducting an inquiry into the science budget. Many witnesses have expressed concern that total investment in research and development in the UK is historically low and falling. Does my hon. Friend agree with them that there is a case for a road map to increase R and D, even though the situation cannot be reversed immediately? That would not only ensure that we retained our competitiveness internationally, but send an important signal to investors that we are a good place to invest in.

The Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right. We want to maintain our position as world leaders in this area, and it is important that we do that.

The Government have recognised the link between R and D spending and national productivity, and they have even highlighted science and innovation as a key driver in their plan to make the UK a more productive nation. The spending review therefore gives the Government a real opportunity to invest the resource needed to deliver on that promise, creating a more prosperous nation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is making a powerful argument. He touched on the important issue of making the UK a more productive nation. The UK population is set to increase by 15% over the next 20 years, and we will need to produce more than 60% more food by 2050. Does he agree that science plays a key role in our agricultural sector in terms of meeting that demand for food and the need to increase production, which has been plateauing for many years? Does he also agree that the Government need to reaffirm their support for the agri-tech sector over the long term?

I am grateful for that intervention. I think I should have applied for a longer debate, given the number of Members who are here. As a fellow Yorkshire MP, and given the importance of the agri-food industry for our county, I certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s points.

Groups such as Universities UK are concerned that, while the Government have made a commitment of capital expenditure for the forthcoming spending period, they have yet to make any commitment of revenue expenditure, which would allow the sector to make the best use of both new and existing facilities and infrastructure. What will we lose if the Government do not maintain their commitment? Frankly, if we have less, clearly we can do less. The UK science sector has been very good at making efficiencies, through equipment sharing and team science, but there is a finite amount of adjustment that it can make, and further cuts will have a damaging impact on the ability of the sector to conduct world-class research.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time in this short debate. He makes a good case about the quality and high impact of United Kingdom science, but does he agree that the target that the Government should really set is to increase the amount of money we spend on science above the 1.8% of GDP that we spend at the moment, and to bring it much closer to 3% of GDP? That is the European Union’s international standard, and some of our competitors are heading in that direction very quickly.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has just ruined the end of my speech, but it will be worth emphasising the point.

The goal of eliminating the deficit is, of course, necessary, but some universities have already felt the effect of funding reductions. Any further reductions would, in the Russell Group’s words, be

“entirely counterproductive for the long-term health of the economy and risk losing the UK’s competitive advantage”.

The benefits of research are not a secret. We are not the only country that has realised that research is a worthwhile investment. Other countries are substantially increasing their support for research and development. If we are unable to maintain our world-leading reputation, we risk falling behind and losing talent and business overseas, or to different sectors altogether. We saw that in the 1980s, when cuts in research drove many UK scientists to the USA. We do not want that to happen again.

We still have further to go. Cardiovascular disease causes more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK, and the cost of premature death, lost productivity, hospital treatment and prescriptions relating to cardiovascular disease is estimated at £15 billion to £19 billion each year. We have made huge improvements to our health and wellbeing, but our successes bring with them new challenges. When I worked in the children’s hospice movement I saw many times how children with complex and once fatal conditions now survive into adulthood; we must discover how to keep them healthy throughout their lives. As people live longer, we need to learn how to manage chronic conditions, so that we are not only extending but improving life.

Scientific research has brought us a long way in improving the health and wealth of the UK. Through continued Government investment, maintained in line with inflation, we can build on the successes that have been achieved so far and work towards a UK that realises its full potential. Universities UK has suggested, as did the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), that we should seek to match the level of expenditure of our competitor countries; otherwise there is a risk that our relative research strength will decline. Using the same group of comparator countries identified in a recent benchmarking study conducted on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the overall investment level required would be 2.9% of GDP. That level of total investment would also be broadly consistent with the commitment made in the Lisbon treaty for investment across the European Union of 3%, with one third coming from public sources. To support that overriding objective, the Government should set out a 10-year investment strategy, with a view to securing an above-inflation rise in public investment in science and research over that period. That would help to maintain our reputation across the globe, and our lead in so many fields which will improve all our lives.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing this debate, on a subject that is vital to the country’s future. As has already been said, we are a global leader in research and development, and the city of Cambridge is at the heart of that leadership.

A few years ago, when AstraZeneca was deciding where to relocate, it chose Cambridge; but if it had not been Cambridge it would have been somewhere outside the UK. That is the risk that the Government run if the rumours that we hear are true, and if they put at risk the long-running consensus on science funding. Let us be clear that the ring fence during the previous Parliament was not great; it was actually a substantial cut in real terms over the lifetime of the Parliament. Stop-start policies on capital funding also caused problems. The sector just about managed to survive that, but it has a clear view of what future funding cuts would do.

Last Friday I visited the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. It works with Alzheimer’s Research UK and is doing groundbreaking work that will help us to treat dementia. It is hugely important, but there is a strong message from the institute: any cut in public funding puts the associated private funding at risk. Just outside Cambridge, the Babraham Research Institute is another world-leading life sciences institute. It has 350 members working alongside 60 companies employing more than 600 people. The institute said in written evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology that

“the current level of funding will not sustain the UK’s existing science and research capability, whilst any reduction would be extremely damaging…it is likely that world leading scientists will leave the UK for other countries such as Germany where there is increased investment into science funding.”

I put those comments to Professor Rick Rylance, who chairs Research Councils UK, at a sitting of the Committee. He agreed that we are close to a tipping point and he warned that a time would come when the future would be “in jeopardy”. Those are serious warnings from senior people.

We all appreciate that spending decisions are difficult, but if we are truly to win the race to the top, we need a bigger knowledge economy, with high-skilled, well-paid jobs. I remind hon. Members that the Government’s own science and innovation strategy promised to inject £1.1 billion of capital into the sciences, at least in part to ensure that there would be what they called “adequate resource funding”. I never thought I would quote the current Chancellor with approval, but he delivered a major speech in April 2014 at the wondrous Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and it is worth reminding colleagues of his promise that

“support for and application of science is right at the centre of our long term economic plan.”

That support must, in my view at least, mean maintaining the science budget. I strongly encourage the Minister and Conservative Members to remind the Chancellor of that promise as the Government consider these important decisions.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on obtaining this important debate, and I agree with all the points he made.

Time is short and I will say just two things. GlaxoSmithKline’s headquarters are in my constituency and it employs many local people. There are also many science-based employers down the road in Hammersmith. There have been comments today about universities’ concern about the fact that there is to be no inflation growth in public spending on science, which is effectively a cut. I am also concerned about the lack of investment in and encouragement of science, technology, engineering and maths in schools. We need to invest in that—in schools and colleges—to support and encourage young people not only to start but to continue with STEM subjects.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) on securing the debate on a subject that is being explored in great detail at the moment by the Science and Technology Committee. I am glad to see the Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), here, along with other members of the Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey raised the issue of medical research and the contributions of the British Heart Foundation to that. I was pleased earlier this month to see BHF employees in Manchester during the Conservative party conference, and I enjoyed looking at their stand and hearing at first hand about the high-quality research that the organisation is doing on cardiovascular diseases. The BHF’s research remains one of this country’s great success stories, and it has a long history going all the way back to the pioneering heart surgery technique for babies developed by Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub in the 1970s, which is still used today, all the way through to the more recent and ongoing improvements in heart attack diagnosis that are helping to save lives in Britain and across the world.

Research investment in medicine and cardiovascular disease is an important illustration of the strength of our science base. The investment we are making as a country through charities, Government and pharmaceutical companies is helping to ensure that Britain remains at the forefront of science and research in Europe and throughout the world. I should like to point out a few examples of that investment. The Medical Research Council currently spends around £20 million a year. That, coupled with the £49 million spent by the National Institute for Health Research, which is funded by the Department of Health, makes the UK the top contributor among EU member states to cardiovascular research. We are building on that base. This year, we committed to fund the Academy of Medical Sciences, alongside the other national academies, for the first time, granting it £0.5 million.

We are talking about what we are spending, but we are not talking about what we are saving. We are developing the life sciences, agritech—agritech is hugely important to rural constituencies such as mine, and my constituency is on the edge of the Cambridge phenomenon—biotech, digital health and so on, and we need to take those savings into consideration. If we lose that research abroad, we will lose the savings, too.

Indeed, this is a good investment, which is why the Government have been supporting our science base over time. We recognise the huge economic benefits that it brings to the country.

I was in the middle of describing the investments we are making in cardiovascular and other medical technologies research. We have supplemented the ongoing spending of the MRC and the NIHR by announcing a couple of new innovation institutions, which will be extremely helpful to the sector in developing new medical technologies. We have just announced a new medicines technologies catapult, which will be based at Alderley Park in Cheshire. We have also announced the headquarters of the new precision medicine catapult in Cambridge, which will have one of its five centres of excellence in the north of England. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) focused on excellence in Cambridge. I am happy to tell him that I was in Cambridge last week and saw the laboratory of molecular biology. I was as impressed as his comments would have led me to expect—it is an extraordinary centre, and we have every intention of continuing to ensure that it remains one of the world’s leading research institutes.

The examples that Members have already cited, such as Cambridge and the scientific centres in the northern powerhouse, are good examples of why Britain is such a powerhouse in the world of science and why we want to ensure that we make Britain the best place in the world to do science. Our global scientific impact is completely out of proportion with both our population and the size of our research spend as a share of global research and development expenditure. The UK punches well above its weight.

Does the Minister agree that, although we are doing extremely well in science at the moment, there is concern in the scientific community that emerging markets in east Asia and India will overtake the UK’s scientific research if funding is not continued and increased?

We have discussed that question at great length in Select Committees and, of course, we understand that the impact of our science spend is a function both of the efficiency of our science base and of the inputs that go into it—the amount of money that we spend every year on science. The hon. Lady will recognise that we underscored our commitment to science in the last Parliament by ring-fencing expenditure at £4.6 billion at a time of discretionary savings across the rest of Government activity to the tune of £98 billion. Furthermore, she will know from our previous discussions and from Government documents that we have committed to a road map for capital expenditure all the way to 2021 to the tune of £1.1 billion per annum, which will give businesses, researchers and charities the certainty they need about the role that the Government intend to play in investing in our science base.

The Minister is right to sing the praises of our science community. We are a science superpower in terms of quality and impact, but the Science and Technology Committee has heard widespread concerns about time lag and how historical investment is perhaps leading to our current strength. Does he share the concerns expressed on both sides of the House about the low level of current R and D investment? Will he commit to a long-term plan to raise that investment?

We have set out a road map taking us all the way to 2021, and it provides considerable certainty on capital. Of course, a spending review is coming up 25 November, so it would be rash of me to embark on commitments here and now.

I would not want to do that for obvious reasons. I do not agree with the generally pessimistic tone of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, because investment in science is increasing. The Government play their part, but we should not forget the important part played by the business community in R and D, nor the part that R and D tax credits play in enabling business to make that supporting investment.

I told the Select Committee the other day that the value of our R and D tax credits has now increased to £1.8 billion a year, enabling more than 11,000 businesses to do innovative research. That is significantly up on the previous year, when the figure was only about £1.4 billion. The taxpayer is making a substantial contribution to enabling R and D in this country; business R and D expenditure is also up. In 2013, UK businesses spent a total of £18.4 billion on R and D, an increase of 8% in cash terms on 2012, so it is wrong to focus only on the Government’s share, which we protected in the last Parliament and for which we have outlined a trajectory to 2021 on the capital side. There will be a real-terms increase in capital spend. We are putting in place an ecosystem to make it possible for business and others to continue their investment.

I think the Minister has misunderstood me. I intended to ask for a road map for both public and private investment. I agree that one is useless without the other.

The 3% target is an EU target that may or may not be relevant to the UK environment. Targets, in and of themselves, are abstract things. What is relevant is the policy levers that we have put in place to drive behavioural change in companies and charities in order to increase investment. A target in itself achieves nothing, and I do not want to indulge in such targets.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the capacity of British science to step up and increase the level of top-quality science? With 20% of excellent research grant applications currently being turned down, we have an opportunity in Britain to improve our productivity greatly over the next five years.

Indeed. Our science base is productive and very efficient. For every £1 the Government spend on R and D, private sector productivity rises by 20p a year in perpetuity. We see clear public benefits in R and D, and we appreciate the important role of public investment in crowding in private investment.

The Chancellor appreciates the importance of science. As I told the Select Committee the other day, it is hard to think of a Chancellor who has spent more time in lab coats and high-vis clothing than he has. He has revealed his preferences over his chancellorship by ring-fencing science over the last Parliament. We in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working hard to make the best possible case for science going into the spending review. Obviously, there are difficult decisions and a difficult settlement to be made, but science has a strong set of arguments to make, and we are reinforcing those arguments in our discussions with the Treasury.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.