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Science Funding

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017

The first section of our Green Paper on industrial strategy sets out our ambition to make Britain the best nation in the world for scientists, innovators and technical inventors. In support of this, we have announced an increase of £4.7 billion in public research and development funds, which is the biggest increase in support of science for 40 years.

In evidence to the Education Committee last week, Professor Arthur, the president of University College London, spoke not only of the huge sums flowing into UK research from Europe—through Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council, for example—but of the need for a system to replace the mobility of people, networking and the ability to work across multiple boundaries. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if the Eurosceptics in his party prevail and we have a hard Brexit, spending even 3% of GDP on science funding will not be enough to protect our global reputation for scientific research? What is he doing to stand up for the needs of this sector?

The hon. Lady has two eminent universities in her constituency that are going from strength to strength. I agree that it is important that the best researchers from across the world come to our universities, and the Prime Minister said in her Lancaster House speech that that was a priority for our negotiations.

Science funding includes funding for the satellite sector, which is an important industrial base for the UK. The Government have set a target to grow this sector by a further 10% of global share in the next two decades. What more money could be put into the satellite sector from the industrial strategy challenge fund?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We say in the strategy that we should build on our strengths, and the satellite sector is a shining British strength that is creating huge numbers of jobs. It is specified throughout the industrial strategy as an area in which we want the industry to work together to ensure that, in particular, we are training the technicians and engineers of the future, which is what we have been doing.

The industrial strategy rightly points out the crucial significance of investment in science for our future economy and productivity. Given that the USA, Germany and France all outspend us in this area, will the Secretary of State give a commitment that future spending will outstrip theirs to give us a competitive advantage over them?

The hon. Gentleman is a thoughtful Member with regard to these matters, having chaired the then Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and he will see in the Green Paper that we are candid about the need to maintain the pace. Indeed, we have increased public investment. He was right to mention the US, but actually the proportion of public to business investment is higher in this country than in Germany, Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and other countries besides. We are building on strength, but we want to take things further, and I look forward to his contribution to the consultation.

There is great concern about the future of fusion research after Britain pulls out of the EU and Euratom. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that he will continue to support and fully fund the Joint European Torus project and other joint research projects such as ITER—the international thermonuclear experimental reactor—after Britain leaves the EU?

The collaboration between scientists and those in the nuclear sector is one of the important aspects of the continued co-operation that we want and intend to see continue.

The Green Paper makes much of re-announcing the welcome increase in science spending which, following cuts of up to 50% over the last seven years, has finally returned it to the levels under the last Labour Government. Research and development funding, however, remains barely half the recommended 3% target that Labour has committed to. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the impact of Brexit on UK science, the lack of any overarching vision and the focus on picking sector winners, rather than mobilising the whole—

Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady—[Interruption.] Order. I am sorry, but we have a lot to get through. The Front Benchers, on both sides, must be much more self-disciplined. It is not fair on Back Benchers.

The hon. Lady does not have it right. She should know—the science sector has welcomed this fact—that we protected funding for science during all the difficult years in which we were recovering from the financial situation that Labour left us. There was a huge welcome for the £2 billion increase, which is the biggest since 1979. In other words, that is bigger than what any Labour Government ever offered.