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Science: Funding

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that United Kingdom investment in science is sufficient to meet the key economic and environmental challenges facing the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for this Question on a vital issue. First, I bring greetings and apologies from my noble friend Lord Drayson who, as we speak, is inspecting our £500 million investment in CERN in the Large Hadron Collider, with which all your Lordships will be familiar. I do not know whether he is trying to fix the fault, but he is certainly making sure that we are getting value for money.

The Government believe that science plays a vital role in addressing the key economic and environmental challenges facing the UK. The Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 will increase the science budget to £4 billion a year by 2011. Most of that is channelled through the research councils, which undertake a number of major multidisciplinary research programmes addressing key challenges in energy, ageing—we all have an interest in that—global threats to security, environmental change, the digital economy and nanoscience.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer and warmly welcome him to his new position. I wish him well.

Greening Spires, a publication by Universities UK, illustrates the work of universities in the United Kingdom on the Government's environmental and economic policies—for example, Newcastle and Liverpool Universities’ work on hydrogen power technology or Durham University’s work on solar energy and research into light-absorbing materials. Can my noble friend assure me that, given the credit crunch and the financial problems that have visited us now, the science research budget will not go any lower? Given that the Government last week, in a very welcome manner, raised from 60 per cent to 80 per cent their ambition for cutting carbon emissions, will there be more money in order more quickly to achieve our aims?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that supplementary question. To put things into context, we have trebled the budget since 1997. The overall science and research budget will increase from £3.6 billion a year in 2008-09 to almost £4 billion a year in 2010-11. Recurrent funding for research will increase from £1.4 billion to £1.6 billion in England, plus £1.3 billion of capital. That shows a commitment to research and innovation. It is an increase in real terms, and I remind the House that it is part of a 10-year strategy to make the UK the first-choice destination for both science and innovation for foreign students and international investors.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench and to his new responsibilities. I am sure that he will bring great expertise to the department. Why, according to yesterday’s CBI report, is there still only a 7 per cent take-up by school pupils in the triple-science GCSEs? Does he agree that a shortage of trained and qualified teachers available to teach the separate sciences is the main reason why triple sciences are not being offered in all schools?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question. In fact, there will be a 7 per cent increase in the number of students entering university maths departments in 2009, which will mean about 7,000 students entering those departments. There are also expected increases of 3.5 per cent for chemistry and 1.3 per cent for physics in next year’s university intake. I will have to write to the noble Baroness about the number of teachers, which was part of her question.

My Lords, how far is the UK as a whole on target to meet the 2.5 per cent of GDP that is devoted to R&D in 2014? I believe the latest figures indicate that we have moved from 1.72 per cent to 1.76 per cent of GDP, so we have some way to go yet.

My Lords, as I have already said, we have increased the science budget to £4 billion a year by 2011, which is a trebling of the budget since 1997. That is a significant increase in real terms and shows the Government’s commitment to research and science. I will write to the noble Baroness on whether it will meet the GDP target.

My Lords, given that the Minister believes that the current levels of investment are adequate, and welcome though the increases are from our shockingly low investment earlier, what errors are being made by other OECD countries, such as Japan, France, Germany, most of the Scandinavian countries, and others, which are investing significantly higher proportions of their GDP in basic science than we are?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that question. At least, I think I thank him for it. I would not presume to know what the errors are. Those countries obviously have the capacity to make that investment, but I ask him this: do we think that the kind of multidisciplinary programmes on which we are expending our resources are the right ones? These relate to energy, global threats to security, ageing, the digital economy and nanoscience. That is a comprehensive programme of investment and a significant sum of money.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in acknowledging and congratulating Semta, the prime sector skills council for science, on the work that it is doing to achieve the Government’s objective to ensure that the skills of the people working in science are not only up to date but world class?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. We are increasing dual-support funding for university research. Overall science and research funding will increase from £3.6 billion to £4 billion a year. Our commitment is sincere.