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Research: Science and Technology Committee Report

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2011

Question for Short Debate

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Setting priorities for publicly funded research (3rd Report, Session 2009–10, HL Paper 104).

My Lords, it is often said that the future success of this country depends on our continuing success in science and technology. Although I am not a scientist, I fully agree with that comment. There are clearly a number of other determinants of national well-being, not all of which are in our control. However, success in science and technology is significantly within our control. It is with that element of the nation’s future that we are concerned today.

We start from a strong platform. We have talent and, equally importantly—I shall come back to this—we attract talent to this country. This is a good place to be a research scientist. We have institutions which give civil support to this, most notably the Royal Society, as well as the various academies and institutions, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which I confess an interest as a past president.

We have talented and able scientists who continue to build on the legacy of Newton, Boyle, Harvey, Darwin, Clerk Maxwell, Rutherford and so on. I could go on for half the evening but I shall not. I mention those names and the talent of our scientists to point out that, in forthcoming debates about the membership of this House, I fervently hope we will continue to have the immensely able and informed scientific opinion which, as noble Lords will hear in this debate, we have with us. As the boxing metaphor puts it, the nation has a capacity to punch above its weight in science, technology and engineering. This is not simply an additional national boast and an intellectual luxury in which we enjoy indulging but one of the key conditions of our economic vibrancy as a nation.

This report was prepared as a matter of some urgency in the autumn of 2009 and the spring of 2010, before the impending election, to help the debate about the place of science and technology in our community at a time which evidently was going to be one of financial austerity. For a variety of reasons the report comes fairly late to this House, but there have been significant movements since it was submitted both in the Government’s response and in the development of some of the recommendations that we have made. As a consequence, my remarks will focus partly on the report—some of its highlights and one or two of its key recommendations—and partly on policy developments of the new coalition Government which have real significance for our capacity in science and technology.

Initially, what were our main recommendations? The first is just motherhood and apple pie; that is, spend money wisely. I have to say that usually—I speak here as a chastened former vice-chancellor—scientists come along with their hand out doing a good impression of Oliver Twist asking for more. That is not the point of this report. The point is to use what we have to best effect and to ensure that in policy formulation and implementation the systems that we have are at least fit for purpose. Although we are not asking for more money, I should point out—I think that this will come up later—that we need to keep in mind who our competitors are internationally. Both France and the USA have declared their intention of enhancing the spend on science and technology.

As to the report and spending money wisely, I want to make two points, which I think will be expanded on by some of my colleagues. Evidence given to us suggested at that time a certain flabbiness in co-ordination within government, in policy formulation and in drawing on the best possible advice in this area. I believe, and I think that my colleagues agree, that this led to a limitation in overall vision. Science and technology and its importance for our community is so critical that there has to be a vision that is clear and understood widely by the community at large so that when we are supporting significant spend in science, as we are and which is a good thing, the arguments will be understood by the wider community.

One condition of informed vision, planning and policy is knowing where we are. We asked a key question of our witnesses: what is the total spend, department by department, across the whole of government on research in science and technology? Our witnesses, who came from well-informed sources, could not answer that question. One of them significantly pointed to the difficulties in this country as compared with other countries in putting a total figure on research and expenditure in science and technology across all departments. You can do it for the research councils—that is pretty straightforward—but a significant part of our research activity is funded through departments. “We don’t know” was the answer, and no one at that stage could tell us. I believe that there has been progress since then. I will come back to that in a moment. We need to know what steps can be put in place to ensure that there is such a total picture of the platform from which we start in planning expenditure in this area.

The second point I want to make from the report is that we attach very great importance to the role of the Chief Scientific Adviser. I believe we have an excellent Chief Scientific Adviser at the moment. There are scientific advisers in most departments but not all. I point the finger at the Treasury here. I would like to know when that is going to happen. There was talk of a scientific adviser there. The Chief Scientific Adviser and his colleagues in departments have a critical role to play in policy development and implementation. We believe that the Chief Scientific Adviser should have more access to specific departmental and interdepartmental debates about funding. The condition of this is that they are present in key meetings with the Treasury as these are identified over the months and years to come. The scientific adviser should have input into departmental expenditure, budget creation and discussions with the Treasury. The advice that the scientific adviser gives in the formulation of policy is critical. We also put stress on encouraging scientific advisers to find the best advice they possibly can. This may not seem an obvious point but it was obvious to us on the committee. The recommendations I point to have to do with the chief scientific advisers, their presence departmentally and also, in Sir John Beddington’s case, at key Treasury meetings and departmental management boards.

In the few minutes remaining to me I want to point to two or three policy developments that will have, and are having, an impact on our capacity in science. This has been a constant refrain from the committee over the years. The Government’s left hand must know what their right hand is doing. Understandably, co-ordination sometimes fails. It is a big complex business. However, I will give three examples where I have concerns to ensure that the unintended consequences which could be bad for science are not a reality. I start with the question of science in schools. I thoroughly supported the clear statement by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about the importance of funding STEM subjects in universities, both in civil terms and also in terms of the economy. I am concerned that that has not gone along with equally clear statements about whether we will have enough well-qualified and able students coming through to fill the places in universities that are going to be so funded. Put bluntly, I am concerned that that will not be the case. I simply ask the Minister to ask her colleagues in the relevant department what they are going to do about the critical point of the curriculum for science and the attractiveness of science to senior pupils in schools. Good things have happened and I support the Browne proposals and the department’s interest in the Baker-Dearing trust’s initiative on technical education. I think that that is very good and very important.

The second example is the Department of Health. I do not want to intrude on private grief but there are real discussions going on about the state of the current Bill. The Bill contains a clear permissive statement that research can be commissioned. I would like reassurances that the resources will not simply slide away from those who do the commissioning. If the resources move significantly towards a different form of commissioning within the health service, will there be a danger that the major input of the NHS into research might slip backwards—for example, for drug trials which are very important in this country, but also basic research in medical science? It would be good, even if not today in writing, to have some reassurances that this can be done.

The last point is a matter of government policy. When I was a vice-chancellor I was well aware of the importance of looking internationally to recruit the best scientists. Universities have raised concerns about visas and we would like to be reassured again that there is no coyness or truculence in issuing visas to those who have been identified as capable of making major contributions to scientific research in this country. It is easy to turn off the enthusiasm of those who want to come, and plenty of other countries are developing policies and procedures to make it easy for these individuals to go there. So I ask three questions about contemporary policy and how it is developing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I did not have the pleasure of serving on the committee under the noble Lord’s chairmanship. Interestingly, I was conducting a similar inquiry in another place at exactly the same time on the same subject and coming to the same conclusions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for analysing so admirably the Government’s response to the Select Committee report. The fact that the Government’s response bore precious little relevance to the actual recommendations of the report makes his contribution today even more noteworthy. That said, he is right to say that the Government’s actual record on research is far more positive. Ministers have chosen very wisely to build on the sound foundations laid by the previous Government, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Sainsbury and Lord Drayson, even agreeing to include in the Ministerial Code a requirement to take notice of independent scientific advice, which was a recommendation from both our committees. Despite draconian cuts in public expenditure, a flat cash settlement of £4.5 billion is to be welcomed; and the major capital investment at Harwell, at the new Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, for molecular biology at Cambridge and, of course, the fact that the St Pancras development is going ahead, are clear indications of the Government’s commitment to science.

The Treasury is almost on message. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, that this afternoon a scientific adviser to the Treasury, James Richardson, was appointed. However, we should not get too excited because his press officer in the Treasury quickly sent a message saying:

“I would like to stress that the post of Chief Scientific Advisor will be taken on alongside James’ current responsibilities as the Director of Public Spending and the chief Micro economist at the Treasury”.

How much time he will have for the job, I do not know.

However, lest we get carried away by the Government’s record, the reality is that despite a decade during which we have seen research funding double, the amount we have spent as a proportion of GDP has actually fallen from 0.69 per cent in 2004 to 0.6 per cent in 2009, and this at a time when the UK was enjoying the most prolonged period of economic prosperity that the nation had ever seen. More worrying is that, while we were spending arguably more in cash terms but less as a proportion of our GDP, all our competitors were outstripping us in terms of their investment. Even more important is that over the coming decade, they are all planning to increase their spend rather than simply hold it where it is.

The Science and Technology Committee report recommended urgent prioritisation of our research effort, a call that has been echoed by most scientific bodies. Since 2004, we have had a 10-year science and innovation framework which has served us well, and we should be honest enough to admit that. But we need another one, and it has to be in place before the next CSR, and we have to do the lobbying for it. A key priority of any plan must be the re-engineering of our research infrastructure, in particular in our universities and institutes, by asking what we expect them to deliver and giving them the resources to do so. By default this is happening, with 90 per cent of our research funding now being spent in around 30 of our universities. But if we are to remain globally competitive, further concentration, probably involving amalgamations of universities or departments, will be absolutely necessary if we are going to remain world class, which is where we have to be.

I shall say to noble Lords what I have said before. We cannot sustain 165 higher education institutions offering master’s and PhD courses. In the United States, only 28 per cent of universities offer PhD programmes, while in the UK the figure is 90 per cent, often with few faculty. Surely the time has come to look at US-style graduate schools in the UK. Further, many say that the new fee regime will make students more demanding customers. Quite frankly, that is no good for science. What we want is our universities to become more demanding providers. They should ask more from their students in order to raise the academic bar. We constantly forget that that is the best way to give value to our students.

Finally, and here I have to declare an interest as chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities, it is crucially important that we retain links with our charitable research funders. Some 15 per cent of the money going into our universities comes from charities, with the 126 member charities in AMRC spending roughly £1 billion last year. Without the Charity Research Support Fund introduced by the previous Government, it would not be possible to deliver the front-line support that charities provide. I want to ask the Minister about this because the replies I have had so far suggest that the Charity Research Support Fund will last only until 2011-12, with £198 million. I hope that my noble friend will be able to get a message from the Box saying that at least throughout the whole of this comprehensive spending review period, it will remain in place. Without it, we will seriously affect the amount of money going into research from our charities.

My Lords, in the spirit of doing the best with what we have, I intend to follow the lead made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, in discussing the role of departmental chief scientific advisers. Until a couple of decades ago, the departments for which research was important tended to fund and manage their own research institutes. It was not a perfect world, but Ministers and officials had direct access to scientific advice and technical expertise that was closely tailored to their needs. This situation changed dramatically when a majority of government research institutes were privatised, turned into executive agencies or, in some cases, closed. The consequences for government science have been profound. Perhaps the main one is that today, there is virtually no opportunity to pursue a scientific career within the Civil Service.

New science and engineering graduates are recruited and indeed welcomed, but they bring very little experience of the world of science and engineering with them. The consequence is that when it comes to advice on matters of policy and procurement in these areas, departments may have virtually no relevant expertise or experience. In essence, departments lost at this time much of their ability to be intelligent customers. It was this situation that led successive Chief Scientific Advisers to place great emphasis on the roles of their departmental counterparts. Necessarily, the majority of departmental CSAs come from outside government. They have brought in high levels of recent experience of research and business. However, appointing a CSA is one thing, and using them properly is another.

For a newcomer to be effective in Whitehall, there are several requirements. The most important of these is for the CSA to win the confidence of colleagues and to convince them that he or she can help the department do its job better. This means that the CSA must be seen to bring real expertise and experience to the job, and early on must take the time to get to know their Ministers and colleagues properly, as well as understand departmental priorities and problems. This is very hard for someone who can devote only a day or a couple of days a week to the job. Secondly, the CSA needs sufficient rank to be taken seriously within the department. They must attend senior staff meetings so that problems can be spotted before they arise. Without that, the job becomes simply reactive, so that advice is often given too late and may not be taken seriously. Thirdly, the CSA has to have sufficient resources to do the job. These may be resources of people or of money to bring in external help. I make these points because there may be a tendency, at a time of financial stringency, to think that a departmental CSA is an unaffordable luxury or that savings can be made by downgrading the post. This is far from the truth if the CSA is being used properly.

Against that background, it was a real concern to learn from evidence given at a recent meeting of the Science and Technology Select Committee that the Ministry of Defence plans to reduce the grading of its CSA when the present incumbent shortly retires. I must confess to a particular interest in this post as it was one that I held some 20 years ago. For the moment disregarding the fact that, as our report shows, the MoD has a massive R&D spend that is comparable to that of all other government departments put together and that the department does not have an entirely unblemished procurement record, technology is probably more important to the MoD than to any other department in Whitehall. It depends on maintaining a technological edge to which the CSA should make a vital contribution. This is particularly the case at a time, such as the present, of rapid technological change. At a time when challenges to our armed services appear to widen daily, does it really make sense to risk the quality and level of their technical support? In military matters there are no prizes for coming second. Lowering the grade of the MoD CSA sends a very clear message to the outside world: namely, that lower-calibre and less experienced applicants would be acceptable.

In the present climate, the need for effective departmental CSAs to help ensure good value for money is stronger than ever. I ask the Minister to use the influence of her department to ensure that the role of CSAs in Whitehall departments is not diluted and in particular to ask the Ministry of Defence to reconsider its plan to downgrade its CSA.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, for introducing this important debate and for chairing the inquiry of the Select Committee of which I was a member. I should also add that I am the noble Lord’s successor as chairman of the Select Committee, although he is, as they say, a very hard act to follow.

As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, has said, nobody seriously questions the importance of science and technology for the future well-being of this country. I want to add two points to that. One is the inherent unpredictability of identifying where those future significant discoveries will arise. It is famously said—perhaps apocryphally—that when Faraday was asked about the importance of his discoveries, he said “What use is a baby?”. The other point I wanted to make is that our own science and technology base not only enables us to benefit from knowledge generated here but to tap into the global source of knowledge—it enhances our absorptive capacity.

Science is one of the things at which the UK excels. If the Wimbledon tournament that starts in a couple of weeks’ time were a tournament for science, we would certainly not be waiting 75 years for our first male champion and 34 for our first female champion. The figures are very familiar but are worth repeating: we have 1 per cent of the world’s population, invest 3 per cent of the world’s science funding but produce 9 per cent of the scientific papers and 14 per cent of the most highly cited papers. In terms of bangs per buck we are top of the G8 league and, as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has already said, this is in spite of the fact that our public investment in science as a percentage of GDP is low—about half that of many of our major competitors.

However, we should not rest on our laurels. The global landscape of science is changing very rapidly and the recent Royal Society report Knowledge, networks and nations highlights the rapidly changing global landscape. China, with its R&D spend growing by 20 per cent per year, is predicted to overtake the USA as the leading nation for publishing scientific papers by 2013. The Royal Society also highlights many other developing countries—for example Iran and Turkey—as dynamic rising stars.

In short, unless we not only sustain but increase our investment in science, we will very soon lose our pre-eminent position. The comprehensive spending review, as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, has mentioned, did secure level cash funding for science programmes over the next four years. This was, in relative terms, good news, but we should not forget that our competitors are increasing their investment. We should also not forget that the settlement included a swingeing 54 per cent cut in the capital budget of the research councils.

I ask the Minister whether she agrees that the funding levels for science in this country do indeed pose a serious threat to our ability to attract and retain the best talent in a global market in the coming years. We should also note that some government departments cut their R&D budgets dramatically: 45 per cent for DCMS and 20 per cent for Defra. We heard from the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, last week in evidence that some departments have not yet determined their budgets for the coming years. Can the Minister confirm that she has the figures for all the departments and can she tell us what those figures are?

I turn briefly in the last few minutes to the question of scientific advice, to which others have already alluded. As we have heard, over the past few years, an increasing number of government departments have appointed chief scientific advisers who are leading experts from academia or other sources outside the civil service. This has been a most welcome development. However, I seek reassurance from the Minister that the commitment to this ideal is not faltering.

Therefore, I want to ask the following questions. First, given the importance of social sciences for many policy matters, will the Government appoint an independent—an independent—chief social scientist to replace Professor Paul Wiles, who has retired? When are the Departments for Transport and for Business, Innovation and Skills going to replace Professor Brian Collins, who was their independent chief scientific adviser? This latter point is particularly important in light of the recent critical reviews of these two departments by the Government Office for Science. The review for the Minister’s own department says,

“the resourcing and organisation of SE evidence and advice has not always been given the priority that is needed in BIS, and is not yet to the standard that we (the Panel) would expect”.

In light of that, I want to hear from the Minister what steps are being taken to improve scientific advice in her own department.

Finally, in an editorial in the leading scientific journal Nature last year, which gave an early assessment of how the new Government were handling scientific advice, the conclusion was:

“It should leave those who promote evidence-based policy feeling anxious”.

Will the Minister assure us that the anxiety expressed by Nature is not justified?

My Lords, as one of the few non-scientists speaking in this debate, I should say that I was prompted to speak because the grand challenges that the report refers to and the issues that it raises so powerfully—food security, water security and climate change—concern us all. I was very concerned by the issues which were so well expounded between the chairman and the Chief Scientific Adviser when, on page 43 of the report, they talked about orphan issues. They both agreed that such important issues often fall through the cracks in the system. That is really what prompted me to speak today. It is very worrying to think that such important issues—in critical areas such as biodiversity or climate change, which are the ones that the report quotes—are not being covered.

That perhaps is also why questions that require a cross-departmental response are so essential. There is a non-answer to the key question on page 68 of the evidence, which is really worrying. I want to ask the Minister today the same question:

“Please could you send the Committee copies of papers … on how departments and research councils will work together on cross-departmental issues?”.

The answer was:

“The papers … are internal documents at this stage and we are unable to share them with the Committee”.

So my question for the Minister is: have they now been shared, or can they be? And is the Minister satisfied that cross-departmental sponsorship works well? That question is prompted by my visit to the Natural History Museum earlier this year to see its work in some depth. Its primary sponsorship body is, of course, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, because it is a museum. However, much of its work would be sponsored by almost any other department, whether it was Defra or DECC. Its work on a national, European and international level concerned with ecosystems, for example, is absolutely critical. I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, is not speaking tonight. He made some incredibly important points in this report with regard to systematics and taxonomy. Indeed, the Committee has previously done some very interesting reports on these issues. He said that it is a discipline that is quite critical in delivering biodiversity and conservation commitments.

It is critical also in understanding a swathe of issues around, for example, food security—one of those grand challenges—biological pest control and plant adaptation to climate change, to mention but a few. Last week the Government published the first national ecosystem assessment which underlined how valuable a healthy environment is to our economy. If there are gaps in our knowledge of that ecosystem, it will be very hard to build on the aspirations of the environment White Paper.

It was also interesting to learn from the Natural History Museum’s recent assessment that for each pound of government money invested, £4 in wider economic benefits are delivered. Too often grants for research are seen as a cost to the Government rather than as an investment giving, in this case, a pretty fair return.

I may be a lone voice in today’s debate, but when I look at appendix 5 and see the public funding for R&D, the challenges mentioned—climate change, food security and water security, in one category—and then I look at the spend, I come away with the feeling that our priority is still literally to be able to fight our way out of adversity. The MoD research budget, as has already been mentioned, is nearly twice that of all other government departments added together. We are still at the point of paying lip service to solving problems through the acquisition and application of knowledge, while actually spending too much resource in researching which weapons would be best to use if that approach fails and we literally have to fight for our share in a hungry, water-short, energy-poor world.

I do not think that that is a battle we can win anyway in the long term with weapons. I do think that we could win it with enough investment and effort in understanding the problems and developing the solutions. I understand that this report is not asking for more money, it is asking for it to be spent in a more rational and wise way and in closing those cracks. I hope that, over time, we can look at shifting that investment.

As noble Lords have emphasised, science is indeed a UK success story, but the UK could pay a heavy price if we lose this competitive advantage. We are up against strengthening global competition for the most talented individuals, the most innovative firms and leadership in high-tech sectors. The CSR indeed cut the science budget less than we had feared, but those who read in the foreign press about trends here do not get a positive impression. We still lag behind our OECD comparators. Our universities are perceived to be engulfed in turbulent restructuring. Mobile talent from eastern Europe or Asia is in consequence less likely to perceive the UK as a favoured destination than was the case a few years ago. Our brightest young people, savvy about trends and anxiously choosing a career, are not getting a signal that the UK offers enticing opportunities in cutting-edge science.

A dangerous feedback operates here: a downward trend of just a few per cent in the UK when other countries are on the rise sends a signal that disproportionately reduces our chances of attracting, retaining and incentivising top talent. To attract academics, access to responsive mode funding is crucial. We must continue to support the best research across all subject areas; otherwise we could lose out on the greatest innovations, which often occur at the interfaces of traditional disciplines. We also need breadth, to provide absorptive capacity so that the UK can seize on ideas from the rest of the world and sustain top-rate university education.

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to two Russians on the faculty of Manchester University. They created a substance called graphene; a new form of carbon, a lattice one atom thick with extraordinary tensile strength and electrical properties which could lead to transformative technologies. If the UK is to sustain its scientific excellence, our universities must provide a supportive environment for serendipitous breakthroughs such as this. We must continue to be a preferred destination for people like Novoselov and Geim and, of course, our border agencies must welcome them in, wherever in the world they are from.

I want to say just a word about impact as measured in the report. The impacts of science are often felt far away from the time and place where the original research is done. Even in medicine, where research is often highly targeted, the lag between scientific research and health benefits can be anywhere from 10 to 25 years. In other areas of science it can be decades before direct benefits are felt. The lineage of any spin-off can be traced back to a surprisingly diverse range of influences. What is controversial is not whether the impact is important—all scientists realise that and all aspire to make an impact—the issue is whether impact can be appropriately quantified as a measure for allocating specific grant support. Most of us are concerned that it is too long-term and diffuse to serve that role.

The across-the-board public support for academic research comes, of course, from within the ring-fenced science budget, but, of course, when it comes to the development phase, we cannot do everything and prioritisation is essential. The Government have a role here, as emphasised in the Hauser report, in bridging the gap between what is done in universities and what is needed to develop ideas into marketable projects. This is a gap where bodies like the TSB may not be adequate in scale and where something else may be needed. Chief scientific advisers within government departments have a role here, as they have many other roles. This system has proved its worth; excellent incumbents coming from outside the Civil Service, when given access to Ministers and top officials, can really make a difference.

From outside government, it is also the role of bodies such as the Royal Society—where I declare an interest, as a recent president—to provide scientific guidance to government and to the public. Indeed, at a time when, through the Public Bodies Bill, some statutory advisory bodies are under threat, the role of academies has never been more essential in providing independent, authoritative advice. The global developments of the 21st century will be driven by waves of new technologies. We must be equipped to ride these waves and to ensure that scientific advances optimally enhance our quality of life and the environment.

I end with a quotation from a distinguished Member of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, of Wigton, who lectured in the Sheldonian Theatre last year:

“We are supposed to be the clever country. We used to be the commonsense country. Not for much longer if the politicians continue to undervalue the potency of those Francis Bacon called the ‘merchants of light’, of new knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, which is unarguably the only sure wealth of the future”.

My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, as the other non-scientist and I enter the debate with some trepidation after hearing the contributions. First, I welcome the report and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for his introduction. He said that the UK was a good place for science and technology and our aim should be to keep it that way, but we are in danger of losing our world-leading position in science. The Government only have a three-year spending review period plan for science. We have called for the Government to reinstate a 10-year funding plan for science. This allowed researchers and investors more confidence in the long-term funding landscape and was welcomed by British scientists and campaign groups.

The report states:

“Our first recommendation is fundamental: that the Government should make a clear and unambiguous statement setting out their current research funding commitments”.

In their response to the report’s fundamental recommendation, the Government said that,

“funding of science and research will be addressed in the forthcoming Spending Review”.

The Government have repeatedly claimed that the spending review science settlement is a long-term plan for science and refused to reinstate Labour’s 10-year plan for science. However, scientists know that three years is not long-term; it is not even one PhD funding cycle. In a speech to the Campaign for Science and Engineering before the Budget, John Denham called for the Government to put in place a long-term funding plan. He said:

“It’s essential that the forthcoming Budget sets out a clear framework for science funding well beyond the current spending period and ideally for a 10-year period”.

We would argue that the previous Labour Government rescued British science. We introduced the science research investment fund in 2002 to address a historic backlog of upgrading and updating required by the physical university research infrastructure across the UK, left by the previous Tory Government. We also set up the higher education innovation fund. We set up the UKRC, funding for which was withdrawn by BIS this year, to promote the position of women scientists and engineers. We set up the Technology Strategy Board and the RDAs that have successfully invested in British science and innovation. We introduced the 10-year commitment to invest in science and innovation. This gave the research community long-term confidence, as I said. This long-term increase has now been reversed, with a real-terms cut over the next three years, while, as several contributors have said, our international competitors—even those with deficit reduction programmes—increase their investment.

As I think the noble Lord, Lord Willis, pointed out, China is increasing investment in R&D by 8 per cent, Germany is increasing investment by 7 per cent, France by 1 per cent, Australia by 25 per cent and the USA by 5.7 per cent. There are major new players in world science, from Brazil to Singapore and from the Gulf states to India. As the Royal Society said in a recent report, we need to keep running just to stand still. The coalition does not seem to understand how tough the global competitive environment is.

Several contributors have said that the cuts under the comprehensive spending review could have been worse. The reality is that the science budget stays the same in cash terms, but has a 10 per cent real-terms resource cut of £450 million over that period. Capital research and development spend takes an enormous 40 per cent cut, which will recreate the huge backlog of building works that built up under the previous Tory Government. Other areas of the science budget, such as funding for engagement and diversity in science, also face large cuts. There is an increasing focus on centralised excellence to the detriment of regional research centres and universities. RDA science funding, which was £440 million per annum, has also been lost. Therefore, I have the following questions for the Minister. Why is the UK reducing its overall spending on research and development when our competitors are increasing their investment? When will the Government set out their plans for investment in British science and innovation beyond 2014-15?

The noble Lord, Lord Rees, made some interesting points when he talked about worrying signs and downward trends. If we want to maintain the UK as a place where people want to continue undertaking research, and to attract such people as the recent Nobel Prize winners he referred to, we have to make sure that we create the right environment.

I must admit that when I looked at the report from a lay person’s perspective, I found a lot of complexity, even in dealing with the terms. I would not have known until I read more carefully what “responsive-mode” research was—I would have referred to it as blue-skies research—as opposed to “targeted” research. What interests me in all this important talk of research and development is something that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said in the conclusion of his contribution. He talked about turning research into applications that become marketable products. We may excel, as one contributor said, in producing the largest number of papers in the world, but if we cannot turn them into marketable products, there is a failure that needs to be addressed. It reminds me of that old advert about what we might call “the appliance of science”.

I, too, look forward to the Minister’s response and thank the committee for producing a very interesting report.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, for introducing this debate on the report Setting priorities for publicly funded research produced by the Science and Technology Committee, which he chaired. The Government’s response was published in July 2010 and a copy is still available on the committee’s website. I will try to answer as many questions as I can in the limited time that we have for such an important subject, but I will write to any noble Lords whose questions I do not manage to pick up. It has been a pleasure to hear views, advice and questions from some of the finest minds in the country, possibly the world. It is one of the great advantages of this House that we are able to do so. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken.

There have been many developments since the Government published their response to the report Setting priorities for publicly funded research. In October 2010 the Chancellor announced that science and research programme funding would be protected with a flat cash, ring-fenced settlement for 2011-15. This was a major commitment to science at a time of great pressure on public spending.

I will try to answer questions as I go through. I hope this does not make it too disjointed. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Willis, who talked of a charity support fund, the charity support fund is part of HEFCE’s block grant for research and will continue throughout the spending review period, as was announced last December. I hope that is helpful.

In December, the science budget was allocated to the individual research councils, HEFCE and other programmes. In line with views from leaders of the academic and business communities, the balance of funding between research councils and HEFCE was kept broadly the same—here I acknowledge the noble Lord, Lord Young. The coalition Government’s long-term vision for science and research was published alongside their plans for science funding to 2011-15.

In the Budget in March, an additional £100 million was announced for science capital projects. This investment will develop infrastructure at national research campuses in Daresbury, Norwich and Cambridge, and the International Space Innovation Centre at Harwell. This is a vital investment in our research base, particularly life sciences and space industries, which are critical for delivering economic growth. This investment is not intended to reverse the announcements in the spending review, but it demonstrates the Government’s commitment to research and their willingness to invest prudently as and when additional funds become available.

The spending review announced that key scientific infrastructure projects would go ahead. There will be a £69 million investment in the Diamond synchrotron at Harwell in Oxfordshire, and £220 million capital funding for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in London. Since the spending review, the Government have announced funding for three further projects, including £33 million for the birth cohort study.

The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, raised the matter of the government Chief Scientific Adviser’s input into Treasury meetings. Sir John Beddington cannot, of course, attend all Treasury meetings, but he meets regularly with the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and is working closely with the Treasury on the implications of the spending review for departmental research budgets. I understand from this work that the overall outcome for research spending by government departments also looks good in the circumstances. Sir John Beddington explained this in detail to the Lords Science and Technology Committee two weeks ago.

The Government have emphasised their commitment to health research in the National Health Service White Paper and the spending review. The Department of Health will be increasing its investment in health research in real terms over the next four years. A crucial part of this will be £775 million to promote translational R&D. The department has been very clear on this.

Peter Luff reported recently that the Ministry of Defence’s science and technology budget is, in cash terms, expected to rise over the spending review period. The nature of departmental research budgets and ongoing planning means that we cannot give the noble Lords, Lord Sutherland and Lord Krebs, the final figures for every department for the next four years. I understand that Sir John will be sending the Science and Technology Select Committee information for departments that are in a position to provide details of their expected expenditure over the spending review period. Each year the Government publish outturn figures on departmental expenditure on R&D in the science, engineering and technology statistics. This autumn the Government will be publishing outturn figures for all departments for 2009-10.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned that some departments have had significant cuts in budget. In general, research spending plans for other government departments are in line with the settlement that they have received from the Treasury in the spending review. Departments are now looking very carefully at their priorities and the resources needed to deliver their science, research and evidence needs. They will not have all the answers overnight and should probably not try to set too much in stone. Going forward, departments will be reviewing and updating their science and innovation strategies to ensure that they reflect current departmental priorities and cross-cutting issues and that policy-making delivery and evaluation is evidence based.

The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, was concerned about science in schools. The Department for Education’s The Importance of Teaching—The Schools White Paper 2010 showed the Government’s commitment to continue to provide additional support to promote the uptake of science. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that Research Councils UK’s cross-council programmes bring together partners across government and business to address global challenges and create growth opportunities for the United Kingdom. As well as the government Chief Scientific Adviser, there is a strong network of departmental chief scientific advisers and departmental directors of analysis across Government that ensure that Government have access to, and use, the best science, engineering and analytical advice, including to address research challenges that cut across departments. These networks work closely with the research councils. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, brought the news that the Treasury has appointed a chief scientific adviser today. I am delighted to support this very welcome news. The fact that the new Treasury chief scientific adviser, James Richardson, has other duties means that he is at the heart of the decision-making process in the Treasury, which should be a very good thing.

The noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, worried about the MoD CSA being downgraded. The MoD recognises the importance of science and engineering to its business. This was considered carefully in planning following the spending review. It has been decided that the MoD’s chief scientific adviser will be at director-general level, rather than permanent secretary. I understand that Sir John Beddington has been closely involved in this decision. He will be a member of the selection panel, which I hope is of some reassurance to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked about the Government’s chief social scientist. Jenny Dibden and Richard Bartholomew are joint heads of the Government’s social research service. These arrangements work very well—it says here. In response to the noble Lord’s question, “When will the CSA, DfT and BIS be replaced?”—sorry, that cannot be right—I can say that DfT and BIS are currently looking at how the CSA function will best be delivered. This includes exploring the possibility of a shared role with another government department to take advantage of the synergies and overlaps between their science, technology and research interests. The government Chief Scientific Adviser has been involved in these departments’ deliberations about the role of their respective CSAs and will be involved in the appointment process.

Departments also draw upon independent advice from science advisory councils and around 70 scientific advisory committees. In line with the Government’s priorities, it is essential that advice takes place in an open and transparent way. This is why the coalition Government have now included a specific reference to the principles of scientific advice to Government in the ministerial code. Continuing with the theme of independence, the Government restated their commitment to the Haldane principle in December. The long-established Haldane principle continues to work well. It protects scientific independence and excellence and is one of the key factors that makes the UK research base a world leader.

In response to the third point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, despite commitments to reduce net migration, the Government recognise the value that academics and scientists bring to our economy. Recent changes to the points-based system have made provision for this. The truly world class will come through the exceptional talent route in tier 1 where entry is not contingent upon a job offer. Otherwise, others will be prioritised through tier 2 where points are awarded for high-level qualifications.

The coalition Government have continued to demonstrate our clear commitment to evidence-based policy making and to science and research by giving a real boost to our world-class research base. This puts science and research in a privileged position. We will work hard to ensure that investment delivers economic benefit, creating new businesses and improving existing ones, attracting highly skilled scientists and technicians and international business investment and improving public policy and services.