Skip to main content

Scientific Research and Development

Volume 755: debated on Monday 7 July 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to encourage greater investment in scientific research and development within the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government recognise that investment in science and research are key to long-term competitiveness and growth. Therefore, we have protected the ring-fenced science and research programme at £4.6 billion per year from 2011-12 to 2015-16. Furthermore, we have committed to providing £1.1 billion a year of science capital spending, increasing with inflation.

I thank the Minister for his helpful response to my rather stuttered Question. I am afraid that I got overtaken by what has happened thus far concerning what we should say and what we should and should not read. If I can remember to ask the question as I intended to, I want to know what the long-term framework for science and innovation is. We all agree that we ought to have advance notice and enough time for some of the bigger programmes to put their financing together but do the Government have anything planned in the long term for science and innovation?

My Lords, I would never accuse my noble friend of stuttering at all—her question is quite clear. The Government will define the future scope and scale of the UK’s science and innovation system to 2020 and beyond. Just to throw some light on this, in the Autumn Statement of 2014 some of the key questions will focus on business investment in R&D, research infrastructure, skills and talent, and the balance in funding between curiosity-driven and applied research. The strategy will define the scale and scope of the UK’s science and innovation system by 2020 and indeed beyond.

My Lords, nowhere is there a greater need for government and industry to work together than in the development of new antibiotics. Industry is desperately in need of government support in this area. Do the Government have any plans to help with this?

As the noble Lord may be aware, the Government have a series of thematic priorities covering a range of things from agriculture and food to the built environment, the digital economy, energy, and health and care. Healthcare providers are also included in this, and these thematic priorities will formulate part of the strategy for 2014, to which I have alluded.

I apologise for my premature intervention. Are the Government aware—I am sure they are—that vice-chancellors are deeply concerned about the possibility of our exit from the European Union? This would have a devastating effect on scientific research and development in our universities.

The Government’s position is quite clear. The European Union has benefits and the Government wish to see a renegotiated Union—something that I think many noble Lords share. The Prime Minister has stood up for British interests. Universities are working closely with business and others, and the UK continues to be among the top in terms of research. Looking at some of the statistics, the UK has, for example, won 85 Nobel prizes for science and technology, and we plan that that should continue with the new strategy.

What plans do the Government have to help science-based companies to really scale up? Too often our brilliant scientists are bought before they have had a chance to contribute to the economy. I am thinking, for example, of DeepMind, our leading artificial intelligence company, which was bought by Google before it really had a chance to grow.

As ever, the noble Baroness speaks with great experience. The Government recognise the importance of business investment in R&D and we are looking to give this great encouragement. R&D tax credits are the single biggest form of government support for business investment in R&D and are available to all sectors. In 2011-12, the R&D tax credit scheme supported an estimated 73% of UK business. However, I agree with the concern aired by the noble Baroness. It is important that we keep the best and the brightest in Britain working for British companies.

Each government department had an independent scientific budget under the management of the scientist. That was a very important part of the Government’s research budget, but that budget seems to have disappeared. Can the Minister tell us what happened to it?

It is important to recognise that the Government are currently consulting. I have already talked of the new strategy that will be outlined in the Autumn Statement and the consultations we have had. The strategy will be led by Sir Mark Walport who is the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser. It will draw on external experts both in government and outside, including those with experience of successfully commercialising science, and will identify what is best. What we deliver as a country is more important than what we deliver as individual departments.

Does my noble friend recollect the very important statement he made in Grand Committee that nuclear research infrastructure would be part of the overall scientific infrastructure arrangements that he announced? Does he recognise that if infrastructure is to be protected, it is no use unless the running and operating expenses are given similar long-term assurances? Will they be within the arrangements that he described as taking us up to 2020 and beyond?

My noble friend has a good memory in reminding me of what I said in Grand Committee. He mentioned nuclear in Grand Committee and part of the thematic priorities within that are energy and how the challenges of a secure, affordable and sustainable energy sector can be maintained. The issues my noble friend raises about sustainability are primary in our thoughts.

Given my interest as UK business ambassador for healthcare and life sciences, what assessment has been made of the life sciences strategy announced by Her Majesty’s Government in December 2011—in particular, its impact on inward investment for research and development for biomedical sciences in the United Kingdom?

Inward investment remains an important part of this. As I said, the strategy and the different announcements that we have made will come together in the Autumn Statement in 2014. All disciplines, including what the noble Lord alluded to, will be included within that. The Government believe in prioritising and in ensuring that the UK is recognised as a centre of research excellence, and we will continue to attract through our new scientific strategy the best from the international field as well.

Given that the Government are seeking to reduce the draft amending budget No. 3 of the European Union 2014 and the 2015 draft budget, how is it expected that investment in research and development will add to the growth agenda to which this Government have signed up?

The Government play a leading role and will continue to lead on the European front. Let me give the example of our investment in the space industry specifically. A large proportion of our investment in that industry is with our European partners and the European Space Agency. We continue to collaborate across a series of different fields.

My Lords, I return to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, about whether the Government had plans to help the development of antibiotics, the urgency of which is very great. My noble friend answered by saying that health and healthcare were part of the Government’s plan but he was not specific about antibiotics. I, along with others in this House, would like an answer to that question.

A specific question requires a specific answer and I will write specifically to the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, and indeed, to my noble friend.

My Lords, in his initial response the Minister suggested that the Government were supporting the practice started by the previous Government of maintaining ring-fencing for a large science budget. Is it not a fact that when the Government came into power in 2010 they cut almost entirely the capital budget and restricted the revenue budgets to cash only, so we have lost about £500 million over that period?

The Government have made clear their priority for spending in this area and that is why both in my original Answer and the supplementary I also mentioned that since 2010 a further £1.5 billion of capital has been provided to science and research, along with more than £600 million of additional resources. This underlines the Government’s commitment to this important area for the country.