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National Science and Technology Council

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the devolved governments about the establishment of the National Science and Technology Council.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so draw attention to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests.

My Lords, the national science and technology council is to be a new Cabinet committee which will provide strategic direction on the use of science and technology as the tools to tackle great societal changes, level up across the country and boost prosperity around the world. Membership of Cabinet committees does not typically include members of the devolved Administrations, but we will continue to engage with them as work goes forward.

My Lords, as a former mathematics teacher, I welcome any new initiative that boosts science and technology. In another former job, as First Minister of Scotland, I created the role of Chief Scientific Adviser to the First Minister of the Scottish Government in 2006. There is a considerable opportunity here for the Governments across the UK to work together for maximum benefit in this new initiative. I therefore urge the Government to include on the agenda of the next economic recovery summit—if the Prime Minister’s recent summit was not just a one-off gimmick—this initiative for a new science and technology council, maximising co-operation across the UK with universities, government advisers and other scientists.

My Lords, I am very grateful for what the noble Lord has said and the general welcome he has given. I pay tribute to him for his own work. I can certainly assure him that, for example, the role of the new technology adviser covers a breadth of issues that necessarily make it a UK role, but the office for science and technology strategy is expected to engage regularly with chief scientific advisers and officials on how science and technology are being deployed across the United Kingdom. This will and does include the chief scientific advisers and officials in the devolved Administrations.

My Lords, prime ministerial initiatives of this kind usually reflect unhappiness with the status quo. In this context, what relationship will the new council have with UKRI, our largest public funder of research and innovation, which has widespread support from academia and industry and whose mission statement states that it exists

“to build a thriving, inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good”?

As a scientist, I welcome more investment in science and technology, as my noble friend did, and I note that announcements such as this can generate good headlines, but can the Minister explain why it is in the public interest for the Cabinet Office to set up a similar, parallel operation to existing BEIS structures?

My Lords, there are a whole range of bodies and organisations—the academic world, business, the scientific community, universities—and a whole range of people contributing to our effort in harnessing and developing science and technology. This new initiative is not intended to supplant the work of anybody but to signify at the very highest level—a new Cabinet committee—the determination of the Government to move forward and exploit these opportunities in a fully co-operative manner.

My Lords, following on from that question, when this new body was announced, it was linked to the research and development budget. As the Minister knows, until a few years ago, research councils independently directed the flow of R&D support. Just two years ago, UK Research and Innovation absorbed those research councils with the idea of focusing the effort in science. Now, with ARIA, the national science and technology council and the office for science and technology strategy, the Government have announced three new research bodies this year alone. There is no shortage of complexity, as the Minister pointed out, but where is the money? Either the Prime Minister’s new committees are making a budget grab, taking over from UKRI, or they have no money and therefore no way of implementing these strategies. Which will it be?

My Lords, I consider that a less than enthusiastic response to an initiative in respect of which I have welcomed the support of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. The Prime Minister is tasking the whole of government, working with the new council and office, to take the success of the United Kingdom’s approach to vaccines and apply it to other priorities. We are setting bold visions, acting with speed and taking risks which can bring high rewards and benefits to the UK, including developing technology to reach net zero and cure cancer, not only treat it. A broad range of work will take place. Funding for specific programmes of research is obviously a matter for the normal process of the consideration of public finance.

My Lords, in principle I welcome the creation of this new body, and in particular the Government’s commitment to operate on a UK-wide basis. What additional assurances can the Minister offer me to persuade the people of Northern Ireland that something positive will come out of this high-profile announcement and that they will stand to benefit? Further, I am a little alarmed that the intention is that the Prime Minister will chair it and that Sir Patrick Vallance, who already serves as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and head of the Government Office for Science, will take on this new responsibility as national technology adviser. If this body is to work, would it not be better for it to be headed by individuals whose time is not currently dominated by tackling a global pandemic?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first question, I reiterate what I said in response to the initial Question: the intention is absolutely to work co-operatively. I believe, despite comments made in certain quarters, that most will welcome the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to lead and support this. Sir Patrick Vallance has extensive experience in the academic world, in industry and in working with Ministers in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser. We believe that provides a strong foundation for the role, along with the leadership qualities Sir Patrick clearly demonstrates. It is a considerable new role, but we have full confidence that he can perform both roles. He will of course be fully supported by the new office for science and technology strategy in the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, the creation of a science and technology council enhancing the United Kingdom’s reputation as a science power—a field in which we have undoubted skill sets—is essential, but so too is the important point raised by the Question of the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, about United Kingdom inclusiveness. Can the Minister confirm that supporting multilateral objectives, through its bilateral trade negotiations on IP commitments, has been critical to R&D? Is it recognised that the United Kingdom has often failed to ensure maximum benefits for our country by not having the requisite long-term financing to capitalise on innovation that originated in this country?

My Lords, there is some truth in what the noble Lord has said, which is widely acknowledged; it is one of the many reasons why the Prime Minister has given such a strong personal commitment to lead this new Cabinet committee. The purpose of the council is to set the overarching strategy on how to use science and technology to boost the United Kingdom’s prosperity, security and well-being. Specific policy levers still fall under the purview of relevant departments; thus, Trade covers international trade, and BEIS the R&D ecosystem, including innovation and access to finance. On the second strand of the question, as demonstrated at the G7, our international partners recognise the need for collaboration across science and technology. The office for science and technology strategy will establish centre-to-centre dialogues to ensure that our decisions are both realistic and load-bearing. Existing engagement through wider fora will continue, to enable the UK to spot opportunities for mutually reinforcing partnerships internationally.

My Lords, some years ago, when I was a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee in another place, we held an inquiry into why it was that we invented things here but the Americans made money out of them. How will this new council solve that problem?

Solving that problem is a total challenge for every part of the broad science and investment infrastructure. It is far more likely that those problems can be resolved if the entire resource at the highest level of Her Majesty’s Government is put behind achieving that objective.

Sitting suspended.