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Column 914to inform and develop, innovation is widespread. It is equally true in Japan, although our own research did not show many such enterprises there. However, we know that all Japanese industry is widely aware of what technology means and how to get it, to use it and to profit by it.
In Britain there is a growing gap. If we are to improve the importance of our manufacturing and our manufacturing base, and if the objects of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are to be fully met, we must find ways in which to stimulate the spread of information on technology and innovation among small companies. Our economy will return to growth through the seedcorn of small companies--such as those in the science parks of Cambridge--that are willing to innovate and, in many cases, have ideas how they can achieve it, but perhaps lack contact with the engineering that would enable them to succeed, and through funding. We should not rely on massive investments made by the GECs of this world.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the main problems that our small and medium-sized enterprises face, especially those in Cambridge, is not so much their contact with the science base, but their difficulty in getting funds for their research and development efforts?
Sir Giles Shaw : The hon. Lady is quite right, that was the case. To rely on the clearing banks in their wisdom is insufficient to ensure that many smaller companies succeed in the competitive world in which they endeavour.
The establishment of the councils is a potent part of the new look that the Office of Science and Technology is giving to the arrangements within which science and, one hopes, innovation and technology can flourish. I welcome the fact that we shall shortly be having the first forward look--as I understand it, in April. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be persuaded by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy that another debate should be held on that issue. That will allow us to have the next phase of our discussion on the development of the new OST plans as they unfold.
We must consider the question of efficiency and the success of the councils in fulfilling the roles that we all hope that they will fulfil. I believe that the efficiency and success of those councils and others will depend on how clearly they are targeted to the national interest. I do not share the concern of the hon. Member for Oldham, West about the importance of defining what they do at this stage, although the hon. Gentleman will certainly have a point if we later find that there is overlap and confusion rather than serious targeting of national effort and resources. We are focusing important national resources in the three separate directions for national ends.
I trust that--through either the mechanism of the Director General of the Research Councils or the influence of the chief scientific adviser or the Chancellor himself--we can have a clear and long-term range of vision statements that will lead to a proper sense of national priorities. It is that above all that distinguishes the post of Minister for Science in other Governments from the arrangements that we have here. As my right hon. Friend knows, I hope that, in due course, we shall have a fully fledged Minister for Science with the kind of national priorities established-- through forward look, technological foresight or whatever--to enable a real relationship to
Column 915be established and between research councils and central Government. We need to identify those priorities and the role of the OST must be such that they can develop.
I note that paragraph 3.28 at page 33 of the White Paper "Realising our Potential" lists among the director general's responsibilities "ensuring that Councils work together to achieve a common approach and take advantage of the possibilities for improved efficiency through joint working".
I welcome that. I hope that it will mean that the difficulties of overlap and the problems of establishing a co-ordinated and clear set of priorities can be overcome, to enable the councils to be efficient rather than riven with academic bickering or scientific confusion--both of which we can do without with the new look of science and endeavour that my right hon. Friend is introducing. It is essential that our research and technological policies should be fashioned by consent--between Government and industry, the main consumers of scientific endeavour ; between Government and the academic and scientific establishments ; and between the OST and other Departments such as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence. The hon. Member for Oldham, West was perfectly right to point to the fact that that is an important missing element in the OST's current remit. I hope that it will not be too long before that omission is rectified and before co-ordinated scientific policy and priorities are assumed right across the board--wherever publicly funded national scientific endeavour is taking place.
The largest potential problems and the largest potential benefits are to be found in research for military purposes. I must acknowledge that much MOD research has massive spin-off into civilian applications and wider applications in British industry. We must also recognise, however, the large number of smaller firms and contractors and sub-contractors within the defence industry, which tend to bear the brunt of reductions when changes in defence planning or substantial reductions in defence needs occur. We must ensure that those high-tech smaller companies have access to civilian opportunities and assistance if necessary to establish themselves in other markets. We must also consider the wider implication of the transfer of technology and research, especially from defence to civil uses. That should be one of the OST's priorities in due course. The research councils are essential vehicles for the creation of new wealth, although I accept that they must not be seen as in hock to industrial need. Let us say that wealth creation is essential for economic growth and then say that the councils should become the engines of economic growth. They should provide centres of excellence and quality and should ensure--if they are adequately funded and correctly targeted--that their contribution as a whole improves the lives of all our fellow citizens. The three new councils are now in place. I am sure that the House will wish them well in the new order of things in which research and technology, inspired by the OST's development and by the Government, will surely be one of the main objectives of public policy for many years ahead.
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First, I want to ask a question on the subject on which I interrupted the Minister : what is the hitch about the appointment of the chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council? Why is that bill so difficult to fill? I understand that a number of distinguished academics have been interviewed, but that the result of the interviews was not satisfactory. So who exactly are the Government looking for? Is it someone different from the kind of heavyweight academic who most of us thought would fill the position of chief executive? There may be a perfectly satisfactory answer to that question, but I put it none the less.
Secondly, on the subject of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, may I air a problem that greatly concerns my colleagues on the Biological Sciences Advisory Committee of the University of Edinburgh? I refer to the sticky question of work on animals. Twenty or 30 years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that there would be work on animals in school and undergraduate classes. Now there is a different attitude--that the work can be done using computers. At its recent world meeting in Glasgow--my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) was there-- the Institute of Physiologists made it very clear that work on instrumentation, however sophisticated, is really no substitute for practice on animals. Are there Government guidelines on that, or is everything so difficult in view of the animal rights lobbies and the general climate of opinion in which we are now operating? I do not know the answer to that question, but it is a nettle that will have to be grasped.
Finally, on the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, I should like to ask two questions.
First, what is the attitude to the funding of CERN, the European nuclear research centre? I hope that there will be no drawing back from our international obligations. The closure decisions in California and elsewhere have greatly hurt distinguished American scientists. Some of us hope sincerely that the opportunity will be seized--on terms of dignity and in no way berating them--to say to the Americans, "At this moment the western world has a real opportunity to co-operate on super-colliders. Act with us on an equal basis. That does not refect on science programmes in the United States. Can we not do this important work on particle physics together?" What are the Government saying to the United States Government? Is the matter being urgently tackled?
I should like to return to the issue of the JET project, on which I interrupted the Minister. There are many responsibilities for JET, but he said, "Well, it was not our Department." In that case, whose Department is it? I should like to put on the record the contents of a letter sent to me by the Prime Minister, dated 1 February 1994. It states :
"Thank you for your letter of 14 December, in which you asked about the handling of any decision to extend JET after 1996. The JET Project is technically a Joint Undertaking under the Euratom treaty. Any extension would require an amendment to the terms of the JET Statutes, and would need to be agreed by the Council of Ministers, probably by qualified majority. This was the procedure followed under previous extensions.
Column 917There has been informal discussion within Europe of the idea of a further extension, but no formal proposal has yet been tabled." Do they have a formal proposal in mind? The letter continues : "Some people beleive that closure of JET in 1996 would be premature, given that it could continue to do good scientific work on the unresolved problems relating to the operation of JET-style fusion machines, and hence of the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project. Others believe that JET should close in 1996 as planned, so that funding can be made available to other projects. (JET accounts for roughly half of the Commission's current annual spending of about 200 mecu on fusion.)
So far as the substance of this issue is concerned, we have an open mind on extension, and we are prepared to look at the question on its merits. In considering any proposal, we shall be concerned to ensure that its scientific value is commensurate with the costs involved." I passionately believe that JET should continue. I have been to Culham and have been involved in the project ever since, as a Member of the European Parliament, my colleagues and I nagged Guido Bruner, who was then European Commissioner, to send JET to Culham rather than to Ispra or to the Munich region.
I argue that the prize is high. If fusion can be developed, it will provide energy without undesirable environmental consequences. The chances of achieving success are zero if the money is cut off now. The chances are low if funding continues at the present level. There is an argument for extended funding of JET. To combine with the United States Tokamak project, and thereby devote more skills to a common end, is a sensible policy.
I promised to be brief. Those were the questions that I wanted to put to the House.
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) : I begin by picking up on the remarks that were made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about Culham. Although I do not represent Culham, which is on the other side of the river from my constituency, I represent many of the scientists who work on the JET project.
The Government should realise that, when JET was set up, a grave injustice was done to British employees. I must say, without wishing to make a party political point, that the Minister responsible for that decision was the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). That injustice has been long standing and it is coming to a head in a combination of industrial action, protests and court cases brought by employees of JET and pressure being applied by the European Parliament through its Budgets Committee. I have had extensive correspondence with Ministers who have responsibility for energy in the Department of Trade and Industry, the lead Ministry. The Government will have to recognise that this problem needs to be sorted out and canot be a pass-the-parcel operation between AEA Technology, the Department of Trade and Industry's energy department, the European Commission and the European Parliament. I gently suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that the Office of Public Service and Science, with its overall remit for science, has a responsibility in this matter. I hope that it will assume that responsibility.
Column 918I welcome the orders and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on reaching this important stage in the implementation of his vision for science policy. I would like to join him in the thanks that he has extended to Sir David Phillips, who is retiring from Government service and who has acted as the midwife for the new research councils. That is only the last act in a long and distinguished career in the service of Government science. Sir David Phillips is a distinguished scientist and all hon. Members will wish him well as he returns to his academic work.
I welcome Sir John Cadogan, Sir David Phillips' successor, to his new role as Director General for the Research Councils. He has a hard act to follow after Sir David Phillips' distinguished chairmanship of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils.
I welcome the new structure for the research councils, but I join the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), the Opposition spokesman, in regretting the absence of an order to establish a new research council for the humanities. The proposal for such a research council, which was supported by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and, indeed, by me at the OPSS, was not given the serious attention and consideration that it merited by the Department for Education, not least in the light of the strength and weight of the support that the proposal received from the British Academy and from universities. Sir Brian Follett, who comes from outside the humanities community, made a particularly notable contribution to thinking through the proposal for a new humanities research council.
I know that Ministers in the Department for Education have attempted to make up, in some small measure, for their mistaken rejection of the proposal and I hope that the new arrangements that they have negotiated with the British Academy will help to deal with at least a few of the problems that a humanities research council would have addressed. There are serious implications for good scholars in the humanities in some of the universities, where overall research performance is relatively less impressive and which are losing research funding from the higher education funding councils. The moral of this story, as of so many in government, is that Ministers must take the trouble to listen to what is being said to them by serious and informed people who know what they are talking about. It should be obvious to Conservative Ministers that having the power and the right to decide is not always the same thing as knowing best.
I do not include my right hon. Friend the Minister in my strictures. His remarks today about the arm's-length principle showed that he has a proper sense of these matters. Today, he announced some welcome initiatives and he has explained clearly his philosophy of promoting a greater convergence between academic science and technological applications. All the same, I know that he will not take it amiss if I underline his point that there is value in the decentralised, pluralistic approach that is embodied in the research council tradition, which goes back to the establishment of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research just after the first world war.
The Science and Technology Act 1965 empowers the Minister to "specify the objects, or principal objects"
of a research council. That power has now been expanded into a ministerial promulgation of mission statements for research councils. At the same time, the independent
Column 919Advisory Board for the Research Councils, which stood between the Minister and research councils, has been abolished and replaced by a ministerial adviser. I hope that those changes will bring about improvements, but my right hon. Friend knows that, for better or for worse, they represent a considerable shift of power to Ministers and officials. Not only the hon. Member for Oldham, West but all hon. Members will look with close interest at the first results of the technology foresight arrangements as they are brought to bear on the exercise of the new powers.
The Government must remember that a wisdom underlies the limits that the 1965 Act sets on ministerial powers and that it could be at risk in the hands of a less careful and less scrupulous Minister. That wisdom recognises that knowledge is best expanded and increased in conditions of academic self-government and intellectual autonomy. There are intrinsic features of academic inquiry connected with the inherent unpredictability of its outcomes which make it peculiarly unsuitable for the close attentions of politicians and planners. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would like to ask the new Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to carry out some research into how it is possible, by excessive and inappropriate attentions, to kill the geese which lay the golden eggs.
A crucial aspect of the future of the research councils, which is not dealt with by the orders, concerns the application to them of the currently fashionable Whitehall doctrine--I will not for the moment call it a dogma-- which insists on the separation, in as many areas of government work as possible, of purchasers from providers. On the whole, that is a sound doctrine, but, like all doctrines of government, it must always be pursued with discretion and with close attention to consequences.
One possible consequence of regarding the research councils as purchasers of research, detached from the provision of research--it would be very serious if it came to pass--was explored in the recent House of Lords report on priorities for the science base. Paragraph 4.73 of the report states :
"The SERC is already funding work conducted in the institutes of other Councils ; its successors are now obliged, in Sir Mark's view, to receive applications from Government research laboratories, and other laboratories of a public nature including privatised ones, though probably not from the out-and-out private sector. The DTI favours this development. Sir Mark accepts the consequence that, overall, the universities are bound to get less."
The conclusion of the House of Lords report, at paragraph 4.86, states :
"In this climate, it would be the final straw if the Science Base were forced to share the Science Budget with the private or semi-private sector It might be possible to buy' research more cheaply from institutions without the university overheads relating to teaching and research training ; but this would be an altogether false economy, and would further undermine the capacity of the Science Base".
I agree with the House of Lords report on that point, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science, will make clear the Government's position on it.
I should like to say a few words about the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, which is an important constituency interest for me and a vital national and international scientific resource. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know how thoroughly the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General do their work, which is why I am delighted to have the National
Column 920Audit Office's positive report which it has just published on the Rutherford Appleton laboratory. Paragraph 11, one of its overall conclusions, states :
"The very positive response to the National Audit Office survey demonstrates that to a great extent the facilities and services provided by the Laboratory meet the needs of their users, and that they are highly valued by most users."
I have come to know the Rutherford Appleton laboratory very well over the past 10 years as its Member of Parliament, and indeed over the previous four years as its Member in the European Parliament. It offers wide coverage of science and engineering matters, such as materials science, earth observation, information technology, energy research, astronomy and particle physics, and supercomputing. According to the Frascati definitions, 30 per cent. of its work is classified as basic, 50 per cent. is applied strategic work and 20 per cent. is applied specific work.
The laboratory operates world-class facilities supporting university research ; it supports about 8,500 users, the majority being researchers from British universities ; its staff have won many prizes ; and it has close links with the academic community. In 1992, it also had contracts or agreements with 100 industrial companies, most of them involving technology transfer. It is a very significant operation.
I know that my right hon. Friend is fully alive to the importance of the Rutherford Appleton laboratory and that he is determined to safeguard its future. He showed that in response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Hall). At the moment, the future of the Rutherford Appleton laboratory is slightly uncertain--I put it no higher than that--as a consequence of the abolition of its owner and sponsoring organisation, SERC. As has been said, a wide range of options are being considered for the future of the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, and they are all premised on an acknowledgement of its excellence and its value for money. At this stage, I do not wish to press any particular option, but I shall mention three considerations which the Government should bear in mind. First, the Rutherford Appleton laboratory is big enough and strong enough to stand on its own as a supplier of research services to a wide range of users, so I hope that it will be accorded substantial self- management as a unified entity.
Secondly, the importance of the Rutherford Appleton laboratory as a national and international scientific asset should be reflected in the way in which its users and customers relate to it. The Government have a role to ensure that that occurs. One of the great problems of the purchaser- provider split is that purchasers might turn out to be extremely piecemeal and short term in their thinking. There is evidence that Departments are often in that mode. The Government must address that problem right across the board in relation to the purchaser-provider split.
The long-term future of the Rutherford Appleton laboratory as a centre of scientific excellence--like that of many other great institutions that are caught up in the new purchaser-provider philosophy--must be safeguarded by the purchasing decisions of its principal users. In that connection, I am not at all impressed by the recent decision of the expiring SERC on the location, not at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory but elsewhere, of important new computer facilities.
Thirdly, I hope that the Government will take the opportunity of the abolition of the SERC and the
Column 921emergence of a stand-alone Rutherford Appleton laboratory to involve leading research universities more closely in the overall direction of the laboratory. Such arrangements work very well in the United States in relation to significant research laboratories. They would help to ensure that the customers for Rutherford Appleton laboratory, most of them necessarily in universities, are kept closely in touch with the effects of their purchasing decisions on the Rutherford Appleton laboratory as a research provider. There would also be a spin-off benefit of providing a focus for the close collaboration of our leading research universities, which must work hard to strengthen their voice and influence in today's difficult research policy environment.
The orders set up a range of new bodies whose work might be somewhat esoteric by parliamentary standards--perhaps that is reflected in hon. Members' attendance--but which is crucial for the future well-being of Britain. I am sure that the whole House will wish them and their new members and officials all success in the important and difficult tasks that they face.
The Liberal Democrats support the draft orders, although we share the concerns--we would like answers to them--that were expressed clearly by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). For almost 15 years, we have had a Government who, according to Nature of 30 September 1993, have
"dealt insensitively, even foolishly, with British science, substituting for what previously have been unfounded optimism a general demoralisation."
One of the reasons I am a Member of this House is that, after spending more than 20 years in the information technology industry, I could see the way in which other countries were catching up with and overtaking Britain in their standards of living.
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : As the hon. Member is a regular reader of Nature and has quoted its September edition, he will be aware that, more recently, in the January edition, it comments : "The Government s White Paper on science and technology proved to be a turning point in the country's approach to the organisation of science. It was seen as an exclusive acknowledgement of the practical importance of research in a competitive global economy."
The Government are possibly doing a little better than the hon. Gentleman suggests.
As I explained, I am in the House because I was aware that other countries were overtaking Britain. They did that by investing not short term but long term, researching and developing products that would produce tangible results not immediately but in five, 10 or 15 years or even further ahead. If Britain is to survive as a modern industrial nation whose people enjoy a high standard of living, we too must invest, and the research councils have a role in making sure that the research is well targeted.
Whole swathes of our industry are contracting. The nation must identify some potential winners and invest in
Column 922them now for the wealth that they will create in future. I welcome the orders, because reorganising the research councils along the lines that have been suggested should help to give a sharper focus on areas of potential wealth creation.
I welcome the Minister's efforts to listen positively to the wishes of people in science. I also welcome the serious way in which he approached this important subject without the usual party bickering that brings us into such disrepute with people outside. The Minister has a monumental task, because his colleagues do not seem to take science and research and development, and especially their funding, as seriously as they should.
It cannot be stressed often enough that, for the future wealth of the nation, science policy must be high on the Government's agenda. Without properly funded research, even more time will be spent in the House debating--or, perhaps, because of guillotine motions, not debating--further cuts in the social programmes on health, education, the police and social services.
I do not dispute the objectives of the research councils as outlined in the orders. Who could argue against the promotion and support of high quality basic research, the advancement of knowledge and technology and the promotion of public understanding of science? Such objectives must be right, but I fear that they may turn out to be daydreams in terms of reality and the amount of money that the Government are prepared to commit to the research councils. I am also concerned about the Government's overriding emphasis on wealth creation. It is intrinsically right as a goal that scientists should be aware that, without wealth creation, there would be no funds for their work. However, I question the White Paper's overriding statement that research grants should be linked to wealth creation. Are those members of the research community who fail to demonstrate a potential for wealth creation in their field in 1994 to be automatically starved of all resources in 1995? That would not be sensible.
Will research grant applications be tied to the rigid goals of wealth creation? Is it not the nature of such an area that basic research often needs to be done without a specified profit margin? To back that argument, I call upon a notable scientist, no less a person than the noble Baroness Thatcher, who once said :
"Transistors were not discovered by the entertainment industry seeking new ways of marketing pop music, but rather by people working on wave mechanics and solid-state physics".
I fear that the Government may put short-term financial issues before the long-term goal of providing for Britain an adequate research base to maintain and improve our quality of life. One of the problems is a lack of understanding by Ministers about the nature of research. Research is necessary not just to produce a more sophisticated television set, which is a wealth-creating achievement : it is also vital to learn about problem solving itself. Many of the skills that are learned in research are those of identifying and better understanding problems--providing basic knowledge to be used in the future. Further, a potential wealth-creating area may be identified, but will there be the resources to make anything of it?
One key area, regarded by some as likely to have bigger world market potential than information technology and communications combined, is biotechnology. Some hon. Members may have seen Dr. Chris Evans of Chiroscience
Column 923in "The Money Programme" on BBC2 last Sunday bemoaning the fact that Britain was likely to miss the biotechnology revolution because research and venture capital were so difficult to get. I welcome the new research council that will be devoted to biotechnology, and I hope that it will be successful.
Hon. Members in all parts of the House are seriously concerned about advances in genetic engineering. That is why it is vital for the Government to realise that scientific research is not carried out for its own sake. Once proven, and in certain areas approved by Parliament, it should permeate beyond the remit of the Minister to the Departments of Trade and Industry and of Health, and the Ministry of Agriculture.
When he commented on the White Paper, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) pinpointed the problem when he said :
"We have seen no clear leadership ; rather it has been a matter of laissez faire, in the sense of by default' ".
As all hon. Members know, the reality is that funding could be limitless.
I am sure that between them the new research councils will find projects worthy of investment that will far outstrip the budget of any of the parties in the House. But there is a shortfall now, and it is damaging Britain's future. That is why, in our autumn Budget submission, the Liberal Democrats proposed an immediate injection of £400 million into science policy and a return to spending of 0.35 per cent. of GDP on the science base, a percentage that the Government sadly let lapse to 0.28 per cent. between 1979 and 1991. We are committed to raising investment over five years to 0.4 per cent. of GDP, which is in line with the percentage invested by Britain's major competitors.
The Minister announced additional support of £15.5 million. That is welcome, but it is not enough. Although broadly welcoming the White Paper "Realising our Potential", the science community is fed up with Government indecision and time wasting.
The president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Sir William Barlow, about whom we have heard and who was present at the lunch today at which the Prime Minister spoke about science, sent a letter to hon. Members this week. In it, he particularly welcomes the establishment of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. However, Sir William states :
"It is vital that after its separation from Astronomy and Particle Physics and from Biology and Biotechnology it does not simply remain the rump of the SERC. The Council has a new mission and this must be widely recognised and respected".
Sir William is right, and his letter also states :
"Following the reorganisation of the Research Councils and the redistribution of responsibilities there should follow a period where they are able to pursue their missions without excessive interference or change".
As an example of ill-thought-out interference by the Government, I cite the example of physics degrees. David Ko, a lecturer in the department of physics at Oxford university, says that undergraduate degrees do not allow for critical analysis of problems, that that is achieved at postgraduate level. What is the Government's overall strategy for encouraging higher levels of research? Academia is faced with indecision and changing decisions by the Government. For a physics degree, a three-year course does not allow a student to develop in-depth skills of research. That means that British graduates are not competitive in Europe where
Column 924the standard degree is to masters level. There is still considerable confusion and uncertainty in our universities about what will happen to physics degrees to bridge that gap. A four-year degree was accepted by the Department of Education, but the White Paper suggests a "three plus one" system.
It is ludicrous that universities are unable to specify in their prospectuses how long a student is likely to remain at university. It appears that the fourth year is to be funded by the research councils rather than by local authorities. Where will the money come from? A report issued in November by the National Commission on Education stated that, since the Government do not intend to provide any more money for the revised research degrees, the number of students taking doctoral courses will inevitably fall. The orders are a help, a step forward, but we must value our scientists in the same way as scientists are valued in Germany, France, Japan, the United States and, increasingly, the Pacific basin.
I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, he will provide answers to some of the questions that have been raised. I wish him well in the task of persuading his colleagues of the importance of research in Britain. If, as I suspect, he is unable to persuade them to invest more now, it will become just another example of why Britain needs a fresh start, under a new Government. 5.39 pm
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : I welcome the opportunity for the House to debate science, as science debates do not occur as often as many of us would like. Although we are debating the relative narrowness of orders setting up the new research councils, the debate gives some of us the chance to raise wider issues in the House. I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the fact that we are meeting to discuss science today on the same day as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee's annual lunch. I am delighted to see the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan), in his place for this important debate. He will know the great importance that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attaches to science and the need for the Government to play a positive part in the stimulation of scientific endeavour in Britain. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister emphasised the key bases for our scientific programme for the future : excellence, recognition of the contribution of science to the quality of life in Britain and the development of the prosperity of all this country's people. The framework for all this was created last year in the White Paper "Realising our Potential", and today we are putting another of the building blocks in place in creating the new research councils. Hon. Members will be aware that five of the six research councils that will come into effect on 1 April are headquartered in my constituency in Swindon. I am therefore delighted to have the opportunity to make one or two points in the debate on behalf of many of my constituents in the scientific community. They, together with Sir John Cadogan, the new Director General of the Research Councils, whom I warmly welcome as a new arrival to this part of the scientific scene, will play the most vital role in the development of our scientific effort over the next few years.
Column 925I do not agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) who said that the Government are failing in their long-term vision for science. Everything I have read on the subject in recent weeks and months suggests that, for the first time, the Government are trying to take a long-term view of the importance of science in Britain, and they should be commended for that.
I have four points to make on particular matters of concern to the scientific community within the research councils in my constituency. The first one may be a small point, but it is important to my constituents. It concerns the uncertainty that remains about the future pension arrangements for staff of the research councils. I appreciate that the matter is very much under consideration, but I am sure that the Minister will understand that, as long as there is uncertainty, there is also some fear. I urge him, if he can, to give us some assurance at the end of the debate or, if he cannot, to ensure that staff are made aware of their future pension arrangements at the earliest possible opportunity. I am optimistic that the Minister will be able to say that there will be no detriment and no cause for concern among the staff, but the concern remains, and I hope that he will be able to address himself briefly to it before the end of the debate.
Secondly, I must mention the point raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). We are all concerned that, as yet, there is no appointment of a chief executive for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. I would not in any way suggest anything less than the paragon that the Secretary of State said he was looking for, if such a person is to be found, but I would stress that Dr. Alan Rudge, whose appointment I warmly welcome, is not expected to take up his position fully until August this year.
There is therefore a distinct possibility that, for the first four months of the new research council, there will be neither a part-time chairman nor a full-time chief executive in post. That raises some doubt about the confidence with which the new council can establish its direction and identity. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to give his best endeavours to an early resolution of that important issue. Thirdly, I want to comment on the advantages that spring from the reorganisation. I warmly welcome the creation of the new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. It is well placed to develop existing programmes, collaboration with industry, the CASE studentships, the teaching company scheme, innovative manufacturing and others. I have no doubt that the new council will carry forward the work of the Science and Engineering Research Council in those and other ways, and that that will be only to the benefit of industry and the scientific community.
Equally, I recognise the logic of the Natural Environment Research Council taking over responsibility for earth observation from space atmospheric chemistry and science-based archaeology, or carbon dating.
I am less sure about the prospects for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. I am concerned that it may find difficulty in sustaining its flexibility of approach to various programmes in the face of certain future difficulties with currency fluctuations as they relate to the subscriptions to CERN and ESA. Those subscriptions are £55 million to CERN and £30 million to
Column 926the European Space Agency. The new research council, taken out of the body of SERC, has a total budget of £180 million, compared with £600 million for SERC.
While accepting the logic of the case made by my right hon. Friend that SERC had too wide a responsibility for research, I envisage the opposite problem occurring when more than half the budget of the PPARC will be dominated by those two subscriptions over which it has no control, in terms of its ability to achieve efficiencies of scale or any other method of controlling the costs.
If the Minister says that I am wrong in making that point, I will be delighted to hear him say so, but I fear that he will promise only to double and redouble his efforts with the Treasury in future and ensure that any fluctuations will not be prejudice other programmes under the remit of the PPARC.
My final point is in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). There is some uncertainty about the future of the laboratories at Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton. Neither needs support from right hon. and hon. Members in terms of the quality and excellence of their contribution to scientific effort in Britain, but they need us to speak up on their behalf in urging my right hon. Friend to ensure that whatever decisions are taken about their future are made soon.
There is uncertainty and concern among the staff of those two laboratories. If the Government introduce independent status, the staff will want to know that their jobs will be secure, their future will be bright and that the commitment to excellence that has always been achieved in those laboratories in the past will continue. I welcome the clear mission statements for each of the research councils--three of which are covered by the orders that we are debating this afternoon--coupled with careful scrutiny of the systems and structures that have been put in place by the research councils until now. I have no doubt that that work will continue.
I welcome the maintenance of the present staff complement during this period of change. The publication of the White Paper brought further uncertainty. The Minister will remember that, when the White Paper was presented to the House last year, my first question concerned its implications for staff who are my constituents. On that occasion, I was given an assurance that there would be no serious implications for staff, and I am delighted to be able to report to the House that that has been the case, and that staff are now aware to which research council they will be moving on 1 April and what their responsibilities will be. I welcome the honouring of that pledge made to me last year.
The new system of appointing part-time chairmen and full-time chief executives will be helpful. It is quite common in British industry, and it is an experiment well worth trying in the case of the research councils. Subject to the appointment of all those chairmen and chief executives--a point to which I have already referred--I have no doubt that the system will be successful in the future.
I particularly emphasise the need to preserve the commitment to basic science. I welcome the industry-based procedures that have been outlined today and in the White Paper, but I hope that we will never lose sight of the need for people to be able to mess around in a laboratory and do something that no one else thought possible. That is what I understand by basic science, and I hope that it will