Previous Section Home Page

Column 927

always have a part to play in Britain's scientific effort. In that respect, I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend's earlier remarks.

I appreciate that questions are raining in on the Minister from every direction during this debate, so he might find it necessary to answer them in some other forum than the House this afternoon, but I would find it helpful to know how he sees the future involvement of the research councils in the technology foresight exercise, which is of considerable importance to our future scientific effort and in which I hope that the research councils will be able to play the fullest part.

I have not yet said anything about the establishment of the new Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak on that matter on which he is an expert, so I shall simply say that I welcome the sensible combination of the Agricultural and Food Research Council and those elements of SERC involved with biotechnology and biological sciences to produce synergies which must be extremely valuable in future.

In that respect, I agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham that it is right for us to find by every means possible the way forward to promote greater investment in biotechnology in Britain. This could be the latest hovercraft--Britain's latest missed opportunity, if we are not careful. I hope that, as a result of the setting up of the new research council, we shall not miss such opportunities in the future.

This debate has not involved any particular mention of the Natural Environment Research Council or the Economic and Social Research Council, to whose work in the past 25 years I pay tribute. In particular, I want to say thank you to Professor Howard Newby, who has been at the head of the Economic and Social Research Council for the past few years and who will be leaving to become vice chancellor of Southampton university later this year. I declare an interest as one of the first to receive a grant from what was then the Social Sciences Research Council 25 years ago. I have therefore taken an interest in the work of the council ever since, and I wish it and Professor Newby well in the future.

Lastly, I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement this afternoon of the new resources which have been made available for a variety of programmes within the scientific sphere and which come partly from efficiency savings. The fact that half the money is from new resources is also to be welcomed. It is important that the emphasis on new programmes should be on industry- led initiatives. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his stewardship of science in the past 21 months. We have made substantial progress in that direction under his leadership, and I have no doubt that, with the establishment of the new research councils on 1 April, that good work will continue in future.

5.54 pm

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : The stark problem that faces us in Britain is our position vis-a-vis that of other countries. In the most recent year, Japanese industry registered 350,000 patents, one third of the world total, and the United Kingdom only one seventh ; yet we know that we are a country of inventive genius because this century we have won 61 Nobel prizes, while Japan has scored just four.

Column 928

The international situation in biotechnology has been described by the President of the Board of Trade as sobering, but many feel that it is desperate. The prizes are there. Biotechnology is relatively new and on the verge of an enormous expansion. Since 1980, 54 biotechnology companies have sprouted and they already employ a significant number of people--5,000. It is forecast that, by the year 2000, the world market for biotechnology will be worth between £30 billion and £60 billion a year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) raised one of the most serious problems ahead of us--the perception of the mass of the public. Unfortunately, many people see the spectre of mutant organisms stalking the countryside, a fear which has a good basis, although much of it is irrational. There already exists the mouse which has been specially bred to be sensitive to cancer and the pig, produced in the United States, which was meant to be larger than normal but which suffered from blindness, ulcers and arthritis. Such monsters, which many people consider to be similar to Frankenstein's monster, do exist. We must guard against possible great advances for humankind being held back by that perception.

My hon. Friend also referred to objections to the use of live animals in research. No substitute, such as computer models, is as good or as reliable for research purposes as a slaughtered animal. But there is a new sensitivity about the way in which we treat animals. We see them not as a mass of unfeeling cells but as sentient creatures. That is an advance in our whole approach to humankind and other species. We cannot deny that. If animals have to be used and if scientists are to win respect, such experiments must be essential. Last year we received a report from the other place which greatly added to our knowledge of the subject. It pointed out clearly that regulations within Europe pose a formidable problem which must be addressed. Much of the problem coming from Europe arises from the perception there that this is an unknown aspect of science which will lead us down a path that people greatly fear. We must recognise that.

However, there are other problems, which cause even greater concern. One is our position vis-a-vis other countries. The best evidence for that was a study conducted last year which compared spending on research by 336 British companies with similar investment by the world's 200 top spenders. The results were alarming. The Edinburgh company that undertook the survey placed only 11 British firms in the top 200--two fewer than in the previous year. One of them, ICI, was the highest-ranked British company but was placed only 47th--12 down on its record position the previous year.

The reasons for that are complex. British companies spent on average only 1.6 per cent. of their income on research and development, compared with an average of 4.6 per cent. for the world's top 200 companies. Spending by the 11 British companies in the top 200 averaged just 2.5 per cent., compared with between 4 per cent. and 6 per cent. by everyone else. That situation is worsening. The survey's most damning figures demonstrate the generosity of British companies towards their shareholders, which spent on average twice as much on dividends as they did on research and development. Companies in the world's top 200 invest more in a future return on R and D,

Column 929

whereas British companies believe that they must pay their shareholders five times more than their international competitors. Even the high quality of United Kingdom university research has not been translated into commercial success. Technology transfer is meant to overcome that problem, but central to it are patents for biological inventions. The London stock exchange requires patents before it allows a full company listing and venture capital is usually invested in patented products. Traditionally, scientists at British universities have not applied for patents before publishing their results. They must be urged to act far more commercially and to register patents rapidly. In my constituency, they must get motor bikes going down the M4.

Industrial sponsorship of university research has improved to some extent as spending per student has fallen. The Government's policy of research funding on the basis of research assessment exercises means that some university research departments are losing out badly. Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester universities are doing well, but others are not.

Britain is being overtaken by other countries in the struggle to ensure that the glittering prizes of biotechnology will be ours in future. If Britain does not change and act, it will lose the race for those glittering prizes.

6.3 pm

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : It seems extraordinary that, when we debate yesterday's interests--such as closing a colliery because it cannot sell its coal, or a shipyard because it cannot sell its ships--the House is crowded and noisy, but when we debate research among tomorrow's generation of industries, on which Britain's wealth and prosperity depend, the House is fairly subdued and not many right hon. and hon. Members are in their places.

Approving the orders is vital to successful implementation of the reforms set out in last summer's White Paper, which was welcomed in many quarters. In an intervention, I drew attention to a comment made by Nature . Another publication, Laboratory News , remarked : "We therefore welcomed the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement in his Budget speech that the spending on science will be fully protected next year. Mr. Waldegrave's promise has been kept." Sir William Barlow, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said :

"By creating a research council specifically for engineering and physical sciences it should be possible for the Government to fund the research projects which relate to real markets and will aid the nation's future prosperity."

The Times Higher Education Supplement carried the headline : "Science White Paper is good news."

Anyone thinking of voting against the orders cannot understand much about the subject.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) thought that Britain would be hobbling into the future with an underfunded science base, yet this afternoon I heard the most extraordinary speech in the seven years since I entered the House. I refer to that by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) in which, to my certain knowledge, he did not promise any increased expenditure

Column 930

if a Labour Government came to power. There must be great fear among members of Labour's Front Bench about the power and influence of the shadow Chancellor. In those circumstances, if anyone is hobbling into the future, it must be the Labour party rather than the research councils.

I have the privilege to sit on the Agricultural and Food Research Council, and I greatly welcome the reappointment of Sir Alistair Grant as its part- time chairman. He commands the admiration of all connected with the council --and Professor Tom Blundell's energy and enthusiasm are infectious. I am sure that he will enjoy success at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, as he did at the AFRC.

Perhaps it is a good thing--my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) is not in his place--that the AFRC's prestigious premises in Swindon can be used for the new councils, not least because of their reasonable proximity to Swindon railway station's up platform, which is convenient to a number of us from time to time.

The new council is created by combining the AFRC, with its £110 million science budget, with biotechnology and biological sciences from the SERC, with its £50 million science budget. That must be a sensible and forward-looking policy. I suppose that the new BBSRC is bound to be known before long as the "back to basics" science research council. It has a broad and well-balanced base of fundamental science--from bimolecular science, through genetics and physiology to complex biological and engineering systems. There is no doubt that there are synergies between research projects previously supported by the separate councils.

The industrial user community of agriculture, food, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology also has a coherence that was not achieved when those interests were the responsibility of separate councils. For example, technologies for non-food users of farm produce will have to be adopted by the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries to make plastics, fibres and therapeutics. Through the directorates for agriculture, food, and chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the BBSRC will fund research responding to market pull from those industries.

Following the wealth creation emphasis of last year's science and technology White Paper, the new council will have fresh policies for increasing interaction with industry and other users of research and training. Although my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is not short of questions to answer, I must ask whether it is right and reasonable to expect about half the council's members to be industrial and Government users. Last Sunday's "Money Programme" on BBC2 focused on the many opportunities that business and commerce may now have with regard to such research.

The BBSR's draft royal charter gives the council responsibility for supporting research and postgraduate training, meeting the needs of users and increasing public understanding of science. In pursuit of that last objective, the council will support a Danish-style consensus conference on plant biotechnology later this year, organised by the Science museum.

The new council's research and postgraduate training funds will flow in almost equal amounts to universities and its world-famous research institutes. In the temporary absence of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, I will ask only one question. Is he aware that the council members of the AFRC have expressed concern about the need for adequate representation of the agriculture and

Column 931

food industries on the expert panels that are to be set up in line with the technology foresight programme? If my hon. Friend is able to make an announcement on that matter, it would be appreciated. I believe that two hon. Members still wish to speak ; I have therefore somewhat pre cised my remarks. I hope that these debates on tomorrow's industries, without which we cannot expect to achieve a good standard of living, will increasingly attract more hon. Members into the Chamber, and that some of the debates on yesterday's industries--even about subsidising stagecoaches--will create a little less noise in future.

6.10 pm

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) : I shall start by welcoming these statutory instruments and the new division of responsibility of the research councils, because they will do a great deal to make them more effective. We should perhaps particularly welcome the separation of particle physics from the rest of the science and engineering work, because, undoubtedly, it has often been a drain on resources. As the exchange rate of the pound has changed, our international contributions to research have become a great deal more expensive than expected. As particle physics has been a drain on the other science and engineering research work, and therefore damaging, I am pleased to see them separated.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) about the lack of overall direction of Government science policy. We must remember that the research councils represent only a small part of Government spending on research.

It appears that the Chancellor of the Duchy has totally failed to win over his colleagues to the concept of a Government strategy rather than just an Office of Science and Technology strategy. If we compare the £1.2 billion that is spent on the research councils to the £12 billion that is spent by the Ministry of Defence on development and procurement, we can see that it is merely a drop in the great ocean of Government research spending.

Another alarming feature is the way in which the DTI appears to be continuing to close and merge its laboratories. A number of them have been mentioned this afternoon, but I should like to mention Warren Spring laboratory near Stevenage. I uderstand that there will be an announcement in the next two or three weeks about other laboratories that are either becoming totally independent or being merged with other laboratories.

The Department of the Environment, too, has closed down laboratories. The closure of the National Rivers Authority laboratory near Peterborough will affect some of the members in my constituency who work there. They appear not to be closed down for any useful or practical reason, but simply because of Treasury cuts, or perhaps an ideological reason that will leave the DTI and the Department of the Environment with few facilities.

Those cuts will undermine and undervalue the important work that is done by scientists. Certainly, many scientists feel demoralised at present with the way in which the Government are carrying out their fairly ruthless cutting exercise. The scientific world was rather shocked when the DTI decided not to reappoint its chief scientific adviser, following the departure of Geoffrey Robinson, who has returned to his old job at IBM.

Column 932

I draw the Chancellor's attention to a course at Cambridge university, in my constituency, that is partly funded by SERC and the Gatsby Foundation. It is an advanced course in design and manufacturing engineering and is run by Professor Colin Andrew. It is achieving a great many of the Government's objectives, because it takes a number of graduate students and, for most of the course, sends them into industries for fairly short periods, not only to observe but actively participate and undertake projects that improve the efficiency of the manufacturing process of those industries. By the time the students have completed their course, they have experienced 20 or 30 firms and come out well equipped to start a productive job in industry, as well as having a good sound basic scientific knowledge and a good sound knowledge of manufacturing. Such a course is beneficial not only to students, but to the firms as well. They know that, having spoken to one or two of the managing directors of those firms, their contribution is valued enormously. It is rather a shame, therefore, that SERC could not find enough money to fund the 30 extra students that Professor Andrew was hoping he would be able to take this year. There was certainly no shortage of applications. In fact, the course is over-subscribed many times. I believe that that is the sort of project that the Government should encourage, and hope that the Chancellor, or perhaps the Minister, will investigate why that course cannot be expanded. I shall briefly mention academic push and market pull, because in the debate we are trying--it is certainly the job of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster--to ensure that academic push is pushing scientific knowledge into the marketplace.

Unless industry is prepared to pick up that expertise and those skills and knowledge, we will not benefit in the way we should. The managing director of the Welding Institute at Abingdon, near Cambridge, has said that he believes that firms are in one of four states : the first is complete ignorance about innovation or scientific progression ; the second is awareness ; the third is continuous improvement ; and the fourth is best practice. He told me that he believes that, unfortunately, about 90 per cent. of British firms fall into the first category.

A number of firms, such as the Welding Institute, Camden Food Industry Research Association, which some members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology were able to visit recently, and the Flour Millers and Bakers Research Association, which I have visited, do an excellent job in transferring scientific knowlege, often with the help of research council money, from the science base often into small firms--firms that do not often benefit from the innovation and invention of British scientists.

I think that we should encourage those technology transfer organisations. If the Government have finally decided that Faraday centres are not the way they want to progress, ways of encouraging those organisations, through Government grants and perhaps research council grants, would be helpful.

Finally, I know that time is short, but I would like to spend a little time talking about the difficulties that many women face in trying to pursue academic careers. I know that the Chancellor of the Duchy set up a working party to consider the participation of women in science. Many of us welcomed that, but, although we were promised that a

Column 933

report would be published in the autumn, we are still waiting for it. We looked for it in September, October and November ; I was then told that it would appear in January. However, it has not appeared yet.

The establishment of the working party was, I think, prompted by the realisation that, although many women were receiving a good education and a sound training in science, they were still not using their skills to the full. Much of that expensive training is being wasted--through no fault of the women concerned, who want to work but are encountering the various structural difficulties inherent in the present system.

It must be said that the Government did not set a very good example. Despite equal opportunities guidelines issued within the OST, which were intended to encourage women to return to science and technology, the Chancellor of the Duchy did not see fit to appoint any women to the Foresight technology steering committee. That is a great pity, and it was also a major mistake : women, after all, are largely responsible for consumer spending.

We should look to the future. When we consider wealth creation, we must also consider the areas in which we shall want to spend our wealth ; women make many decisions in that connection, and a female appointment to the committee could have made a valuable contribution to the effort to predict the sectors in which wealth creation will be important.

The Prime Minister told us today that girls had achieved better science results this year. We all welcome that news ; however, we do not want to wait for 30 or 40 years for those girls to occupy the top positions. In the meantime, many women will feel frustrated about their failure to make the progress that they should be making. At least one research council head has recognised the problem. Laboratory News quotes Professor Blundell, the new head of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research council, as saying : "One important challenge is to keep women in science after the age of 30, when they have to be rather competitive to make progress up the career ladder, but when they have a major and unfair share of the responsibilities at home, especially if there are children". That encapsulates the problems experienced by women--not only in the domestic sphere, in persuading men to take their full share of responsibilities in the home, but in the scientific sphere, where they are often competing for short-term contracts that may involve work some distance from their homes. Alternatively, they may be competing for permanent jobs in universities or research council laboratories, which may be complicated by child care


Many of those difficulties are, of course, faced by women in all professions : many female professionals would be helped by an increase in the availability of affordable child care facilities, for instance. Moreover, the lack of a proper scientific career structure poses many problems, as does the need to move to different locations to take advantage of research vacancies.

Much still needs to be done. I hope that, when the report on women in science is eventually published, it will not lie dormant on a shelf, but will be a basis for discussion. I also hope that its ideas will be implemented, even if that means extra Government spending on this important subject.

Column 934

6.24 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) : I welcome today's announcements. In these times of economic austerity, to find nearly £8 million of new money is no mean feat. Along with many colleagues on both sides of the House, I look forward to the details in regard to ROPA-- "Realising Our Potential Awards"--and the postgraduate schemes ; I especially look forward to hearing more about the extra funds for industry- identified research projects.

I echo all that has been said about the reorganisation of the research councils, which will refocus their aims and enable them to deal with their tasks more coherently. That applies particularly to their fulfilment of the White Paper's much-emphasised requirements in regard to wealth creation. I have been impressed by the many favourable comments made by witnesses to the Select Committee on Science and Technology ; it has also been encouraging to hear of the many commitments made by those on all sides of the debate to the future improvement of university research and their co- operation with industry. These orders are part of that process, and I therefore welcome them.

Fundamental research is an important part of our research activities. Because we have always been good at this in the United Kingdom, I think it right at this time to place more emphasis on wealth creation : we have been less successful there, and we should try to improve. I especially welcome the creation of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, which is concerned with what is affectionately known as "big science". These two subjects have been uncomfortable bedfellows--in the Science and Engineering Research Council--placed together with a wide range of less expensive scientific endeavours which have felt deprived by the large financial demands of particle physics and astronomy.

Our distinguished scientists in those fields have a well-earned international reputation : we should never forget that the United Kingdom was a pioneer in particle physics, space and astronomy. We remain world leaders, much respected and I believe sought after as partners in collaboration. The United Kingdom will, for instance, play an active role in all the coming European Space Agency space science missions ; the triumphs of the Giotto mission to Halley's comet, with the involvement of British Aerospace, and the United Kingdom contribution to the design of one of the Hubble telescope's cameras--now working perfectly--are just two examples of successes. I welcome the separation of these two areas of science, which enables the finance to be isolated from other areas and will --I hope--enable the Treasury to deal with the vulnerability of their international subscriptions to fluctuating exchange rates more equitably than in the past. At the very least, I wish my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy well in his future battles with the Treasury on exchange rates. Government should recognise that the United Kingdom can participate in world-leading "big science" only by being part of international programmes, which require long-term funding stability.

The PPARC's primary function is the pursuit of intellectual knowledge, but it also has a role in helping industrial competitiveness. For example, it influences the employment of trained manpower : space and particle physics is a subject that attracts young people into science, and the experience that they gain in international projects is prized by manufacturing industry. Young scientists with

Column 935

experience in space, astronomy and particle physics--many of whom will be women, judging by last year's exam results-- are valued by employers because they have learned to work in teams, to deadlines and in international consortia.

"Big science" also requires technology at the cutting edge, and industry in general values the experience of those who have worked in space and on major projects connected with it. The astronomy, space and particle physics programmes already interact with industry to a considerable extent. Under its chairman, the PPARC will want to build on that, and--in the spirit of the White Paper--to maximise the potential of its programmes.

I believe that the success of the new councils will depend on the individuals who are appointed. I echo the welcome extended to Peter Williams, chairman and chief executive of Oxford Instruments, which is one of the United Kingdom's top companies in terms of turning science into profit. I also welcome the appointment of Professor Ken Pounds, a leading space scientist in both national and international terms. These appointments bode well for the industry-science interface.

Turning to my interest in space, we shall now have three research councils interested in and funding space activities. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council will fund space science ; the Natural Environment Research Council will take responsibility for earth observation and remote sensing from space ; and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will, I hope, be interested in future technologies required for space, which are also relevant down here on earth.

The European Space Agency has a crucial role to play in that area. Although ESA is going through a difficult transitional phase, it is important to preserve the good features of its mandatory space-science programme, to which the United Kingdom is a major contributor. That programme is now the most stable element in ESA and, although we must continue to press for greater cost effectiveness in ESA programmes, we must not forget that the issue of subscriptions to ESA and CERN, the European nuclear research centre, will be central to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

I am concerned, however, that space expenditure will be divided between the three research councils. That will mean increasing importance for the British National Space Centre's role in co-ordinating space expenditure in the United Kingdom. With the creation of the Office of Science and Technology, the Government should look again at the organisation of the BNSC within the Department of Trade and Industry. Can a case now be made for transferring it into the OST, which I believe is its natural home? I hope that the Minister will comment on that, if not today, in the near future.

There is now a positive feeling in the scientific area, engendered by the Government's innovative response to the need to produce a policy on science. We responded with the first White Paper in 20 years and the results of the research councils are further evidence before us. I wish the operations of the new research councils well. 6.31 pm

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy) : This has been an interesting debate, and I pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to it,

Column 936

particularly my hon. Friends. I shall leave it to the Minister to congratulate his hon. Friends and comment on their speeches--after all, that is his job.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised a point that must be answered, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), on the subject of women and science. The Minister said absolutely nothing about that subject in his extremely long--albeit interesting--speech.

In general, we welcome both the opportunity for debate--twice in a year is really something, and we may have a third opportunity if we debate the "forward look" proposals in April--and the proposals. We support the general thrust of splitting up the research councils into more logical groups. The Science and Engineering Research Council, SERC, had become too unwieldy, although it had the singular advantage of being easier to say than PPARC and EPSRC.

I am happy, too, that the Government have said that, in the light of experience, they are prepared to modify and rethink the objectives contained in last year's White Paper. There have been some particularly welcome signs on the subject of masters degrees and the extent to which they should be introduced.

The Royal Society of Chemistry would like to know the Government's assessment of the relative merits of a four-year degree course followed by a three-year PhD. It runs a three-year degree course followed by a one-year MSc and a three-year PhD. In defining that issue, it would be grateful to know what role the Office of Science and Technology and the Department for Education will play in attempting to resolve it.

It also wants the Chancellor to say what steps will be taken by the new research councils to ensure full interdepartmental co-operation between the OST, the DFE and DTI to develop the highest possible standards of research training. I hope that, broadly speaking, that is the line the Chancellor intends to follow.

I notice from the report of the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology that there has been much revision and toing and froing in the technology foresight programme. At one time, the debate was described as "acrimonious". I am sure that it was not too acrimonious, but, once again, there may have been a sign of some flexibility. I hope that, despite all this effusive praise, the Government recognise that many problems remain unanswered. It will come as no surprise that I intend to mention a few. For example, I hope that the Government will give clear guidance on their thinking in the development of the chosen methods of assessment of scientific and technical needs and in securing tangible support from other Departments. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will contribute more to the "forward look" programme than it did to the White Paper. Its contribution consisted of one mean paragraph.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis) : It was a chapter

Dr. Moonie : It was a pretty short chapter. I should not like to define it as a chapter.

In the light of recent behaviour, the DTI needs convincing about what is happening. Other Departments often mouth support for what we in science are trying to do, but they are less convincing when it comes to doing

Column 937

something about it. The closing down of the advanced technology programme was good timing, coming on the same day as the announcement of the White Paper.

Before this debate, the DTI said that it would not replace the chief scientist. That may convince the Chancellor, but it does not convince me about the DTI's ability to co-operate in what we are trying to achieve for science. I hope that he will forgive me if, until I see a change, I maintain a healthy scepticism about the Government's overall true intentions. Promises are easily made, but concrete support is more difficult to establish in their wake. If the director general has no direct -line responsibility for the research councils, as seems likely, it would be a misnomer to refer to him as a "director general". His title should therefore be changed to reflect what he will do. He will not direct the work of the research councils but will advise the Secretary of State. Do the Government intend to publish his advice? Will they publish the advice given to him, in turn, by the Committee? After all, this is the Department of open government, and I want a tangible assurance that the process will be transparent.

I welcome the role of the Committee for Science and Technology, but some concern has been expressed about the placement of two chairs of research councils on that Committee. If we are to have a proper purchaser-provider split, taking the purchaser role into the Department, it is illogical that only two of the providers of the chairs of the research councils will serve on that Committee. That concern was also expressed in the excellent report by the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. The Chancellor should take cognisance of that. I have nothing against the two people concerned. They are excellent choices as chairs for the research councils, but there is confusion over their roles. As the Committee will advise the Minister, will its advice be published? Will it be subject to scrutiny by the Select Committee in this House? On the research councils, I am worried about several points. I accept that what is being done in science should relate to what we hope to do ultimately with it in industry, but it should never be seen as taking over what should be done by industry or what the DTI should support. Although I welcome the initiatives announced today and the extra funding that will go to valuable areas, in the past few years the loss in funds for support for research in industry by the DTI amounts to more than £100 million. Getting £15 million of that back through the science budget is no substitute.

Our views on the role of science spending are supported by industry. The role of the Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry is to maintain and strengthen the excellent contribution of United Kingdom scientists and engineers to the overall knowledge and cultural base of the world community.

From Thorn EMI we have the words :

"enhancing future options for mankind, improving our understanding of nature and natural phenomena and our place in the scheme of things",

and from the Confederation of British Industry :

"an immense, largely unquantifiable contribution to Britain's literary, artistic and cultural fabric".

We still need an assurance that money intended for science expenditure will be spent on science and not misdirected

Column 938

into areas in which industry itself ought to be spending. I am sure that there will be no great disagreement about this.

If there are to be changes in the balance of spending within the science budget, there will be losers as well as winners. As yet, we have had no indication as to who will lose. That is the way of things. It is clear that, if we are to move into new areas--if, for example, we are to direct money into some of our new universities that currently lack research departments--unless there is a substantial increase in the budget, which is not yet forthcoming although we wait in hope, there will be losers. I hope that, in the course of the Minister's winding-up speech, we shall be given some indication whether there has been thinking along these lines. I am glad to say that the report on the allocation of resources was placed in the Library today. May I have confirmation that what it contains merely represents a pro rata division of what would have been the budget based on last year's historic costs, or has there been a substantial change in the emphasis in spending? It is important that this information be provided. Apart from anything else, it would save me from having to go back to last year's figures and work things out.

I should like, in conclusion, to make some specific points about the individual research councils. There is no doubt that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has a very important role to play in wealth creation--indeed, that applies to all the councils. But the Government must sort out their technology foresight programme. There is continuing debate about whether the programme should be market-sector-led or technology-led. This is an important difference when it comes to attaching importance to objectives. Is technology foresight intended to be used to change the balance of the science budget? If so, in what way?

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : Will the hon. Member give way?

Dr. Moonie : I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way. If it is possible to do so later, I shall.

The House of Lords Select Committee has suggested that the technology foresight exercise should be used to help the "Forward Look" programme. In other words, the perspective should be five to 10 years, as opposed to the Public Expenditure Survey Committee round of one to three years. This is a very important distinction, and I should like to be made aware of the Government's thinking on the subject. The Department of Trade and Industry must not be allowed to palm off its responsibilities for applied technology and for research and development closely related to industry.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is a subject close to my own heart. Here, I intend to concentrate on one issue--the large hadron collider. Apart from all the other arguments that I intend to adduce in my personal support for this worthy project--I am grateful for the letter that I received today from the Chancellor, in which the right hon. Gentleman answered some of the questions that I put to him--I have to say that no Higgs Boson, to which he has committed himself-- [Interruption.] This may rather pass over the heads of many hon. Members. Unless the right hon. Gentleman delivers on this matter, his visit to the annual meeting of the Physical Society, which I think takes place in March,

Column 939

may well be punctuated by empty champagne bottles rather than by the plaudits that he would receive if he were to come out in support.

Let us be very clear about this matter. The Americans have stopped work on the superconducting super-collider--SSC. The large hadron collider is the only viable replacement for it. We must first persuade the Americans and the Japanese to join in the funding, as the project is expensive. We must ensure continuity of funding of our commitment to CERN so that work may continue. If necessary, we must provide bridging loans so that work which must be done before funds would normally be allocated may be properly financed.

We must work out the level of access, but, above all and I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House want the project to go ahead--the Government must make a clear statement to that effect. It must be made clear to the world at large that we are not dragging our feet, as the Germans appear to be doing. Understandably, the Americans are at sixes and sevens. If particle physics and astronomy are to move forward, we must continue to advance the boundaries of science. At present, the only way to do that is through the large hadron collider.

The biological side has been covered very adequately by my hon. Friends. I do not propose to add anything to what they have said, except by way of an expression of my own concern about the increased number of interfaces and the problems that we have in deciding into which category of research specialties like chemical engineering should fall. These are very important specialties, and they are particularly relevant to wealth creation. It would be very sad indeed if they were to fall between the interests in the new set-up. I think that I have exhausted the time allocated to me. No doubt the Minister would need more than the remaining 15 minutes to reply adequately to the many questions that have been raised.

6.45 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis) : At the outset, I must convey the apologies of myright hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to those who have taken part in the debate for his departure from the Chamber. He had to meet the chairman of the European Parliamentary Science Committee, Mr. Claude Desama.

The purpose of the orders is to put the research councils in place as part of the machinery for delivering the strategy outlined in the White Paper, "Realising Our Potential". One of the oblique advantages of the White Paper is that it has proved to be a catalyst for a series of very high quality debates, here and elsewhere, on the role of science. Indeed, this has been not the least of those debates. We have heard some complaints about the number of hon. Members present, but there is no doubt about the quality of the contributions from both sides of the House. I refer in particular to the formidable contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and to the contribution of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), whose subleties the Department misses from time to time. I shall return to some of the issues that my predecessor raised. I refer also to the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), for Stroud (Mr. Knapman) and for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), as well as to those

Column 940

of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and other Opposition Members. Many issues were raised, and I shall deal with as many of them as possible.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) referred to the role of the Director General of the Research Councils--in particular, his relationship with the councils. In essence, this is a relationship of general direction. The research councils' missions are spelt out very clearly in the White Paper and are set out in these orders. Indeed, some of the consultations are being taken on board. It is for the director general to work with the council chief executives to keep to the agreed strategy. The relationship is by nature a co-operative one.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy also asked about openness. We shall seek, as far as possible, to make the process transparent. As a first symbol of that --something that the hon. Gentleman mentioned--we have deposited in the Library information about the allocation of funding between the research councils and the logic behind it. The £15.5 million strategic allocation is included in the change, so we do not have just a pro rata figure.

The hon. Gentleman referred to what he described as a conflict of interests on the Council for Science and Technology. This is not strictly a purchaser -provider relationship and there is no obvious conflict of interests. The CST is dealing in overall science strategy--at what one might describe as the stratospheric level, rather than at the level of differential funding between councils. The people in question--Alan Rudge and Peter Williams, I think--were chosen for the CST because of their wide experience. Incidentally, they were appointed as non-executive chairmen of councils for the very same reasons. We understand the hon. Member's point. What is most important is that we get the very best people, and the hon. Gentleman himself has said that those people are very capable. With regard to animal experiments, an issue raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, I hate palming off such matters to other Departments but the use of animals in experiments is regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 which makes it the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. The research councils have been active in promoting good practice in respect of animals used in the work that they fund and I am sure that the BBSRC will continue to build on the AFRC's good work.

I am not sure which hon. Member mentioned the more general question of ethics guidance. En passant, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy said that I had volunteered to be a subject in the Megalab experiment. During the persuasion process through which my Department put me I was taken aback by the final comment, "Don't worry--we have the technology, we can rebuild you." That brings me to the question of guidance on genetic engineering. A Government body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, has a specific remit in that respect and there is also an independent body, the Nuffield Council. As we are all aware, the process involves the development of consensus and we expect the research councils to observe and live by that consensus.

Next Section

  Home Page