House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
European Standing Committee Debates

EU Document 8322/07 and Addendum 1 Relating to European Research Area

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Marshall
Austin, John (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hendry, Charles (Wealden) (Con)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Vis, Dr. Rudi (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watson, Mr. Tom (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)
Wicks, Malcolm (Minister for Science and Innovation)
Emily Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Standing Committee

Monday 18 June 2007

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

European Research Area

4.32 pm
The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): When I saw the original list of members of the Committee, I was disappointed to see that some fond sparring partners might not be here, but the hon. Member for Wealden in his place.
Research plays a vital role in enhancing the competitiveness of the economy in the UK and at the European level. I therefore welcome the opportunity that the debate offers to focus on such an important topic. The occasion for the debate is the green paper entitled “The European Research Area: New Perspectives”, which the Commission issued to launch a consultation process on the future development of policy in this field.
The concept of a European research area was launched in 2000 as part of the Lisbon process. Broadly speaking, it aims to encourage the creation of a Europe-wide single market for research, including the free circulation of researchers and knowledge, the effective co-ordination of national research programmes and initiatives funded at the European level. That is a vital part of the Lisbon strategy, and Great Britain put it at the centre of the process that was launched at Hampton Court during the UK presidency of the European Union.
A great deal has happened since 2000. For example, the number of doctoral students in the UK from other EU countries has increased to 12,000—more than 20 per cent. higher than in 2002-03. UK expenditure on research and development has increased, led by the substantial increase in the science budget. At the European level, the sixth framework programme was implemented between 2002 and 2006, with the introduction of new approaches, particularly support for the co-ordination of national programmes. The UK has performed well and secured about 14.5 per cent. of the budget, or more than £1 billion—a very good result.
A major achievement last December was the launch of the seventh framework programme, which provides substantially increased resources for research at the European level and includes, for the first time, European-level competition for funding of basic research through the new European Research Council. The importance of the framework programme in advancing the European research area agenda should not be underestimated and will, I believe, only become greater over time. Nevertheless, as the latest European-level figures show, a great deal more needs to be done, especially about increasing private sector research expenditure, and we remain a long way away from the target of spending 3 per cent. of GDP on research and development. Indeed, the latest figure is 1.84 per cent.
The framework programme is only part of Europe’s research efforts. If the European research area concept is to succeed and have the desired positive effect on our economies, other issues need to be considered. The Commission green paper is designed to examine those issues by encouraging a cross-Europe debate on such topics as researcher mobility, co-ordination among member states and developing research infrastructures. It raises many important questions, and we in government encourage all UK research stakeholders to participate fully in the consultation process inaugurated by the green paper.
The Government will prepare an official response to the questions raised in the green paper and will listen to the views of the UK research community to inform that response. The present debate will play an important role in helping to formulate the Government response. As we are still at an early stage of deliberations, hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot necessarily undertake to give cut-and-dried answers on every issue that might arise—always a useful part of my speech, it suddenly occurs to me. That shows my serious but modest approach to this matter. I can, however, set out some general principles that will inform the UK response to the green paper.
We want to see joined-up policy making in this field. The green paper covers research issues. Other European debates are going on concerning closely related areas, such as higher education and innovation, as well as the single market review. There is also a vital role for research in supporting European progress on challenges such as climate change and energy security. It is important that the outcomes of those discussions are properly linked.
We also want to ensure that the principle of subsidiarity is properly addressed. Research policy and funding is primarily a national competence. We need to ensure that European-level initiatives have true added value over and above national-level action and that the right balances are struck between competition and collaboration and between diversity and critical mass. The green paper should spark a serious, wide-ranging debate on the future of the European research area, as is appropriate given the importance of the subjects that it covers. Today’s debate is an important step in that process.
The Chairman: We now have until 5.32 pm for questions to the Minister. May I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time? There is likely to be ample opportunity for all hon. Members to ask several questions.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I thank the Minister for saying how fond he is of me. I had not realised that until this occasion. It is perhaps a shame that we should have to wait until a reshuffle is upon us to discover the affection that lies underneath it, but it is always a pleasure to have the chance to debate with the Minister.
When does the Minister expect the target of 3 per cent. of GDP to be invested in research and development to be reached, both across the EU generally and within the UK? Can he confirm that, at the moment, the UK figure is about 1.9 per cent., which means that there is a great deal of further progress to be made? When does he expect the target to be attained?
Malcolm Wicks: I do not think that we have a specific date in mind for that. It remains our objective, but I am also interested in another question and I should be grateful for colleagues’ views on it at some stage, perhaps not today. I am referring to how we measure R and D in the type of economy and society that is now emerging in the United Kingdom. I am not trying to change the goalposts, but I was discussing the issue with colleagues earlier today, and in a more traditional economy, with much traditional manufacturing, engineering and so on, it is relatively easy to see R and D—it might be a new piece of kit or a new machine.
I am interested in the question of how we measure innovation and therefore R and D in, say, the creative industries, the very successful retail sectors that we have, or in financial services. Given that the British economy arguably is ahead of some economies in respect of post-industrial restructuring, it is important that the R and D that undoubtedly exists in, say, the creative industries is captured in the data. We need to grapple with that methodological problem in the coming months.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am tempted to pursue that line of questioning. The Minister will know that I am a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and in our report on the Office of Science and Innovation we commented on the Government’s plans to examine how R and D is measured. I have seen the Government’s response but I do not think it has yet been published, so it would be inappropriate for me to refer to it. It would be wise for the Government to make it clear that they are not moving the goalposts.
My question is on the same lines. The European Union is falling well short of the hugely ambitious target of 3 per cent. that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Wealden. At what point does the Minister think the EU will decide that that target is just so unreachable that it no longer serves a useful purpose, and that it might be sensible to reapportion ambition towards more realistic targets that can be achieved, and not only in this country, which is struggling to meet its own targets? I do not believe that any other places in the European Union, or at least not many, are making huge progress towards 3 per cent.
Malcolm Wicks: Across the European Union, and certainly here in the United Kingdom, we must be committed to the innovation agenda. The hon. Gentleman and the Committee will appreciate that in the global economy, when we are developing what many call a knowledge economy, which is at least in large part science-based, we need to get better. We are getting better here and across Europe at ensuring that scientific discoveries translate into the marketplace wherever possible. In simple terms that is what we are about across sectors. We must be about doing things in novel ways when it is appropriate and doing things more smartly. R and D is a part of that, although not the whole story.
The objectives are clear. I indicated earlier that there are some conceptual, methodological challenges to ensure that we can measure innovation and R and D in the service sector. When we mention the service sector we are now talking about more than 80 per cent. of the British economy, so we have to get this one right.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): On the question of the 3 per cent. target, in his introductory comments my hon. Friend the Minister said that we were at 1.84 per cent., or something like that. Are we lagging compared with other European countries, are we in the middle or are we higher than others?
Malcolm Wicks: If I have precise data on that, I shall send them to my hon. Friend. At the moment a piece of work is being completed that examines innovation in a number of European countries to assess where we are. It is a qualitative, rather than quantitative, piece of work by outside experts, but when we see reports on all the countries it will help to inform us. We neither at the top of the league nor the bottom, we are somewhere in the middle, but, as I have said, I am worried that we might be selling our position short because of our difficulties.
I think that I have made the point clear, but I shall add that if one went into Rolls-Royce or some such company, one would be clear about what R and D was and what the result of it looked like. But in music or the retail sector a great deal of research is done, leading to the development of new approaches to stores and so on, but we do not always capture that in our data. That is my concern. If I have data on league tables, I shall send them to my hon. Friend, but with something of a health warning about methodology and data.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I should first declare my interest as a Cambridge university academic and, in the interests of complete openness, mention that my wife is the director of the research services division there.
I wish to ask the Minister about something a bit more specific: the proposal for the European Institute of Technology, which is mentioned once in the green paper. As he will know, it did not get a favourable reception from the League of European Research Universities, which said:
“We are sceptical that the European Commission fully understands either the operation or the achievements of Europe’s universities and believe that its desire to create its own ‘flagship’ university in the terms currently proposed is both misconceived and doomed to failure.”
I wonder what is the present state of that proposal. Would the Minister agree, given what he said about ensuring that Europe respects the principle of subsidiarity and that it adds value rather than subtracting from it, the €300 million presently proposed for the EIT might better go to the European research council, which seems far more likely to add value in the way described?
Malcolm Wicks: Yes, except that they probably have different purposes. The EIT is about technology, but the research council is more about basic research. They are in the same family, but they have different objectives. The Government are discussing the matter with the European Council; indeed, we meet again next Monday morning. As hon. Members can imagine, I look forward to flying out there on Sunday afternoon to take part in that debate. We have discussed the matter on a number of occasions.
The United Kingdom supports the concept of a European Institute of Technology. It is a pragmatic and sensible idea, and it has a good deal of support among member states. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the President of the Commission is pushing hard for it. By arguing for a cautious approach—we are not being negative—we mean that we should try one, two or three projects rather than going the whole hog immediately. We should taste it and see, and the research should be properly monitored and evaluated.
We also believe that a budget of €300 million is way over the top. We are arguing strongly for something far more modest—something that is more in line with our overall approach to its development.
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): The Commission has said that the report will point us in the right direction to create a genuinely Europe-wide research area. What are the benefits to the United Kingdom of a Europe-wide research area? Notwithstanding the difficulty of definition, has my hon. Friend taken any advice on how much extra investment, in pounds sterling, it would give to research in the UK?
Malcolm Wicks: We need to consider its impact on the UK. However, I am a European, and I believe that we should consider also its impact on Europe as a whole. Certain aspects of research require a critical mass—one that no individual member state can resource—if we are to compete with China, the United States and so on. We should not be too bashful about supporting a European project. Knowledge is global; fortunately, it has no respect for national frontiers. Although most research will be done by member states, we need to build up a European aspect, for the reasons that I have indicated.
The UK is very good at research and science. The indicators of that—the scientific publications, work being peer reviewed in the reputable journals, and particularly that research that is most widely cited—show that we are second only to the United States of America. Of the most widely cited scientific papers, 12 per cent. or 13 per cent. are British or co-authored by Britons, yet we are only 1 per cent. of the world. Indeed, the sixth framework programme shows that, because of their excellence, British researchers get more than their share of research money as our applications are so good. That is not the major reason for doing it, but supporting European initiatives has the happy effect of benefiting the British economy and British science.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): I endorse the Minister’s point about the need to consider the European-wide system, not least because many companies that operate here are owned abroad. Even Rolls-Royce has centres of excellence elsewhere in Europe—indeed, it has 26 around the world.
Is the Minister satisfied that the UK education system is comparable with Europe’s? For example, the Government are committed to the Bologna process, but many universities are not very well informed as to how it will be funded or whether they will have to restructure their courses. The UK’s teaching and research is no worse than that of the rest of the continent, but it might be regarded as such if international companies consider the continental criteria to be more acceptable than those of the UK.
Malcolm Wicks: I shall not read out the answer on the Bologna process that I prepared earlier. However, it is important in that it offers an opportunity to both the UK and Europe. It is not about harmonising higher education across Europe—I suspect that that would be difficult enough to do within Britain if we were ever to try it—but it is part and parcel of what we are discussing. A single market has a number of logics, some of which affect science, research and teaching. Like the hon. Gentleman, who has more experience than I, I am impressed by the excellence of research in our universities and hospitals and by the number of workers from other parts of the world—certainly from other parts of Europe. That has implications for higher education. However, I think that we can be encouraged that so many overseas students—from Europe and, in particular, from China—choose to study here because of the excellence of British universities.
Charles Hendry: The United Kingdom has been extremely successful in attracting students from outside the European Union, particularly those doing research work after their first degrees, to come and study at our universities. Is the Minister concerned that if the ERA is established successfully, it might diminish the appeal of UK universities because that research work will be spread across the whole of the European Union, and it might become more difficult for us to attract such students and the revenue that they bring into university sector? Linked to that, is he concerned about the loss of science courses in our universities? Dozens of physics, chemistry and mathematics courses have closed. Will that not make it more difficult for us to attract the sort of research work that they have involved?
Malcolm Wicks: The picture of people studying the stem science subjects—engineering, mathematics and the rest—is a bit mixed. Some indicators point in one direction and some in another. There has been an increase in applications to study science or the sciences at universities in the coming year. We will have to wait for the data in order to see how many translate into actual places. On the other hand, there have been one or two notable examples of important departments closing down. It is a mixed picture and, as we try to build a more scientifically literate society, we must all work far harder to equip more of our young people to take part in the knowledge economy. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about ensuring that people can study science and the related disciplines at an appropriate level.
On his first question, given globalisation, we should never be complacent. We can frighten ourselves with the mighty statistics on how many people study science and related disciplines in India and China. I do not think that we should be frightened—it comes down to quality, and we have high quality teaching and research. We must ensure that the allocation of research moneys across Europe is based on peer review and academic excellence. The research money must not be parcelled out across 27 member states; it must be allocated on the basis of excellence, and it is up to British science to demonstrate its excellence and the quality of its research applications. I feel very confident on that score.
Dr. Harris: I strongly agree with what the Minister said about the importance of the allocation being peer-review led. We are lucky that we are in a position to do well out of pooled funding on that basis.
One of the first questions that is raised in the consultation concerns the realisation of a single labour market for researchers. Does the Minister recognise that, compared with other professions and jobs in which people move abroad, the science sector is relatively low paid and has relatively poor working conditions? It is a relatively difficult sector even in this country—let alone when someone transplants themselves abroad—especially for women. Does the Minister recognise the challenge posed by poor working conditions and narrow career prospects in science in this country and across Europe that is mentioned in the Commission document? In particular, young women in their 20s and 30s who start out in a research career face challenges. They may find it difficult to cope with starting a family while maintaining publications, their salary, and moving abroad.
Malcolm Wicks: I agree with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s comments: we must ensure that conditions here and across Europe, including in relation to mobility, allow us to fulfil our ambitions in Europe in science, technology and innovation. I am slightly puzzled by his phrase “poor working conditions”, but I suppose that he meant it generically. I have only been the Minister for Science and Innovation since November but, when visiting universities, I have been impressed by how many new buildings have been constructed as a result of uptake and the increase in the science budget—particularly the science research investment fund money provided to build new laboratories. In the narrow sense of “in the laboratory”, working conditions are often very good. I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman disagreed with that.
Dr. Harris: I did not mean that.
Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman meant a broader issue. We have improved incomes in a number of ways, for example at post-doctoral level things are moving in the right direction. There has been a significant increase in the science budget and in the last Budget from the Chancellor, science funding was guaranteed a real-terms increase during the course of the comprehensive spending review. That should encourage those who wish to pursue careers in science.
Some of the mobility issues are difficult to deal with. Although I am committed to the idea of a single market for science and scientists, it makes sense if —this is the logic of a single labour market—people can pursue their careers in different European countries. We must ensure that that can happen for scientists and perhaps also for technicians. I am not convinced that there is a special case for pension arrangements, as is argued by some in the European Commission. I prefer to approach that matter as a more generic issue. In a single market, issues about mobility, and the consequences of conditions and benefits need to be dealt with—whether the group concerned is made up of artists, medics or scientists. I am not convinced that there are special difficulties for scientists that are different from those of other potentially mobile labour forces.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): That is exactly that point that I would like to pursue with the Minister. He spoke earlier about knowledge being free, which is to some extent true. However, knowledge is also power and whoever has that power, has influence over how they use it. We need to distinguish what happens during the research phase and what happens once that research has been used to create a product or provide the answer to a solution. If research is successful it must, of course, be shared with the wider community, the country and the world.
Naturally, as a Conservative, I am cautious about introducing new legislation. How does the initiative reconcile with the healthy competition that exists, for example with what is happening in aerospace research in the UK and America? How do we reconcile the idea that is mentioned on page 2 of the summary of the European research area where it states that we should have “effective knowledge sharing” between
“public-funded research to industry”.
We live in the real world where many initiatives are sponsored by industry, which will not want its secrets shared during the research phase. Issues concerning intellectual property rights and patents also need to be dealt with. I would like the Minister to take a minute or so to consider how the sharing initiative can be reconciled with a real role.
The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister responds, I reiterate my opening remarks that questions should be brief and, hopefully, replies will not be all that long. Question time is followed by a debate in which hon. Members will have the opportunity to participate.
Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting issue. I said earlier that knowledge should not respect national boundaries, and in the quest for knowledge, and given the importance of the publication of academic journals or their online equivalents, I stick to that ideal. What the hon. Gentleman has described as “the real world” is important, however. Increasingly, there are small and large companies whose intellectual property rights, as we now call them, are among their key assets. Those rights can take different guises, such as the trademark or the patent. We take the matter seriously. Indeed, we have recently renamed the Patent Office the UK Intellectual Property Office, not only to have a name that people do not understand, although that is an issue, but because the concept of the patent does not quite cover the importance of intellectual property.
I do not have a crisp answer for the hon. Gentleman, who has raised an important point. We need to encourage more scientists and academics to think about how they can commercialise a good idea. It is encouraging that, after a slow start, we now see in our universities more spin-out companies, headed up by academics, often with help from the universities. Often, such companies are set up in collaboration with other companies, so intellectual property becomes important. When I have raised the issue, I have been assured by the scientific community and by universities that one can maintain the important tradition of the academic journal article or scientific paper while seeking to protect intellectual property. That important issue is largely down to timing, and we need to think it through.
David Howarth: I also want to ask a question about intellectual property and patents. Incidentally, I notice that the document refers to the community patent and the stalling of that process. I hope that the Minister can tell us where that process has got to—I hope that it is not a prelude to the return of the notion of the software patent.
My point follows the question asked by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East. The document gives the impression that uniformity in the way in which universities, researchers and outside funding providers resolve such questions would be a good thing. The other point of view is that there should be diversity in the way in which questions are resolved, so that different attempts, which might have different effects, can be tried. Different universities might want to attract different sorts of researcher and different sorts of outside funding. Does the Minister agree that any European-level attempt to impose uniformity on those relationships would not be a particularly good idea?
Malcolm Wicks: We are talking about our old friend subsidiarity in a new guise. I guess that we are trying to have our European cake and eat it.
Mr. Ellwood: Gateau.
Malcolm Wicks: I shall not pursue that line too far, in case we all get verbal indigestion. We want the benefits of diversity and subsidiarity, but we must recognise—I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge will forgive me for saying this—that knowledge flows across boundaries as scientists work together. It is interesting to see how many of our excellent, widely cited scientific papers are co-authored not only within Europe, but internationally, which shows the importance of globalisation.
We have long been supporters of a unified European patent system, and we support that proposal. As I have been urged to issue short answers, I will say only that the idea has run into some practical difficulties at the European level, and I think that it is fair to say that it is making slow progress. It is not a case of either/or, because the benefit of having a European patent alongside national patent or IP offices is pretty clear. We should continue to work hard at putting that principle into practice.
Mr. Taylor: The Minister should beware of shortening UK intellectual property to UKIP, which has nothing to do with anything intellectual.
I have a question about the figures that the Minister gave earlier, which are often cited, about the number of publications that come from researchers in this country. In that area, we clearly punch above our weight globally. What concerns me is that the research assessment exercise drives towards publication rather than stimulating the work that can be done beyond the point of discovery. I have found that many universities are very concerned about that, and, of course, it is a competitive problem. Has the Minister examined the research assessment exercise to see whether it can be rebalanced to raise the status of those who work at the point beyond discovery, many of whom are engineers?
Malcolm Wicks: The Department for Education and Skills has promised an evaluation of the research assessment exercise, and we support that. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. It seems to me that in the 21st century the university should essentially be about three things. Two of them are obvious; the first is teaching and the second is research and academic excellence in terms of science—I use the word “science” broadly. The third thing, which the hon. Gentleman has highlighted, is knowledge transfer. Other words have also been used to describe that process, which is about innovation and contributing to the economy and society. Until recently, the third area has undoubtedly been the weakest link, and we need to build it up.
I look forward to a time when a university might not be in the top 10 when it comes to the traditional measures of academic excellence, but it none the less develops a huge reputation, maybe regionally, nationally or even at European level in some areas, because of its knowledge transfer and its engagement with industry. We support that process. Every year, we have the higher education innovation fund, which is about £100 million, or something of that order. That fund is allocated to the universities to encourage knowledge transfer, so that specialists in universities can help academics to commercialise their idea, if it seems appropriate.
I want to see that third aspect of the university’s role encouraged in the future, and one way to do that is to try to measure it. We know how the RAE works, so I guess that we can measure the quality of teaching. How can we measure knowledge transfer? It is not an impossible question, and I think that we need to measure that area. It would be healthy if, in the future, some universities, including perhaps some of the former polytechnics and some of the newer universities, were to measure highly in one area, if not always so highly in others.
The Chairman: Order. I ask members of the Committee to restrict their questions to the green paper on the European research area and not to extend them to include UK matters.
Charles Hendry: The green paper says this about effective knowledge-sharing, which is one of the six suggested elements of the ERA:
“This would include: open and easy access to the public knowledge base; a simple and harmonised system of patent and intellectual property rights; and shared principles for the transfer of knowledge from publicly-funded research to industry.”
The Minister will be aware that the UK is a global leader in scientific publication, but there is constant pressure for it to be provided for free rather than for it to be a commercial activity. Can he give us an assurance that, in his discussions with his European counterparts, he will protect this vital and very successful British area of publishing?
Dr. Vis: There is a big difference between invention and innovation, yet I have only heard the word “innovation”. Is the money going mainly to or only to innovation? Has any attempt been made to make invention part of this?
Malcolm Wicks: The other day in Bristol, I had the opportunity to meet both Wallace and Gromit, so I am a great authority on invention—I think that I understand the distinction. Our overall goal as a society is presumably to do things in a modern way, where appropriate, and to innovate so that we add value to services and goods and are ahead of the game in the global economy, which often involves innovation. Innovation is about doing things in a new way, but I take my hon. Friend’s point that innovation is not necessarily the same as invention.
Invention is very important. I met Wallace and Gromit—or, to be more accurate, actors dressed up as Wallace and Gromit, because they did not seem to be made of Plasticene and moved rather quickly—because we were launching something for primary schools called “Cracking Ideas”. The aim is to introduce children to the idea of invention in a fun way, and it involves competition to see whether they can invent things. The other purpose is to introduce them at an early stage to the kind of economy in which they are growing up, where knowledge is important, which is where our old friend intellectual property becomes important. I agree with my hon. Friend that invention is very good. We have always been good at it, and we need to get even better.
David Howarth: Will the Minister respond to a particular criticism of the green paper, which is that it concentrates far too much on the supply side? It concentrates on what universities, the Government and to some extent, although perhaps not enough, companies are doing in research and development and not enough on the demand side and what is called the absorptive capacity of businesses to use innovation and to take innovation within their own organisations. What does he suggest the European Union could do to increase the absorptive capacity of European businesses for innovative research and development?
Dr. Harris: I hope the Minister agrees that the scientific research community will want fairness in appointments to academic and research posts in other European countries, particularly those that are funded jointly, although that principle of fairness applies to all funding. Does he have any thoughts beyond the Bologna process, which is a critical part of ensuring that things are equal, or about how progress can be made to ensure a level playing field for applicants, internally or from other parts of the European Union, so long as language skills are met? Will he ensure that there is no padding of CVs or unusual approaches from referees or members of appointments panels across the European Union? That is part and parcel of sharing resources across the research area.
Malcolm Wicks: Obviously, that has got to be right. It is almost a clich(c), but we must ensure that the best man or woman gets the job, whatever their nationality, and that such appointments are not subject to politics, which sometimes affects and infects appointments at a European level. The only other point that I would add is that universities or departments that take international or European collaboration seriously often enable their academics to gain the experience to get those posts in future. I do not think that we are doing too badly.
Mr. Taylor: Full economic costing is one of the problems that I hear about from industry when it wants to collaborate with universities. It is often applied too rigorously by UK universities. Will the Minister give guidance to the English universities—I do not think that he is even allowed to talk about Scottish universities? From the point of view of genuine centres of excellence, we want to encourage industry to work in long-term contracts with universities in this country. If full economic costing is applied too rigorously by UK universities, then, as Rolls-Royce was beginning to find, industry signs contracts with institutions in Stockholm, where it can get a much more realistic deal.
Charles Hendry: Will the Minister tell us what discussions he is having with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, and the Government’s response to this green paper? Clearly, a huge amount of research that is carried out in this country is related to defence. Has he picked up any anxieties among his colleagues there that sharing research work across Europe may provide complications for them, especially with countries that are not involved with NATO?
Malcolm Wicks: I have not had any particular discussions. Obviously, the MOD is a huge customer when it comes to both research and development. The best that I can do is assure the hon. Gentleman that our response will be a Government response rather than just a Department of Trade and Industry response, albeit that it will be led by the DTI.
Dr. Harris: Does the Minister agree that the increasing globalisation of research—science has always been an area where people have sought to access the knowledge globally—has implications for access to the products of that research? Does he agree that there is an increasingly strong case for different business models of publishing, to enable researchers in different countries, including the new emerging and accession countries in the EU, which do not have huge library resources to buy every journal that we can? Does he recognise a case for making much more publicly funded research, including European research, open access? That should not be seen as a threat to the publishing industry, which would receive its funding from another source. We are good at publishing under the traditional model, but I believe that we would be good at publishing under a new model as well—I hope that the Minister agrees. There is an opportunity to ensure that European-funded research within the ERA is available to everyone without their having to rely on huge, escalating library budgets.
Malcolm Wicks: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We had an earlier discussion on the same question, and the hon. Member for Esher and Walton had a different take on it. I certainly agree that the quality of science and the quality of the research output—the academic paper—do not depend on the paper being published quarterly at some expense in the traditional way. It would be absurd to suggest that, and there will be significant developments in the age of the internet.
What are we trying to do? We are trying to get the balance right, are we not? We want to guarantee the quality assessment of the scientific paper through a peer review, which is often associated with the academic journal but does not need to be. Then there is the issue of intellectual property rights, which the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon raised—as I said, I do not think that those things are incompatible—and there is also the issue of how we ensure that people in poorer parts of the world who want to access the latest research are enabled to do so without huge expense. I believe that that is the set question, and I shall ponder it further.
David Howarth: May I return briefly to the question of full economic cost and bring it back into the European Union context? As the Minister knows, one institution that certainly does not do full economic costing for its grants is the EU itself, and it has often been the subject of complaint. As a funding body, it assumes that the grant-receiving institution will, to a large extent, subsidise out of its own resources some of the costs of the project. Has he had any discussions at European level about that? There is a reason why some researchers would much prefer to do fully economically costed research for the British Government or for any company that is sensible enough to pay the full cost of the research, rather than for the EU, which does not pay at that level.
Malcolm Wicks: I have not had such discussions, but I will review the financial arrangements for the seventh framework programme. It is a generous programme, but I will look at the issue of economic costing, and I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will raise it with the Commissioner Potocnik when I next meet him.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8322/07, Commission Green Paper, The European Research Area: New Perspectives; encourages UK stakeholders to participate in the consultation process which the Commission has inaugurated; and agrees that the issues identified in the document are of vital importance to ensuring the effective development of the European Research Area.—[M alcolm Wicks .]
5.23 pm
Charles Hendry: I thank the Minister for the way in which he dealt with the question and answer session. His answers were constructive and straightforward, as always. As this may be our last exchange before the anticipated reshuffle next week, perhaps I could take this opportunity to thank him for the way in which he has always conducted exchanges. He has been unfailingly courteous, and sometimes his answers have even been helpful, but perhaps that was an oversight. I wish him well in the reshuffle and, on the basis of our contact, I certainly think that he deserves to be in the Cabinet. I hope that that comment will not blight his career too much.
Dr. Harris: The Government seem to have upset both of us. I am upset with them because they are so neutral on the issue when they should be creating opportunities for alternative business models. Business does not always want to be conservative in such matters. It wants to take the opportunity to embrace an author-pays model. We are not talking about moving to a system in which no one pays but to one in which authors and their funders pay to be published. That means that everyone can see the results of publicly funded research. Surely, everyone should see those results.
The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be brief.
Charles Hendry: That goes slightly beyond the remit of the debate, although I am surprised that a Liberal Democrat finds it peculiar that a Minister should want to sit on the fence.
I am generally supportive of the proposals for the European research area. Compared with other major economies, the UK remains relatively weak in terms of innovation, and we must address that issue very carefully. We are hugely successful in terms of scientific research and we punch well above our weight internationally, but we sometimes fall down when we try to transform our ideas into something commercially viable. It would therefore be helpful to know the Minister’s view on how the ERA will help move us forward and make us more able to take commercial advantage of this country’s scientific genius.
Industry projections suggest that we need an additional 2.5 million people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by 2014, but the CBI has expressed doubts about whether our education system has the capacity to achieve that. The UK already invests less than 4 per cent. of GDP in knowledge, compared with nearly 7 per cent. in the US and Germany. Clearly, therefore, the issue needs to be addressed, and to the extent that the ERA can do so, it is to be welcomed.
It would be helpful if the Minister could spell out what the green paper proposes to do to ensure that our research is the best in the world. Indeed, it would be constructive if he could explain how the Government can square their commitment to the ERA with the recent cuts in the science budget, which have been so opposed by those in the science sector and in our universities. Overall, UK research and development expenditure came in at only 1.84 per cent. of GDP in 2005, as the Minister said. That contrasts dramatically with the figure in Japan, where it was 3.1 per cent., and the States, where it was 2.7 per cent. That needs to be addressed through a change in the investment culture and through Government action. The Government have committed themselves to increasing expenditure to 3 per cent. of GDP, but at current rates of growth, according to Treasury figures, the UK is unlikely to be able to increase expenditure to more than 2.5 per cent. by 2014. What, therefore, are the Government doing to raise our game?
The Minister raised some interesting points about definitions. Does he agree that some of the debates about the ERA will be meaningless unless there is a Europe-wide definition of what we mean by research and development? Will he give us an assurance that the Government response to the green paper will focus on how we achieve a common definition of such concepts?
We face formidable competition in research and development, but the Minister was slightly complacent in his attitude towards China and India. One city in China—Dalian—has a population of 200,000 university students, of whom 100,000 study science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Every other student studies English, Japanese and IT, along with whatever degree subjects they have chosen. That is why the city is becoming a magnet for international investment, and one leading US software company is about to make a $5 billion investment there.
If we wish to compete with such countries, we must show that we are every bit as good. That is why it is a matter of such concern that some of our science departments have closed. The figures are masked by the growth of psychology, sociology and biology, but the underlying figures for pure STEM science subjects paint a disappointing and worrying picture.
As I said, we have been successful in attracting international students, so perhaps the Minister can say a little about what will happen in the light of the proposed changes to immigration procedures, which are linked to the issues before us, although slightly at a tangent. There is concern that the tier 5 proposals introduced by the Home Office will make it difficult to attract the sort of students whom we will need if we are to play a full part in future developments.
Research conducted for the Centre for Business Research shows that companies that seek financial support for innovation from Government sources are 70 per cent. more likely to be successful in the UK than in the US. However, the recipients of such assistance in the US receive five times more financial support than their UK counterparts. That shows that the UK financial support is spread much more thinly. It would be useful to know the Government’s thinking on how they intend to address that in relation to their response to the green paper.
My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton has been doing outstanding work in examining how we can use Government purchasing power to pull through research. I hope that the Minister will also comment on the contribution that that can make to taking science through from the scientific, academic stage into the marketplace.
We are also concerned about the regional research variations within the United Kingdom. The position could become more fragmented as a result of the proposals before us. One concern that we have had about regional development agencies is that they are all competing against one another. They all want to be a centre for biopharma. Even though there are only three centres for biopharma in the whole of the United States, several of those bodies want to be centres of global excellence in the United Kingdom. They want to be centres for technological expertise as well. Are we not in danger of having too disparate an approach within the UK? If one translates that to the European level, we might find it harder still to compete with centralised direction in other European countries, as proposed by the ERA.
As I said, we are generally supportive of the measures before us. Attempts to secure greater European integration and co-operation on these levels must be productive, but we are concerned that some of the policies that have been pursued in this country will make it more difficult to maintain the scientific excellence in this country.
5.31 pm
Dr. Harris: May I, too, welcome the way in which the Minister has responded to the debate and the fact that we have a Minister in the House of Commons with whom to debate? I pay tribute to the way he has got stuck into a portfolio where he is filling big boots, as I think he would agree. When one’s predecessor is in post for many years, it takes some time to get up to speed, but the Minister always gives considered replies and is always willing to write to us if he cannot answer questions there and then, which is a very sensible approach.
The document is interesting, and it is hugely beneficial to be able to examine proposals for the European research area and, indeed, the discussions on it. I wish to raise a number of points, some of which I prefaced in questions. I should also like to comment on the contribution that we have just heard. The issues that I shall raise relate to the mobility of researchers and the prospects for core science careers in this country, given the increase in mobility implied by a European research area and the pressure on both academics and researchers to go abroad and experience different research climates, which comes from people who serve on appointment panels and who welcome that experience for those who can obtain it. There is a question about pay and working conditions in that area.
I should also like to raise questions about the need for wider access to the fruits of public investment—I am referring to access to research findings. We also need to deal with the question of how we lever up the amount of funding that we spend. The hon. Member for Wealden mentioned funding cuts in this country. I have to say that that was a little unfair, because no one can doubt that spending on science has increased enormously in real terms since 1997. Obviously, that is compared with the very low base that was inherited, which is a reflection on the previous Government. However, although I have been, as the Minister will recognise, very critical of the breach of the science ring fence in respect of last year’s science funding, it was less than 1 per cent. of the total amount for the research councils and therefore must not blind us to the fact that British science has enjoyed a significant increase in resources. The breach of the ring fence is a problem of principle—it was worrying and I think that it was the wrong decision—but it is not necessarily right to read across from that breach to wider issues about funding. Obviously, we all hope that the ERA will inspire the Government to continue to be generous in respect of science.
I would be interested to know whether the Conservative party is minded to recognise that we do not have a market in which whatever students want to study goes, and that we need more STEM people. As the people who pay for the vast majority of higher education, we are entitled to dictate that we would rather see universities fund those courses. We recognise that that is an issue, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton and his group are doing some excellent thinking and will have things to say on the matter, when they publish. In the meantime, there is no doubt that Conservative Front Benchers will have to stay on the fence, and I can understand that. My view is that to a certain extent the piper should call the tune, and we need to recognise that.
On the mobility of researchers, when I mentioned working conditions in my earlier question to the Minister, I was not talking about shiny new labs, although there is still a question about facilities. Although I recognise the significant investment in infrastructure in budget lines that I voted for and the tax consequences that go with that, plenty of buildings and equipment still need upgrading. Like the authors of the green paper and the Commission, I was talking more about the terms and conditions of scientific researchers.
Unlike bankers and business people who move around in the pursuit of a professional career, research scientists are relatively badly paid. The market can get away with that because research scientists are inspired to do their research. Therefore, uniquely among professionals moving for their careers, they face real issues about how to survive, particularly in countries where they do not have such good access to social security benefits and help with child care as they would in their own countries. That has rightly been pointed out in relation to the ERA. Will the Minister acknowledge that there is work for us to do on how to tackle that problem?
There is still a gross mismatch between men and women in entry into research, let alone retention. Women face the problems of being less mobile at any given age, having greater debt because of the flawed policy of imposing debt on graduates, which is particularly true of those who work in the public sector in less well-paid jobs in which there is no golden hello to pay off their debt, and having to deal with the worry that a publication gap will threaten their research and career credentials when they take time out for children. Will the Minister accept that those are real issues? His predecessor set up some working groups on them, but we have not seen the results yet. If UK research money is put in a European pot, and other European countries are better able to equip their postgraduate and career researchers to take advantage of the ability to be mobile, our citizens will lose out in the chase for that funding.
Another matter that I would like the Minister at least to recognise is the need for level playing fields. As he has said, research grants are rightly allocated on the basis of peer review, and we will have to take our chance. Yes, we have a good record, and yes, we may therefore in theory have more to lose than many other countries from the pooling of resources, but we should be confident enough to say that we will get our fair share, and perhaps more, on the basis of quality. Commonly agreed standards of appraisal of research applications will be necessary, so that approaches that do not suit us and are inappropriate do not take hold in a perhaps well-meaning attempt to ensure that the fruits of the funding are allocated geographically or politically. Science must work on the basis of quality—I know that the Minister shares my view and am merely keen to know that he is in a position to look into that matter and ensure that there is no movement from the highest form of quality assurance in applications and publication.
I think that the Minister misunderstood an earlier remark that I made, so I want to make it clear that changing the publication model from reader pays to author pays will make no difference to the need for proper peer review and quality assurance before publication. Whether the stream comes from authors, and therefore from research funders, or from readers, libraries and subscribers, the articles still have to pass muster.
Many people who support the ability of European and British citizens to have free access to the products of publicly funded research resent the idea that that approach will be weaker on quality assurance—it need not be, and should not be. I repeat the point that we should be courageous about recognising that British publishers are leaders in being able to adjust to a new model.
I asked the Minister about the realism of the EU targets for research and development expenditure, because we are nowhere near achieving the 3 per cent. target. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green asked where we stood. To save the Minister a letter, I should point out that the figures are on page 62 of the bundle. The latest figures show that we rank ninth out of the 15 old EU countries.
Dr. Vis: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I should point out that the relevant figures are also on page 76 of the Commission’s document.
Dr. Harris: I am in the position of a man with two watches; I do not know which table is correct. The only table that I can see is the one on page 62 of the bundle—page 35 of the discussion document on the green paper. It shows that the UK ranks ninth out of the 15 older EU countries and, not surprisingly, ninth out of all 27 countries. As has been remarked, we are some way behind our own rather lower target of 2.5 per cent.
Even the most ardent anti-European must see the benefit of European co-operation in research. Knowledge is already out there, and therefore it is clearly essential that we co-operate with our closest neighbours, as the Minister has said, to create the critical mass needed to maximise the benefit that comes from our talent and to ensure that large-scale plant is not left idle. This should not be a question that divides pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans.
I invite the Minister to recognise that the Select Committee on Science and Technology, upon which I sit, is currently conducting an inquiry into the international policies of research councils. One of the issues that will and has been raised in that inquiry is the way in which our research councils engage with our European neighbours and how ready we are to work in a European research area.
This proposal offers real opportunities. The green paper asks the right sort of questions, although there are only hints about where the Commission wants policy to go. I hope that the Government will respond positively and wholeheartedly, because such European money is likely to be spent much better than, for example, some of the money that is spent on agriculture, because the quality assurance is embedded in the way in which science works globally as well as on this continent and in this country. We can be optimistic—unusually, perhaps—about this initiative.
5.45 pm
Mr. Taylor: I cannot resist saying a few words, given that the Minister, who has handled everything charmingly during this sitting, is my real successor in the House of Commons, leaving aside a few months of confusion in 1997 when the Labour Government came to power. I welcome him to his ministerial duties, and I acknowledge that he has much more money to spend than I had when I was Minister with responsibility for science and technology. I am delighted for science and for the UK that he has the role. The Conservative party’s science and technology committee certainly does not challenge the amount involved, although we are considering more innovative ways of spending it. More of that anon, however, because it is not relevant to this afternoon.
The document is timely, because global competition is increasing rapidly. America has recently increased the amount of money that is spent on research and development, and it is both a friendly country and a great competitor. One problem in this country is that under our procurement rules, when we look for value for money, we tend to leave the intellectual property in the country from which we purchase. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden said that I am analysing smart public procurement, and one reason why I am doing so is to find out whether we can think more innovatively about the way in which the Government purchase things in order to pull through innovation and invention from our businesses and universities. The report has been published, and I do not need to mention it any further. However, it is important if we are serious about pulling through innovation in the UK and in Europe as a whole.
I touched on my second point earlier. Many people underestimate just how international business is in this country. Often, the decision-making process about where to place research and development, whether in Europe or elsewhere, is global. I have mentioned Rolls-Royce, and so did the Minister, but it has 26 centres of excellence throughout the world, and it will put in money wherever it thinks the excellence of the research that it receives makes it worthwhile.
The chief executive of Novartis, which has considerable interests in this country, came to see me a few weeks ago, and when I asked him why he had just put £100 million of research money into Shanghai, he said, “To capture the next generation of Chinese researchers, which gives Novartis many more opportunities than putting the equivalent amount of money into the UK.”
On a European-wide basis, we must play to centres of excellence, if we are to retain what we have in comparative terms—not that there will be any sudden exit of current investment, but the next phase may well not go to the traditional areas of research. There are many schemes in which European-wide collaboration is vital. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that the seventh framework programme, which is about to be launched, is worth about €52 billion, which is a considerable sum of money. If that is true, we, as a nation, our universities and our businesses must collaborate with the framework programme and strengthen Europe without worrying too much about where the intellectual property is shared, because it would be shared if the UK were to participate anyway.
Research that leads to discovery and publication is not the end of the process. The difficulty that we must address in continental Europe and in Britain is that in many cases discovery then enables further research. Multidisciplinary work is increasingly important, and research from one discipline may require exposure to other disciplines in order to discover the ultimate applications. For example, only when chemical profiling of DNA was possible did we take advantage of Crick and Watson’s discovery of the 1950s. Those things are important drivers, so we should not think in a totally insular manner.
There are also issues to do with large facilities. I am thrilled that the diamond synchrotron, which is nearly finished, is based in Oxford. Anyone who goes to see the building would be hugely impressed. We also share in facilities elsewhere in Europe, not least CERN. One question for the Minister is how does the UK hold up in the European context? We have universities that are beacons of excellence now, but will they be so in the future? How many should we have? Should UK funding help reinforce beacons and centres of excellence, or should it be thinly spread among the 130 universities that I believe we now have in this country? These are key questions in a globally competitive era, and they do not often feature in the UK debate, in which we talk in a rather self-satisfied way about the fact that we have many universities and about excellence. International comparisons matter as well as what happens in the UK.
In all those areas, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are key both in Europe and the UK. We have to act radically to encourage those things. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden that some universities have closed their science departments and too many schools teach combined science. That is not the way forward, if we are serious about the level of excellence that we want for the next generation of children—we would be denying them opportunities that they should not be denied. That might be going slightly off the subject.
Europe must be seen in terms of a research area, but I believe that we should also think competitively from the UK point of view. I am both a pro-European and a staunch supporter of British science. We have to inspire through collaborative work, but we should be the centre excellence. If the Minister will guarantee not only the continuation of money, but that it is better spent, he will deliver something for the next Conservative Government to get their teeth into.
5.52 pm
Malcolm Wicks: Which is not necessarily my objective. It was good to hear a staunch European express his concern about a new office to be known as “UKIPO”. It sounds like an Italian version of UKIP, but such a thing is by definition unlikely.
We have had a wide-ranging debate but I shall be old-fashioned and stick to the subject. However, I enjoyed the debate, and the matters that we have discussed are interrelated. I had the opportunity to make an introductory statement and of answering some questions, so I shall not delay the Committee, not least because I have been advised that there might be business of a psephological nature to be done elsewhere. As I noted in my introductory statement, the Government will submit a formal response to the issues raised in the green paper. The points raised by hon. Members will, of course, be of great value in helping us to formulate our response. As I indicated, I shall not touch on the whole range of issues that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has helped me out. I was not being complacent about China. I said, as he did, that we should not be frightened about numbers and that we should focus on the quality of our output.
I agree that Government procurement should be a major stimulus to innovation, and both the Government and Opposition are working to see how we can bring that about. The Government spend something like £125 billion on goods and services from paper clips to aircraft carriers to the NHS, so there is great capacity for innovation.
I talked about the Government’s neutral position on open access and publications. On reflection, it might have been more helpful had I talked about the need for a level playing field. Research funding authorities should have the discretion to provide funds, if the author prefers an open-access route. The Government aim to facilitate a level playing field to enable the market to develop without putting any institutional barriers in the way of any particular publishing model.
In our response to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, we made it clear that the Government are happy for publishers to develop a number of business models, including subscriber pays, open-access and hybrid approaches. We believe that those options will encourage competition and innovation in publishing models and will retain freedom of choice for authors, which is in the long-term interests of a sustainable scientific publications market. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to say that about our approach.
I listened with great care to what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said about mobility. I fully understand the point, but I am not convinced that it is specific to scientists, as opposed to other groups of key workers. I share his concern that we must not erect new barriers to women in science, because there are enough barriers already. It concerns me that there are sometimes no women in the room when I meet a group of scientists or people in related professions, such as technologists and business people. As someone with a social policy background, I find that strange. I am talking to the men—very distinguished men, of course—here. It is a problem that we have to crack and not to exacerbate in Europe, especially given that, broadly speaking, our girls are doing rather better than the boys in many school subjects.
We have had a useful, stimulating debate. I was grateful for the kind obituary notice—sorry, good wishes—from the hon. Member for Wealden. We have enjoyed our debates over the months and I am sure that we will continue them, one way or another, in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8322/07, Commission Green Paper, The European Research Area: New Perspectives; encourages UK stakeholders to participate in the consultation process which the Commission has inaugurated; and agrees that the issues identified in the document are of vital importance to ensuring the effective development of the European Research Area.
Committee rose at three minutes to Six o’clock.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 19 June 2007