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We have a £3 million building in Bolton called the Bolton TIC. Children aged nine to 19 come to this building and the idea is to tap their virgin minds. Children have such fantastic ideas, but somewhere along the line they lose those ideas and become cemented into the conservativism of the education structure. Our idea is to get those ideas out of them while their minds are completely fertile through discussion sessions or by giving them state-of-the-art equipment. We have laser cutters, plasma cutters, colour three-dimensional profiling machines, virtual planetariums, robotics, lasers and equipment the like of which they would certainly never see in a school, and many of them would not even see at university if they went there.

We have an artist in residence who bridges the gap between the humanities and the sciences and gets the children to think across the bridges that been knocked down over the years. The children are beginning to design some pretty incredible products. Our aim is to protect the children’s intellectual property rights and eventually—30 years down the line, say—for those rights to deliver royalties to carry on running the building. The college is a model. If it works in the north-west, it would work in any region with a regional development agency.

We got £3 million in funding, of which £2.5 million was for the building and £500,000 was for the state-of-the-art equipment. Bolton metropolitan council has been supportive. The idea was first proposed to Lord Puttnam when he was at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, which I also thank. Without the risk that NESTA took with its £100,000 grant, the idea would not have got off the ground. I thank all the industries that have been involved with us so far. The Department for Education and Skills has put in an enormous amount, but we are looking for sponsorship from industry as well.

If my hon. Friend the Minister has time, I encourage him to come and see the Bolton TIC and help us to spread the idea that children, too, can innovate and produce useful products. If we can protect those products with intellectual property rights, that will be the way forward. Finally, we have to start early, instilling into children a culture whereby they can think about new ideas and products—a culture in which education is not just about the basic academic subject that they are studying.

3.31 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I shall start my remarks, which must perforce be brief, by welcoming the Minister to his new portfolio, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) did. This is the first time that I have seen the Minister in the Chamber with his new portfolio. From the point of view of the Science and Technology Committee, I also welcome the fact that he has agreed to continue the tradition of his predecessor in having a question time four times a year. That was an innovation of his predecessor, who is in the House of Lords, and the Minister’s decision is to be welcomed. I would not say that it was a brave decision, because we are very nice, but it was open and engaged of him to do that. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate
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and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is the new Chairman of the Committee, shares that view.

I should like to thank the former Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. It is hard to do justice to a big subject in 40 minutes, as he showed, let alone in the 20 minutes or 10 minutes that we have. Nevertheless, many of the key issues have been touched on in the debate. We also had the fascinating image of wildebeest leaving the Mara and surging into a river. I am not sure exactly how that image came into the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but it has stayed with me.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of important issues, including the importance of improving links between business and universities. The Government commissioned a report on that. The 10-year strategy and the “Next steps” report asked specific questions of researchers and the science community. The response of that community was published in September. It listed a number of responses and a number of positive suggestions, which the Government have said they will take forward. We look forward to the next “Next steps” report, as it were, to take the issue forward.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there might be something in the water in this country that makes us a little more risk averse. He also suggested that there was something in the education or culture. The issue is a particular problem. There is no doubt that there must be levers that the Government can use to give us the spirit of entrepreneurship and risk-taking that the US has, as I think the Government recognise. There is nothing in our genes that makes us unwilling to go down that path, so it is to be welcomed that the Government are seeking, as far as they can, to find ways of addressing that.

I hope that the Government will accept that it is not clear that there is sufficient evidence that the R and D tax credit is working sufficiently—it is not that it is not working—to encourage more risk-taking by business. It is also not clear whether the research assessment exercise inhibits people in universities and in basic science from taking risks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said in discussion with the hon. Member for Norwich, North. If we are to make progress towards the Government’s target of 2.5 per cent. of GDP going into R and D—a target that is well below the Lisbon fantasy figure in any case—we have to ask whether R and D tax credits, among other policies, are working in their current form. I should be interested if the Minister could clarify what research is being conducted into whether they can be used more effectively.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North also talked about the need to have adequate numbers of physics and chemistry departments. That is an issue on which the Committee, under his chairmanship and the new chairmanship, has made recommendations, to ensure that we do not lose capacity in certain regions because of the closure of departments.

The hon. Member for Esher and Walton, in a well-thought-out, albeit perforce brief contribution, pointed out the role of smart public procurement. We would all agree that something must be done to use that huge budget to encourage innovation, and to provide support for small and medium-sized
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enterprises, not just for the big fish. What is emerging from his work for the Conservative party is new and valuable thinking. It is reasonable to say that the Opposition parties have not, until recently, kept up with the pace on policies coming out of the Department of Trade and Industry in respect of science, and we need to do that.

In the little time available to them, the hon. Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) brought their vast experience to bear. They gave local examples of what can be done, but it is unfortunate that we do not have more time.

In the brief time left to me, I want to make three points about how we can focus on innovation. We need to focus on innovation without a threat being made to basic science, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said. That can be done not by withdrawing funds from basic science, but by removing barriers to innovation, so that the research councils can, as they have said they will do, spend small amounts of money—not grant-sized amounts—on training people who receive grants in innovation and entrepreneurship. We can arrange a proper career structure for those academics who need to spend a lot of time drawing up business plans, to ensure that they do not lose out. We can also find ways of either reducing the risk that has to be taken or cushioning it through laws relating to those who have had a financial lack of success in the past. Finally, we can provide a positive climate.

I do not think that it is appropriate for the research councils to set targets for spending on translational research. Indeed, that was discussed at the Committee’s sitting this morning with Sir David Cooksey, and I had an exchange with the Minister and Keith O’Nions on the issue. In a desperate attempt to meet those targets, there will inevitably be pressure not to think, but just to transfer money from other budgets to translational research budgets, so we should avoid such targets.

We have to think about capacity. As the hon. Member for Norwich, North mentioned, we have to have a supply of scientists to start with. We face a vicious circle of not enough people studying physics and chemistry at university or going into teaching as specialists, and therefore not enough people encouraging others to study physics and chemistry at university. It is no good the Government’s citing increases of a quarter in the number of science undergraduates since 1997, when we know that there has been no such increase in the core hard sciences. If we strip away information and communications technology and the softer science courses, such as forensic science, we do not see that increase. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the true figures are not what we thought they would be.

Another factor is that we must secure the right climate for innovation and science. It is important to take on the forces of anti-science, so that people and businesses are not worried about going down the science path, based on their past experience of how the country as a whole responded to the possibilities offered by genetically modified food and crops, which I considered unfortunate. In a speech in my constituency, the Prime Minister said:


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He also said:

He went on to say that

The Prime Minister also mentioned the success of Government policy in stem cells. After that speech, everyone was struck by the fact that the Department of Health produced its White Paper on stem cells, which effectively called for a ban on some stem cell research lines that might lead to therapies later on, but without giving good reason. The Committee is conducting an inquiry on the issue, but it does not work for the Prime Minister to say all the right things—I endorse everything that he said—but then to cave in to an anti-science lobby, or at least not to give reasons why the Government will not support such research.

There is not enough time to mention some of the other things that need to be said, but I urge the House to look at the Science and Technology Committee report “Research Council Support for Knowledge Transfer” and the thoughtful Government response, which set out many of the issues that the hon. Member for Norwich, North would have wanted us to consider in great detail. I thank him again for introducing this debate and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

3.40 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on introducing it, and doing so with his customary enthusiasm and passion. His wide-ranging speech addressed many of the issues that we need to think about.

I also join others in welcoming the Minister to his new brief. He and I spent a lot of time working on energy issues together—well, not always working together, but certainly discussing them jointly. He won many admirers for his work as Minister for Energy; perhaps that is why the Prime Minister moved him. I hope that the Minister will bring the same commitment, energy and humour to his new brief. I am sure that he will, and that he will win as many admirers in his new role.

This debate has made it absolutely clear how vital innovation is to our future prosperity as a country. Much of what is going on is working well, although we have to be wary of the increasing threats posed by other countries and work out how to maintain our competitive advantage. In fact, in many fields we are looking at how to close the productivity gap rather than how to maintain an advantage.

Historically, it is fair to say that our record on science, development and innovation, under this and previous Governments, has been good. Many good initiatives have been undertaken; it is no accident that British research work and scientific papers are among the most cited in the world. However, that does not
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automatically lead to commercial success or mean that such innovation leads to the commercialisation of the new ideas in this country.

All our lives, we have been aware that other countries have taken advantage of and got commercial benefit from great British inventions. We owe a great tribute to the British businesses that carry out such work. At the cutting edge of technology and innovation, British businesses still lead the world. A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby. Rolls-Royce is not just an engine company now; much of its innovation goes into its role as a service company. From a base station, it can monitor every single one of its engines in the sky. It knows whether something is going wrong well before the pilot, and that makes it one of the most successful companies in this country and globally.

From the perspective of energy, we can see how a new need for green energy production has transformed the whole debate. Even big companies such as BP or Tesco want to get involved, see what they can do and innovate more. A range of people in universities, often working in conjunction with business, are putting their thought processes to work to see how they can generate the new source of energy that will make the difference.

Business is absolutely in the lead on these issues. It is easy for us to think that it takes part because politicians have been urging it to do so, but at the motor show last year, the centrepiece of every single stand was a new hybrid or energy-efficient car. Five years ago, the same companies were thinking about what consumers and political leaders would want and they were prepared to lead the investment on that.

We need fresh thinking if we are going to maintain our lead—or, indeed, to close the gap with other countries. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) on his work. The great advantage of having a policy review is that a great expert in the field comes in with many new ideas and we benefit from a range of other people who would not normally be involved in Conservative party politics. We are seeking to work with my hon. Friend to generate the best ideas.

Everywhere I go, people say, “Of course, you’ll never be as good as Ian Taylor.” I recognise that, but it is wonderful to have him generating new ideas. He has previously given the example of the solar fridge, which could be fundamental in many developing countries, particularly Africa. If the Government used their purchasing power to carry that project through, rather than just giving it research grants, we could make a difference. If from their international aid budget, the Government placed a contract for, say, 10,000 such fridges, that would make a massive difference to whether production could become commercially feasible. I have also read with great fascination my hon. Friend’s suggestions in respect of an innovative projects agency to see how we can use existing funds more efficiently and encourage cross-fertilisation and a more general enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

I agree with my hon. Friend across the board, particularly in what he said about the research assessment exercise. Too often, that focuses not on
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commercialising ideas but on generating them. It needs to change so that commercialisation becomes a more important part.

The key to success is people. In this short debate, there has already been discussion on how we can encourage more people to study science and related subjects at university. I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that the headline figures do not show what is happening. Psychology is certainly important, but if we want to compare like with like, we cannot include psychology graduates among science graduates. We should be concerned about the closure of chemistry, physics and, now, mathematics courses. We need to look at what the rest of the world is doing.

I commend “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman to every Member; it should be read by every politician, media commentator and business man, because it is a salient call on what is going on in the world at the moment and the threats that we face. Friedman talks of meeting the mayor of Dalian, which is in China and where a lot of outreach work is done for Japan. The mayor told him that in that one city there are 22 universities with 200,000 students, more than half of whom graduate with an engineering or science degree. Even those who do not are directed to spend a year studying Japanese or English and computer science to make them employable. The purpose of that approach is not only to create a scientific community, but to benefit from the business gain that it will bring to that city and province. We need to do more to encourage an enthusiasm for science among our young people and dispel the myths that the work being done is boring, when it is often on the cutting edge of what is happening on our planet. We also need to dispel the myth that if they worked in the sector, they would be on low salaries.

There must be a combination: if a company is to be encouraged to innovate, it must have access to the people and the right fiscal framework. It must believe that it will be truly rewarded for its work and that its environment will not be over-regulated. We need to address that issue. The forms that people have to fill out when they apply for a Government grant and support are too long and complicated. We need to focus on that and make it easier for them to do. That issue was also raised by the Society of British Aerospace Companies, which says that there must be a

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has also been helpful in putting forward things that we should be doing. It has called for the streamlining of fiscal measures to support R and D; as it says, there is still a potential overlap between R and D tax incentives and remaining grant schemes. It calls for the balance of direct funding for R and D between small and medium-sized enterprises and larger companies to be reconsidered to make sure that SMEs get their fair share as well. It says that there is scope to exploit the strength of the science base through further promoting university-business collaboration, on which many have focused this morning.

If we had more time, we could focus on other issues—for example, the contribution that science
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centres make. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) talk about Bolton TIC and its contribution to enthusing a new generation of young people about science. However, every single science centre faces budgetary cuts, and some face potential closure. I hope that the Minister will consider such issues and see what more can be done to support them.

We should be considering, too, things such as the science week exhibition that we had in the House last year when many brilliant young scientists brought their work to show what they were doing and to talk about how they want to take it to market and to commercialise it. Many other schemes, such as Young Enterprise, will help young people to have the spirit of enterprise and innovation and to consider how the ideas that are generated can be made commercially feasible.

This is an extremely exciting time for innovation in this country. The Government have aspects of it right, but if we are to continue with our dynamic approach, we need to address further issues, such as those that I have just outlined.


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