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8.36 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). As always, he has made a vigorous and superbly informed contribution. He has redefined the term “wide-ranging” tonight, speaking on everything from honey bees to stem cell research. I shall try to top that by slipping in something about nuclear fusion, which he missed out. However, he has forgotten more about science than most of us ever knew, apart from one or two honourable exceptions in the Chamber tonight.

It is easiest, and most usual, to sanction certain sanitised and unexciting research and science projects, particularly in translational research, where outcomes are predictable. Of course that is important, but it must not be done at the expense of basic science and true discovery processes. Only by taking real risks will we push forward the frontiers of knowledge for the ultimate benefit of mankind, to help us eventually to save the planet. However, the universities and funding councils have become risk averse from years of battering by the sensationalist media and from interfering politicians, although there is none of those in the Chamber tonight. They have also come under pressure from commercial organisations, which are skewing their decisions on research projects. That is why I want to speak briefly tonight in favour of basic science and research, which, by definition, involves great risk, uncertainty and unexpected outcomes.

The system of peer review, which has already been mentioned, has been examined by the Select Committee on a number of occasions. It has serious weaknesses, in
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that it fails to reject mediocre and poor research projects, and favours predictable journeyman-type work that is unlikely to deliver spectacular results or push forward the boundaries of our understanding for the benefit of mankind. Peer review acts as a gatekeeper at the start and the end of the research process. At the start, it determines which projects will get funding to go ahead in the first place. At the end, it determines which ones will get published in which academic peer review journals, which is important to the whole process and to spreading that knowledge.

Peer review is instrumental in the whole project selection process, and it is therefore of great importance. However, it tends to back the safer bets and to reject the more imaginative, ambitious and, some might say, off-the-wall projects—the kind that the hon. Member for Norwich, North and I enjoy. But at the very worst, those projects will excite, encourage and inspire future generations of scientists, and who knows what might flow from them in the future? Such projects also enable us to encourage doctoral researchers to this country and to keep them here. They add so much to the UK’s research base, and we need to continue to do that.

Dr. Gibson: Part of the science budget is for PhD students and for post-doctoral fellows. Does the hon. Gentleman think that enough is spent on them, too much, or what?

Bob Spink: I do not think that enough is spent on them. We need to support more doctoral researchers in our universities—particularly UK-bred doctoral researchers, because they will mature, become the wealth generators and knowledge creators of the future and help to push forward medical science, which the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about. That is why I back the fund from the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of sciences, for the blue-skies research that gets around the peer review constraints to some extent.

We must continue the red-blooded backing of big science projects such as Diamond, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and the large hadron collider at CERN, which is extremely exciting. As I said in an intervention earlier, it may deliver even more for mankind if it disproves the existence of the Higgs boson rather than proves it, but we will see about that over the next few exciting months. On nuclear fusion, if we ever get Q factors up to the 35 or 40 level, we will take the greatest step ever in mankind’s history—by saving the planet and moving forward.

I hope that the Minister will give comfort to the House by saying that he and the Government are truly sold on supporting big science, and on continuing to do what they have done—magnificently—over the past 10 years with science, which is to put their money where their mouth is. I back the call of the hon. Member for Norwich, North for the science budget to be quadrupled and for a significant proportion of it to go to blue-skies research.

8.42 pm

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Several Members have mentioned that the amount of money available for science has doubled over the lifetime of this Government, so one would have thought that that would have led to a happy response—certainly from my
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constituents. In actual fact, after the last review, I received for the first time ever some very angry correspondence from my constituents. They were neither scientists nor specialists; they were just extremely annoyed at the news that Jodrell Bank would probably close. It was an extraordinary result for a Government who have shown their commitment to science by doubling the budget, and the report under discussion examines some of the background to, and the reasons why, it came about.

I should like to discuss the issue by trying to answer three questions that are pertinent to Jodrell Bank. I hope that at the end of the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House the latest news on e-MERLIN and Jodrell Bank, because although there have been stories with a positive spin in the press, it is not yet clear, as far as I can ascertain, whether Jodrell Bank’s future is secure, so I should be very grateful if the Minister updated us.

Three key questions need answering. First, do the Government have a regional science policy? The Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills investigated and took evidence, and its Chairman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), explained how the Government appeared to put forward a very confused position both in their evidence and in their response.

Secondly, why were there cuts to astronomy, particle physics and ground-based solar-terrestrial physics when we were being told that the budget was growing? Was that a mistake? Was it a policy decision? What was behind that situation? Thirdly, has the Science and Technology Facilities Council done its job properly in allocating its share of the budget? I should like to deal with those three questions in reverse order.

The answer to the third question is the easiest—it is no. The STFC has not done its job properly. I shall not read them out, but Members should read paragraphs 59 and 87 of the Select Committee report. The Committee is chaired by a Liberal Democrat, a genuine Liberal, and for him to use words such as “deplore”, “inaccurate” and “unconvincing” to describe the evidence given by the chief executive of the STFC is about as strong as it gets.

Frankly, I am surprised that, having had that level of public criticism, the chief executive is still in his position. That criticism did not come from nowhere, but was based on evidence. As has already been mentioned, there was no consultation on the international linear collider when funding was withdrawn. The situation on Gemini was ludicrous. First, there was not going to be any funding for those two telescopes, then there was going to be some, then “maybe”, then there was going to be funding—it was a hokey-cokey policy that was in and out as far as funding was concerned. That undoubtedly damaged this country’s reputation in international astronomy. As the Chair of the Committee said, the evidence given on solar terrestrial physics was at odds with the facts; that is the kindest way of putting it.

On top of all that, the chief executive held secret reviews of the work going on in the STFC. That demoralised the staff, who did not know what was going on, and the scientific community. It is clear that the STFC did not do its job, and setting up a communications director will not really resolve the issue. There have been some better policy statements since,
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but while the same people continue at the top of the STFC, the confidence of the scientific community will not return.

Ian Stewart: I agree with the point that my hon. Friend has just made. However, the advent of a communications director was definitely needed so that staff could feel that there was somebody to whom they could go to articulate their concerns about not being consulted. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Graham Stringer: That might have been an important part of the solution, but it is by no means the complete solution.

My second question was about the funding gap of between £75 million and £80 million, depending on how the figures are looked at. That gap led to some serious scientific research being threatened. It is clear that, as the Committee explained in the report, the gap was there because of the costs of ISIS and the Diamond Light Source. I do not know why the Government had to respond as they did. The Committee was clear. It said:

The Government response is an example of sophistry in the extreme; there is no better word for it:

Well, it did not inherit a deficit, but it did not have the money to fund ongoing commitments. That is a very fine distinction and it is really not worthy of my Government to say that they honoured a commitment. What the commitment meant in plain English was that there would not be any cuts to future programmes; but what the funding situation meant was that such cuts were likely.

What were the cuts? The one that I am most concerned about was the cut to e-MERLIN and Jodrell Bank. E-MERLIN, a major international astronomical facility, had already had £8 million committed to it. Rather surprisingly—it is worth briefly mentioning peer review—it had been prioritised by the advisory bodies to the STFC as less important than Atlas at CERN. I do not know quite how important Atlas is; I support the large hadron collider at CERN; I do not know whether we will find the Higgs boson or not. I worry rather more about the evaporation of any micro-black holes that may be created; if they do not evaporate, none of us will know about it. That is the real problem at CERN.

When witnesses talked about the peer review process and the people advising the STFC, both Professor Holdaway and Professor Chattopadhyay—my apologies for the pronunciation—said that they were concerned that that process did not involve consultations with the relevant bodies. They were also worried that vested interests were working against people working outside the organisation, though that applied to the linear accelerators rather than to Jodrell Bank. That was clear in the evidence we took. There may be no better system than peer review—neither the Select Committee nor anyone else has come up with one—but we should not
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assume that it is perfect. It is not. Elected Members who care about the expenditure of public money and who care about science need to recognise that peer review is an imperfect system that is capable of criticism from both the science community and the political community.

I shall not repeat what I have said about e-MERLIN and Jodrell Bank, but it is an unhappy situation. We believed that there would be enough money for them, but there has not been; and it is not clear how e-MERLIN and Joddrell Bank were de-prioritised. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a commitment to their future.

In many ways, the Select Committee spent more time discussing the third subject—I refer to our discussion of the Daresbury campus and the continuation of fundamental science there—than discussing anything else. We received a number of responses. The Government said that they were, are and will be committed in future to the continuation of fundamental science at Daresbury. That is good. Daresbury is in the north-west, so I think that the Government’s statement is about where science should take place—in other words, a regional science policy. At the same time, others—I will not repeat the examples cited by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—told us that where science took place did not matter at all. I think that the Government have half a regional policy in that they have a historical policy of commitment to some places outside the south-east.

As for the Haldane principle and regional policy, if it is the Government’s view that their policy is an historical accident and that they are carrying out a political commitment because it would be too embarrassing to jettison it—in truth, they do not want a regional policy and will eventually end up without one—they should not, and cannot, maintain that view. It is impossible not to have a regional policy in science or anything else. If we do not have a stated regional policy, the people who take the decisions on where science investment should go will be in the very places where science is already located. That would be an anti-regional policy, which would end up with investment in the golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and the south-east. It is not practical politics to say that there will be no regional policy, because the result will be a negative regional policy.

When we took evidence about the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, I was concerned that that was precisely what was happening. The professors who came before the Committee were affronted when I asked whether they had considered going to Newcastle, Sheffield or Manchester—my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) suggested Dundee. Their reaction was, “Why should we ever leave London? Why should we leave this cosy triangle?” They should do so because if great cities such as Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle increase their knowledge base through investment in science, that will make this country competitive. If there is not a positive policy, that will not happen.

Does that breach the Haldane principle? I do not believe that it does. The Haldane principle is probably best stated as that

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That prompts the question: what is a detailed policy? Clearly, at the level of absurdity, we would not tell someone using a gas chromatograph to use a flame ionisation detector and not an electron capture device. As we go up the scale of science, we must ask whether decisions are for politicians or for the science community. On big scientific projects, expenditure is so high that those decisions must become political ones, whether it is admitted or not. Where such investment takes place does not fundamentally interfere with the principle that detailed decisions on science are taken by scientists. However, huge spending decisions, and decisions on where that money goes, should be taken in respect of a regional policy, and by people who are elected to spend that money.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his reference to Edinburgh. He knows well its astronomy and physics capability. I strongly applaud his comments on the Haldane principle. If we go back post second world war, we realise that the key work on artificial insemination in Cambridge would probably not have been done had it been left to the Ministry of Agriculture. In fact, a research council was responsible, so we must maintain independence in relation to scientific development.

Graham Stringer: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. It was interesting to read the original 1919 Haldane report. Talking to Members of the other place and this House, Haldane assumed that the scientists would get on with it, because the objectives were clear: to win the war. There was not the assumption, which is sometimes drawn, that the totality of science should be self-governing once the money has been handed over.

I want to finish on two points, the first of which is related to the discussion about regional science policy and the Haldane principle. Politicians are elected to spend money, and Ministers do that directly in government, and should be accountable. I asked my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation, “If Jodrell Bank closes, whose head should I ask for?” I do not want to ask for his head, because he is a good Minister. In the final analysis, however, on such big issues, I should know whether the decision has been taken by the chief executive of the STFC or by a Minister. Unfortunately, throughout this process lines of accountability have been breached, and nothing is clear. It is too big an issue to explore this evening, but sadly that has become more typical of Government over the past quarter of a century. Ministers have tried to protect themselves by farming decisions out to principals, non-departmental public bodies or quangos, and saying “Not me, guv” when it comes to the consequences of difficult decisions.

I agree with other Members that decisions should not be made—and I understand that they will not be made—on the financial structure of science until Wakeham reports. It would be absurd to take a serious look at what are and should be the priorities of science spending, and to continue to make long-term decisions, during the three or four months before the report is published.

9 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Library briefing for the debate includes some press cuttings. One article, headed “Everyone loves a man in a white coat”, reads:

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The article, which was published in The Guardian, continues:

I do not believe that that is true. Certainly the quality of today’s debate has shown that those in this place who are interested in science are interested in what flows from that— namely, what we hope will be an evidence-based policy with the right degree of transparency and accountability to enable us to seek to improve the United Kingdom’s enviable position in science.

I think it right to begin, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), by recognising the Government’s fine record, particularly in comparison with that of the previous Government, but even of itself, in terms of the quantum of funding for and championing of science. Some of the Select Committee’s recommendations that seem to criticise the Government, in this and other reports, stem from the fact that the Government are, in a sense, a victim of their own success. They are a victim of the raised expectations to which people in the science world are accustomed.

When budgets increase by less than the significant amount that scientists expect, they naturally want higher budgets, but if they cannot get those, they do not want the Government to deny their pain. I was not around during the last Conservative Government, but I know that there was a lot of pain to deny. I believe that Ministers said that a tight spending round would mean cuts. It is terrible that those cuts were made: it was short-termism. This is not the time to go into what happened then, but I think that we now need honesty and a recognition of the realities.

Constituents of mine, in the Rutherford Appleton laboratory and in Oxford university, raised concerns, and I wanted the Select Committee to conduct an inquiry. I am pleased that my colleagues in the Committee agreed to include in our general scrutiny of research councils specific decisions about science budget allocations by the STFC. I pay tribute to members of all parties who were prepared to compromise, and to ensure that the eventual report was very clear. While I am speaking from the Front Bench, let me observe that science need not be too party political. I think that that was exemplified by the conduct of the Select Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Both the hon. Members for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) mentioned peer reviews. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, they are better than any other method that has been considered for the making of decisions about the merit of a scientific case in the context of either publication or funding. Nevertheless, I do not think it appropriate to claim that peer review as it currently operates in the United Kingdom is anywhere near perfect. I believe that two reports from the old Science and Technology Committee suggested to its successor that an inquiry be conducted into how the current peer review system could be improved. As Committee members know, because I say this regularly, I still think that that should be done. The stakes are enormously high in terms of getting peer review right, both for individual careers and for getting decisions right.

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