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7 July 2008 : Column 1245

According to another article in the same issue of Chemistry World, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government, Professor Sir David King himself, strongly defends the science budget in the 2007 comprehensive spending review. I shall quote just a small part of his article:

Sir David also suggests that scientists have not been pushed into doing what they do not want to do. He says:

9.29 pm

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): This has been a fascinating debate. To those of us with a scientific and constituency interest in many of the projects mentioned, it has also been an enlightening and encouraging one.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for his work as Chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee and for his excellent opening words. He is a champion of science and a scientific approach here in Parliament and elsewhere. Perhaps when he steps down from this House—at the next election, I understand—he might step up to the challenge of enthusing the next generation in the same way as he has enthused us in Parliament. As a former member of the Committee, I miss the enthusiastic and energetic inquiry into and rational analysis of cross-departmental scientific issues that take place under his most able chairmanship. He and all members of the Committee can be rightly proud of their review of the science budget allocations and the STFC. The evidence sessions that preceded it revealed some deep concerns running through the science community. Many of those concerns were emphasised in contributions from both sides of the House, which were heartfelt, well presented, rational and thoughtful. The hon. Gentleman was eloquent and articulate in his exposition of the potential for inappropriate interference by Ministers in the allocation of budgets.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) was measured in her comments. She rightly recognised the £80 million shortfall as such—a shortfall rather than a cut. She also said that there was some distance—I think that that was a euphemistic phrase—between the research budget allocations and the number of research grants.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), who was a Science Minister in the previous Conservative Government, was straightforward in his historical analysis of the events that led to the current situation. I would build on that merely by saying that the main reason such a large amount of resource is available for the science budget is that the previous Conservative Government delivered the conditions in which the current Government have been able to spend.

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The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) emphasised that a broader membership of the research councils, with younger members and wider citizens’ involvement, might be useful. He painted an idyllic picture of science cities and strongly approved of the enlarged science budget. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) made some interesting observations on peer group review.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) was very forceful in his comments. He said that the funding gap that has appeared is not worthy of his Government—a passionate and forceful statement. He also said it is impossible not to have a regional science policy. That has been mentioned to the Minister many times before, and I suspect that it will come up time and again until there is clarity. Rather than pushing a particular point of view, I simply urge the Minister to create that clarity.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said that what is required from the Minister is honesty in recognition of realities; I certainly agree with that sentiment. He referred to the potential breaching of the Haldane principle, with Ministers perhaps looking at draft plans and then new plans being submitted, and expressed concern that we have not had sight of that interaction.

Finally, the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) broadly welcomed the increase in financial resource available to the Minister to disburse, and pointed out that we are second in the world for citations, after the US, which is a great place for us to be.

Despite some of the deep concerns and challenges facing UK science, I am nevertheless optimistic for the future. Amid the fears of job losses and budget cuts, I recently visited Daresbury science and innovation campus to see some of the innovative ways in which scientists and entrepreneurs were working together, and it was very encouraging. Just last month, I was at the Diamond Light Source project in Oxfordshire—a truly world-class facility that attracts scientific and commercial interest from across the globe, and I think that there are greater opportunities to realise some of that commercial interest in a more fruitful way in future.

I remain optimistic for the future, not least because it is clear that hon. Members of all parties care deeply about the future of UK science. Admittedly, in part that may be because many of us have scientists living and working in our constituencies who face the prospect of redundancy, grant reductions or the withdrawal of facilities—although perhaps not to the extent that is occasionally portrayed in the media. To an even greater extent, I am optimistic because we understand the important role that science plays in society. At a time when science promises so many answers to some of the big questions, we must take care over decisions that might scale back important activity.

In climate change, energy and food security, we look to scientists for answers. The taxpayer supports science in this country because of the benefits that accrue to the nation as a whole. But as the report of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills has shown, a “poorly allocated” budget has forced damaging cuts that threaten the capacity and perhaps the international reputation of UK science. Despite increased investment for the Medical Research Council, among one or two others, everyone but the Government
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seems to agree that the science budget left the STFC with an £80 million shortfall. The Select Committee concluded that the Government must “demonstrate greater effectiveness” in the way it manages research in the UK, which is putting the point quite lightly, given the concern that the science budget has provoked.

It will come as a relief to many that the STFC announced last week that it had balanced its budget. We now know that some of the high-profile facilities, such as ALICE—accelerators and lasers in combined experiments—at Daresbury and e-MERLIN at Jodrell Bank, may be safe. My first question to the minister is this: did he have a hand in saving those headline projects? Perhaps he can clear up that matter. Was he involved in the discussions before the press release was issued last week? Was he or his Department informed about the STFC announcements before they were made? If he was, there are more questions to be answered about what influence the Minister may have brought to bear.

Despite the celebration about the saving of Jodrell Bank and one or two other headline facilities, we must not forget what will disappear, and I will quickly put some of those projects on the record. Astronomy has been hit quite hard. AstroGrid, which is developing an open-source eye on the sky, will lose funding. Support for the Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network and the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit will go. The STFC aims to sell 50 per cent. of the UK’s observing time in Gemini. The UK’s contribution to the Isaac Newton group of telescopes, described by the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee—PPAN—as a “valuable asset”, will fall by half. There will be a withdrawal of support from the particle physics collaboration at Stanford university. Because of funding constraints, PPAN

Perhaps what is more alarming is that with the settlement offered by the Government, the STFC has been forced to reduce the number of research grants over the coming spending review period. A statement from the STFC council reads:

post-doctoral research assistants—

In astronomy, the

The overall headline figure that the STFC gave for reductions in new commitments to research grants was 25 per cent. That means fewer astronomers, fewer particle physicists and fewer nuclear scientists. However, the Government appear to be contradicting the research councils. They said in their response to the report that

However, the STFC stated in its programmatic review that where specific programmes were cut,

would be “reduced accordingly.” Will the Minister explain how the level of rolling grants can be reduced and unaffected at the same time? That is a bit of a contradiction.

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One the one hand, we have a Prime Minister who says that we must push ahead with nuclear power; on the other hand, we are cutting back nuclear science to a certain degree through the STFC funding allocation. Such incoherence causes some concern. As Professor Hawking has said:

The Government did not make hay or fix the roof while the sun shone. We all know that they failed to make provision when the economy was doing well, and today the pressures on the public purse are many and varied. At a time when science promises solutions to many of our social and economic needs, Ministers cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand. What Professor Hawking described as a “bookkeeping error” has implications for scientists up and down the country.

The recent crisis represents either departmental incompetence—missing the cuts that were self-evident in what was presented to it—or a deliberate decision to provide the research councils with less than was needed. Either way, the Minister has an opportunity today to be courageous. We have heard that word once or twice, and we have heard the call for transparency and openness. We have heard about the boldness and courage of former Science Ministers, who were very clear and open about what they were doing when there was a budget reduction. Will the Minister admit that there has been a shortfall in funding for the STFC and say that he accepts some responsibility?

9.41 pm

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): The Government welcome the report of the Select Committee’s inquiry into the science budget allocations, and we very much welcome this debate. I appreciate the overall constructive way in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) raised the issues mentioned in the report. There are clearly matters on which we continue to disagree, and I do not think that his characterisation of our response to the report was accurate. We have taken its recommendations carefully into account and, in many cases, agreed with them. The report has been very helpful to us. We set out our position in a positive response, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the issues involved further.

As has been mentioned, the science and research budget has doubled in real terms from £1.3 billion in 1997 to £3.4 billion in 2007-08. The new comprehensive spending review allocation means that the budget will increase to almost £4 billion in 2010-11. That is an average increase of 2.7 per cent. a year in real terms over the next three years. Within a tight financial framework, that is a strong settlement and highlights the Government’s long-standing support for science and research in the UK, as set out in our 10-year science and innovation framework. I was very pleased that the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and Labour Members, recognised that strong support for UK science.

In allocating the science budget, our overriding objective was to ensure the continued excellence of the UK research base. Hon. Members would expect nothing less. The Government are committed to supporting
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fundamental research that expands the frontiers of knowledge. It is important to recognise the wider benefits of such research. It produces highly skilled people, drives innovation, attracts inward investment and can be translated into many successful products and services. Research and innovation improve our productivity as a nation, thus providing the means for our creation of wealth and directly benefiting and underpinning key public services in everything from health care to defence.

Ian Stewart: Does my hon. Friend accept that there must be a balance between pure research and commercial exploitation and that, although one can conduct pure research on its own, one cannot do the commercial exploitation without the research? The balance must be right. When the Select Committee visited the observatory in Edinburgh, it was clear that the people there were excited about being asked to do more commercial work but felt that it should be recognised that that commercial work had previously been restricted. The balance must be right so that a facility does not simply become a science park.

Ian Pearson: I agree that, in all such cases, it is a matter of balance. However, I remind my hon. Friend and the House that the Government are committed to investment in basic research. That underpins the later commercial exploitation of research. As he knows, we support some of that commercialisation and applied research and development through, for example, the Energy Technologies Institute and especially the activities of the Technology Strategy Board, which will spend, in co-ordination with the research councils and the regional development agencies, £1 billion in the next three years.

Ian Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for his patience. Does he accept that the principle that he outlined must apply to centres such as Daresbury so that they do not become only science parks?

Ian Pearson: Yes, I do. I have said on record—and will continue to say—that the Government want Daresbury to develop as a world-class centre for science and innovation. We do not perceive its future as a technology park, as some have suggested. I shall say more about that later, especially in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who made an important contribution about regional policy.

It is critical that every possible benefit is extracted from our world-class research base. That is why driving up the economic impact of research goes hand in hand with supporting excellent science. By operating in that overarching policy framework, Government support has helped the UK research base sustain a strong global performance.

Citations have been mentioned this evening. The UK has the most productive science base of any country in the G8. At the same time, knowledge transfer between research and business continues to grow. UK universities are now producing spin-out companies of equivalent number and quality to some of the top US institutions. Since 2003, 30 companies have been floated on the stock exchange at a value of £1.5 billion at initial public offering. Furthermore, several high-profile trade sales have taken place, including seven in the past two years, which raised £1.9 billion. University income from business and user engagement has risen rapidly and now stands at about £2 billion a year.

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It is the Government’s duty to set the strategic direction for the research base. We have discussed that in great detail this evening. To do that, the Government took several high-level decisions when allocating the science budget. Over the period of the comprehensive spending review 2007, research will be funded at 90 per cent. of its full economic cost; the Sainsbury and Cooksey reviews will be implemented, and we will support collaborative projects involving the Technology Strategy Board and the Energy Technologies Institute. We will also support research in matters of strategic importance to the country—for example, in medicine and on key challenges such as energy supply and the environment. Again, we heard strong support in the debate for more cross-disciplinary research, which is guaranteed in the comprehensive strategy review 2007 settlement.

I know that there is keen interest in the relationship between the Government and research councils, especially in the way in which research funding is prioritised and managed. That is not surprising. As hon. Members know, for many years, the British Government have been guided by the Haldane principle. Detailed decisions on how research money is spent are for the research community to make through the research councils, once the Government have set the overarching parameters. The basis for funding research is also enshrined in legislation, through the Science and Technology Act 1965. The allocation of the comprehensive spending review 2007 science budget is consistent with Haldane, and I am happy to debate that this evening.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills recently restated the Government’s position on the Haldane principle in his speech at the Royal Academy of Engineering in April. He made it clear that it is researchers, through their participation in peer review, who are best placed to determine detailed research priorities. The research councils act as

The Government’s role is to set the overarching strategy and framework. Haldane is fundamental to the health of our excellent research base and its strong economic impacts, and is underpinned by peer review, which we have also debated at some length this evening.

Research councils fund research on a competitive basis following independent expert peer review. I would be the first to admit that improvements could probably be made to the peer review process, but no system is absolutely perfect and it has stood the test of time. The system is regarded as an international benchmark of excellence in research funding and provides a guarantee of the quality of UK research.

Peer review processes are sensitive to the different needs and cultures that exist in the academic community. They support different types of research and encourage adventurous or multidisciplinary research. For peer review to work, senior researchers must give up their time to provide valuable expertise. A number of eminent scientists assist research councils in making difficult decisions. It is important for the Government and researchers to defend peer review robustly.

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