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I want to refer to two Bills in the Queens Speech. I very much welcome the marine and coastal access Bill, which is long overdue. The former Select Committee on Science and Technology published an important report called Investigating the Oceans, and I hope that some of its recommendations can be taken into account in that legislation. One of our strong recommendations, which the Government have so far rejected, was the establishment of a marine science agency to replace the Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology, which does not have many powers and which, we felt, lacks a lot of clout. At the moment, marine policy, for example that on fisheries or shipping,
is conducted in silos, but we felt that all marine policy should be pulled together under one controlling organisation. Looking at the report retrospectively, I still believe that, and I ask the Secretary of State and his Department to reconsider that recommendation.
The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee has scrutinised the draft apprenticeships Bill, and our report was published late last week. I hope that it will be helpful to Members who serve on the Public Bill Committee.
The speech by the shadow Secretary of State was extremely negative. Of course, his function is to try to attack the Labour Government, but I recall when I was in a university trying to teachI say trying deliberatelyunder a Conservative Government, and it was jolly difficult. I have spoken about this before, and I do not want to labour the point again, but at that time there was a huge brain drain. It is right and proper that our new graduate and postgraduate students should go abroad for postgraduate and post-doctoral studies to find out what is going on in the rest of the world, but in the hope that many of them then bring back the new skills gained in other countries, particularly America, Japan and Germany, to apply them in this country. At that time, under a Conservative Government, the huge brain drain was one way. People went across the pond to America, largely, and stayed there; many of them are still there. It is good that under the Labour Government we have attracted a substantial number of them back again, and far fewer have joined the brain drain in that direction. In fact, it is nice to see Americans coming over and joining British research groups for a change, particularly in subjects such as stem cell research. Under the Tories, things got so bad that a membership organisation was established called Save British Science, and people joined it in overwhelming numbers and campaigned to try to do just that. However, the only thing that saved British science was a change of Government in 1997. That organisation, which changed its name under the Labour Government, is now called CASEthe Campaign for Science and Engineeringand is much less militant than it was under the Conservatives. Indeed, it gives helpful advice to the Labour Government.
The best thing that has happened under the Labour Government is that the funding for science, and for STEM subjectsscience, technology, engineering and mathswill have doubled in real terms by the end of the comprehensive spending review, taking inflation into account. That is a staggering success.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I recall that it was not that many months ago that we had a lively discussion about the future of business in the north-west, and I am enjoying listening to the hon. Gentlemans reminiscence about the Conservative Administration. Does he also recall that during the mid-1980s, there were more people on apprenticeships than there are today under a Labour Government?
Dr. Iddon: My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) was spot on when he said that the Conservatives wrecked apprenticeships. It might have been the case that there were some when the Conservatives came in, but when they left power, there were hardly any.
Bob Spink: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is one of the most respected Members in this House. Could I drag him away from the negative to the positive, because I was a member of the Conservative team that did the things he describes in education, and in science in particular? Would he share with the House his ideas for enthusing children and for encouraging youngsters to get more involved in science and the STEM subjects today?
Although the amount of science funding has doubled, in terms of the percentage of gross domestic product, the level of funding is still only half that spent in America. We have crept up closer to many of our European partners, but the Government need to spend even more money on research and development, particularly at a time when we are entering a recession. I believe that the Government have recognised that fact, and that they will introduce a further funding increase after the comprehensive spending review. We are now ahead of Japan in terms of metrics, which is an astonishing success. We are second in the world when it comes to innovation in our universities, however we measure itbe it the quality of publications, the number of publications or citations of publications. We are doing extremely well.
I want to refer briefly to the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills. The word science is included in the name of the Committee, but, sadly, we have not yet got the Secretary of State to add it to the title of the Department, but we are still working on him. The former Select Committee on Science and Technology was able to carry out cross-cutting inquiries across agencies and Departments. We have had a debate on such inquiries before, and I shall not labour the point this evening, but we did some detailed work in that Committee under the two Chairmen in post when I was a member of it. However, the remit of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills is too broad because although there are many matters that we would like to investigate, for example, the regional development agencies and role of departmental chief scientific advisers, it is clear that we will not get round to them.
Whereas the Science and Technology Committee largely met on Wednesday mornings, and occasionally on Monday afternoons, the volume of work forces the DIUS Committee to meet on Wednesday mornings and regularly on Monday afternoons, which is putting extreme pressure on Committee members. Membership of the Committee includes those who represent the education side of the debate and those from the science and technology side, which causes tensions in the Committee. I still believe that a cross-cutting science and technology Select Committee would be better, and that education and skills would be better dealt with separately.
The excuse for not continuing with the Science and Technology Committee last year was that we could not stand the pressure of setting up another Select Committee. But we have just set up regional Select Committees, and we have set up another departmental Select Committee in the shape of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. I favour a separate Department for Energy and Climate Change, but the work of Members has increased, and I cannot see why such an excuse was used last year when it was decided not to continue with the cross-cutting Science and Technology Committee.
On Friday, I was at the life sciences department of Manchester university. I am paired with a member of that university through the excellent Royal Society pairing scheme, as are many other hon. Friends and Members of the Opposition; it is an excellent scheme. When I went to the campus of the university, and cast my mind back to 1997 to compare and contrast with how things were, I found that there was no comparison. There are a large number of new buildings on the Manchester university site, and that is not just the case for that university, but for Durham, Hull and my university in Bolton. Every university has erected a tremendous number of new buildings, and carried out a lot of refurbishment of existing buildings, particularly the laboratories, which desperately needed refurbishing. We have had joint infrastructure fund money and science research investment fund money and that funding shows on a visit to a technology or science department in universities.
It is my impression that younger academics, and some of the middle-management academics, do not yet appreciate what I call the tectonic plate shifts that have occurred in our science, engineering and technology policy in the past 12 months or so. First, we have established three new institutes. In a good move, the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research has rightly brought together the research carried out by the Medical Research Council and the national health service. The Energy Technologies Institute was created for obvious reasons, and we now have the Technology Strategy Board because we have not been very good at translating our superb innovations into reality as products for export. I shall come back to that point shortly.
There has been a shift from the physical sciences towards the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, too, which some physical scientists are complaining about. The universities received the full economic costs of the research grantsFECand that is now at a level of 90 per cent, which is also welcome. Under the previous Administration, there was no money to support well-founded laboratories. When visiting laboratories today, I can see where the money has been invested. The Government have rightly created postgraduate training centres and set up six grand challenges on energy, living with environmental change, global threats to security, ageing, the digital economy and nanoscience through engineering to application.
All those extra creations have come into being during an 18-month period and, although extra money has been given to the science budget, unfortunately pressure has been put on programme grants and responsive mode grants. Members of the DIUS Committee have received a lot of criticism because young academics cannot get research grants to get their programmes off the ground. The only way to conduct research is either
for them to do it with their own hands, or do what my generation didwork with a professor. That would not give those young academics much independence.
In the case of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, fewer than 10 per cent. of the alpha-funded grant bids are funded. The frustration can be felt; I felt it when going round Manchester university on Friday. I am going to Liverpool next week, and I visited Bolton university a few weeks ago. People have ideas, but they are really frustrated that they cannot get responsive mode funding from any of the research councils, except perhaps the Medical Research Council or the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to carry out that vital blue-sky research. We ignore such research at our peril, because the people doing the big programmessuch programmes are necessary and I support themwill have no young scientists if young scientists cannot start on independent research in universities that are perhaps not part of the Russell group.
Rob Marris: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am a great supporter of pure science, in contradistinction to applied science, although sometimes they overlap, owing to the passage of time. Does he agree that a university should have significant research capabilities? Otherwise, it is simply a collegeworth while as that is, a university without research is not a university. Does he also agree that in the next round of research funding allocations, the Government might want to consider pooling expertise among institutions, to enable them to have access to that research funding, even if they are not Russell group universities, such as the university of Wolverhampton, which is the most accessible mainstream university in the country that is not part of the Russell group?
What the Government are worried abouthon. Members in all parts of the Chamber should be worried, toois this: if we double the amount of money from the Government, not to mention from industry, going into research and development, we would expect to see outcomes now, after 10 years of extra funding. I have warned the academics several times that the Government are looking for outcomes, but there is a problem. The innovation and the R and D in our universities are as good as any in the world. The big difficulty is getting the products through the spin-out companies, but we are doing better than ever on that. I have never seen so many spin-out companies, so many incubators and science parks dotted around our universities or so many clusters of companies feeding into them, but still we do not see the volume of outcomes that the Government perhaps expect.
However, the academics wanted me to remind the House today that it takes 10 or even up to 30 years for a brilliant invention such as DNA fingerprintingthat is just one example that flies off the top of my headto become a reality that is useful for society. That cannot be done in 10 years, the academics tell me; it will take far longer than that. Perhaps we are therefore being over-anxious about that aspect of our work. The Sainsbury review, by Lord Sainsbury, flagged up those issues for us.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD):
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully and agree with much of what he says. Does he recognise that the problem is often not so much the fact that there are
spin-out companies, but the difficulty that smaller companies face in getting the next stage of investment funding to bring their products closer to market? That is what high-tech and biotech companies in my constituency are saying. With the current squeeze on big pharma, smaller biotech companies are finding it much harder to get licensing agreements from pharmaceutical companies, which is part of the same problem of moving to the next stage.
Dr. Iddon: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions that, because if he had read the business supplement of The Observer yesterday, as I did, he would know that the Government have just put in place a fund of £1 billion in extra money to do exactly what he thinks should be done. The article said:
The plan, conceived by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), was fleshed out in discussions at Downing Street
doubling of government funding for scientific research at universities, which has led to an increased number of spin-outs,
in IT, biotech, nanotech and green technologies.
That must be good news. I do not know whether it has percolated through yet, but it means £1 billion of extra money. The difficulty, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is that there is a deep valley between innovation and product called death valley. The venture capitalists are not putting in the money necessary to get across that valley, but the money that the Government are putting in will help.
Mr. Willis: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Will he confirm that the money that was announced in The Observer, rather than in the House, was announced in The Observer because it is not new money at all? It is just existing money that has been recycled, unless the Secretary of State can contradict me.
Dr. Iddon: I am sure that we will hear the truth of that argument when this debate is summed up. Nevertheless, £1 billion is going in to help turn our excellent inventions into useful products for society.
At long last we have a new President in America, thank goodness. President-elect Obama, who takes control on 20 January, has already announced increases in the science budget for American universities and industry. He has also announced that stem cell research will be funded federally. However, if we squeeze our young academics in the way that I have described, the brain drain might kick off again. I do not want that to happen. We must encourage our young scientists to stay here and continue their good work.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been a brain drain into Canary Wharf, too? Many young scientists found that the financial industry was the place to go to get the money and the lives that they wanted; but now, with the financial industry suffering
somewhat, there is a reversal of that process. People are beginning to teach and to bring science into schools, so out of a recession good things can happen.
Dr. Iddon: My hon. Friend is right. In fact, one of our Ministers was telling me the other day that we have the best cohort of young teachers in training now that we have had in generations, which must be good for schools. We have excellent teachers in schools already, and when those in training replace the ones who will shortly retire, I am sure that we will continue to have excellent teaching in our schools.
Let me turn to another problem that I want to flag up, which has been raised by the Million+ think tank. Research and development funding is becoming more elite. Larger grants are going to smaller numbers of the more elite universities, which are largely in the Russell group. Million+ and others in the academic community are arguingI refer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) said about how universities should be doing researchthat universities that are not in the top flight, namely the Russell group, are finding it more and more difficult to secure such funding. Million+ has recommended that a sum of money be set aside so that vital work that might not be of international standing, but which is certainly of national standing, can be done in those universities and has suggested a figure of around 10 per cent.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seems to think that the Million+ group is asking for 10 per cent. to be creamed off the current quality-related funding, but it is not asking for that. Million+ has recognised that there have been substantial year-on-year increases in QR funding. It is asking whether 10 per cent. of those substantial increases, not 10 per cent. of the existing money, could be put into those universities that are not so fortunate in winning QR funding. Let me say straight away that Million+ does not want that money for non-quality work, but for quality work of national standing, instead of international standing.
My universityBolton universitysuffers in that respect. It used to do a lot of work with local industry. Local industry could pay for the contract work that it asked the university to do on its behalf, but if the research groups are not there, that research will not happen. I visited the fire materials group at Bolton university a few days ago. The fire materials group is a centre of excellence for research into flame-retardant materials, fires in households and other vital areas of that kind. Hon. Members will not find many other universities that are researching every aspect of fire in that way. Such specialist work is being undertaken in Wolverhampton, Chester and Bolton. We ignore it at our peril, because if neither industry nor and central Government fund it, those small specialist groups will disappear and we will be the losers, not the gainers.
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