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The recession and the situation in banking has meant that some companies are not getting the right money at the right time. If the UK is to continue to exploit the strength of our research base, there is a need to focus support on these science companies, through the provision of long-term investment in start-ups and through large-scale science-focused venture capital funds. I would be grateful
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if the Minister told us what further can be done to support the commercial application of science in that context.

All the economic benefit that we get from our strength in science, including the critical mass of talented people that physics requires, is stimulated and sustained by public investment in science. Given the demonstrable value to the economy of scientific research, will the Government reaffirm their commitment to fund increases in basic science spending in line with the science and innovation framework for the decade from 2004? Will the Minister offer some hope and encouragement to physics in universities, which, as we have heard, is under such pressure at the moment?

11.40 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate and on analysing the situation so effectively.

I am not a physicist, so I needed to reflect on why physics in particular faces a problem and why it is so important. I looked briefly at what physics research has provided us with. It includes obvious things that we use every day, such as the world wide web, or that some of us might have to use, such as radiotherapy and other cancer treatments. Modern techniques for cancer diagnosis and treatment depend on physics research, and advances in physics-based diagnosis and therapy will continue to lower cancer mortality rates and improve the health of the nation.

Much of the research that we do not hear about will almost certainly make the most important changes to how we live. Physics is responsible for the development of a vast array of technology, including technology to tackle climate change and for magnetic resonance imaging, now a routine technique for medical research. The list goes on and on. Of course, we cannot take physics in isolation.

I was recently pleased to be paired with a scientist last November through the Royal Society scheme, and we had some fascinating discussions on the links between research, policy making and funding for research. The Royal Society recently published a report entitled "The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity", which contains two urgent messages. The first is that the UK needs to place science and innovation at the heart of our long-term strategy for economic growth; the second is that we face a fierce competitive challenge from countries that are investing at a scale and speed that we may struggle to match.

To quote from that important report:

credit must be given where it is due-

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The report goes on:

In my view, the Government have not used the all-important fiscal stimulus provided at the onset of the recession to invest in science infrastructure. The VAT cut of £12.5 billion could have been spent much more productively.

The Royal Society goes on:

Its recommendations include prioritising investment in excellent people, strengthening Government's use of science, reinforcing the UK's position as a hub for global science and innovation, better aligning science and innovation with global challenges and revitalising science and mathematics education.

Similarly, the Institute of Physics manifesto for the 2010 general election calls for science funding that will keep the UK at the forefront of research, a fiscal and regulatory environment that fosters science-based innovation-

Mr. Andrew Smith: I have been mulling over the hon. Lady's point about the VAT cut. I put it to her that that is not a good example of where money could be found. The VAT cut was a short-term fiscal stimulus to help soften the recession and get the country out of it. It was the sort of measure that can be turned on and off, so it would not have met the long-term needs of science. I do not think that we want to use short-term devices to fund science; long-term commitments are needed.

Annette Brooke: I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. I was just identifying how we could have approached the fiscal stimuli. There were important choices to be made at that point.

The IOP also calls for access to high-quality physics teaching for every child. I have a lot to say about that. It is a whole package. It starts from the time a child begins to understand the world that we live in and continues through true engagement in science at school to university, a PhD and further research, if funding exists. The Royal Society recommends that we provide incentives to recruit teachers, retain them and attract them back to science subjects, and that we commit to increasing the number of primary teachers with science expertise. That is important.

We do not have enough primary school teachers with specialist scientific qualifications. How can we inspire pupils if we do not have staff with qualifications and enthusiasm? It is sad that we have lost enthusiasm even in our secondary schools. Cuts in experimentation have made science a less attractive subject. Of course we have new syllabuses, but they do not necessarily increase take-up at A-level and in further study, as we hoped. We should establish new expert groups to advise on the development of science and mathematics curriculums and qualifications.

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I sit on the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which recently undertook a short inquiry into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. One question that arose was the position of women in physics. The comment was made that if we could attain gender equality, we would almost have cracked the problem of the shortage of physicists. Only 22 per cent. of physics A-level students are female, and that figure decreases throughout the career progression. Only 15 per cent. of research assistants and less than 5 per cent. of physics professors are female. We clearly have a gender issue that must be tackled more rigorously than it has been so far.

It is interesting to note that the engineers that the Select Committee interviewed were far more upbeat about the future. We can do it, but there is a lot more to be done. It is likely that the Minister will talk about all the incentives put in place to attract more science teachers, but the fact is that we have not done enough. Young people need an improved science education, whether they are destined to become professional scientists or scientifically literate citizens. Like other areas of education, science and mathematics have suffered from rapidly changing political expectations and reforms.

The No. 1 priority must be the quality of specialist teachers. Prior to 2009, the UK had failed to meet its recruitment targets for secondary science and mathematics teachers every year for more than a decade. There is so much to be done. The Royal Society's research suggests that without excellent teachers there is little hope of inspiring children to stick with science. What more will the Minister do to tackle that situation, starting with the first levels of education? If we crack the problem of getting excellent people, will there be the necessary funding?

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made an important reference to the STFC. On 11 March, Times Higher Education reported:

We have heard of new arrangements that will improve the situation, but there are still uncertainties. Professor Foster of Oxford university welcomed the announcements from Lord Drayson, but said:

It is reported that the STFC is pulling Britain out of 25 international projects.

It was announced in the pre-Budget report that £600 million would be cut from the funding for universities and research. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that in the context of the Budget. What is the future and where is the hope? Like my hon. Friend, I would like the Minister to be clear about the recent funding of the STFC and what the future offers. The future is clearly fragile for research in physics and other sciences. We need clear, encouraging commitments today.

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11.52 am

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this timely and relevant debate. It is pertinent to ask about the future, given that there has been no comprehensive spending review to establish the security and stability of funding.

The hon. Gentleman raised the future challenges for physics, in particular the exposure to exchange rates. There may be a ring fence for science, but it feels like the bolt cutters are at work when changes in the exchange rate are not compensated in full. He raised the issue of loans. The Science and Technology Facilities Council was able to operate this year, last year and the year before because of a loan from the Government, but loans have to be paid back and so add pressure for the future. I look forward to the Minister's comments on that.

The hon. Gentleman then took a wonderful canter through the landscape of physics in Britain and alighted on the fact that the number of people studying for the physics A-level has been falling. To add some numbers to that, I should say that it has fallen by 5,000-from 33,000 people in 1997 to 28,000 in 2008. That is not a good record on A-level physics. I hope that we will do better in future.

There have been some great contributions. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke about the large hadron collider. I assume that there is a link with his constituency; if so, he did a good job.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) made a considered contribution. I feel I was a bit bullish for jumping in too early because his point was that although science funding has been increasing-I agree that there has been an increase in the absolute level of funding-there are still challenges. I welcome his words. He focused on the research assessment exercise and spoke of successes in his constituency. He did his constituents proud in his representation of the work that takes place there.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) gave a gentle and considered view on physics. She admitted that she does not come from a physics background and focused on the societal benefits from physics in the longer term and the Royal Society's report. She paid particular attention to the plight of teachers and made the plea that gender equality might solve the teaching and student problems in physics.

I am conscious of time and want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the questions that have been raised. However, I will say a few words about the terrain of physics in Britain. As we look forward to the election and beyond the recession, it is clear that we cannot go on with the debt-fuelled economic model that prepared us badly for the downturn and has left us ill equipped for recovery.

Sir James Dyson prepared an in-depth report at the request of the Conservatives entitled "Ingenious Britain", which looks to the future of science and physics in Britain. It rightly says that there should be no more talk of Britain as a post-industrial state. I notice that that phrase has crept into our dialogue, but Britain's future should not be considered in those terms. As the Royal Society put it, this will be a "scientific century". Advances in science, engineering and technology will continue to
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determine our success as a nation, as they have in the past. Britain will need not only more scientists, but more designers and engineers to turn the science into the high-tech products and services that create jobs. Today's debate is a great chance to highlight the contribution that physics will make.

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Physics underpins much of what we think of as technological progress. The Institute of Physics has highlighted 10 case studies to show how curiosity-driven research has led to practical results. Medical diagnostics, satellite navigation and advanced manufacturing rely on advances in the physical sciences. Many hon. Members have iPhones and personal digital assistants, which have come about largely due to physics and the space industry. There are few better examples than the work of Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, which gave us the worldwide web.

Unfortunately, despite the increase in funding that I have acknowledged, physics has had a rough ride under the Government: at least 22 physics departments have closed since 1997; funding for individual physics students, undergraduates in particular, has fallen by £170 in real terms; and Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that the proportion of physicists in UK universities has fallen over the past decade.

The Government's main physics body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has lurched from crisis to crisis with the pressures placed on it by the Government. The Government have broken faith with the science community, in particular when it comes to physics; they have led it up the garden path and lulled it into a false sense of security by churning out endless rhetoric about protecting science, while slashing the science budgets for this year and next year.

Dr. Evan Harris: On the subject of rhetoric, will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that under a Conservative Government there would be no cuts in science spending in the next year? Secondly, does he accept that the Treasury should take the risk of currency fluctuations, as was proposed recently by Lord Drayson?

Adam Afriyie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those questions. I have made it absolutely clear that we are committed to two things over the next year: to the future of science and to a multi-year ring-fenced science budget. There is nothing wrong with the ring-fencing principle. I make it 100 per cent. clear that we are not committed to this Government's budget up to 2011. However, that matter does not particularly relate to science.

On the Treasury question, there is clearly pressure on the STFC in particular and science councils in general in relation to exchange rate fluctuations. I would like more flexibility in that area; the Government sign bilateral-international-agreements, for which they are supposed to pay, yet when the exchange rate changes, the hit is taken by the research council or the facility in respect of writing the cheques. That cannot be right, and work needs to be done on that issue. However, it is above my pay grade to make policies on behalf of my party at the moment.

Dr. Harris: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the Treasury, but someone from his party will have to say something if there is going to be proper three-party politics with specifics. May I bring the matter
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back to my earlier question? I was not sure what he was saying. Is he saying that if his party is in government next year, when we will still not be out of recession, it would not cut spending on science overall because of the importance of science spending as a vehicle to aid recovery out of recession? Will he be a bit clearer on that? I am still not certain about the matter.

Adam Afriyie: I noticed that when the hon. Gentleman was talking about the science budget, he used the word "hope." I can use more than the word "hope" about the future science budget.

It is completely unfeasible for an Opposition party that has no access to the Government books to determine what the budget will be this side of an election. I cannot do that because, as I said, it is above my pay grade to do so. If he is asking me whether I would like the science budget to be maintained at the current level, the answer is that I would, of course, like that to happen. Would I like the budget to increase? Of course. However, given that the Government have virtually bankrupted the country, the question is whether it is possible even to maintain the budget that they have. Of course, I will fight tooth and nail to try to do that, but as I say, it would be entirely incorrect for an Opposition party to make a budget before they have succeeded to power.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised these questions, because there is a duty on politicians-particularly those in the Government, who have access to the books- to be as direct and straightforward as they can about future funding levels. The Government have had the opportunity to carry out a comprehensive spending review, and they have refused to do so. Their arguments are incredibly feeble: that somehow there is uncertainty about the future and therefore they have to create more uncertainty by not having a comprehensive spending review to set, at least, the minimum benchmark for science. That has a disproportionate impact on science because, if the STFC-among other research councils-does not know what the 2011-12 budget is, it cannot allocate the research grants this year. The Government have added to the uncertainty around physics in particular, and they need to deal with that matter as soon as possible.

There are questions about the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Council and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which formed the STFC. I remember being opposite the then Science Minister, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), when he took great pleasure in boasting about how the STFC budget would rise by 13.6 per cent. However, we and the science community knew that its near cash budget-the cash available to spend-was completely flat for that three-year period, as can be seen from the figures published by the Government.

If that was not bad enough, the financial outlook today is much bleaker than in 1997. At the very least, we owe it to the science community to be clear and honest about the challenges ahead. Major physics cuts have already been made. STFC grants are down by 10 per cent., and studentships and fellowships have been cut by 25 per cent. That is largely a result of the uncertainty created by the fact that the Government have not had the comprehensive spending review and allocated the budgets for future years.

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