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Twenty-seven significant STFC projects have been abandoned, £5 million has been cut from the National Physical Laboratory and £573 million has been cut from universities this year. Capital cuts have hit physics particularly hard. As I think the Minister acknowledged when we last debated the matter in the House, further cuts of £600 million will be made by 2013. That is an overall Labour science cut of about £1 billion. We need to acknowledge that if we are to have a coherent and honest debate about physics.
Adding insult to injury, the Government have stubbornly refused to hold a comprehensive spending review, which I can only assume is based on cynical political reasoning and the black art of propaganda-the desire not to tell people what the Government's reckless spending means for the future. That, again, adds to future uncertainty. The result is that the STFC has held back its commitments.
In fact, if the Government had been straightforward and produced the comprehensive spending review and the science settlement for the following three years-even if it were at a lower level-there would be at least some certainty within the science community, and the STFC would not have had to pull back the number of grants that it was allocating. A big question needs to be answered about why the comprehensive spending review was not held. Does the Minister acknowledge his or the Government's-I know the matter is not his particular hat-contribution to the uncertainty that is being felt?
The falling value of sterling has already precipitated funding cuts, which has forced other research councils-not just the STFC and those related to physics-to put their hands in their pockets, take away their own research money and give it to the STFC, so that it can cover the exchange rate fluctuations that have been caused by international agreements entered into by Governments. I welcome the review of those arrangements, but we need more certainty around the direction that the Government are taking.
If the Government refuse to tackle the debt crisis, the STFC's costs could rise even higher because the pound will probably plummet further. Ultimately, currency is a sign of the world's confidence in a particular economy. If the pound plummets further, the STFC's costs will increase because of the exchange rate differences. Put simply, Labour's debt crisis is the single biggest threat to the future of physics and science funding in the years ahead. We need clarity going forward, rather than a Government in denial. I hope there will be no denial today. I know that the Minister is a straightforward chap, and I am sure he will not be in denial this afternoon.
We must take action to play down the deficit and restore confidence in the public finances. That is why if there is a Conservative Government, we will hold a Budget within 50 days, and deal with the matters of the multi-year ring fence. We will allocate a multi-year science budget that will be ring-fenced. That will help us provide a stable investment climate for research councils in the long term.
There has been a lot of debate about the meaning of "ring fence"-we have also debated that in the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Does the hon. Gentleman's reference to ring fence mean that the money will not be raided within the year for other
spending, or does it mean that the amount in the ring fence will never go down because it is protected in some way-that it will either stay the same or go up? Will he be clearer about that? It would be of great benefit to the understanding of what we are discussing.
Adam Afriyie: That is a complicated area, because there are many different types of ring fence: parliamentary ring-fencing, where the budget is voted for separately; Treasury ring-fencing, where there are hundreds of little pots all over the place; and general departmental ring-fencing in one or two areas. I am talking about using the Government's existing definition of the ring fence. Whether we will consider the elements within that ring fence is another question, particularly given the exchange rate pressures on the ring fence at the moment. That needs to be looked at. I am referring to the existing definition of the ring fence and nothing more than that.
Dr. Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the Government's definition of the term "ring fence" is that money allocated in-year, for a certain year, is protected from being raided for other things? Would he extend the definition of ring fence, so that planned spending-for example, that outlined in a CSR-is also protected? It is not clear that the Government ever mean that by the term "ring fence". It is important for people listening to this debate to know whether, when people say that there will be a ring fence, that means money will be protected year on year from being cut or whether it merely means-this is important in itself-that it will be protected from cuts within that year.
Adam Afriyie: I would be happy to divert the debate to that subject, but it could take quite some time. To be absolutely clear again, we are committed to a multi-year ring fence for the science budget, with pretty much the same terms under which it currently operates, but we are not committed to Labour's budget. I will be happy to chat with the hon. Gentleman about precise definitions after the debate, but I want to conclude my remarks in the next two minutes so that the Minister has time to respond.
There are some vagaries in the statements that the Government and the Science Minister have made on physics funding. It makes some sense to move the space budget to a new space agency and to look at a way of creating a buffer between the STFC grants and its fixed costs, but can the Minister provide any more detail on the Government's plans for that area? The new arrangements announced by the Science Minister on 4 March are pretty vague, so will the Minister explain what the Government mean when they say that they will be
"looking at options for managing the currency risks better"?
"the Department expects to continue to provide STFC with a level of protection similar to that which has been provided this year"?
Why did he use the words "similar to", rather than giving a definitive statement? Has the Department budgeted to compensate the STFC for those exchange rate fluctuations? It is a straightforward question. Are the Government planning to compensate fully or are they not?
What assessment has the Department made of the likely cost to the STFC of future exchange rate fluctuations? Is there an estimate of what the effect might be? Physicists
and the STFC will want to know the answer, as will the science community overall, and vague language only adds to uncertainty, so the debate provides a good opportunity to tidy that up. Finally, will the Minister now admit that the Government to a certain degree botched the creation of the STFC in 2007? Ministers decided to merge the other two research councils to create the STFC, so will he admit that the structural changes announced by the Science Minister on 4 March will return us to the pre-2007 arrangements?
Britain can be proud of its reputation for world-class physics, astronomy and space science, and we can be optimistic that British physicists are working today to generate new ideas and inventions to fuel a high-tech recovery for the future, but we must face up to the reality of the current difficulties if we are to secure a stable climate for investment for the future. Labour's debt crisis is the single biggest threat to physics over the next decade. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that the future of physics is at serous risk if the Chancellor refuses to tackle the deficit seriously in tomorrow's Budget.
The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate. He brings great expertise to these matters and continues to return to them in the House, and I recently had exchanges with him in the Science and Technology Committee. I also thank the other Members who have spoken. It has been a good debate, with contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who attends nearly every debate on higher education and such matters, and the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). If time prevents me from addressing all the points that have been raised, I shall of course respond in writing.
The timing of the debate is fortuitous because, while we have been debating, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Science and Innovation have been speaking at the launch of a new body, the UK Space Agency. Its creation is yet another demonstration of the Government's commitment to science. Its launch was attended by many schoolchildren who have been enthused by meeting men who have stepped on to the moon, and that is yet another demonstration of our belief that a strong British science base is essential if we are to have the bright social, economic and academic future to which Members have referred today.
Hon. Members know that the public finances are tight. The Government cannot turn away from that or deny it. I cannot guarantee that the unprecedented increases in public funding for science that we have seen over the past 13 years will continue at the same rate in the next few years, but I can say that the claim that the hon. Member for Windsor has made publicly-that the Government plan to cut £1.2 billion of public funding for science over the next five years-is false. He has added that he cannot give a commitment that his party would not do likewise; that claim, by contrast, is all too credible.
I assure Members right from the outset that the Government remain absolutely committed to science. Indeed, my ministerial colleagues and I continue to
make the case within the Government at every opportunity for increases in science funding by virtue of the contribution to growth that we believe our science base has made and must continue to make in future. I hope that Members will recognise our commitment to science, which, in relation to the debate, is probably best described in the document "Higher Ambition", published in November 2009, which sets out our commitment to STEM. That strategy relates to much of what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said about enthusing young people and having the teachers. Indeed, the strategy goes beyond that because it asks our universities to realign and move in that direction because we believe that it is so central to our economy.
Lest Members should think that those calls fall on deaf ears, that initiative, which has been carried forward by successive Ministers, has brought record levels of public funding in science, including the 10-year science and innovation investment framework, which was initiated not in the Departments that previously had responsibility for science, but in the Treasury, and it was led by the Prime Minister. That is our commitment to science, and we have had it for many years.
It is clear from the debate that Members believe, as I do, that physics is a crucial element of that commitment to science and to our way of life. Physics provides a fundamental understanding of the world and is at the heart of our civilisation and our standard of living. Through the study of physics we are able to make breakthroughs in many other fields of study, including health care. Many advanced medical diagnostic treatments follow fundamental research in physics. Just about every modern appliance is underpinned by physics, from our mobile phones to the internet and high-definition televisions, on which many of us rely.
Physics forms the basis of our high-tech, advanced economy and employs many people in this country. Important contributing sectors to the UK economy include electronics and optoelectronics, which employ between them over 1 million people. High-technology physics-based industries will help to ensure that the UK is able to compete successfully in the modern global economy, and we will also look to physics research to help overcome the major challenges that still exist in the century before us. Much that has been said about green technology is underpinned by the importance of physics. There are other challenges as well in respect of the underpinning and our better understanding of the mechanics of climate change and greenhouse gases, all of which require the expertise of good physicists.
Given the key role of physics in our society, it is clearly important that we invest, and continue to invest, in science and technology and the training of scientists. We have not had a Save British Science campaign because we have not needed one. Our record on support of the science base is strong, and the Government remain a champion of it. In 2010-11, funding of science and research will have doubled against what it was in 1997. My Department's total investment in science and research will have increased from £5.5 billion to nearly £5.9 billion, which is a 7 per cent. rise.
I am pleased that the Minister mentioned Save British Science-now the Campaign for Science and Engineering. We should pay tribute to its work. It was set up in my constituency in 1986 to save British
science because the level of funding of science in 1986 was such that science needed saving. Does he accept that the level of funding-not just gross domestic product share, but in real terms-is now the same as it was in 1986? It has increased, but it has increased only back up to 1986 levels, when Save British Science was created to save British science from that level of funding.
Mr. Lammy: I recognise that there has been substantial investment. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said in her contribution, this country may have the most productive science sector. Therefore, by any definition, if one looks at outputs, research papers and quality, we can be proud of the investment that has been made over successive years. It means that we remain second only to the United States in global scientific excellence as measured by citations and a range of indices of which our scientists can be proud.
Adam Afriyie: We were talking about straightforwardness, honesty and clarity. I am not quite sure that I heard the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. Will the Minister confirm that spending on science has only just, in the past year or so, approached the level that it was at in 1986-87?
Mr. Lammy: I said that we did not have a Save British Science campaign, which he knows that a past Administration put up with. He also knows-I was coming on to capital-that the budget for higher education capital at the time we came to office was about £75 million. Notwithstanding the savings that we have asked the sector to make, it is £404 million this year, and we have spent about £6.4 billion on capital alone. That goes to the heart of the cost of science on our campuses, which requires investment in facilities, particularly when we are asking universities to encourage young people across the country to take up physics. It takes investment, and investment of more than £2 billion has been made since 1998 to help address the long-term under-investment in university infrastructure, buildings and capital equipment.
However, we also rightly want to ensure that we are getting uptake among students. I am aware that there have been concerns about the number of students taking physics and other STEM subjects. It is because of that that we have particularly asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support the growth of STEM, and, in this funding year, it has set up a £10 million fund to help universities make the transition to STEM subjects.
I am pleased that between 2003 and last year, the latest period for which figures are available, the number of home students enrolling on first degrees in physics rose by 13 per cent., and over the same period, home students taking physics PhDs rose by 37 per cent. The trend is a positive one, and demand continues. In fact, the latest figures from UCAS show that applications are up by 13 per cent. on last year.
I must challenge those figures. I have never understood why Ministers choose the baseline that they choose when they say that something has risen by, for example, 13 per cent. I often thought that it was
random, but now I think I can see that they just choose the lowest point and then compare the current position to it.
There was a significant dip between 2001 and 2003-I do not know the reasons for that. If the Minister is talking about the low point, I should say that it was 2003. However, on the latest figures that I can find, we are still below where we were the year before the baseline that he used. Could he explain why he always uses that baseline rather than, say, 1997, which would seem to be a more rational baseline?
Mr. Lammy: I have the figures in front of me: first degree entrants in 2002-03, 2,990, and in 2008-09, 3,555; masters programme entrants in 2002-03, 545, and 555 last year; and PhD entrants in 2002-03, 525, and a growth last year to 805. That is a huge increase, on any analysis, so I do not recognise the numbers that the hon. Gentleman has arrived at. I do not think that this is a matter of dispute. We are seeing the uptake of STEM subjects at GCSE and A-level rising steadily, and that is feeding through to our campuses.
On research, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East, some have claimed that the quality and volume of physics research have suffered as a result of this Government's policies, but the facts show that the opposite is true. Physics has been and continues to be treated generously, as it benefits from its strategic importance. After the 2008 research assessment exercise, the Government asked the funding council to protect the share of quality-related research funding to STEM subjects from decline due to higher increases in research in other areas, and therefore the volume of staff submitted in all subjects has risen by 12 per cent., and in physics by 3.6 per cent. So there was also good news on the funding that physics was able to attract.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council has been referred to again, as on several other occasions. Of course the Government take the matter seriously, and are already acting on it. There is no denying that the STFC has faced problems, and the Government recognise that better management of international subscriptions through measures to manage exchange rates, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities are needed to allow the STFC's grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability.
On 4 March, my noble Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation announced new arrangements for the STFC that are designed to ensure that it can plan with greater predictability and provide its community with more stability through better management of pressures arising from international subscriptions such as CERN, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities such as Diamond.
Those two measures, which are supported by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society, will address the two main sources of uncertainty that the STFC has historically faced. Lest it be thought that those two learned societies did not greet my noble Friend's announcement with some pleasure, and given the work that had been put in by Mike Sterling, their reaction is worth quoting:
"We have been particularly concerned about the way in which unforeseeable rises in international subscriptions due to the falling value of the pound have put extreme pressure on the funding available from STFC both for research grants and the running of
UK-based facilities. Today's announcement demonstrates that the problem has now been recognised and we look forward to seeing how it will be addressed."
Much that has been said about the STFC is historic. We recognise that there have been structural issues, but my noble Friend has sought to address them. I hope that physicists will be pleased with that-
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