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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I believe that even on that issue the noble friend of the noble Lord took some objection. No doubt these are matters on which there will continue to be earnest debate. I seek to underline that it is no part of my responsibility as a Minister to participate in that debate. I would far rather the issue be left to the scientific community to resolve.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for his acknowledgement that progress has been made in developing productive partnerships between industry and the science base. As I pointed out, the Technology Foresight exercise is just one of the factors that is taken into account; it is not the sole determinant.
In many respects people are the main output of the science base. Therefore the main emphasis is on people--new graduates, post-graduates, post-doctoral researchers and permanent academic staff. Not only must we encourage the training and development of high quality scientists and engineers within that base, but we must also ensure that their expertise and skills are used
Research councils have traditionally worked closely with industry and have developed a range of initiatives designed both to establish links with their users and to promote the commercial exploitation of their research. The councils have established interdisciplinary research centres affording the opportunity for collaboration with industry and business in key technologies. They are active participants in the cross-departmental LINK scheme, and they have formed companies, either on their own or jointly with others, to exploit the potential of council research. These efforts are all important in building a partnership between the science base and industry but it was recognised that there was also a need to encourage academic researchers to seek industrial funding for strategic research, and hence to improve the interchange of ideas between the science base and industry.
In order to fill this requirement, in 1993 the Realising Our Potential Awards (ROPA) were established. Under this scheme, researchers in receipt of industrial support for strategic research are eligible to apply for ROPA support for research of their own choosing. ROPAs are therefore responsive mode grants independent of industrial or research council priorities.
These projects enable researchers to carry out blue-sky, curiosity driven research, as my noble friend Lord Clancarty, and the noble Lord, Lord Walton, sought. The excellence of the teams is determined by industry which may determine where it is prepared to spend its money, and thereby focus on high quality research teams. However, an indication of this different form of quality assurance is that in the ROPA rounds to date a higher proportion of ROPA awards are made to departments graded 4 or 5 by the research assessment exercise than for research councils' traditional responsive mode grant awards.
Aside from the undoubted scientific value of the projects themselves, this award scheme encourages the cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience which is so vital in innovative science. Indeed, it may sidestep the oligarchy in science to which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, made reference.
The Technology Foresight exercise identified research priorities, some of which are being taken forward by the Technology Foresight Challenge which was announced in May last year. Perhaps more importantly, it got people talking and has established valuable networks.
I believe that the one specific area of research raised was that of BSE and the alleged relationship between BSE and CJD. I have to say to my noble friend Lord Canarvon that if he heard that reference yesterday, I regret to say that it has been made frequently on other programmes. I wish that I had some ability to control the BBC in making that unwarranted relationship at this time. However, noble Lords will appreciate that that power is not given to Ministers in the DTI.
However, perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Selborne that the Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the BBSRC and MRC are consulting closely on what areas of research need support as part of a directed programme. Our planned government funding for BSE-CJD research in 1996-97 already totals some £10 million and the Department of Health has recently announced an extra £4.5 million.
The noble Lord, Lord Walton, had some comment to offer on the reductions in the administrative staff of a number of the research councils. Clearly we do not wish to have an undue sum of money spent on unnecessary administration. I hope that that process has not gone so far that it has affected their work. But it is worth observing that every £50,000 saved on administration represents one more fully-funded, fully-equipped postdoctoral researcher.
I conclude with a few observations on the move of the OST to the DTI. In opening, the noble Lord, Lord Walton, acknowledged that some of the greater suspicions at the time of the announcement may have been allayed to some extent. I hope that that process will continue. The President of the Board of Trade is an active advocate in the Cabinet for science. The Chief Scientific Adviser is still the adviser to the Prime Minister. His role goes beyond the DTI. Furthermore, his move to the DTI has not reduced his trans-departmental role. The noble Lord will be aware that the present adviser's immediate predecessor, Sir William Stewart, indicated that he did not consider that this move would be damaging.
I hope that I have now spelt out where the Government stand. My noble friend Lord Peyton seemed to feel that he did not understand the Government's position. I hope that he now understands. Very considerable sums of public money are committed to basic or strategic research. We are not in a process of trying to attack that fund and put it towards applied science for the reasons that I have indicated. I very much hope that the value of the work of the research councils is understood. There is little doubt that it is appreciated within your Lordships' House. What concerns me more is that there may not be as clear an understanding of the value of that work in the wider world. I very much hope that one of the values of a debate such as this is that there will be a greater appreciation of the worth of the research undertaken.
Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to what has been an excellent debate with many outstanding and powerful contributions from all sides of the House. I wish again to congratulate my noble friend Lord Clancarty upon his outstanding maiden speech in which he drew our attention to some of the important interfaces between the arts, in which he himself works, and the sciences. It is, therefore, important that I should say how much I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, said about the crucial importance of the humanities and related disciplines, and the part that they play in the development of cultural life in the United Kingdom.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, from his long and distinguished experience on the Select Committee on Science and Technology, stressed the crucial importance to the research councils of a period of stability. I cannot stress that point too strongly. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, spoke about accountability by the Medical Research Council and other research councils. It is crucially important to maintain that accountability in public life.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said that the primary objective of the work of the research councils is not wealth creation. But freedom in research is a fundamental right of all research workers within the constraints of the funding and other opportunities that the research councils provide.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the noble Lord, Lord Winston, had a minor disagreement on peer review. However, I wholly agree that, with all its defects, it is still the fundamental principle leading to the assessment of research grant proposals and one which I would defend to the utmost.
When my noble friend Lord Carnarvon spoke of his experience on the Agricultural Research Council, and the problems of BSE, I could not help thinking how much we are all disturbed by some of the recent ill-informed publicity. I speak as a member of the working party which made the original recommendations to the ARC and the Department of Health in 1989.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for his comments and support. He is cogent in saying that in our research programmes funded by these councils, we must not look for quick results from limited resources. Flexibility in research programmes and in the application of research resources are so important.
The noble Lord, Lord Porter, gave us many excellent examples of the contributions made by British research workers. He drew our attention yet again to the often neglected Haldane principle that there is separate fundamental research on the one hand and the development, deployment and use of research results in short-term development in industry on the other; and the two must be separated. He pointed out with great authority, as a most distinguished Nobel Prize winner, the importance of British science, and how sad it is that the contributions of British scientists have not been recognised for a variety of reasons in the past few years.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Halsbury, with whom I served on the MRC, for the cogent and wise comments he made based upon his long experience of research, administration and the development of research programmes in the United Kingdom.
Speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Peston, said that we are in danger of damaging the research council system beyond repair. I still believe that the system is highly regarded across the world, but the whole purpose of initiating this debate is to make it clear to the Government and to all those with responsibility that the position of our research councils must be preserved at all costs.
I am grateful to the Minister for his careful and thoughtful reply. I am happy that he listened carefully to the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and did not indulge in ministerial cosmetic obfuscation in drawing to our attention some of the principles which inform government policy in relation to research. I am glad to have the Minister's assurance that the Government give the science budget and our science and engineering base a high priority. I hope that his colleagues will take careful note of the devastating effect of the transferred funds from the higher education funding councils to the research councils based upon the OST's Cooper & Lybrand report, which requires attention. It is damaging the university system seriously. I trust that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government have taken action in that regard.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that the Government do not regard short-termism in the exploitation of research results as being a government objective. However, that is the message which I believe must be rammed home to the scientists, engineers and technologists of the country who at the moment believe that there is pressure from the Government upon the research councils to drive research in the direction of application and not of fundamental basic research which will fertilise future exploitation.
We all warmly commend the Technology Foresight and ROPA programmes. We would be happier if the Chief Scientific Adviser were still in the Cabinet Office, but I accept the Minister's reassurance that he is still able to advise other government departments. I hope he will comment later, as he did not comment on the effect of the universities' capital funding cuts. They have run into serious danger of destabilising the relationship between the universities and the research councils.
Finally, I believe that the message is this. Every special interest group wishes to see additional resources, and that we wholly accept. All we ask is that, as circumstances allow and, I hope, as recovery escalates, it is crucial to the future of the country that a greater proportion of national resource be devoted to the science and engineering base. That came out in all the speeches this afternoon.
I end with the four "Cs": communication, consultation, collaboration, consensus. They are issues of fundamental importance. I remember chairing a working party on communication between doctors and other healthcare professionals. One social worker speaking to a doctor said: "I can't hear what you say while what you are rings so loudly in my ears". On another occasion, a hospital