Research: Science and Technology Committee Report — Question for Short Debate
Lord Young of Norwood Green (Labour)
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, as the other non-scientist and I enter the debate with some trepidation after hearing the contributions. First, I welcome the report and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for his introduction. He said that the UK was a good place for science and technology and our aim should be to keep it that way, but we are in danger of losing our world-leading position in science. The Government only have a three-year spending review period plan for science. We have called for the Government to reinstate a 10-year funding plan for science. This allowed researchers and investors more confidence in the long-term funding landscape and was welcomed by British scientists and campaign groups.
The report states:
"Our first recommendation is fundamental: that the Government should make a clear and unambiguous statement setting out their current research funding commitments".
In their response to the report's fundamental recommendation, the Government said that,
"funding of science and research will be addressed in the forthcoming Spending Review".
The Government have repeatedly claimed that the spending review science settlement is a long-term plan for science and refused to reinstate Labour's 10-year plan for science. However, scientists know that three years is not long-term; it is not even one PhD funding cycle. In a speech to the Campaign for Science and Engineering before the Budget, John Denham called for the Government to put in place a long-term funding plan. He said:
"It's essential that the forthcoming Budget sets out a clear framework for science funding well beyond the current spending period and ideally for a 10-year period".
We would argue that the previous Labour Government rescued British science. We introduced the science research investment fund in 2002 to address a historic backlog of upgrading and updating required by the physical university research infrastructure across the UK, left by the previous Tory Government. We also set up the higher education innovation fund. We set up the UKRC, funding for which was withdrawn by BIS this year, to promote the position of women scientists and engineers. We set up the Technology Strategy Board and the RDAs that have successfully invested in British science and innovation. We introduced the 10-year commitment to invest in science and innovation. This gave the research community long-term confidence, as I said. This long-term increase has now been reversed, with a real-terms cut over the next three years, while, as several contributors have said, our international competitors-even those with deficit reduction programmes-increase their investment.
As I think the noble Lord, Lord Willis, pointed out, China is increasing investment in R&D by 8 per cent, Germany is increasing investment by 7 per cent, France by 1 per cent, Australia by 25 per cent and the USA by 5.7 per cent. There are major new players in world science, from Brazil to Singapore and from the Gulf states to India. As the Royal Society said in a recent report, we need to keep running just to stand still. The coalition does not seem to understand how tough the global competitive environment is.
Several contributors have said that the cuts under the comprehensive spending review could have been worse. The reality is that the science budget stays the same in cash terms, but has a 10 per cent real-terms resource cut of £450 million over that period. Capital research and development spend takes an enormous 40 per cent cut, which will recreate the huge backlog of building works that built up under the previous Tory Government. Other areas of the science budget, such as funding for engagement and diversity in science, also face large cuts. There is an increasing focus on centralised excellence to the detriment of regional research centres and universities. RDA science funding, which was £440 million per annum, has also been lost. Therefore, I have the following questions for the Minister. Why is the UK reducing its overall spending on research and development when our competitors are increasing their investment? When will the Government set out their plans for investment in British science and innovation beyond 2014-15?
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, made some interesting points when he talked about worrying signs and downward trends. If we want to maintain the UK as a place where people want to continue undertaking research, and to attract such people as the recent Nobel Prize winners he referred to, we have to make sure that we create the right environment.
I must admit that when I looked at the report from a lay person's perspective, I found a lot of complexity, even in dealing with the terms. I would not have known until I read more carefully what "responsive-mode" research was-I would have referred to it as blue-skies research-as opposed to "targeted" research. What interests me in all this important talk of research and development is something that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said in the conclusion of his contribution. He talked about turning research into applications that become marketable products. We may excel, as one contributor said, in producing the largest number of papers in the world, but if we cannot turn them into marketable products, there is a failure that needs to be addressed. It reminds me of that old advert about what we might call "the appliance of science".
I, too, look forward to the Minister's response and thank the committee for producing a very interesting report.