Government's Policy for Science

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:53 am on 14th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Warren Mr Kenneth Warren , Hastings and Rye 10:53 am, 14th June 1985

At the beginning of this year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I had the privilege of being entertained—I believe that it was entertaining—by Lord Flowers and others at Imperial college. He brought together several of his friends, including Sir David Phillips, Sir Ronald Mason, John Ashworth and Sir John Kingman, to review the problems of science in Britain. My right hon. Friend will not be surprised if I say that, having launched a personal study during the succeeding months into the well-being of science, I shall have a small contest with him today, which I hope that he will accept from a previous and loyal Parliamentary Private Secretary.

I believe that the Government should move resources towards science rather than look for ways of economising on its expenditure. My right hon. Friend will know that no one believes more strongly than me in trying to reduce the burdens on taxpayers. I do not advance a move towards higher taxation. However, the time has come when we can no longer take the risks that we are running in the well-being of the country for which we are responsible.

The first of my findings is slightly audacious, but I hope that it will be acceptable to my right hon. Friend. I believe that science should be driven by market demand, and that the demand-pull of markets should reach backwards towards the science-push of which we are conscious and which is being funded. That means that we must define objectives. Governments do not usually like defining objectives, even if Oppositions do. The market-pull is to meet competition on an increasing scale from many major industrial countries and we cannot ignore that. We must examine the means available to forecast how we should move forward in science. That will require a gathering of knowledge, ideas and information from our competitors to try to determine what will be the products of the future, and then to back-track those to the strands of science that we now have. That is not a mathematical or philosophical difficulty particularly for politicians, who have the benefit of hindsight at their instant command.

There is no doubt that the present position, with each Department of State setting its objectives in the light of its priorities and programmes, is not the sort of objective that should result in statements such as the one from the science board of the Science and Engineering Research Council, responding to the requirements of four sciences — physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. The board reported that those sciences could not find the money to finance about one third of their alpha-rated projects— those of the highest merit that should be funded at all costs.

My right hon. Friend will recall that, at the conference at Imperial college, Sir John Kingman said that only 74 per cent. of his alpha projects could be funded, and that the figure could drop to 60 per cent. Sir James Gowans, secretary of the Medical Research Council, has said that, whereas in 1982–83 85 per cent. of his projects were funded, in 1983–84 the figure had dropped to 53 per cent. Sir David Phillips, the Oxford biophysicist, has said that the volume of science will be about 25 per cent. less in 10 years' time than it is now. He was sounding a warning bell, as a fellow of the Royal Society and a biophysicist of world renown, that we cannot ignore.

What will be the result of all this? If one examines the document "Charter for Jobs" published by that strange organisation which came above ground last month but which seems to have disappeared, one finds information that looks into the past specifying how growth rates of real national product per worker hour and real national product over five-year moving averages have all declined. But the arguments deployed by such organisations do not contain real solutions, other than the Government spending more money. If one considers matters to which that organisation drew no deductive attention in its document, one sees that the key factor, which illustrates the way in which our scientific ability is declining and will continue to decline is that, during the past 20 years, the percentage of manufacturing firms working at capacity has decreased from about half to about 30 per cent. That has nothing to do with the oil crisis or the world recession during the past decade. The fact is that Britain has declined in competitiveness at an unacceptable rate that must not be tolerated.

The science policy research unit at Sussex university —a university of whose court I am delighted to be a member — has considered how competitiveness will move forward in the 1980s and 1990s. It has done some startling work, to which the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) referred, relating to Britain's share of scientific publications worldwide, our share of citations worldwide and the number of foreign patents taken out in the United States. In all those areas, Britain's share has declined unacceptably. The share of the United States, the Soviet Union and France has also declined, to the benefit of West Germany, which has had a small increase, and Japan, which has had a startling 30 per cent. increase during the past decade. As for citations, the Japanese have taken over the reference base on which so many scientists rely for their publications. They now refer to Japanese publications 50 per cent. more than they did 10 years ago. The Japanese have now soaked up from the West all the science it has and are moving forward into an era of innovation which is well funded and devoted to strategic tasks which have been identified.

In considering the ways in which various countries determine how to use their scientific resources, there is no better example than that which the Japanese provide in the deployment of their science and technology agency. The agency has been functioning since 1956. In the past 15 years it has brought together in five-year programmes the opinions of those in industry, the universities and Government. About 4,000 to 5,000 people at a time have been invited to distil their opinions on where the country should be going with its science, technology and industry. This analysis, which results in consensus, is something which we should be able to achieve.

Success does not lie merely in the amount of money which is spent. The United States spends more than Japan on higher education—$8 billion a year compared with $5 billion. We spend about one fifth of that which Japans expends. The number of researchers, scientists and engineers in higher education is not the sole crieterion. The United States and Japan have about the same number. The clue lies in the research and development which is carried on in higher education as a percentage of all national research and development.

It is true that in Japan 75 per cent. of all research is funded by industry. However, the key figure is the number of people working in higher education as a percentage of all national research and development. There lies a clue to the success of the Japanese and the danger for us in future. We employ about 11 per cent. of our researchers, scientists and engineers in higher education. The United States, West Germany and France employ about 15 per cent. but the Japanese are employing 28 per cent. They are putting their best men at the sharp end. The rapid advances that they are making are such that it will not be a matter merely of trying to erect trade barriers against their products as a solution. We must not fail to understand that it is in investing in the brightest people that we can compete. The only way in which we can compete with Japan and other far eastern countries is by moving up the scale of industrial competitiveness.

A third factor in an area in which Government policy should be developed is the co-ordination of information. There seems to be no way at present in which we can bring together knowledge of what is happening in universities, research councils, industry, Government and research establishments. There are organisations which meet in an ad hoc fashion but that are not akin to the scale of co-ordination that we must achieve.

We must come to some conclusions about our economic and social needs. We must examine all the areas of sciencee and technology which have the potential to meet those needs. We must establish priorities and certainly we must establish forecasts. At present, our objectives are not clear to our scientists. Too many industrialists are not aware of what the scientists are doing. We can achieve a great deal by setting objectives, giving leadership and co-ordinating the knowledge that is available. The Government are the only agency available to carry out that co-ordination.

We have a broad and deep basis of good science in the United Kingdom but its real value has yet to be recognised and used. Our task and our duty must be to mobilise these human resources to improve the well-being of our people.