Science and Scientific Research

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:35 pm on 7th February 1989.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:35 pm, 7th February 1989

I shall encourage the hon. Member for Havant (Sir Ian Lloyd) a little by first acknowledging that this year the Government have substantially increased the amount of money given to science. It would be foolish to do otherwise. Therefore, when looking at both the Labour motion and the amendment, one has to conclude that there is truth in both. The Labour motion is largely valid and points out the deficiencies in the Government's programme and position, but the Government's claims are also partly true, although I believe that the message from the House must be that they should not be complacent.

Like the hon. Member for Havant, before coming to a debate such as this, I go first to the general handbook provided in the House—the Government's Expenditure Plans. Interestingly, if one compares the breakdown given last month of the science budget expenditure in real terms, projected backwards and forwards—starting from a base point in this year's paper of 1982–83—one sees that, if one takes that as 100, the projection is that in the coming year for the first time since then there will be a substantial increase. We know that that was the import of the Chancellor's announcement in November. Indeed, it was reinforced by the detailed breakdown of figures this year and the Secretary of State's announcement this morning. However, we have seen that the pattern is consistently one that suggests that if we are not careful the increase will be what the Chancellor would call a blip rather than a fundamental change in direction.

As I put to the Secretary of State in my intervention, beyond the forthcoming financial year there is a tailing off in real terms—a decrease—of investment projected in the Government spending plan. I couple that expression of fact—on the basis of the Government's evidence—with a concern which stems from looking at the relative importance that we as a country still give to investment in science. Again, I follow the area of comment of the hon. Member for Havant. If one looks at what are now 21 volumes of the Government's Expenditure Plans, in the slim volume 12 which is the education and science volume, there are only a few paragraphs on science—paragraphs 57 to 70. That is the sum total of analyses of what is, in effect, the necessary base to sustain the whole of our country's economic, manufacturing, competitive, productive and future technological activity. The relatively little importance given to science is reflected in the way in which it is expressed, solely in the context of inputs of finance, in the presentation of the Government's economic programme.

That is not a politician's comment without justification. Until the announcement of the increase for the forthcoming year to £824 million—£94 million up on this year—that was the general tenor of the commentary by all eminent scientists in this country. We are spending far too little in the important places.

One could quote presidents of all the august and learned bodies, societies and associations. I shall quote one who has not been mentioned so far—Sir Walter Bodmer, last year's president of the British Association. In the last paragraph of his presidential address in September last year he said: My frustration, shared 1 believe by most scientists, is that now when science is better placed than ever before to contribute to a better future, we are having to struggle increasingly hard to prevent a damaging decline in the government support for fundamental science and to encourage industry to increase its support in scientific research and development. Only this morning I received an invitation from Manpower 2000, a project of the southern science and technology forum at Southampton university, to speak at a conference in April which says: It is no exaggeration to say that the resurgence of industry and the doubtful benefits to be gained from privatisation and modernisation of UK's basic services are wholly at risk because of the potential shortage of technically literate people needed to manage and operate them. This shortage will not be due so much to the Demographic Gap …as to the wholesale movement of young people away from engineering, science and maths to other less demanding disciplines. I want briefly to refer to what seems to be the fundamental problem. I am concerned, as the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was rightly concerned, that nearly 10 years after the Government took office there is still no strategy for science in Britain. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. Even when encouraged to produce a strategy as they were in 1987 by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, and even having promised to do so, they still have not done so. I hope that the Minister will come clean and tell the House that the Government still do not have a strategy rather than making excuses. We should have had a strategy long ago. The Government are responsible for such matters and I hope that they will now produce a proper scientific strategy without further delay.

It is not only that promise which has been broken. I was looking through the Hansard of the other place for the day when the statement on the Health Service review was made last week. There was much criticism by peers of the fact that in that review a response was promised to the Griffiths report on community care and to the report of the Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology on priorities in medical research. I do not know whether hon. Members have yet looked at the part of the White Paper entitled "Working for Patients" which deals with that matter. There are two bland paragraphs on pages 37 and 38 on training and research. Responses were promised, but they have not been delivered. In spite of much encouragement from hon. Members and with the best expert evidence on all specific areas of science and research, we have still had an inadequate response. The Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology produced its third report of the parliamentary Session 1987–88 on priorities in medical research, making several recommendations, but that report has not yet been responded to or adequately implemented.

The same Select Committee in its first report in this parliamentary Session, 1988–89, on agricultural and food research said: the need for a firm commitment to agricultural and food research cannot be too strongly emphasised. On basic research the report said: Scientific advances will depend on basic studies—in agriculture and food it will be essential to improve understanding of the basic biological processes underlying production…Basic research is a scientific investment and such an asset should be protected and used productively. On levels of funding the Committee concluded: The Committee share the concern of witnesses at the effects in Government funding for agricultural research in recent years. Later, and typically, the report says: Another, particularly topical, example of 'public good' research which Government must fund is that on salmonella. If anything is now likely to receive funding, I suppose that that is. The report then says: The Committee do not share the Government's belief that research, once discontinued, can be easily re-started. There have been many encouragements for the Government to act, but in reality their performance has been poor.

I shall not go at length into global environmental matters, although that is one of my interests, as the House knows, but it is sad to record that when I asked a parliamentary question in the summer about the amount of money spent on environmental protection research across the sectors the answer showed that there had been a decrease from £22·4 million at 1987–88 prices in 1985–86 to £21·3 million at the same prices in 1987–88. If we are to be taken seriously in caring for the global environment, we must demonstrate our commitment.

The substantive point about where research investment should be placed has been made. It has to be in basic research because that is the fount of all scientific progress. At the moment we are in a state of profound national scientific crisis. There is insufficient money for basic research. Nor are sufficient people being brought into science at school or university as students or teachers. Moreover, education is continually losing scientists to the private sector, whether at home or abroad. Some go abroad and some do not.

University salaries are now down to three quarters of what they were 10 years ago in real terms and we shall lose good people from our universities. Chairs are unfilled. They are being filled not by professors but by lecturers acting up in subjects that are not their speciality. There are not enough lecturers because there are not enough postgraduate students. There are not enough postgraduate students because there is more money to be gained from training in industry than From postgraduate work at university. We do not keep overseas students because they go back to their own countries with their knowledge. Britain has done less basic research for the past 10 years than ever before.

All the time the Science and Engineering Research Council directorate, for example, will not accept projects without industrial backing. But industry is not interested in results 10 years hence. Industry wants what is of interest to it in the short term. We pay for industrial development in universities which should be done by industry when we should be paying for research. What is now done may be "near market place" research—I think that that is the phrase—and it may be more strategic, but it is at the expense of basic research. The trend is clear. The figures show that in 1978–79 the division between strategic and basic research was 42 per cent. to 56 per cent. That position has now reversed and the figures are 55 per cent. to 46 per cent. That is a worrying trend which should be reversed.

Other countries do not fall into that trap. For example, Japan has a pre-competitive research element in its universities. When the ideas are far enough developed, the Government back out and industry takes over along with the competitive market. We also apply performance indicators that are invalid. For example, the number of papers that a department produces, including the number of pages in a paper, is not necessarily a measure of a meritorious project. The number of chapters in a book or the number of lectures given are no evidence of the best form of research.

We also fail to fund our national research if we think money is available from the EEC. The trouble is that that is often not forthcoming and, if it is, it takes a long time to work through the bureaucracy. I say that as a pro-European, not as a critic in general terms of the Community. Therefore, the money is not forthcoming from either source.

The Government should respond with increasing urgency to the lack of funding for basic resources in universities. Industry is becoming increasingly fed up with being asked for cash, and the neglect of basic research means that only those areas in which industry is most interested are funded.

I shall give three examples before concluding. We have pretended in the past that we could do well by funding basic research sufficiently to the stage where industry could take it up. Yet the head of the Ariane space programme research group resigned after two or three years because the Government would not put in money to complete the programme. The airbus is another example of the Government blowing hot and cold so that we have lost credibility with our partners.

Perhaps the best example is the APT—the advanced passenger train, which the House will remember as the tilting train. It would increase speeds in the north and was expected to increase revenue by drawing people away from motorways, and even from airlines. Indeed, in France the equivalent train has done just that. British Rail was pushed by the Government far too hard and too quickly to produce results. The train broke down during a very premature test drive with Ministers and public relations officials on board and the Government then pulled out, although British Rail said that only another £10 million was required to finish the project as the problem was only superficial. Now one of the trains has gone to the train museum in Crewe and the rest have been scrapped.

What has happened since? Our suppliers from Sweden, ASEA, are building the trains in Sweden and the first one will be ready for delivery in the autumn. They are expected to sell well. We are likely to buy our own idea from the Swedes because we never got far enough to sell, patent or use it ourselves. Far too often we judge what we should do by what is necessary to please the City and accountants rather than going to the fundamentals of what science and research need.

I welcome the increase announced by the Government although it is worrying that there will not be the same commitment in the second and third years. But, first, science and research needs planning, and planning needs a continuity of funding. The increase needs to be sustained rather than being made available for only this year.

Secondly it is no good just funding research councils when we do not also fund our universities to the same extent.

Thirdly, and most important of all, the Government still do not appreciate, and certainly do not show that they appreciate, the skills gap, which is the most unappreciated economic crisis of all, and the lack of scientists, engineers and technologists for the future.

We know about the demography of the future, but because of underpayment of university lecturers and insufficient funding of staff in schools, and the Government's compromise that only 12 per cent. rather than 20 per cent. of the national curriculum can relate to science, these people are not likely to be available. If we do not invest in the people, we shall not have the science or research. The Government must not be complacent. They have begun to put some money into science, but very much more is needed.