Science Budget

Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 7th July 2008.

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[Relevant documents: T he Fourth Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, HC 215, on Science Budget Allocations, and the Government response, HC 639.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31st March 2009, for expenditure by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £11,040,399,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 479,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £12,519,763,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.— [Tony Cunningham.]

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee 7:10 pm, 7th July 2008

I welcome the opportunity to debate the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee report on the science budget allocations, and, on this estimates day, to have a debate on the departmental estimates and on budget issues. I am glad that a significant proportion of the Committee's members who were involved in the inquiry are present, and I hope that all of them will be called to speak before the end of the debate.

This inquiry sits against a backdrop of significant investment in science and research, and it is worth putting on record the Committee's acknowledgement of, and support for, what the Government have done for science over three consecutive comprehensive spending reviews. The allocation for the current CSR to 2011 is an overall increase of 17.4 per cent. in the science and research budget—an increase of just over £3.5 billion.

Inevitably, some research councils have had bigger increases than others, reflecting Government and societal priorities. The Medical Research Council received a 30.1 per cent. increase in funding and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council had a 21.8 per cent. increase. That, in turn, reflects the increase in the volume of translational research that takes place in those councils. At the same time, other councils received different amounts. The Arts and Humanities Research Council received a 12.4 per cent. increase—its budget remained on a plateau—and the Science and Technology Facilities Council received 13.6 per cent. They received the smallest allocations.

When the Committee started the inquiry, its intention was to take a short, sharp look at the science budget allocations for the 2007 CSR and then to move on. Immediately after announcing the inquiry, however, all members' mailbags were filled with correspondence from the particle physics and astronomy community. When the Secretary of State announced the budget allocations at Church house on 11 December, he and the Minister were taken aback by the fact that almost every question from the floor on that occasion came from members of that community. It soon became obvious that the allocation for the STFC was causing significant problems, so, although our report was about science budget allocations as a whole, it focused heavily on the STFC. Other Members will undoubtedly want to raise issues about specific elements of the STFC budget, but let me outline some of the key considerations.

Inevitably, considering the controversy that surrounded the allocations to the STFC, there has been a fair amount of progress since the publication of our report, and it is important to put that on record. Both the Government and the STFC have responded, and last week the STFC made a number of welcome announcements on its future plans. This estimates day debate offers the Minister an opportunity to give further clarification on some of the still outstanding issues, and I hope he will take it.

The Government accepted some of our recommendations, and we should be grateful for small mercies. For example, we recommended that the Government change the name of the science budget to the "science and research budget" to reflect the inclusion of the arts, humanities and knowledge transfer, and the fact that they accepted that major change needs to be shouted from the rooftops. We welcomed the Government's commitment to maintaining above-inflation increases for the science budget—now the science and research budget. We also welcomed the Government's commitment to innovation and knowledge transfer. I think that there is general agreement that it is right to turn world-leading basic research into health and wealth benefits for the country, and we compliment the Minister and the Government on that.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink UKIP, Castle Point

The hon. Gentleman is beginning his speech on characteristically great form. Does he agree, however, that the name does not matter, and nor, in some ways, does the total amount that is expended? What matters is how that money is used, and not enough of it is used on blue-sky, innovative, high-risk research that will become translational and will deliver those results that are unexpected but are what we need to move things forward.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He was—or, rather, is—a distinguished member of our Committee; the problem is he never turns up.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee

I refuse to respond to such comments from a sedentary position. It is right to say that maintaining blue-sky research is crucial for this nation's future in terms of wealth and of health. All Committee members are conscious of the fact that we have to keep the Government's nose to the grindstone in producing the resources for basic research, and I think that this report does that. It is up to other parties to match that commitment—that might be a comment the Minister wanted to hear.

To return to my speech, unfortunately we could draw few other positive conclusions from our investigations. Indeed, the way both the Government and the STFC handled the budget process was, to put it mildly, deeply flawed. Disappointingly, rather than engage with the criticisms, the Government have rejected almost all of the conclusions and recommendations that followed. I know that other Members will wish to return to them, but I want to focus initially on the STFC.

The inquiry uncovered profound problems within the STFC—weaknesses in its senior management structure and leadership and in its peer review and consultation processes. To be fair to the STFC, however, it has taken some positive steps following our critique. In co-ordination with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, it has commissioned an independent organisational review following our criticism of its senior management. We look forward to seeing the conclusions of the review and what positive changes will follow. The STFC also consulted extensively within its community prior to last week's publication of its "roots and branches" reprioritisation of the entire council programme.

Broadly speaking, the views of the peer review panels and the funding decisions taken by the STFC are now closely aligned, and we must question why that was not the case in the first place, because it would have saved much anxiety within the community.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

What has happened has been deeply damaging to the physics and astronomy community. Does my hon. Friend accept that some of the damage is long term? The community itself has now lost what confidence it had in the senior management of the STFC and it might only be regained by a radical reconstruction of its leadership.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee

I hear what my hon. Friend says. It is the job of a Select Committee to examine carefully the evidence that is put before it, to make clear recommendations, and to expect both the Government and any organisation that is criticised to put matters to rights. A systematic review is taking place, agreed between the DIUS and the STFC's leadership and its chief executive. I am content to wait until that review has been completed and the Government have responded, so we can see whether the community—which has without doubt been damaged—can have its confidence restored. It is easy to call for people to resign: it is far more difficult to resolve the problems within an organisation. I hope that my hon. Friend will be content with that response.

In addition to the review, the STFC has appointed a communications director from outside the organisation, which our report recommended. There were a number of areas of particular concern that were brought to our attention and which we highlighted in our report. The first concerned the future of the Daresbury laboratory. It appeared to us—and it was confirmed when we visited Daresbury—that the campus was being prepared as a technology business park rather than a world class science centre. Other hon. Members will wish to add their impressions of the visit, but we are encouraged that the STFC has announced that key research activities, such as ALICE— accelerators and lasers in combined experiments—and EMMA, or the electron model with many applications, will continue at Daresbury. Although the STFC has always said publicly that it is committed to Daresbury, the decisions to retain ALICE and EMMA, and the acknowledgement that it will take some time to rebuild the science capacity there, are welcome both in terms of Daresbury's future and as a vindication of the serious concerns that we raised in our report.

The astronomy technology centre in Edinburgh was a second area of serious concern for the Committee. Here the future is less clear. The STFC wanted to close the centre, but has now opened negotiations with the university of Edinburgh to take it on. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that those negotiations have his blessing and are likely to come to fruition. I also hope that the Scottish Parliament is being encouraged to play a key part in ensuring that we retain that world class facility.

I am pleased that our report has also led to other movement. For example, e-MERLIN—which will increase the sensitivity of the existing MERLIN radio telescopes by a factor of 30—is central to the future of an operational Jodrell Bank and, according to one of STFC's peer review panels,

"is guaranteed to lead to major discoveries".

One wonders therefore why it was under threat of having its grant removed. Fortunately, it will now receive some money from the STFC, but the STFC is looking for other partners to share the cost. The programmatic review announced last week resolved to find a way to bring other partners on board to ensure the medium-term future of the programme, but Jodrell Bank is interested in its long-term future, and I hope that the Minister will be able to make some comment about that.

A fourth area of concern was solar-terrestrial physics, which appeared on the brink of extinction following the first round of STFC announcements. The only ground-based STP to receive continued support in the near term is the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association programme—EISCAT—which is an international research organisation operating three incoherent scatter radar systems in northern Scandinavia. It will receive that support only because the UK is legally bound to a multi-year contract.

The STFC has declared that it will cease payments to EISCAT in 2011, but EISCAT membership is on a five-year rolling contract. It is now 2008, and it appears that we are tied in until at least 2013, not 2011. The STFC has decided that it wants to leave, but it has not even discussed this with the director of EISCAT or given any formal notice of withdrawal. It is that lack of communication and shoddy handling of key facts that has landed the STFC in real trouble over its future plans. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position on EISCAT this evening.

It is that same lack of communication that appears to be at the heart of the STFC's budget problems. Its inability to communicate properly with its own community will, I hope, be put right in the future. In redressing the balance, the STFC clearly has some difficult times ahead, but the fact that it has listened—albeit belatedly—not only to the Committee, but to its community, is a positive step. We welcome the STFC's willingness to address our criticisms constructively. The fact that it will spend almost £2 billion over the next three years on what is a hugely exciting programme is something that we should now support, instead of raking over old coals. Of course, there have been some losers in the funding round, but there have also been some big winners.

Let me now turn to the ability of the Government and Minister to engage with what I always hope will be positive criticism from the Select Committee. The Minister will accept that many members of the Committee are deeply committed to science and do not make criticisms purely for the sake of it. The Government rejected the bulk of our conclusions and recommendations, and we acknowledge that they have every right to do so, but they do not have the right to traduce what the Committee said or to produce a response that was impolite, inaccurate and, at times, incomprehensible. That is unacceptable and should be challenged.

The Government were hasty in rejecting our recommendations regarding the transparency of the allocations process, and in particular our suggestion that documents prepared for bilateral negotiations between the Government and the research councils should be published as a matter of course, which goes to the heart of the issue of transparency and communications with the community. The Government rejected the recommendations on two grounds. First, they claimed that some information is commercially confidential—I can understand that—and, secondly, that transparency would put at risk "candid discussion and robust appraisal" during the allocation process.

The Minister must recognise that those are not sensible rebuttals. Commercial sensitivity did not prevent the release of most of the information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and, if that is an issue, DIUS should be able to release the documents as a matter of course, with steps taken to remove commercially confidential information prior to release. The second concern, that transparency would put candid discussion at risk, simply does not hold. We have not asked to see transcripts of the negotiations, because that would be preposterous, but we have asked for the documents relating to the negotiations so that we can see on what basis the decisions are being made.

Keeping the negotiations confidential opens the Government up to accusations that they have inappropriately influenced the decisions that research councils take. That is the most damaging accusation for the relationship between the Government, the research councils and the research community. Accusations that the Government have broken the Haldane principle are already coming from organisations such as CaSE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and when such strong organisations make complaints, people sit up and listen, and so should the Government. They cannot simply dismiss those accusations. Will the Minister consider our recommendation that the documents that are prepared by research councils for use in bilaterals with DIUS are published as a matter of course?

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's argument that this decision is part of the comprehensive spending review negotiations is different in this case? It is not like allocations to the Higher Education Funding Council, for example, where the Government rightly and transparently say that they want to direct Government priorities and to see that what the council proposes to spend in the settlement is what the Government want it to do. In this case, the Government claim, rightly or wrongly—rightly, in my view—that they do not have any influence on particular scientific programmes. Therefore that process of negotiation is especially different in Haldane.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he will make those points again. That was the very point that I was trying to make—obviously, not as well as I should have.

We welcome the fact that the CSR period will be characterised by an increased emphasis on translational research into health and wealth benefits. Three new bodies have been set up recently for that purpose: the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research, or OSCHR; the Energy Technologies Institute; and the Technology Strategy Board. It is clear from our report and the Government's response that those new bodies—welcome as they are—are partially supported by reallocated money that previously supported basic science, which I think was the point that Bob Spink alluded to earlier.

The Government defend the movement of funds in paragraph 43 of their response by saying:

"It is the role of Government to encourage the research base regularly to assess and adjust funding to take into account shifting priorities."

They go on to say:

"It would not be appropriate to adopt an approach that only funded new initiatives after all existing activity is maintained."

Those statements run contrary to previous assurances that the Government have given to us that basic science will never be cut in favour of translation. Can the Minister reassure us that the increased emphasis on translational science will not have a detrimental effect on basic science—the kind of science that is not on the fast-track to translation, but will instead enhance humanity's knowledge base in the long-term?

The key issue of the Government's approach to the Haldane principle emerged during our discussions on regional policy. I am sure my colleagues will speak later, so I shall be brief. In short, the Government appear hopelessly confused on regional policy. They have repeatedly stated that they want

"to strengthen science investment at Daresbury".

That desire has led the Government to have a specific vision for the STFC to fund science at Daresbury. Whether or not that is a breach of the Haldane principle, it is a clear breach of Government policy, which is:

"Public funding of research at a national level, through the Research Councils and funding bodies, is dedicated to supporting excellent research, irrespective of its UK location."

That is a direct quotation from the "Science and innovation investment framework, 2004-2014".

Surely, if the Government follow their own guidelines and the Haldane principle, they should not be putting pressure on research councils to invest money in any specific location, as they have done by repeatedly voicing a desire to see world-class science facilities at Daresbury and by outlining their specific vision for the Daresbury campus to be a partnership between the STFC and others. That is for the research councils to decide on the basis of the science, but the Government are clearly and rightly determined that Daresbury should have a bright future.

I understand that there is a problem for the Minister: either the Government have a regional science policy or they are reaching for one. Either way, they should make their position clear. Will the Minister reconsider our recommendation to open a debate on regional science policy by producing a White Paper on the subject? He cannot still simply allow the confusion to go on between centrally driven national policy, in terms of the Haldane principle and excellence, and regional policies.

Finally, at the heart of the problems over the STFC's budget is the financial legacy that the STFC was left with following the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, or PPARC, and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, or CCLRC. The Government have repeatedly denied that the origins of the STFC's budget shortfall have anything to do with an inherited deficit from CCLRC by pointing out that the STFC was formed without a budget deficit. That is absolutely true, and the Committee has no wish to reopen that argument. However, the Government have consistently missed the point. As Professor Keith Mason, the former chief executive of PPARC and current chief executive of the STFC, so correctly put it:

"the base line budget allocation to the ex-CCLRC...was not fully raised to compensate for the running costs of Diamond and ISIS Target Station II".

That was the point.

Let us consider the facts. CCLRC would have had a budget deficit of approximately £80 million, in today's money, had it continued as a stand-alone council, because its baseline allocation was not sufficient to meet the running costs associated with Diamond and the ISIS second target station coming online. That is shown in the National Audit Office report, "Big Science", from January 2007—it is not something that we made up. The STFC was given approximately the combined budget of CCLRC and PPARC and the STFC's budgetary shortfall is almost exactly the same size as the amount that CCLRC would have been short of had it been able to continue as a stand-alone council. Those facts cannot be dismissed on the grounds that CCLRC should have planned its budgets more carefully on the basis of a flat cash settlement. That might be true, but it is unfair to saddle former PPARC users with a deficit derived from CCLRC. That is exactly what happened as a result of the budget settlement.

The Government assured us that there would be no legacy issues associated with the merger. They got it wrong and they should take responsibility for that, rather than hiding behind other people's decisions. Although we know the outcome of the programmatic review, we still do not know what the grant allocations will look like. Will the Minister consider a modest STFC uplift to prevent significant grant cuts if Professor Bill Wakeham recommends that when he reports in the autumn?

The process has been interesting and has raised some fundamental issues about the Haldane principles and the independence of the research councils. It has also raised some very interesting issues about how individual research councils work. At the end of the day, the major problems have not transpired to be as serious as was first thought. I am grateful for that. I hope that when the Minister replies he is able to give not only the community in the STFC but the whole research community the commitment that the Government will seriously consider the recommendations of the Committee, rethink some of them and bring forward new proposals.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods PPS (Rt Hon Des Browne, Secretary of State), Ministry of Defence 7:38 pm, 7th July 2008

I, too, am glad to be able to participate in the debate. It is perhaps rare for Select Committee business and constituency business to collide in quite the way they did for me on the matter of science funding. Since becoming an MP, I have spent a considerable amount of time establishing a relationship with the science community in Durham. That community is reflected in our excellent world-class university, our science learning centre and Framwellgate school, which is to be rebuilt as a science village.

I have also wholeheartedly supported the prominence that the Government have given to science, and the recognised and often cited need for us to maintain and enhance the science budget given the many years of Tory neglect. Indeed, the uplift in the budget was needed to keep us internationally competitive in an increasingly global economy.

The 2007 comprehensive spending review was flagged up in advance as a very difficult spending round, and so it proved, but I am particularly glad that science funding was protected. As I think Mr. Willis mentioned, science funding has doubled in real terms since 1997, having gone from £1.3 billion then to £3.4 billion in 2007-08. The CSR 2007 allocation made provision for a further rise of £4 billion between 2008 and 2011. That is an average increase of 2.7 per cent. a year in real terms over the next three years. I was consoled by the fact that, despite a difficult spending review, science appeared to be protected, and the Government were continuing to support world-class research and sought to drive up the economic benefit that could be derived from investing in science.

As the Committee's report points out, the headline figure is a three-year increase in the science budget of 17.4 per cent. As I have said, that reflects a Government commitment to implement the main recommendations of the Cooksey review on health research funding and the Sainsbury review on the role that science and innovation can play in keeping the UK competitive. It is of course true that not all research councils will receive the same percentage of uplift in their budget. As was mentioned, the Medical Research Council will receive a 30 per cent. increase. Nevertheless, overall, even the Science and Technology Facilities Council budget had a planned increase of 13.6 per cent. I will talk a bit more about that percentage later.

I therefore felt some consternation and confusion when I started to receive frantic telephone calls from members of the physics community in Durham about the dreadful cuts that would be inflicted on them after April. That appeared to relate to budget cuts that were to be introduced by the STFC and that would affect not only their projects, but programmes supporting students. Something seemed to be going dreadfully wrong, and I had already made up my mind that the matter needed investigation, but news of the impending disastrous cuts had also reached the Science and Technology Committee, and it took the view that we should look into the STFC issues as part of the wider inquiry on science budget allocations.

As I am sure that other hon. Members will point out, the inquiry threw up a number of worrying conclusions about the conduct of senior staff at the STFC, the difficulties with the prioritisation process for key awards, the clarity and transparency in decision making, and the issue of whether the whole fiasco and the concern over funding could have been avoided if there had been a slightly better settlement for STFC when it was established and took over from the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

Despite the depth of the inquiry, we still have not got to the bottom of the extent to which the issue arose from the initial funding problems of STFC, as the Government response was inadequate in that respect. They simply refute allegations made by the Committee, instead of establishing detailed evidence about the funding of CCLRC and PPARC when they were disbanded, and when STFC took over from them. Paragraph 39 of the Committee's report makes that very clear and asks the Government to look into the legacy issues in detail. However, all that the Government do in their response is make it clear that they provided an extra £185 million in excess of the flat cash settlement over the CSR period. We all know that that additional money, welcome though it was, was to fund specific projects and priorities that had already been planned. There is a lack of detail, and I hope and suspect that the Committee will return to the issue, as we need to get to the bottom of the funding allocation and the extent to which it meant that significant programmes would have to be cut.

In the Government response, there is a lack of recognition of what it will mean for the STFC when the full economic costs come on board; that will, of course, reduce the distance that research grants can cover. When Professor Mason, the chief executive of the STFC, first appeared before the Committee, it seemed to me that the funding had not been received for all the STFC's commitments. That problem was compounded by a prioritisation of the programmes identified by the STFC; in particular, new areas for growth had been identified. That prioritisation, with subsequent cuts to other parts of the STFC, was the root of the problem and appeared significantly to upset the science community. I know that from my experience in Durham, from a lot of the evidence that the Committee received in its visits, and from witnesses who came before it. The new prioritisation programmes seemed to come from absolutely nowhere, and there had been no real consultation with those likely to be affected.

The relationship between the STFC management and at least one key sector of the physics community seemed very weak, and led to a lot of distrust on the part of the academics involved. In particular, there was a view that disproportionate cuts were being made to particle physics. Conclusion 10, which relates to paragraph 46 of the report, summarises that well:

"We welcome STFC's decision to support its major facilities to the extent set out in its Delivery Plan...However, we are concerned that the decision to support the large facilities has come at the expense of research in fields where the UK excels".

Two examples are given: the international linear collider and the Gemini telescopes. Scientists in Durham and elsewhere who are involved in ILC-related work maintain that they were not consulted at all about the STFC decision, and it is the lack of transparency and the poor peer review in setting the priorities for the STFC that the Committee wishes to investigate. Of course, the issue has to some extent been overtaken by last week's report from the STFC on the new priorities. Nevertheless, that was a key issue that the Committee investigated, and some of the Government response was perhaps a little weak.

It was apparent that many people did not think that the peer review panel, which was set up to inform the delivery plan, was fully representative of the appropriate scientific community. Confidence in peer review is essential if decisions by research councils are to be seen as legitimate by the relevant academic community. I hope that the STFC has learned from its actions and will do as it has promised and bring on board all members of the academic community who are involved in ensuring that that community has a greater say in the decisions taken.

It is clear from the Government's response to the report that peer review is not considered a matter for the Government to get involved in directly because of the Haldane principles. I think that we would all agree that it is not appropriate for the Government to get involved in the day-to-day operation of research councils, or even in prioritisation, but it would have been appropriate for the Government to state that the efficacy of the peer review system and processes at the STFC could be improved in the light of the very heavy criticism that we unearthed.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

On the Haldane principle and conclusion 6 of the report, the hon. Lady will be mindful of the fact that the Committee argued that cross-cutting programmes that affect more than one council, largely in pursuit of Government-inspired initiatives, have skewed budgets. Does she agree with that conclusion? I know that she is attempting to be very measured, but is that an issue that the Government should look into further?

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods PPS (Rt Hon Des Browne, Secretary of State), Ministry of Defence

The key issue is transparency. I think that we would all accept that the Government may wish to put more of the budget into one area than another, and I hope that we all feel, across the House, that that is a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do. That may mean that they point research councils in directions that mean pulling their budgets. We have seen that happen with regard to health research. The Committee was not convinced that the Haldane principles had been breached; we merely asked questions to get greater clarity from Government to ensure that the Haldane principles would not be interfered with.

The response from the STFC grudgingly acknowledges in paragraph 86 that more needs to be done in terms of achieving effective consultation across its programmes. We have since seen some evidence that that may be the case. However, it is also the case that unless the STFC makes strenuous efforts fully to involve all parts of the community in its decisions, it will not be possible in the short term, or even the medium term, completely to restore the faith of the relevant academic communities in its ability to represent their interests.

The next matter that I want to consider is international reputation. Many of the scientists to whom we spoke were very concerned about the damage that the whole episode was doing to the UK's reputation for science investment and commitment to international projects. There was strong concern that the actions taken by the STFC, and the way in which they were taken, would have a detrimental effect on our reputation overseas. It is not enough for the Government to assert, as they do in paragraph 93 of their response, that the UK remains a reliable partner. A reputation for being a reliable partner has to be built up over time, and people will judge the Government by their actions and by the amount of money that is given to the science community to enable it to support those international collaborations. I hope that I am making a helpful suggestion to the Government by saying that lessons need to be learned from what happened in this instance. It is important for them to emphasise that they will support and prioritise our international collaborations. They need to go beyond the stage outlined in their response to think about how they are going to address those criticisms and build up confidence again. It is not good enough to assert merely that our reputation is intact—the academic community needs more support than that.

My last point relates to the lack of confidence in some parts of our science community about how secure its future is. That was perhaps the worst thing to emerge from this unhappy affair. In April, I met a group of a undergraduate students, postgraduate students and post-doctoral research fellows in Durham. A few hundred people attended the meeting—students from across the field of particle physics and the wider physics community. They were angry about the STFC decisions but, more than anything, concerned about their future careers. The Government should not underestimate how this set of cuts coming from nowhere without adequate explanation affected the confidence of those students. I find that especially galling given that the Government had done so much to support and raise the profile of science. I would have thought that they must at least see the STFC's actions as a PR disaster. It was most unfortunate that neither the Government's response nor that of the STFC acknowledged the damage that has been done to the trust of students and the academic community in general, and more needs to be done to bring that back into being.

Of course, I did my best to assure the students that there was an ongoing commitment to them, to the work that they were doing, and to the particle physics community in general. They have international, globally portable skills, and it is important that the Government make it clear as soon as possible that they will continue to invest in science so that those students can go abroad for international collaboration as necessary but return to have a good career in the UK as well.

Having talked to people in the community since, I know that they are glad that the STFC has softened some of its responses, including on the funding of the international linear collider. I think that that was a direct reaction to the Committee's report and to the protests made by the science community. Clearly, more attention will be paid to the STFC's decision-making processes and communications with its own scientific community and the world at large. People particularly welcome the commitment that no changes to rolling grants will be made before the Wakeham review has reported. I am grateful, as are they, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has instigated that review; we all hope that it will enable us to draw a line under the whole process. I hope that lessons have been learned and that Wakeham will be a clear report that sets the way forward for the whole field of physics based on the judgment of the scientists involved and that reflects the Government's commitment to science funding in future. I also hope that the new programme that has been outlined by the STFC means that we will all be able to move forward knowing that the future of science is to be fully supported by this Government.

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M

"That may mean that they point research councils in directions that mean pulling their budgets."
Presumably this should read: "... pooling their budgets."

Submitted by Mark Thakkar

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton 7:58 pm, 7th July 2008

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as a non-executive director of a satellite company. I make that declaration because space comes into the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I am happy to piggy-back on the report and excellent work done by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. It is an important Committee, and I am glad that it was rescued following the Government's lamentable failure to keep the word "science" in any departmental name. Fortunately, the House of Commons did not allow it to disappear, and I played my part in trying to ensure that that was the case.

This debate has been largely dominated by the STFC, which is better known as Swindon Town football club by those who are most active in it. It was a big failure by the Government not to anticipate what the implications of this would be. I happened to be giving a speech at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory at the beginning of December, immediately after Keith Mason made his speech at the same conference. I was able to stir things up a little bit because I had been warned by the science community that the STFC's move to change the budget balance was not very popular, because it had left the gap that the Committee subsequently investigated. Rather than go over that ground again, I would like the Minister to give us some indication of the impact of the £1.9 billion settlement that the STFC announced a few days ago, and to outline whether it largely solves the problems that were previously discussed. That announcement happened only recently, and it is difficult to evaluate its implications. I am glad, however, that there has been a settlement.

When I was Minister, a very long time ago, we always had problems with big physics, not least because of the contributions to organisations such as CERN, which often skewed budgets in quite an alarming way. However, CERN deserves a mention today. In 1994, I was involved with the beginnings of the project now known as the large hadron collider, and we are about to see the culmination of that project after a long time—a 14-year gap. It is a hugely important project. For the record, I would like to compliment the Financial Times, which, in its colour supplement at the weekend, produced an excellent article by Clive Cookson on CERN and the large hadron collider, including some useful glossaries of the terms that sometimes make it difficult to explain why CERN is important.

The studies of fundamental particles and forces that make up the universe are, perhaps, about to be unlocked, and we could reach a sudden understanding of the Higgs boson and all the other excitements that scientists have pondered for a long time, which would justify the British Government's contribution to CERN over the years. I know it has sometimes been controversial because of its unbalancing of budgets and the difficulties of ensuring that other parts of physics and astronomy got their fair share.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink UKIP, Castle Point

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it may be even more exciting and useful for the scientific community if the existence of the Higgs boson were not confirmed?

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

It might well be—that is a fair point—but let us find out what happens when this thing is switched on. The construction of it is the most remarkable engineering triumph. I went to see the earlier establishment at CERN, but I have not seen the current edifice, only photographs of it.

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Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was the foresight of successive British Governments that brought the partnership for CERN together? Indeed, it is fair to say that no Governments in the world could afford to do such a thing now. Do not those British Governments, and Britain, deserve a pat on the back for the things that have come out of CERN, such as the world wide web? They could only have been brought about with the support of the British Government.

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

The hon. Gentleman, with whom I have enjoyed several investigative trips to various scientific and telecommunications establishments, has put his finger on it. I am grateful to him for saying "Governments", because there are times when I think that the Labour party believes that the world started in 1997. Actually, it did not. The project that has now come to fruition goes back a long way and has been supported, sometimes with considerable difficulty, by protecting the CERN budget from those who wished the funds had been allocated elsewhere.

Dr. Blackman-Woods, whose constituency has a very fine university, was a bit churlish, which was worrying. I would not have picked up a party political point of view in what she said were it not for one thing. It is of course correct to say that the science budget has doubled through the money that goes to the research councils, and I have paid warm tribute to my main successor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, for the work that he did in ensuring that that was the case. I put that on the record with no caveats attached. I welcome it; I only wish I had had the ability to persuade my Chancellor of Exchequer that we should do the same thing. It was not for want of trying, but I clearly did not have the powers of persuasion that Lord Sainsbury had when it came to money. Nevertheless, it is of extreme concern that the percentage of gross domestic product spent on R and D by the Government has not increased since I left office in 1997. I wish that the hon. Member for City of Durham had made that point in her balanced speech because it is a matter of great concern to many people, not least those in industry who work closely with other Departments.

Obviously, the Ministry of Defence research budget has declined. I remember working with the then chief scientific adviser to the Government, Lord May, who is now playing an important role in the other place with regard to science. He wrote a paper, which I requested, on the significance of the decline in the defence research budget. Sadly, although the paper was very influential, it did not prevent the curtailment of that departmental research. That has had a big effect on many of the value added companies that this country requires, and I hope that the Minister will take it into account when he talks about the Government's record. We have to put it in that context.

Other international comparisons are of concern. We always talk about the way this country does well in citations, and I do not dispute that. Nevertheless, we can see the rate of growth of research and citations in other countries. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, China shows a particular growth in citations in mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences. For the record, and the ease of those who wish to find it, the previous figure about GDP was taken from page 34 of the Sainsbury review, which was published in October 2007. The point about the worrying tendencies in citations is on page 36. The British Government's proud record on citations is rather retrospective, and we have to be careful about other countries racing to the top.

It is important to note that page 35 of the same report shows that the amount of research conducted by the British Government in the public sector is still lagging behind that of many of our competitors. It is certainly not something that we should boast about too much. In this country, the private sector does almost twice as much, in terms of percentage of GDP, as the Government. There are worrying concerns if one looks at the Government as a whole, and the impact on science.

My report, which was a submission to the shadow Cabinet on science policy, indicated that we should look at whether further mergers should take place in the research councils. There is quite an unproductive hierarchy among the remaining research councils, which is duplicatory. The Minister's duty, while preserving the Haldane principles, as I had to try to do when I was Minister, is to give guidance on the linking themes and cross-disciplinary research that the research councils should bear in mind. I know that that is happening, but I am still rather worried about the process.

I have talked to most of the people involved in the research councils during the past 18 months while conducting my research, and we have to be a bit careful about just saying that peer review is wonderful. It would be useful for the Minister to start a proper inquiry into whether peer review is quite what it is cracked up to be in what is increasingly becoming a multidisciplinary age. I do not get such feedback from many of the scientists involved, so perhaps it is a worthy study for the Select Committee.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee

Indeed, successive Select Committees have pondered exactly that question. The hon. Gentleman will know that when broad-based metrics were suggested as an alternative to peer review, nobody could agree about what should be in the metrics, so we went back to peer review.

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

I agree that it is a conundrum. Given that Select Committees are collectively much brighter than me, I am sure that if the Select Committee is still worrying about how to conduct a review, that proves the complexity of the matter. I still think that it is important, though, largely because science in this country, even basic science, needs to be increasingly cross-disciplinary. I am not sure whether the systems that deliver research grants are helping that process. University vice-chancellors talk avidly about it, but if they do not think that they will get a five-star department out of it, they are not so keen. The challenge is to perform well at multidisciplinary level. I am goading the Minister, really, rather than criticising him. He is relatively new in the job and has made a very good start, if I may say so, but I would certainly want to get my teeth into that matter if I were lucky enough to be in his position again.

That brings me to a point on which we must be careful about our thinking. Of course basic science is absolutely essential—I have no problem in saying that. However, we have a habit in this country of giving a status to basic scientists that we do not give to applied scientists, and certainly not to the category known as engineers. That is a national weakness. The trouble with my saying that is that people will take it out of context and say, "Well, the former Minister was really trying to say that we should downgrade basic science." That is not what I am saying at all. We should raise the status of other scientists to that of basic scientists.

The whole process pushes basic science into coming up with "the idea", or an emergent idea. It may not be the one that was predicted—that is the whole joy of basic scientific research. However, the point of discovery has become the point of publication, and vice-chancellors admit to me that it is often the point at which they say, "Right, go back and do some new work so that we can get a five-star department next time." Whether the research be at Durham, Cambridge, Oxford or Imperial college, it hangs in the air somewhat, even though in many cases it could connect with that of other scientists. Increasingly, discoveries need to be exposed to those in other environments and disciplines so that we can capture their full benefit. That is a gap in our current work.

Certain changes have been made, and I welcome them. The Technology Strategy Board is examining some of the work that is being done, and I have spoken to it. It has been put at arm's length, which is a good development. I am not criticising it, but I would go further. My report suggested an innovative projects agency, which would have a budget of £1 billion. Before our Front-Bench spokesman starts jumping up and down, I should say that that would not be new money. It would be a combination of what I regard as the far too diffuse Government expenditure on R and D, the post-discovery basic science process. The agency's budget would therefore be three to four times that of the TSB.

I shall give the Minister a piece of advice. He might not like it, but the great joy of being a Back Bencher in opposition is giving advice freely. The regional development agencies are a nightmare, and he should pay rigorous attention to them. Frankly, he should throttle their scientific expenditure. Time after time I have heard academics and others say, "Oh, the RDA!" Most RDAs are risk-averse and do not have a proper idea of what they want to do. They love the concept of nanotechnology without having the remotest idea of what it is or what it involves.

One vice-chancellor said to me that he had spent a year trying to persuade his local RDA—I shall not name it—to involve itself in a very exciting project. In the end, he used his own university funds and found some other way of covering the funding gap because the RDA spent the whole year saying, "It's a wonderful project, but we're not quite sure." The Minister should get the money back from the RDAs and give it to the TSB. In a way, he would be doing what we have said we will do if and when we come back into power. My hon. Friend Adam Afriyie might criticise me for publicising an idea that I have given him, but in the national interest we must make much more effort to focus what we do. My report makes many other suggestions, but it is available on the web, so I shall not bother to go into them now.

The challenge that we face is getting more and more extreme. We have to show the people whom we want to attract to this country that we are doing exciting research. We need to attract and retain PhD research students. A considerable percentage of our current PhD students are from abroad, and we need to keep them here rather than allow them to go elsewhere. We need to work much more closely with industry, because a lot of the really challenging research beyond the basic is done in industry laboratories. The interconnection between those laboratories and universities is critical.

To pick up on something in the Select Committee report, we must be a little careful about full economic costing. It is an extremely good guide to a university about its cost base, and if the FEC outcome is too high, the university knows that it has its internal overheads wrong. However, if FEC becomes a sort of bible that cannot be varied, many of the companies that want to work with universities will shift their contracts abroad. I could give chapter and verse of what has actually happened in several cases in which universities have said, "Well, this is the FEC of our postgrad. It is £100,000 a year, and like it or lump it." That is not the way to stimulate research. Many big companies now have research centres around the world and will concentrate on the areas where they think there is both individual, human expertise and a climate for research and development.

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

Of course I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is my very honourable friend.

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Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that much research in this country is paid for by charities and voluntary groups? They suffer under the VAT regime, which must be examined. We welcome their money for cancer research, for example, but they have to spend astronomical amounts on VAT on buildings and on renting space in universities, because ground space now has to be paid for per foot. That saps a lot of the well gotten money that the public give.

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

I judged my willingness to give way well, because that is an extremely powerful point and I shall do no more than simply endorse it. It shows that our universities and the Government need to be flexible in how VAT is applied.

We are in a very competitive situation. Our historic strengths in science, technology and engineering are still there to be admired, but the challenge will be greater in the next few years. The outpourings from universities in India and China are getting greater, and more importantly those universities are getting shrewder. The Indians have gone well beyond just being a nation to which we outsource. There is now creativity in those countries.

In my report, I cited the chief executive of Novartis in China. The company had put £100 million into a new research centre in Shanghai, and I said to him, "But surely there is not yet the depth and understanding of research in Shanghai to justify that." He said that I had missed the point, which was that a lot of the Chinese diaspora that had spread to America was beginning to come back, at least for part of the year, and the company wanted to be there to capture it. These are exciting times for Chinese universities, and we must ensure that they are exciting times for our leading British universities as well. That implies an even more radical look at how we fund research and how we tie basic research to capturing the innovation that is possible in our society in a competitive world.

So two cheers for the Government, and credit to them for the money that has been spent on the science base, but I add the caveat that they could be doing something much more radical. Given that they might have only another 18 months, they should get on with it.

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"The company had put £100 million into a new research centre in Shanghai"
The figure should be $100 million.

Submitted by Mark Thakkar

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North 8:19 pm, 7th July 2008

I am grateful for the opportunity to follow Mr. Taylor and to accept his invitation to be radical. We have heard some criticisms of the STFC, but many other aspects of the science budget need to be tackled in the debate. I do not get heavily stimulated by talking about budgets—I find it rather boring. Having run a department, in which I had a few million pounds to budget, I was quite creative, but I think that I got out just in time.

Scrutinising the research councils is very much part of a Select Committee's work. It takes me back to the time when we scrutinised the Medical Research Council, which is now extolled for its work. However, I remember that our Committee's report was much more vehement than the report about the STFC. It created a hum in the community, but in the case of both research councils, the hum came from the grass roots. Those who are conducting the research and doing the work feel that something is not right. They suddenly find a way through the parliamentary scrutiny system to get to a Department with which they find it difficult to engage. It is not always the fault of Departments or Select Committees that we have not picked up on the problem. Scientists are not great communicators in the political process and we must tackle the issue of getting our young people who are coming through the system to realise where the money comes from. I hold my hand up and admit that too many scientists and technologists believe that the world owes them a living and that, if they come up with a smart idea, it will immediately be funded. Things have never been like that and, in my opinion, never should be. One has to make the case, justify what one is doing and show what benefit it gives the world, whether it is blue-skies research or research into a product.

I left research partly because we were having to get rid of people, and employ people on one-year, six-month and one-month contracts in awful laboratories. It was therefore inspiring to hear in the Chamber in 1998 that Government money, alongside Wellcome Trust money, was being invested in refurbishing laboratories, which were dripping with damp. Every university now has a good laboratory. I believe that that has stimulated many young people to come into research—perhaps not enough, but at least something has started to happen.

I introduced a ten-minute Bill, which I discussed with Lord Sainsbury, and said that we must double the science budget. Blow me, we doubled it—I should have asked for it to have been quadrupled. I made a dreadful mistake. I remember the conservatism among the scientific community, which thought that the measure was only a crazy ten-minute Bill. We knew that things could change and they did. That continues and we need further resources, as we have heard all evening.

Much of the science around us has resulted in great health benefits to people in this country. My speciality is cancer, but I am interested in health generally. The bucket loads of money that we have given to cancer were driven by the research knowledge that emanated from scientists and medics in this country as well as in the United States. The discovery of oncogenes stimulated a field of cancer research, on which the Government picked up. They doubled the budget for research and treatment. We now have cancer plan 2, and we have realised that there is a journey to take on palliative care, on which there is further research to be done and clinical trials to undertake. The trials must not take place abroad—we should carry them out on our patients here because patients in a clinical trial generally do better and we get more information. We need more nurses to help get patients into clinical trials and so on. That is beginning to happen. Under the aegis of the cancer tsar, Mike Richards, there is great drive. Science, medicine and evidence underwrite all that continuing work.

Today, there was a meeting in this place for ethnic minority groups from different communities, mainly in London. It has been realised that the cancer rates in different sub-populations—major populations in parts of the country—are different. Ten years ago, none of us realised that that was a problem. Now that we do, medical understanding is excellent. Women with breast cancers from Indian communities in the east end of London have a different culture and different problems in entering the national health service. We suddenly woke up to that and we are doing something about it.

New procedures emerged from the Darzi report last week for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to make drugs and technologies available throughout the country. Primary care trusts now have to justify why somebody is not an exceptional case. If there is an exceptional case, everybody in the country who is in the same category must get the exceptional treatment. That is a major step forward, which I hope will get rid of the postcode lottery. We are therefore learning.

Sometimes there is a lack of political drive in this country and from the Government to make things happen even faster. For example, we often cut research. I am especially interested in honey bees. Hon. Members may not be excited about that, but honey bee research has suddenly captured the imagination. A friend of mine said that it was the only subject discussed in a general committee meeting of the Labour party on the Isle of Arran. I understand that there are problems in Scotland, but honey bee research is an amazing field. Yet what do we do in this country? We sack the people who are conducting the research at Rothamsted. What did we do about BSE? We cut the research into BSE just before it happened. The previous Government cut the money for wave energy research, but now it is a fashionable subject for research, which provides great stimulation and experience. We were good at cutting money for research. We had an amateur approach of saying, "Well it's not very important at the minute, so we'll cut the research." That has gone.

We must do more on dementia and Alzheimer's, as well as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Rare cancers—pancreatic, liver and kidney—do not get the same services as breast cancer and so on. There is therefore a good reason for believing that we have a big research future that will need much more money.

It has also been said that commercial influence has been brought to bear on research in our universities and institutions. Research from this country and the United States led to the internet. Basic research led to it and its exploitation. There would be no silicon valley in California without that basic research. I could cite case after case—for example, DNA, a small short note in nature, which revolutionised the world. We should protect that basic understanding.

Research councils need to be examined, and Select Committees should scrutinise them. They also need to think about how they can join together. For example, I know people who worked on atmospheric chemistry in three different departments, but they never spoke to each other. The previous speaker mentioned the fact that we have to get people in cross-cutting areas. The people who drink coffee together work together; the people who drink together get things done. That is my motto. People must work and discuss their problems with each other over the odd pint or half pint, depending on one's taste.

Some research councils also have too many establishment figures making the noises. It is easy for that to happen in Britain. What is wrong with having good graduate students or members of the public on those councils, to listen and talk about the issues? I think I know why. When we put the public on to certain committees, such as on genetic modification, and when we had those juries, they have embarrassed a lot of the scientists by asking, for instance, "What does that mean?", "How does that happen?" and so on. The public ask for the basic information, which is very important in science. Research councils have a heck of a lot to learn.

Last Monday, we discussed food scarcity in this place and we talked about plant genetics, or at least I did. The development of different breeding programmes—not necessarily genetically modified, but different programmes, involving different types of wheat and maize, for example—could lead to plants that can withstand drought and live in inclement parts of the world. Plant genetics gets a rum deal in this country, in terms of medical science and medical experiments.

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"DNA, a small short note in nature"
This should read: "... in Nature". (It's hardly an obscure publication!)

Submitted by Mark Thakkar

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

It is a little known fact that at the age of 12, I aspired to being a plant breeder, but I never got there. The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically trenchant speech. Does he agree that one important aspect is not merely the cross-cutting of different departments, but the ability to maintain certain national capacities in order to take a strategic view and move things forward? Where one is simply decentralising to the research councils and looking at peer review and so forth, the difficulty is that when we need a lever to pull, we suddenly find that we have no one left to pull it.

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Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes the point that I was about to make. For example, we have the edge in stem cell research, although one would not know that from listening to those who talk about science. If somebody made a big breakthrough in that field, for instance at Imperial, Dundee university or wherever else—the research is going on all over the place—where would it be exploited? I would guess that such a breakthrough might end up in California or somewhere else. The people there, or in India, China and so on, would know exactly how to take it into development. We must learn not just how to compete and how to beat those countries, but how to work together. After all, their students come over here, are very friendly towards us and then they go back, so there can be interchange.

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. The lesson that the Roslin institute learned from the cloning of Dolly the sheep was quite instructive. PPL Therapeutics, the company involved, subsequently moved to the United States. Many people in the science community in the United States simply could not believe what we had managed to do and were determined to get hold of the technology as quickly as possible. We are in a very competitive global market.

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Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Yes, it is a competitive market, but who makes the competition? I do not feel that scientists—at least not the ones I know—have ever been competing with each other. We compete with each other over who gets their paper in Nature or in the journal of this or that institute. However, the quality of the paper that someone publishes is important, too, and not just to their kudos, but to the world in general, because it is more read.

One point that the hon. Gentleman did not make is that papers now do not have just one or two names on them. All the best papers have about 20, 30 or 40 names on them of people who have interacted in different ways in that subject—one can look in Nature to see that. There are very few lone wolves these days. We have moved on from the days of the magic amateur monk who discovered breeding problems in peas. Science is big now and it needs money. We no longer have rich Darwins who can sail round the world, make wonderful observations in that amateurish way and take a long time to publish their work. Things are not like that anymore. After all, Darwin published only because Alfred Russel Wallace was breathing down his neck and was going to publish anyway, so he had to beat him to the punch. The world is different now, but there is still a bit of amateurishness in our science. We tend to think that we are very clever, but competition and, even more so, co-operation are very important.

Let me finish by saying something about the regional development agencies, of which there has been some criticism. The ones of which I have experience—in the north-west and north-east—are magic. The way they have interacted with the universities and the community is great. The situation is very different in the east of England, where we have had our moment in the sun. I wanted to make Norwich into a science city, which would not cost a penny—indeed, that is mentioned in the report that Mr. Willis talked about.

There is a cluster of really good centres of excellence around Norwich. It is the same in Dundee, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Durham. We can go all round the country and see places known as science cities. Some people think that "science city" is just something that is put up on a sign at the entrance to a city, but it is not. It is a concept involving people working together in industry and science, and in centres in which young people learn about science. It also involves schools that are scientifically erudite in the sense that they have special status. There are schools that specialise in engineering, for example.

In the Select Committee on which I serve, I remember asking a representative of the Royal Academy how many special schools did engineering. The answer was, "I don't know." I would have thought that that would be one of the first things that a member of the Royal Academy would want to know. Surely they would want to know whether there were enough schools of that kind and whether we were encouraging enough young people to go into that field. Surely they should be asking what the Royal Academy should be doing to make that happen.

We need the science city concept, and regional development agencies that do not just play the game of co-operating but actually do so. We must also ensure that we do not have any more instances of science centres closing. There are 20 per cent. cuts being made in Glasgow, for example, by a nationalist party that works on the basis of its supreme excellence in everything—because things happen differently in Scotland—yet it is closing science centres. We have a real battle on our hands right across the board. I believe that the science budget should have been quadrupled and, by gosh, as long as some of us are still breathing, it will be.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink UKIP, Castle Point 8:36 pm, 7th July 2008

It is a real pleasure to follow Dr. Gibson. As always, he has made a vigorous and superbly informed contribution. He has redefined the term "wide-ranging" tonight, speaking on everything from honey bees to stem cell research. I shall try to top that by slipping in something about nuclear fusion, which he missed out. However, he has forgotten more about science than most of us ever knew, apart from one or two honourable exceptions in the Chamber tonight.

It is easiest, and most usual, to sanction certain sanitised and unexciting research and science projects, particularly in translational research, where outcomes are predictable. Of course that is important, but it must not be done at the expense of basic science and true discovery processes. Only by taking real risks will we push forward the frontiers of knowledge for the ultimate benefit of mankind, to help us eventually to save the planet. However, the universities and funding councils have become risk averse from years of battering by the sensationalist media and from interfering politicians, although there is none of those in the Chamber tonight. They have also come under pressure from commercial organisations, which are skewing their decisions on research projects. That is why I want to speak briefly tonight in favour of basic science and research, which, by definition, involves great risk, uncertainty and unexpected outcomes.

The system of peer review, which has already been mentioned, has been examined by the Select Committee on a number of occasions. It has serious weaknesses, in that it fails to reject mediocre and poor research projects, and favours predictable journeyman-type work that is unlikely to deliver spectacular results or push forward the boundaries of our understanding for the benefit of mankind. Peer review acts as a gatekeeper at the start and the end of the research process. At the start, it determines which projects will get funding to go ahead in the first place. At the end, it determines which ones will get published in which academic peer review journals, which is important to the whole process and to spreading that knowledge.

Peer review is instrumental in the whole project selection process, and it is therefore of great importance. However, it tends to back the safer bets and to reject the more imaginative, ambitious and, some might say, off-the-wall projects—the kind that the hon. Member for Norwich, North and I enjoy. But at the very worst, those projects will excite, encourage and inspire future generations of scientists, and who knows what might flow from them in the future? Such projects also enable us to encourage doctoral researchers to this country and to keep them here. They add so much to the UK's research base, and we need to continue to do that.

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Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Part of the science budget is for PhD students and for post-doctoral fellows. Does the hon. Gentleman think that enough is spent on them, too much, or what?

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink UKIP, Castle Point

I do not think that enough is spent on them. We need to support more doctoral researchers in our universities—particularly UK-bred doctoral researchers, because they will mature, become the wealth generators and knowledge creators of the future and help to push forward medical science, which the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about. That is why I back the fund from the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of sciences, for the blue-skies research that gets around the peer review constraints to some extent.

We must continue the red-blooded backing of big science projects such as Diamond, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and the large hadron collider at CERN, which is extremely exciting. As I said in an intervention earlier, it may deliver even more for mankind if it disproves the existence of the Higgs boson rather than proves it, but we will see about that over the next few exciting months. On nuclear fusion, if we ever get Q factors up to the 35 or 40 level, we will take the greatest step ever in mankind's history—by saving the planet and moving forward.

I hope that the Minister will give comfort to the House by saying that he and the Government are truly sold on supporting big science, and on continuing to do what they have done—magnificently—over the past 10 years with science, which is to put their money where their mouth is. I back the call of the hon. Member for Norwich, North for the science budget to be quadrupled and for a significant proportion of it to go to blue-skies research.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley 8:42 pm, 7th July 2008

Several Members have mentioned that the amount of money available for science has doubled over the lifetime of this Government, so one would have thought that that would have led to a happy response—certainly from my constituents. In actual fact, after the last review, I received for the first time ever some very angry correspondence from my constituents. They were neither scientists nor specialists; they were just extremely annoyed at the news that Jodrell Bank would probably close. It was an extraordinary result for a Government who have shown their commitment to science by doubling the budget, and the report under discussion examines some of the background to, and the reasons why, it came about.

I should like to discuss the issue by trying to answer three questions that are pertinent to Jodrell Bank. I hope that at the end of the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House the latest news on e-MERLIN and Jodrell Bank, because although there have been stories with a positive spin in the press, it is not yet clear, as far as I can ascertain, whether Jodrell Bank's future is secure, so I should be very grateful if the Minister updated us.

Three key questions need answering. First, do the Government have a regional science policy? The Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills investigated and took evidence, and its Chairman, Mr. Willis, explained how the Government appeared to put forward a very confused position both in their evidence and in their response.

Secondly, why were there cuts to astronomy, particle physics and ground-based solar-terrestrial physics when we were being told that the budget was growing? Was that a mistake? Was it a policy decision? What was behind that situation? Thirdly, has the Science and Technology Facilities Council done its job properly in allocating its share of the budget? I should like to deal with those three questions in reverse order.

The answer to the third question is the easiest—it is no. The STFC has not done its job properly. I shall not read them out, but Members should read paragraphs 59 and 87 of the Select Committee report. The Committee is chaired by a Liberal Democrat, a genuine Liberal, and for him to use words such as "deplore", "inaccurate" and "unconvincing" to describe the evidence given by the chief executive of the STFC is about as strong as it gets.

Frankly, I am surprised that, having had that level of public criticism, the chief executive is still in his position. That criticism did not come from nowhere, but was based on evidence. As has already been mentioned, there was no consultation on the international linear collider when funding was withdrawn. The situation on Gemini was ludicrous. First, there was not going to be any funding for those two telescopes, then there was going to be some, then "maybe", then there was going to be funding—it was a hokey-cokey policy that was in and out as far as funding was concerned. That undoubtedly damaged this country's reputation in international astronomy. As the Chair of the Committee said, the evidence given on solar terrestrial physics was at odds with the facts; that is the kindest way of putting it.

On top of all that, the chief executive held secret reviews of the work going on in the STFC. That demoralised the staff, who did not know what was going on, and the scientific community. It is clear that the STFC did not do its job, and setting up a communications director will not really resolve the issue. There have been some better policy statements since, but while the same people continue at the top of the STFC, the confidence of the scientific community will not return.

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Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

I agree with the point that my hon. Friend has just made. However, the advent of a communications director was definitely needed so that staff could feel that there was somebody to whom they could go to articulate their concerns about not being consulted. Does my hon. Friend agree?

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

That might have been an important part of the solution, but it is by no means the complete solution.

My second question was about the funding gap of between £75 million and £80 million, depending on how the figures are looked at. That gap led to some serious scientific research being threatened. It is clear that, as the Committee explained in the report, the gap was there because of the costs of ISIS and the Diamond Light Source. I do not know why the Government had to respond as they did. The Committee was clear. It said:

"We believe that the Government should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from the previous Councils is honoured."

The Government response is an example of sophistry in the extreme; there is no better word for it:

"The Government welcomes the Committee's recognition in paragraph 36 of its report that STFC did not inherit a deficit from CCLRC, when the new Council was formed on 1 April 2007."

Well, it did not inherit a deficit, but it did not have the money to fund ongoing commitments. That is a very fine distinction and it is really not worthy of my Government to say that they honoured a commitment. What the commitment meant in plain English was that there would not be any cuts to future programmes; but what the funding situation meant was that such cuts were likely.

What were the cuts? The one that I am most concerned about was the cut to e-MERLIN and Jodrell Bank. E-MERLIN, a major international astronomical facility, had already had £8 million committed to it. Rather surprisingly—it is worth briefly mentioning peer review—it had been prioritised by the advisory bodies to the STFC as less important than Atlas at CERN. I do not know quite how important Atlas is; I support the large hadron collider at CERN; I do not know whether we will find the Higgs boson or not. I worry rather more about the evaporation of any micro-black holes that may be created; if they do not evaporate, none of us will know about it. That is the real problem at CERN.

When witnesses talked about the peer review process and the people advising the STFC, both Professor Holdaway and Professor Chattopadhyay—my apologies for the pronunciation—said that they were concerned that that process did not involve consultations with the relevant bodies. They were also worried that vested interests were working against people working outside the organisation, though that applied to the linear accelerators rather than to Jodrell Bank. That was clear in the evidence we took. There may be no better system than peer review—neither the Select Committee nor anyone else has come up with one—but we should not assume that it is perfect. It is not. Elected Members who care about the expenditure of public money and who care about science need to recognise that peer review is an imperfect system that is capable of criticism from both the science community and the political community.

I shall not repeat what I have said about e-MERLIN and Jodrell Bank, but it is an unhappy situation. We believed that there would be enough money for them, but there has not been; and it is not clear how e-MERLIN and Joddrell Bank were de-prioritised. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a commitment to their future.

In many ways, the Select Committee spent more time discussing the third subject—I refer to our discussion of the Daresbury campus and the continuation of fundamental science there—than discussing anything else. We received a number of responses. The Government said that they were, are and will be committed in future to the continuation of fundamental science at Daresbury. That is good. Daresbury is in the north-west, so I think that the Government's statement is about where science should take place—in other words, a regional science policy. At the same time, others—I will not repeat the examples cited by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—told us that where science took place did not matter at all. I think that the Government have half a regional policy in that they have a historical policy of commitment to some places outside the south-east.

As for the Haldane principle and regional policy, if it is the Government's view that their policy is an historical accident and that they are carrying out a political commitment because it would be too embarrassing to jettison it—in truth, they do not want a regional policy and will eventually end up without one—they should not, and cannot, maintain that view. It is impossible not to have a regional policy in science or anything else. If we do not have a stated regional policy, the people who take the decisions on where science investment should go will be in the very places where science is already located. That would be an anti-regional policy, which would end up with investment in the golden triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and the south-east. It is not practical politics to say that there will be no regional policy, because the result will be a negative regional policy.

When we took evidence about the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, I was concerned that that was precisely what was happening. The professors who came before the Committee were affronted when I asked whether they had considered going to Newcastle, Sheffield or Manchester—my hon. Friend Dr. Gibson suggested Dundee. Their reaction was, "Why should we ever leave London? Why should we leave this cosy triangle?" They should do so because if great cities such as Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle increase their knowledge base through investment in science, that will make this country competitive. If there is not a positive policy, that will not happen.

Does that breach the Haldane principle? I do not believe that it does. The Haldane principle is probably best stated as that

"day-to-day decisions on the scientific merits of different strategies, programmes and projects are taken by the Research Councils without Government involvement".

That prompts the question: what is a detailed policy? Clearly, at the level of absurdity, we would not tell someone using a gas chromatograph to use a flame ionisation detector and not an electron capture device. As we go up the scale of science, we must ask whether decisions are for politicians or for the science community. On big scientific projects, expenditure is so high that those decisions must become political ones, whether it is admitted or not. Where such investment takes place does not fundamentally interfere with the principle that detailed decisions on science are taken by scientists. However, huge spending decisions, and decisions on where that money goes, should be taken in respect of a regional policy, and by people who are elected to spend that money.

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Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Labour, Edinburgh East

I thank my hon. Friend for his reference to Edinburgh. He knows well its astronomy and physics capability. I strongly applaud his comments on the Haldane principle. If we go back post second world war, we realise that the key work on artificial insemination in Cambridge would probably not have been done had it been left to the Ministry of Agriculture. In fact, a research council was responsible, so we must maintain independence in relation to scientific development.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. It was interesting to read the original 1919 Haldane report. Talking to Members of the other place and this House, Haldane assumed that the scientists would get on with it, because the objectives were clear: to win the war. There was not the assumption, which is sometimes drawn, that the totality of science should be self-governing once the money has been handed over.

I want to finish on two points, the first of which is related to the discussion about regional science policy and the Haldane principle. Politicians are elected to spend money, and Ministers do that directly in government, and should be accountable. I asked my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation, "If Jodrell Bank closes, whose head should I ask for?" I do not want to ask for his head, because he is a good Minister. In the final analysis, however, on such big issues, I should know whether the decision has been taken by the chief executive of the STFC or by a Minister. Unfortunately, throughout this process lines of accountability have been breached, and nothing is clear. It is too big an issue to explore this evening, but sadly that has become more typical of Government over the past quarter of a century. Ministers have tried to protect themselves by farming decisions out to principals, non-departmental public bodies or quangos, and saying "Not me, guv" when it comes to the consequences of difficult decisions.

I agree with other Members that decisions should not be made—and I understand that they will not be made—on the financial structure of science until Wakeham reports. It would be absurd to take a serious look at what are and should be the priorities of science spending, and to continue to make long-term decisions, during the three or four months before the report is published.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills 9:00 pm, 7th July 2008

The Library briefing for the debate includes some press cuttings. One article, headed "Everyone loves a man in a white coat", reads:

"A new book argues that scientists are motivated by sex and status...and they don't need public funding."

The article, which was published in The Guardian, continues:

"It may come as a surprise, but those white-coated chemists beavering away in the university lab are in it for the sex."

I do not believe that that is true. Certainly the quality of today's debate has shown that those in this place who are interested in science are interested in what flows from that— namely, what we hope will be an evidence-based policy with the right degree of transparency and accountability to enable us to seek to improve the United Kingdom's enviable position in science.

I think it right to begin, as did my hon. Friend Mr. Willis, by recognising the Government's fine record, particularly in comparison with that of the previous Government, but even of itself, in terms of the quantum of funding for and championing of science. Some of the Select Committee's recommendations that seem to criticise the Government, in this and other reports, stem from the fact that the Government are, in a sense, a victim of their own success. They are a victim of the raised expectations to which people in the science world are accustomed.

When budgets increase by less than the significant amount that scientists expect, they naturally want higher budgets, but if they cannot get those, they do not want the Government to deny their pain. I was not around during the last Conservative Government, but I know that there was a lot of pain to deny. I believe that Ministers said that a tight spending round would mean cuts. It is terrible that those cuts were made: it was short-termism. This is not the time to go into what happened then, but I think that we now need honesty and a recognition of the realities.

Constituents of mine, in the Rutherford Appleton laboratory and in Oxford university, raised concerns, and I wanted the Select Committee to conduct an inquiry. I am pleased that my colleagues in the Committee agreed to include in our general scrutiny of research councils specific decisions about science budget allocations by the STFC. I pay tribute to members of all parties who were prepared to compromise, and to ensure that the eventual report was very clear. While I am speaking from the Front Bench, let me observe that science need not be too party political. I think that that was exemplified by the conduct of the Select Committee under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough.

Both the hon. Members for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) mentioned peer reviews. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, they are better than any other method that has been considered for the making of decisions about the merit of a scientific case in the context of either publication or funding. Nevertheless, I do not think it appropriate to claim that peer review as it currently operates in the United Kingdom is anywhere near perfect. I believe that two reports from the old Science and Technology Committee suggested to its successor that an inquiry be conducted into how the current peer review system could be improved. As Committee members know, because I say this regularly, I still think that that should be done. The stakes are enormously high in terms of getting peer review right, both for individual careers and for getting decisions right.

Today, importantly, we have had strong, but measured and evidence-based, criticism of the Government in this matter from Labour Members. I agreed with pretty much everything that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, except his concern that we ought to be worried about micro black holes. I am not convinced by that, although I guess it makes for a good story on the "Today" programme.

The report has messages that the Government must heed and take cognisance of. I share the view of other Members that it was disappointing that the Government did not seem to acknowledge any way in which they could improve matters, except by renaming the science budget. I look forward to the Minister accepting—I hope he accepts that he will not be criticised for this—that improvements could be made to the Government's performance. For example, the reputation of this country, not just in science but as a collaboration partner, is at stake. Sir Keith O'Nions accepted that there was the potential for harm to the UK's reputation in international partnerships either by decisions that were hard to understand or by decisions that were unnecessarily precipitate and did not seem to be based on adequate consultation or adequate peer review in terms of the quality of the process as well as the outcome.

The reputation of the UK is increasingly important because so much science is now done in big international collaborations. A few members of the Select Committee present here had the pleasure and privilege of going to see the large hadron collider before it was closed. My view of that could be described in one word: "Wow"—"Wow" at the scale of the undertaking, at the scientific ambition in terms of the questions it will answer and at the recognition there by the scientists of all nationalities of the UK's contribution. Concern was raised there—the Committee touched on that in the report—about whether that was to be maintained.

Although there was a firm commitment by the STFC to continue to invest in ATLAS and the big experiments, there were two smaller experiments—LHCb and ALICE; not the ALICE at Daresbury, which forms part of the RLP programme, but another one—which were categorised as medium or low priority. I noticed in the revision to the delivery plan published in the last few days by the STFC that LHCb has been upgraded, but I could not find in a sea of acronyms the right one for what was happening to the UK's commitment to the ALICE experiment at CERN. I remain concerned about that. I do not know whether the Minister could wade through the acronym soup in the document that we received to find that out for me. Those are small experiments but they are international partnerships at CERN.

The themes that have come out of the debate are the overall level of funding, dealt with by the hon. Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and others, the direction of funding and whether too many cross-cutting programmes are determined by Government, sapping the room for manoeuvre of individual councils. I gave a speech this morning at a conference on cellular senescence, the molecular biology of ageing. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council was represented there and set out clearly what its contribution was to a cross-cutting programme. Ageing is one of the cross-cutting programmes that the Government have laid down and there is nothing wrong with that.

Another issue was transparency and I shall dwell on two points, one of which is the transparency of the process. This point was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough in respect of whether the Government essentially interfered, legitimately or illegitimately—I will come to that—in the scientific plans of research councils, through the CRS process of asking to see draft delivery plans, there being a view from Government about whether those were adequate. New plans would then come back and the funding would be signed off. If the delivery plans in effect say, "We're thinking of this because we think project A has scientific merit", and the Government response in effect says, "Well, we think project B is the one that ought to be funded, and if you come back to us with that recommendation, you will be rewarded in the comprehensive spending review," that will clearly be an example of the Government having an influence over strategic, or even sub-strategic, decisions. We will not know whether that has taken place or not, because we cannot see both sides of the correspondence.

It is interesting to note what the Government said on this in respect of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in response to the Select Committee conclusion in paragraph 116 of its fourth report. The Committee said:

"It seems to be a breach of the Haldane Principle that the Government should direct a Research Council to switch funding from postgraduate awards to programme funding merely on the basis of it being out of step with other research councils, or indeed for any other reason."

The reason is, I think, not material. The Government said:

"All Research Councils were asked to prepare Delivery Plans for publication which reflected the activities that the Council proposed to support once it knew its actual allocation. The draft Delivery Plans were subject to discussion between the relevant Research Council and the Government, to check that they reflected the plans submitted by Councils in response to the scenarios commissioned earlier in the allocations round, and the terms of the Councils' specific allocation letter".

That gives the Government a lot of scope to influence the decisions of the research council at a strategic, or even sub-strategic, level.

The Minister might be surprised to hear this, but I do not think that if the Government were transparent about doing that, there would necessarily be anything wrong with that. It is public money, and as long as politicians do not intervene in the peer review process to change the judgments made about the scientific merit of the proposals—there might be a danger of that, but if there were transparency it would be dealt with—the Government are entitled to say, "We want to have more spending on ageing" or cross-cutting on stem cells. They will have to defend themselves for doing that because there is an opportunity cost, but they are entitled to do so as they are in charge of public funding. However, if they do that, it has to be transparent. They cannot have it both ways, as it would be corrosive if there were a feeling that scientific decisions were being interfered with in a way that was not open.

The same applies to regional policy. I represent a constituency in the golden triangle, but I think that it would be legitimate for the Government to say, "In this science budget, we think a certain proportion should be spent in all regions"—or a particular region, perhaps—"as a matter of Government policy, and we are accountable for that, as people can vote for us or not." However, the Government cannot seek to have it both ways by saying, "We do not interfere with decisions about where specific projects go, but Daresbury, for example, will be a science and innovation centre". I think that the Minister has to accept that that implies there will be some large science there, otherwise he would have to accept that it was not going to be a science and innovation centre. We need to know whether this is more than a case of fingers crossed.

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Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor Conservative, Esher and Walton

This issue has come up several times, and I want to remind Members that there was a trade-off. When the Diamond synchrotron was going to be placed in Oxford—a decision I thoroughly supported—north-west Members were less than happy. I do not blame them for that, but there was a straight trade-off. It is now being dignified with the concept of regional policy, but it was a straight trade-off.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

There was an article in The Guardian on 20 May that recaps the debates. It set out:

"When Daresbury lost the Diamond facility to Harwell, Lord Sainsbury, the science minister at the time, gave an assurance that if 4GLS"— a fourth-generation light source—

"were built, it would be sited at Daresbury. On the loss of Diamond, Sainsbury said"— at the time, I think—

"'If people in a particular research establishment come up with a brilliant new way of doing things, it is not a clever strategy when it comes to building the thing to take it away and put it somewhere else. It is not a good way to motivate people to come up with new ideas.'"

One would think that that combination suggested that he was clear that, if he were still science Minister he would direct funding towards Daresbury. However, he goes on to deny—now, I think, as I assume these are contemporaneous comments—

"that too much funding is concentrated in the golden triangle", and he says:

"I think it would be wrong to try and distort the research council process. It is difficult to ask people to allocate funds on two sets of criteria. Either it is done on the excellence of the research or it is done on other criteria."

Actually, it could be done on a mixture, as long as that was made clear, and regional factors played a part.

I resented the allegation made in Westminster Hall on 1 April by Mr. Hall who, without informing me that he intended to make the point—I have informed his office that I intended to complain about it—said that I had called for Daresbury to be closed. Members of the Committee who attended the evidence sessions and the visits will know that my concern was that the Government should be clear and honest with Daresbury about its future, because we are dealing with people and their careers. The people to whom we spoke said that the Government said that it had a bright future, but the decisions made by the STFC told them otherwise. That is why it is important that the Government are willing to engage with the Committee's recommendation to start a debate, perhaps through a White Paper, on regional policy on science. It may be that the Minister does not know the answer, and the Government should not be criticised for not having the right answer, but we should at least have the debate.

I turn now to the recommendation made about the research council itself. Questions are always raised in Select Committee inquiries about who is to blame, and the temptation is to blame the research council staff—and we strongly criticised them. However, the danger is that that is seen as scapegoating someone who has to make difficult decisions. It is true that the Committee said that those decisions were made badly, but sacking the management is not necessarily the answer, because the problems will live on.

I was concerned that the STFC may have misinterpreted one of our recommendations, which was to improve communications. I do not think that that meant that it should improve its spin. The announcement sent by e-mail on 3 July included a list of highlights of the STFC funding programme, and I looked down it to find some lowlights, because I expected that some of the cuts—some of which have been confirmed and are uncontentious—would be mentioned. However, none of the cuts was mentioned except the ExoMars mission, on which it states:

"The ExoMars mission...is supported by STFC through its subscription to the European Space Agency's Aurora Programme."

However, that disguises the planned and agreed cut. I even waded through the executive summary of the report, and no mention was made of cuts. Then I went to the individual pages, and it is hard to find the answer for some of the projects. On solar-terrestrial physics, the implementation document merely states:

"The agreed programme of support for STEREO PLS will be continued."

It is my understanding that the agreed programme of support is actually a cut. It states:

"The agreed programme of support for Hinode PLS will be continued".

That is another cut. The document also states:

"The agreed programme of support for Cluster, SOHO PLS and the UKSSDC will be continued", which is another cut. I am not criticising the decision, but the STFC should be more open. We have communication, but it is the wrong kind of communication. It is unclear whether Daresbury will receive significant investment in respect of the ERLP-ALICE project for the future.

The Committee's report was a balanced one, and—notwithstanding that I am a member—I think that it should be congratulated. The contributions that we have heard today should focus the Minister's mind on the challenge he faces to restore the confidence of the physics community in those who govern its budgets.

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Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East 9:18 pm, 7th July 2008

In this debate on the science budget allocations, I rejoice in the simple fact that under a Labour Government—my Government—the science budget will have doubled in real terms by the financial year 2010-11. We all visit colleges of further education, university and industry—anywhere the science base operates—and we now see some amazing things being done. I say thank goodness for that, because the future of this country relies on added value and our science and innovation.

I believe that the two major reviews that have been mentioned, one published by the noble Lord Sainsbury and the other by Sir David Cooksey, have influenced the way in which scientists, and perhaps the Government, have been thinking about the future of science. Nor should we forget that the three national academies have received extremely good settlements. The Royal Academy of Engineering received an increase of 31.5 per cent., the British Academy received an increase of 23.7 per cent. and even the Royal Society received an increase of 18.2 per cent. Those are significant increases.

When I was elected to Parliament in 1997, the UK science base that I left was in the doldrums. I remember that every year in my department—the department of chemistry and applied chemistry at the University of Salford—the central library sent us a list of essential journals and publications, and we had to go down the list and decide which of them we would cut out of our research budget. That happened not for one year, but for two or three. Essential posts remained unfilled. No maintenance was done. We did not have the money to replace our nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Large instruments across the infrastructure lay unreplaced for decades. That was no way to conduct research in Great Britain.

When the research assessment exercise came along, science and engineering departments that carried out applied research suffered badly. Nearly all the departments that relied almost entirely on applied research are now closed—including the three great engineering departments at the University of Salford and even my old department, which was the largest chemistry department in Britain when I taught there.

Today, the picture is quite different. The infrastructure in our universities has been improved, in my opinion, beyond recognition since 1997, with huge investments not only in buildings but in other major capital schemes. The instruments that were not bought in 1997 are all there now. There are some superb instruments in some superb departments.

I visit the University of Manchester regularly, as I am on the external advisory body of the school of chemistry there. Every time I visit, there are cranes lifting things backwards and forwards and new buildings going up. I visit the laboratories, as I have for decades. I have never seen such state-of-the art laboratories as those I can now see by walking into any science department at that great university.

We have pulled ourselves up to be the second in the world, behind only the United States, in the citation ratings for papers published by British scientists. Let us not forget, either, that the Labour Government came to power at a time when we had a job retaining graduates for postgraduate studies. We recognised that problem and one of the first things we did was to increase the remuneration for MSc and PhD students. That remuneration is not brilliant, but it is better than it was—in fact, it is double what it was—under the previous Government.

The Government should be congratulated on those significant increases in the UK science research base, not only because of the research grants that they give through the science research councils but because of the major investment to which I just referred. Regrettably—I cannot understand this—the Government are instead under fire, despite all that progress. So what went wrong? Why have the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Minister for Science and Innovation been on the back foot, instead of on the front foot where they should proudly be?

The simple explanation, in my opinion, is that the two major reviews that I have just mentioned, combined with the significant shift in research priorities to meet the needs of a modern society, have resulted in significant cuts in some research programmes. Let us not forget that other research programmes have benefited significantly. There has been a significant shift in the Medical Research Council research budget and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council research budget—a shift towards the life sciences, perhaps, and away from the physical sciences. Let us not believe that the money is not there; it is just being moved around.

Let us consider the Haldane principle. It was established in 1919 and recommended that non-departmental specific research should be managed through research councils—that is, that decisions on expenditure should be determined by scientists rather than by politicians. Ninety years later, that principle is still in place. Our Select Committee concluded that perhaps it had been breached. In addition to full economic costs, the research councils have had other significant expenditure. The Technology Strategy Board and the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research have been mentioned, and we should also mention the Energy Technologies Institute. The creation of those three institutes alone has required a considerable shift in funding. We are talking about agreements made by scientists—people in the field—and not entirely by Ministers. However, I do not have time to go into the details.

The seven research councils have decided to go for interdisciplinary research like never before, and our Select Committee has pressed them to do so. We have said that we are fed up with the research councils being like seven silos, with the scientists in one silo never talking to those in the other six. They are now beginning to talk to each other. Research Councils UK was established, but it did not really bring that about. I hope that the identification of six significant areas that will benefit the public, whom we represent, has now been recognised. Some of those areas have already been mentioned.

The question is whether the Government have breached the Haldane principle. Our report suggests that they have. The July issue of Chemistry World was published just a few days ago, and I want to cite two articles in it by distinguished gentlemen. The first is by Randal Richards, who is no lightweight in the field of science. He recently retired as director of research and innovation at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and latterly he was its interim chief executive. He wrote a letter to Chemistry World, and I shall quote part of it:

"The six cross-council research themes were identified by the research councils themselves. The fact that some of these themes coincide with public policy challenges identified by the government should not be surprising because they include some major scientific and technological changes that are world wide—sustainable energy and environmental change, for example."

He rejects the suggestion that the EPSRC, and by extrapolation the other research councils, has failed to conform with the Haldane principle. He reminds us that the research councils were

"pretty quick about reminding government and officials" when they withdrew end-of-year flexibility resources to the tune of £70 million in the last financial year.

According to another article in the same issue of Chemistry World, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government, Professor Sir David King himself, strongly defends the science budget in the 2007 comprehensive spending review. I shall quote just a small part of his article:

"What we're actually talking about is the distribution and the management of the cake, not the size...The priorities of the 21st century are different from the priorities of the...20th century. Historical budgets, and the distribution of money within...research councils, shouldn't be engraved in stone."

Sir David also suggests that scientists have not been pushed into doing what they do not want to do. He says:

"The bottom line is, it's very difficult. Does there have to be a choice between finding the next fundamental particle by building a bigger and more expensive successor to Cern, versus putting money and the best brains into tackling environmental issues? I think that's a debate that ought to be out in the open—it's not, because people are simply defending their own...corner."

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Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation) 9:29 pm, 7th July 2008

This has been a fascinating debate. To those of us with a scientific and constituency interest in many of the projects mentioned, it has also been an enlightening and encouraging one.

I thank Mr. Willis for his work as Chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee and for his excellent opening words. He is a champion of science and a scientific approach here in Parliament and elsewhere. Perhaps when he steps down from this House—at the next election, I understand—he might step up to the challenge of enthusing the next generation in the same way as he has enthused us in Parliament. As a former member of the Committee, I miss the enthusiastic and energetic inquiry into and rational analysis of cross-departmental scientific issues that take place under his most able chairmanship. He and all members of the Committee can be rightly proud of their review of the science budget allocations and the STFC. The evidence sessions that preceded it revealed some deep concerns running through the science community. Many of those concerns were emphasised in contributions from both sides of the House, which were heartfelt, well presented, rational and thoughtful. The hon. Gentleman was eloquent and articulate in his exposition of the potential for inappropriate interference by Ministers in the allocation of budgets.

Dr. Blackman-Woods was measured in her comments. She rightly recognised the £80 million shortfall as such—a shortfall rather than a cut. She also said that there was some distance—I think that that was a euphemistic phrase—between the research budget allocations and the number of research grants.

My hon. Friend Mr. Taylor, who was a Science Minister in the previous Conservative Government, was straightforward in his historical analysis of the events that led to the current situation. I would build on that merely by saying that the main reason such a large amount of resource is available for the science budget is that the previous Conservative Government delivered the conditions in which the current Government have been able to spend.

Dr. Gibson emphasised that a broader membership of the research councils, with younger members and wider citizens' involvement, might be useful. He painted an idyllic picture of science cities and strongly approved of the enlarged science budget. Bob Spink made some interesting observations on peer group review.

Graham Stringer was very forceful in his comments. He said that the funding gap that has appeared is not worthy of his Government—a passionate and forceful statement. He also said it is impossible not to have a regional science policy. That has been mentioned to the Minister many times before, and I suspect that it will come up time and again until there is clarity. Rather than pushing a particular point of view, I simply urge the Minister to create that clarity.

Dr. Harris said that what is required from the Minister is honesty in recognition of realities; I certainly agree with that sentiment. He referred to the potential breaching of the Haldane principle, with Ministers perhaps looking at draft plans and then new plans being submitted, and expressed concern that we have not had sight of that interaction.

Finally, Dr. Iddon broadly welcomed the increase in financial resource available to the Minister to disburse, and pointed out that we are second in the world for citations, after the US, which is a great place for us to be.

Despite some of the deep concerns and challenges facing UK science, I am nevertheless optimistic for the future. Amid the fears of job losses and budget cuts, I recently visited Daresbury science and innovation campus to see some of the innovative ways in which scientists and entrepreneurs were working together, and it was very encouraging. Just last month, I was at the Diamond Light Source project in Oxfordshire—a truly world-class facility that attracts scientific and commercial interest from across the globe, and I think that there are greater opportunities to realise some of that commercial interest in a more fruitful way in future.

I remain optimistic for the future, not least because it is clear that hon. Members of all parties care deeply about the future of UK science. Admittedly, in part that may be because many of us have scientists living and working in our constituencies who face the prospect of redundancy, grant reductions or the withdrawal of facilities—although perhaps not to the extent that is occasionally portrayed in the media. To an even greater extent, I am optimistic because we understand the important role that science plays in society. At a time when science promises so many answers to some of the big questions, we must take care over decisions that might scale back important activity.

In climate change, energy and food security, we look to scientists for answers. The taxpayer supports science in this country because of the benefits that accrue to the nation as a whole. But as the report of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills has shown, a "poorly allocated" budget has forced damaging cuts that threaten the capacity and perhaps the international reputation of UK science. Despite increased investment for the Medical Research Council, among one or two others, everyone but the Government seems to agree that the science budget left the STFC with an £80 million shortfall. The Select Committee concluded that the Government must "demonstrate greater effectiveness" in the way it manages research in the UK, which is putting the point quite lightly, given the concern that the science budget has provoked.

It will come as a relief to many that the STFC announced last week that it had balanced its budget. We now know that some of the high-profile facilities, such as ALICE—accelerators and lasers in combined experiments—at Daresbury and e-MERLIN at Jodrell Bank, may be safe. My first question to the minister is this: did he have a hand in saving those headline projects? Perhaps he can clear up that matter. Was he involved in the discussions before the press release was issued last week? Was he or his Department informed about the STFC announcements before they were made? If he was, there are more questions to be answered about what influence the Minister may have brought to bear.

Despite the celebration about the saving of Jodrell Bank and one or two other headline facilities, we must not forget what will disappear, and I will quickly put some of those projects on the record. Astronomy has been hit quite hard. AstroGrid, which is developing an open-source eye on the sky, will lose funding. Support for the Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network and the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit will go. The STFC aims to sell 50 per cent. of the UK's observing time in Gemini. The UK's contribution to the Isaac Newton group of telescopes, described by the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee—PPAN—as a "valuable asset", will fall by half. There will be a withdrawal of support from the particle physics collaboration at Stanford university. Because of funding constraints, PPAN

"reluctantly had to leave the project terminating rather abruptly, recognizing the loss of science this would incur".

Perhaps what is more alarming is that with the settlement offered by the Government, the STFC has been forced to reduce the number of research grants over the coming spending review period. A statement from the STFC council reads:

"Because of the funding cycle the number of"— post-doctoral research assistants—

"in Nuclear Physics will be reduced by circa 22 per cent."

In astronomy, the

"STFC's published delivery plan envisages that the number of PDRA's supported in 2011 will be 11 per cent. below the 2005 level".

The overall headline figure that the STFC gave for reductions in new commitments to research grants was 25 per cent. That means fewer astronomers, fewer particle physicists and fewer nuclear scientists. However, the Government appear to be contradicting the research councils. They said in their response to the report that

"the level of rolling grants for particle physics will be unaffected until at least 2010—11."

However, the STFC stated in its programmatic review that where specific programmes were cut,

"the level of existing rolling grants" would be "reduced accordingly." Will the Minister explain how the level of rolling grants can be reduced and unaffected at the same time? That is a bit of a contradiction.

One the one hand, we have a Prime Minister who says that we must push ahead with nuclear power; on the other hand, we are cutting back nuclear science to a certain degree through the STFC funding allocation. Such incoherence causes some concern. As Professor Hawking has said:

"This bookkeeping error has disastrous implications...These grants are the lifeblood of our research effort; cutting them will hurt young researchers and cause enormous damage both to British science and to our international reputation."

The Government did not make hay or fix the roof while the sun shone. We all know that they failed to make provision when the economy was doing well, and today the pressures on the public purse are many and varied. At a time when science promises solutions to many of our social and economic needs, Ministers cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand. What Professor Hawking described as a "bookkeeping error" has implications for scientists up and down the country.

The recent crisis represents either departmental incompetence—missing the cuts that were self-evident in what was presented to it—or a deliberate decision to provide the research councils with less than was needed. Either way, the Minister has an opportunity today to be courageous. We have heard that word once or twice, and we have heard the call for transparency and openness. We have heard about the boldness and courage of former Science Ministers, who were very clear and open about what they were doing when there was a budget reduction. Will the Minister admit that there has been a shortfall in funding for the STFC and say that he accepts some responsibility?

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills 9:41 pm, 7th July 2008

The Government welcome the report of the Select Committee's inquiry into the science budget allocations, and we very much welcome this debate. I appreciate the overall constructive way in which Mr. Willis raised the issues mentioned in the report. There are clearly matters on which we continue to disagree, and I do not think that his characterisation of our response to the report was accurate. We have taken its recommendations carefully into account and, in many cases, agreed with them. The report has been very helpful to us. We set out our position in a positive response, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss the issues involved further.

As has been mentioned, the science and research budget has doubled in real terms from £1.3 billion in 1997 to £3.4 billion in 2007-08. The new comprehensive spending review allocation means that the budget will increase to almost £4 billion in 2010-11. That is an average increase of 2.7 per cent. a year in real terms over the next three years. Within a tight financial framework, that is a strong settlement and highlights the Government's long-standing support for science and research in the UK, as set out in our 10-year science and innovation framework. I was very pleased that the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and Labour Members, recognised that strong support for UK science.

In allocating the science budget, our overriding objective was to ensure the continued excellence of the UK research base. Hon. Members would expect nothing less. The Government are committed to supporting fundamental research that expands the frontiers of knowledge. It is important to recognise the wider benefits of such research. It produces highly skilled people, drives innovation, attracts inward investment and can be translated into many successful products and services. Research and innovation improve our productivity as a nation, thus providing the means for our creation of wealth and directly benefiting and underpinning key public services in everything from health care to defence.

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Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

Does my hon. Friend accept that there must be a balance between pure research and commercial exploitation and that, although one can conduct pure research on its own, one cannot do the commercial exploitation without the research? The balance must be right. When the Select Committee visited the observatory in Edinburgh, it was clear that the people there were excited about being asked to do more commercial work but felt that it should be recognised that that commercial work had previously been restricted. The balance must be right so that a facility does not simply become a science park.

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I agree that, in all such cases, it is a matter of balance. However, I remind my hon. Friend and the House that the Government are committed to investment in basic research. That underpins the later commercial exploitation of research. As he knows, we support some of that commercialisation and applied research and development through, for example, the Energy Technologies Institute and especially the activities of the Technology Strategy Board, which will spend, in co-ordination with the research councils and the regional development agencies, £1 billion in the next three years.

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Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

I thank my hon. Friend for his patience. Does he accept that the principle that he outlined must apply to centres such as Daresbury so that they do not become only science parks?

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Yes, I do. I have said on record—and will continue to say—that the Government want Daresbury to develop as a world-class centre for science and innovation. We do not perceive its future as a technology park, as some have suggested. I shall say more about that later, especially in response to my hon. Friend Graham Stringer, who made an important contribution about regional policy.

It is critical that every possible benefit is extracted from our world-class research base. That is why driving up the economic impact of research goes hand in hand with supporting excellent science. By operating in that overarching policy framework, Government support has helped the UK research base sustain a strong global performance.

Citations have been mentioned this evening. The UK has the most productive science base of any country in the G8. At the same time, knowledge transfer between research and business continues to grow. UK universities are now producing spin-out companies of equivalent number and quality to some of the top US institutions. Since 2003, 30 companies have been floated on the stock exchange at a value of £1.5 billion at initial public offering. Furthermore, several high-profile trade sales have taken place, including seven in the past two years, which raised £1.9 billion. University income from business and user engagement has risen rapidly and now stands at about £2 billion a year.

It is the Government's duty to set the strategic direction for the research base. We have discussed that in great detail this evening. To do that, the Government took several high-level decisions when allocating the science budget. Over the period of the comprehensive spending review 2007, research will be funded at 90 per cent. of its full economic cost; the Sainsbury and Cooksey reviews will be implemented, and we will support collaborative projects involving the Technology Strategy Board and the Energy Technologies Institute. We will also support research in matters of strategic importance to the country—for example, in medicine and on key challenges such as energy supply and the environment. Again, we heard strong support in the debate for more cross-disciplinary research, which is guaranteed in the comprehensive strategy review 2007 settlement.

I know that there is keen interest in the relationship between the Government and research councils, especially in the way in which research funding is prioritised and managed. That is not surprising. As hon. Members know, for many years, the British Government have been guided by the Haldane principle. Detailed decisions on how research money is spent are for the research community to make through the research councils, once the Government have set the overarching parameters. The basis for funding research is also enshrined in legislation, through the Science and Technology Act 1965. The allocation of the comprehensive spending review 2007 science budget is consistent with Haldane, and I am happy to debate that this evening.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills recently restated the Government's position on the Haldane principle in his speech at the Royal Academy of Engineering in April. He made it clear that it is researchers, through their participation in peer review, who are best placed to determine detailed research priorities. The research councils act as

"guardians of the independence of science".

The Government's role is to set the overarching strategy and framework. Haldane is fundamental to the health of our excellent research base and its strong economic impacts, and is underpinned by peer review, which we have also debated at some length this evening.

Research councils fund research on a competitive basis following independent expert peer review. I would be the first to admit that improvements could probably be made to the peer review process, but no system is absolutely perfect and it has stood the test of time. The system is regarded as an international benchmark of excellence in research funding and provides a guarantee of the quality of UK research.

Peer review processes are sensitive to the different needs and cultures that exist in the academic community. They support different types of research and encourage adventurous or multidisciplinary research. For peer review to work, senior researchers must give up their time to provide valuable expertise. A number of eminent scientists assist research councils in making difficult decisions. It is important for the Government and researchers to defend peer review robustly.

That is the context in which we said in our response to the Committee that we felt that some of its comments were unhelpful and damaging. We thought that they undermined the efforts of individual researchers who quite rightly give a lot of their valuable time to participate in what is, overall, an internationally well recognised and respected process.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills

It is important that the Minister should deal with peer review, and I am grateful to him for doing so. He said in his response that the Committee ought to be careful in what we say when we criticise the peer review process, because it might make it difficult to attract internationally renowned scientists to participate, but is that not a lose-lose situation? The Minister has accepted that there are problems with peer review. Surely it is the right of a Select Committee to say so too, even if that has the effect of deterring people.

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Let us be clear about what I said. I said that no system was perfect. I am sure that the peer review process has scope for improvement, and that is something that research councils look at regularly to ensure that the structures are right. However, I shall say something more on that in a moment.

The key point is that the Government understand clearly why those whose work is not funded may question those who gave it a lower priority. However, that is all the more likely in a scientifically strong nation, which thankfully we are in the United Kingdom, where rejected research proposals are of real scientific quality. We have heard mention this evening of a number of detailed projects, some of which have been regarded as a low priority. In an excellent research nation, there will have to be winners and losers. However, it is hard to conceive of an alternative that does not shift responsibility for making detailed decisions away from scientists.

I reject the comments of those, not least Mr. Osborne, who say that Ministers should intervene and take the detailed decisions on which areas of science should be funded. That would involve scientists spending their time lobbying Ministers to get funding, instead of those decisions being made through peer group research. The Government do not want to see the success or failure of detailed lines of research being determined by political lobbying, and we will not intervene to take decisions that should properly be taken after peer review by the scientists in the research councils.

A number of projects have been mentioned, including e-MERLIN, ALICE and EMMA. This refers directly to a comment made by Adam Afriyie. It is not the Government's responsibility to take decisions on such projects. It is the responsibility of individual research councils to do so, and that is what they have done through the comprehensive spending review process.

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Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation)

Will the Minister categorically confirm here and now that he and his Department had no involvement in the decisions that were made last week by the STFC? Will he also release the information on the discussions that took place between the STFC and his Department as the draft plans were going backwards and forwards?

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Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Minister of State (Science and Innovation), Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

I shall talk about delivery plans in a moment—[ Interruption.] What I can say in response to the hon. Gentleman is that, through our officials, the Government want to work closely with the research councils. That level of communication is exactly what hon. Members would expect, but it is ultimately up to the research councils to make detailed decisions on projects. It is simply not right for the Government to interfere in those detailed decisions, and we do not do so.

I should like briefly to talk about the detailed draft delivery plan process. The rationale was to ensure that each council undertook a rigorous prioritisation process. We did not wish to second-guess or take decisions for the research councils. We wanted to ensure that a robust process was followed.

The STFC has been referred to by many hon. Members this evening, and the first thing that I want to do is acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed in the particle physics and astronomy community about the science budget allocations. Those concerns were reflected in the Select Committee's report. Hon. Members will be aware that, last Thursday, the STFC announced the results of a programmatic review. It will be holding a meeting tomorrow at which the outcome will be discussed with scientists themselves.

The Department considered that the final delivery plan drawn up by the STFC, following the receipt of its allocation in October 2007, raised two strategic issues that merited further independent advice. That is why we asked Sir Tom McKillop to extend his work with the Northwest Regional Development Agency to advise on the future development of the Daresbury campus, and asked Research Councils UK to initiate a review of the health of physics as a whole, given the interest of a number of research councils in this subject. People sometimes forget that physics is funded by a number of the research councils, to the tune of more than £500 million a year at the moment—and that is on a rising profile over the CSR period.

The Government are working with the STFC to review the way in which its allocation was handled, and to ensure that all the relevant lessons are learned for the future. In particular, the STFC has recognised that it could have communicated its plans better, and it is taking steps to address that. The STFC will take account of these lessons as it takes forward the organisational review, which will cover strategy and planning, customer and stakeholder engagement, governance and risk-management processes, delivery, value for money and the management of change.

Before I conclude, I should like to respond to some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley on science policy. We have a clear 10-year framework that provides a statement on the Government's science policy. We say very clearly that public funding of research is dedicated to supporting excellence, irrespective of its UK location. That policy remains firmly in place. My response to him is that investment in the development of Daresbury—to which I am very committed—and Harwell will take place on the basis of their being world-class campuses for science and innovation, not on the basis of their geographic location. He will be aware that I have a long-standing interest in regional policy, and I hope that we will have the opportunity to discuss science cities and clusters. My hon. Friend Dr. Gibson mentioned his desire to develop Norwich as a science cluster. There is great potential there, and it is a subject on which we can have further discussions.

It being Ten o'clock, Mr. Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates )

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