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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:02 pm on 29th March 2010.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Chair, Commons Science and Technology Committee 8:02 pm, 29th March 2010

It is interesting that I am following Mr. Spring because, unlike him, I do not have a rosy picture of what I inherited when I first entered this House in 1997. I had worked as a head teacher for some 20 years, mostly under a Conservative Government, and every single year there was a cut in my budget-a cut in staffing and in the resources being spent on young people. Therefore, although I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's comments, I certainly do not believe we should be taking lectures from somebody whose party almost brought the country to its knees before '97.

It is a pleasure to be speaking for the last time in the House of Commons. It is a pleasure to do so not because I am leaving but because, despite all the difficulties, the last 13 years have been an absolute pleasure for me, as someone who came to the House as a 55-year-old-and who had the satisfaction of defeating Norman Lamont at the '97 election. I leave having retained the support of the people of Harrogate and Knaresborough for the last three general elections. That support has been remarkable.

It is interesting, too, that I should be leaving Parliament with my constituency having had very little support from this Government or, indeed, previous Governments. It is a place with a huge amount of residual self-support within it, and it is an entrepreneurial community that has bucked many trends, including the current recession, and long may it continue to do so.

My greatest pleasure in my time in this House has come from chairing the Select Committee on Science and Technology for the past five years, and I want to focus on the future of UK science and engineering. Before doing so, however, I want to pay tribute to the other members of my Committee who are standing down at the election and who have served the House extraordinarily well during their time here: the hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Eccles (Ian Stewart). I should also, of course, pay tribute to Dr. Ian Gibson who, sadly, stood down before the end of the Parliament.

I was in the Chamber for today's opening speeches, and I listened to Mrs. Spelman praising the fact that an incoming Conservative Government would reduce national insurance contributions, paying for that with efficiency savings. I found that interesting because I picked up the following quote from 19 May 2008:

"The Government 'efficiency drive' is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The trouble is, it's nearly always just that - a trick. In fact it's such a cliché, there was an episode of Yes Minister about it".

That was written by Mr. Cameron, yet now, of course, that is his party's policy.

It was interesting that the Chancellor said very little about science in his Budget speech. I welcome the Government's announcement of a green investment bank, as, I think, does the whole House. I also welcome the creation of technology and innovation centres, and the £25 million of investment they will bring, although it is rather curious that it is felt we need them when we have the Technology Strategy Board, which has been doing extraordinarily good work since it was set up.

The Chancellor stated that he wants to promote research, innovation and enterprise, yet it appears that the research part of that has been rather overlooked in favour of innovation and enterprise. It is all well and good to concentrate on translating our excellent research into commercial activity, but unless we have investment in the basic research itself, we will not have the raw material to develop the economy in the long term. We must guard against the nonsensical idea that fundamental and applied research are in somehow different silos. They are not; they are part of the same continuum, and if we do not invest in both of them, we will lose out.

Despite frequent references to innovation in the Budget, there was no reference to the science and innovation investment framework which, since 2004, has been one of the Government's most powerful measures in giving a long-term structure to science and innovation. Nor was there any reference to the Government's target of achieving expenditure on research of 2.5 per cent. of GDP. That seems to have been lost.

In reality, therefore, despite being committed to science and innovation driving the post-recession economy, the Chancellor mentioned that only once, and, tellingly, he spoke about science in the past tense. It was not about the future: the Chancellor told the House that the Government had increased investment in British science by some 88 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years. That is true, and they should be congratulated: this Government's commitment to science has surpassed that of any previous Government in my lifetime. However, the reality is that that is now in the past tense.

This Budget should have been about the future, but sadly it was not. In respect of science and engineering, it appears that the job is done. The Government appear to accept that, at best, we have peaked in our efforts and that success is now to limit cuts rather than to make a case for future investment. Frankly, that is at odds with what the Government have been saying over previous years. In February last year, the Chancellor said in his Oxford Romanes lecture that

"the bottom line is that the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science".

Yet that is exactly what we now seem to be doing. There is to be £600 million of cuts in science, research and higher education precisely at the time we need to be investing more. Lord Mandelson said last week that we have drawn a line in the sand in respect of protecting our science spend. Sadly, if the height of this nation's ambition is simply to draw a line and say that we are not going to increase spending in future, we will slip behind.

We should take a look at what our overseas competitors are doing in terms of investment. President Obama said:

"Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before."

That was not just rhetoric, because he backed it up by pledging $21 billion of investment-the largest commitment to scientific research ever seen in the States-with 5.7 per cent. of the US federal research and development budget to be spent on science by 2011. In Australia, science spending has increased by 25 per cent. In the same week as the UK's pre-Budget report announced a £6 million cut, the French Government announced a fresh €35 billion investment in the knowledge economy and in the green economy, some €11 billion of which is to be allocated to the top French universities. Countries such as Singapore, China and India are all investing huge sums, but what did we do? The Prime Minister announced a £15 billion economic stimulus package, but £12.5 billion of it went on a 2.5 per cent. VAT cut for people to spend in the shops purely on retail. That was not an investment in the nation-one can imagine what that £12.5 billion could have done if it had been invested in our science base.

In reality, what science is delivering for this country is beyond reproach. The Royal Society produced its major report last week and it was tremendous reading. It mentioned that over the past five years university spin-outs employed 14,000 people and had a turnover of £1.1 billion and that over the past decade university bioscience departments have generated more than 200 companies. Despite what the report says, without considerable investment in our science base the UK will face decades of slow economic decline. The report that my Committee published a week or so ago on the impact of cuts on the science budget concluded that a failure to increase investment in science is inconsistent with the Government's policy ambition of growth in the sector and undermines their previous good record.

The UK risks losing its brightest academics to countries with demonstrable guaranteed investment for the future, and we cannot allow that to happen. The Council for Science and Technology-the Prime Minister's own think tank-said:

"The first step is for Government to continue to prioritise research funding against other competing financial pressures".

Tonight, we have heard about lots of things being protected. Mr. Curry was right to say that we cannot simply protect things for the sake of protecting them and that there must be a real long-term mission-science clearly can deliver that.

Science is not a stop-go activity: Honda and Ford can suddenly say that they will close their labs for three months because the money is not coming in, but science is not like that. We know that if we close our labs and stop investing, our brightest and best scientists will go elsewhere. Interestingly, the Royal Society's report said that it was people who actually make the difference. These scientists are the people we need to invest in, but sadly it appears that that will not happen.

The real opportunity, in response to this Budget, was for Her Majesty's Opposition to say what they would have done about science, but we did not hear a word from them. Adam Afriyie, who represents the Tories on science, said that there would be no extra investment until the current credit crisis was over and we had solved the current recession problems-that is 10 years down the line. If we wait 10 years for that sort of action, our science base will be lost. The Government have had a terrific record so far on investing in science and it is very sad that when the country needs them most, they have suddenly lost heart and failed to make that investment. Perhaps they will have a rethink if the Government are returned to office after the general election, but if anyone takes their place, I hope that they will put science at the heart of what they do.

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