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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:50 pm on 9th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 2:50 pm, 9th January 2020

My Lords, the Government’s rhetoric indicates a welcome willingness to contemplate radical initiatives in research and education. That is especially crucial if we are to confront the energy challenge. The Climate Change Act’s 2050 target is indeed daunting. We need not just to decarbonise existing levels of electricity production, but to treble production, to energise electrically powered transport and heating and for electrolytic production of hydrogen and hydrocarbons needed for long-distance aviation. We need innovation to get and store energy more efficiently from sun, wind and tides, and, given our traditional expertise in nuclear energy, to investigate fourth-generation concepts, such as small modular reactors, which could prove cheaper, more flexible and safer than existing nuclear reactors. The potential pay-off from fusion in the long term is so great that it is worth developing prototypes.

Climate change is potentially a threat to national security, so combating it deserves the scale of sustained effort that we commit to our national defences. This require large-scale, long-term, mission-driven efforts in institutions like those that we have for defence R&D. In the United States, two successive Energy Secretaries, both, amazingly, world-class physicists, advocated establishing new national laboratories to spearhead energy innovation, along the lines of Los Alamos. That is what we need here: institutions, with long-term missions, devoted to a national goal, crucial amplifiers of product-driven research in industry and journal-driven research in universities. For decades we have had the Culham laboratory for fusion research. The newly funded Faraday centre for battery development is welcome, but it should be the nucleus of a broader and larger venture to address other energy technologies, especially those where it is realistic for the UK to achieve a lead—and for computational modelling, too.

Real breakthroughs are needed in energy generation, storage and smart grids to meet the 2050 targets, but there is a stronger motivation. We produce only 1% of global CO2 emissions—itself not crucial—but we produce more than 10% of the world’s high-impact research. If a scaled-up and wisely prioritised programme led to cheaper carbon-free generation, India and other vast developing markets could leapfrog directly to clean energy rather than building coal-fired power stations. Our efforts could thereby make far more than a 1% difference to the world, and to our national economic benefit. It would be hard to conceive of a more inspiring challenge for young scientists and engineers or a better investment in the UK’s future than devising clean and economical energy systems for the world. Likewise, incidentally, we can contribute disproportionately to another global challenge, sustainable food production, if we expand and deploy our world-leading expertise in genetics and plant science.

This leads to my final point. Our idealistic younger generation need the requisite expertise, which is why it is good that the Government have responded to the Auger report’s recommendations about 16 to 19 year-olds’ further education. That report suggested reforms of higher education as well. To promote lifelong learning, it recommended that everyone should be entitled to three years’ support, to be taken at any stage. This would encourage flexibility and would mean, for instance, that those who leave university for any reason after two years are not tainted as wastage, but can get some certificate of credit and an entitlement to return and upgrade later in life. In his previous role, the Minister supported such reforms, so will the Government implement that part of the Augar report?

A key mantra for this country should be, “If we don’t get smarter, we’ll get poorer.” With bold reforms to our education, and our innovative approach to R&D, we could aspire to contribute far more than our pro-rata share to solving global challenges and enhance our economy as well.