Physics Research

– in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 23 March 2010.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister 10:59, 23 March 2010

It is a pleasure to have the debate, and I am delighted that there is so much interest in it among parliamentarians and the public, given that we are competing with astronauts and the like at the launch of the new space strategy. Of course, those matters impact on physics and its funding, and the future and health of physics research in this country impact on our ability to exploit discoveries in space.

I want to concentrate on two different areas: the funding problems and other problems at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is one of the funding bodies for physics, although not the only one, as physics is funded also by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and several physics projects are funded by other research councils; and future careers in physics and the supply of physicists for teaching and research.

It would be inappropriate in what will, I think, have to be a short speech, to go through the whole history of the creation and funding of the STFC, but right hon. and hon. Members will know that it has been beset by problems from its birth. I remember being in a Delegated Legislation Committee dealing with the regulations setting up the STFC. It was a merger of the old Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which managed the large facilities. I and my hon. Friend Mr. Willis were concerned, in that debate, about whether the STFC had a sound financial basis, given the liabilities that were being carried forward into the new research council by the CCLRC. We were given assurances by the Science Minister at the time that everything would be fine and that the STFC would not be destabilised by any funding problems and concerns that affected the large facilities council that was to be one of its parents.

It is clear, objectively, that that assurance was not delivered on. The recent report by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, about research council allocations, which looked closely at the STFC, made several criticisms of the way it had been put together, and of funding decisions. Two years ago the council had a flat cash allocation. Despite spin from the Government to the effect that it received a significant funding increase, it clearly did not, going by the funding that could actually be spent, as opposed to allocations relating to the value of buildings and facilities. That has led to great distress in the science community at large and the physics community in particular among those people who rely on grants to fund their research in particle physics and astronomy. A number of other areas are funded by the STFC.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that astronomy, which is the area of greatest interest to me, is financially beleaguered because, despite our having world-class resources and facilities, such as those in Armagh, those concerned are always fighting for what feels like a very tight fund? The Government commissioned a report on near-Earth objects, which made 14 recommendations, only one of which has been implemented. Does he agree that, if the Government are serious about astronomy, they need to make a serious and long-lasting funding commitment to it?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I agree. The failure to capitalise on initiatives and drive them through is symptomatic of the problem. There is not money for the here and now, and it becomes difficult to plan for the future. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his commitment to astronomy and for his significant role in the all-party group on astronomy, and to his family for their contribution to space research and discovery.

It is well recognised that there is a problem in the funding of astronomy and particle physics, and I hope that the Minister will at least recognise that. It is a problem that cannot be allowed to fester; it must be solved. There are at least two ways to solve it. The Government's proposal is to accept all the planned cuts, make a new start at a lower level of funding, and see whether we can find a way to protect and give stability to the STFC and physics research budgets. Alternatively, we could say "No, we will not accept that serious damage should be done now. We must find a way to rebalance the position to the status quo ante-the position before the significant cuts in funding, and particularly grant funding, that are proposed for the community."

I do not think that I can go through the list now. It can only be described as a bonfire of the acronyms-the projects whose funding is due to be abandoned or significantly reduced. Behind those acronyms lies a great deal of good science, and many good people have planned their careers on the basis of being able to see through those projects and of UK participation in those projects. Even if the Government, and politicians more widely, do not think long term about research priorities, the individuals who do the work-particularly those in the public sector, who are not well paid compared with their private sector colleagues or, indeed, compared with what their skills could get them in the private sector-must think long term. They must plan their careers, and where they and their families will live.

Behind each budget cut is an individual story of great distress, and of people's planned careers being cut. That is happening not because of anyone's inability to make a scientific case in open competition through peer review, on a level playing field-that is always the risk in science-but because of what those people see as near-arbitrary cuts in the programme, and an arbitrary or at least non-transparent decision that means that, although the Government have boasted of an increase in the science budget, the funding for research grants in their field has fallen. That means that the success rate for grant applications in that area of work, which was already low because of the tough competition-which is a good thing-has fallen even further. In addition, of course, the bonfire of the acronyms means a blow to the UK's credibility as a long-term partner for projects involving scientists, research institutes and funding from other countries and their Governments.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that blue sky research is most important, and that it should not stall under the current difficult economic conditions? The large hadron collider is one such case. We do not know whether it will tell us much about the Higgs boson or what it will tell us about fundamental particle physics, but it is likely to lead to discoveries that could help to resolve the world's key problems, including medical problems, so it is not something that we should discard lightly. We should continue to support it, and other blue sky research projects.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is greatly missed on the Science and Technology Committee, where he made a unique contribution, and a strongly supportive one in certain areas. I remember him particularly being a great advocate of embryo research. As an engineer he will recognise that it is not only our commitment to the large hadron collider, which has been protected in all that has been happening, that is important; experiments based on, but separate from, the subscription to the large hadron collider are part of some of the projects that are threatened. The funding of those-and our participation-seems doomed to end unless alternative funding can be found.

That is one of the tragedies of having large facilities that cost a great deal of money to build and run but do not maximise our country's and the physics community's exploitation of those facilities, because the funding to maximise the use of the resources is not available. Those are the fundamental problems with the planned cuts to specific, named projects. In addition, of course, there is the lower success rate for grant applications, because of the shortage of funding for direct grants.

It is appropriate at this point to consider how the Government propose to solve the problem. It varies between refusing to accept that there is a problem and launching a review of the structure of the STFC. Indeed, Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, did the latter on 16 December 2009. That was the right thing to do, because there is a problem. One does not come up with proposed solutions, however strong, unless one first recognises that there is a problem. It was unfortunate that on 16 December Lord Drayson should have said that he welcomed the results of the STFC prioritisation, because one person's prioritisation is another's posteriorisation. It is not appropriate for politicians to hide behind words when talking about significant cuts in funding.

According to the press release, Lord Drayson said that there are

"real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant-giving roles within a single research council."

However, the proposal that has emerged is that the research council should not be split. There is a difference of opinion about that, but I do not want to dwell on that aspect. I have a series of questions about the meaning of some of the alleged solutions emanating from the announcement of 4 March on the new arrangements for the STFC.

According to the press release, the proposal is that

"reducing the pressures from the international subscriptions and UK-based facility operations would substantially remove the risk that unexpected pressures would lead to a disproportionate pressure on the STFC's grants portfolio."

I am not sure that reducing the pressures would substantially remove the risk. Eliminating them would substantially remove that risk. Unexpected pressures resulting from changes in the exchange rate and the cost of running facilities would lead to disproportionate pressure on the STFC's grants portfolio.

What the physics community is looking for from the review is not the promise of another review, future negotiations or other ways of reducing the risk, but clear solutions to the problems that do not further disadvantage physics funding and do not set the STFC's budget for grants at its current low level. That is the subject of my questions.

The press release said:

"It is important that STFC adheres to its new balanced budget going forward".

That means, I think, that according to the Government the STFC needs to adhere to its new reduced budget for grants. So much money is being given in subscriptions because of the low rate of sterling against the euro and other currencies. Will the Minister confirm that adherence to the new balanced budget means that there will not be a readjustment of the funding in grants up from the current level-that we are where we are, and that we have to get used to living without British participation in a number of projects, and with a lower rate of success in grant applications?

The press release goes on to state that there are two

"significant short term pressures on STFC"-

I think that this is the right analysis-

"sharp and sudden variations in exchange rates arising from international subscriptions, and the funding of demand-led large domestic facilities."

I think that that is correct. However, they are not short-term pressures if the damage that is done to the available funding for grants is not corrected. If that is not done, what would have been short-term pressures will become long-term funding reductions. Will the Minister say whether the STFC's grant budget is fixed in stone at its current level? Whatever solution is introduced, it will not redress that problem.

The press release pointed to the

"considerable support provided by BIS to STFC in recognition of adverse exchange rate movements this year and last, some £40 million in total."

That was a mixture of grant and loan. I understand that some of that loan was to be repaid from future years, or the next year. Will the Minister clarify that? If he cannot do so today, I ask him to make it explicit in a letter to me. I want to know exactly how much of what has been given to the STFC for each of the past two years and for the current year to support its budget has to be repaid from future budget allocations. Will that still be the case if no further grant is awarded and the exchange rate is fixed so that the Treasury takes the risk above a certain level?

If there is no future support, and there is a buffering of exchange rate variations, which might seem sensible, the key question is: at what level will the buffering take place? If it takes place at the current level of the pound-it is likely that the pound will increase and that the STFC could benefit, having more cash to spend from such an increase-and if that windfall goes to the Treasury, above a £3 million buffer, the STFC will not benefit. Indeed, it seems that it will not benefit from the grant and loan support that it currently receives.

I ask the Minister to reassure me that there will not be a double whammy. What has gone down might go up. The STFC has lost out from what has gone down. Will it miss out on the benefit from what goes up and lose its grant support? That will have serious implications for its future health.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I am grateful once again to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that the Minister needs to understand that such questions are important because increased and reduced budgets cannot be easily accommodated in the long-term planning of physics and astronomy? In other words, an increase or a decrease in budget can be catastrophic to long-term initiatives of benefit to the country. We need clarity, even if it is slightly bad news, because the scientific community could at least plan to live within its means.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

That is right. What was disappointing about the press release and the announcement is that, in many cases, it was not a long-term solution. I realise that funding for the support of large domestic facilities will be ring-fenced, and that arrangements will be made for other research councils to pay their fair share, and I welcome that. However, in respect of international subscriptions the press release says only that

"from the next spending review onwards...BIS is looking at options for managing the currency risks better."

I thought that it was doing so before 16 December 2009, and before the review. If it is still doing so, it is not the long-term solution that we need.

The press release states merely that

"BIS is working closely with the Bank of England on how to reduce the exposure of the STFC."

It then states that a "new arrangement will provide". A new arrangement might provide, or would provide, but no new arrangement has been proposed as yet. I would be grateful for some clarity on that. I have seen proposals whereby the Treasury will take the risk and benefit of any changes that have an impact greater than £3 million on budget exchange rate changes, but the key point is where the baseline is drawn.

Criticisms have been made, not least in the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, about the management of the STFC. I shall not speak for or against the recommendations or the criticisms made in the science community. However, politicians should take responsibility for the overall budget position, and not seek to hide behind their failure to recognise that there is a problem-or behind those individuals running the research council. The Haldane principle makes clear that it is for research councils, through peer review, to allocate funding to specific projects. I realise that, but the Government must take responsibility for the overall allocations to research councils. They are made by the Government.

In the remaining time, I wish to deal with the question of scientific careers, particularly in physics. At the moment, it is difficult. People working in university physics laboratories that are funded by the STFC or the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-the success rate for grant applications to the EPSRC is so low that it has taken the unusual step of placing a ban on repeat funding applications-are not happy with the situation. When PhD students or young post-doctoral students in such departments seek advice on whether it is a healthy area in which to work, they get the answer that one would expect from more senior researchers who are facing difficulties with ongoing funding and with cuts in the projects on which they are working, often in collaboration with other countries which are not withdrawing support. What advice do those researchers give to the undergraduates, doctoral students and post-doctoral students in their department? They will not tell them that it is great field in which to work and that the future is healthy. They will tell them the opposite, which will lead to problems in retaining some of the brightest and the best that we need. We have that problem throughout our education system, which my hon. Friend Annette Brooke will talk about.

We still have a fundamental problem with the number of entries to A-level physics. Data from the Joint Council for Qualifications show that between 1985 to 2008, there has been a slow and inexorable reduction in numbers. Indeed there was a year-on-year reduction until 2006-07. There was a slight upturn in 2008, but the number was still the third lowest since 1985. Although there has been an improvement in mathematics and, to a certain extent, in chemistry, we have not seen the same in physics.

Without people taking physics A-levels, it is hard to see how we can encourage them to take physics degrees. Other data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which the Minister must be intimately acquainted with-I am sure that it is his bedtime reading given his worries about the state of higher education funding, and it may even help him get to sleep-show that the number of applicants to study physics as a first degree qualification has not risen since 1985; indeed, the number has been flatlining. Therefore, despite the best efforts of this Government to promote science, which have been far better than those of the previous Government, it cannot be said that they have been successful.

One of the reasons is that we are in a vicious circle. Students are not studying physics and graduating in sufficient numbers with physics, so there are not enough people who have the necessary specialist background to go back into teaching physics to inspire the next generation of young people to study physics at school. That circle must be broken. I do not see how that can be done while the Government continue to pile debt on students.

Students will not choose-if they can do the maths and these students can do the maths-to take relatively low-paid jobs in teaching or in research when they can go into other jobs in, for example, the finance sector where their numeracy is not only well regarded but much better rewarded. Public sector teaching posts and research posts will never be able to compete with some of the salaries that are on offer in the City, but the Government can make an effort by not imposing a further distortion of career choice by piling huge amounts of debt on graduates. Students know that that debt is there waiting for them when they pass the threshold and will hold them back in their ability to get a mortgage and settle down with a family. Moreover, they will see their peers, who are in other fields, get on the housing ladder much earlier. That is a real problem.

The first thing that I want to hear from the Minister is that he recognises that we have not made progress in the number of entrants to physics A-levels and physics degrees. I want to hear those words from him, because the first law of science is to define the problem. If we are not able to define or recognise the problem, it will be difficult to find the solutions that we need.

Another problem is that half the population-the female half of the population-are not staying in physics or in engineering. The burden of debt is a particular problem for them. There is obviously a stereotyping of careers going on and a question over whether careers advice is adequate in girls' schools or to girls in schools, given the relatively small numbers who study the subjects. The Royal Society report recently demonstrated a significant leaky pipeline, which is much greater for women scientists than for male scientists, and much more work needs to be done by research funders to identify the problems, to do exit interviews, to do surveys and to find out why the people they fund are leaving science in such a way.

A short debate such as this is not enough to do justice to all the information that I have been sent, and I am very grateful to the people in the field for sending me the information and background, to the Institute of Physics and to the research councils themselves that have provided briefings.

In the next few weeks, as we go through to the general election, I hope that physics and science will have a very high profile. I will continue to make these points, seek to hold the Government to account and hope that we will see, in the general election, a clear difference between the parties on the specifics of funding. I hope that my own party will make it clear that it will find the resources from existing budgets to re-stabilise the STFC, and that we have clear proposals to give stability to physics funding.

We need to break the vicious cycle that exists for physics students, physics graduates and physics teachers. We have failed to break out of that cycle over the past 20 years and, disappointingly, during the tenure of this Government. I recognise that the Government have increased the science budget in real terms and that, overall, science spending has increased, but the fundamental facts, as set out in the Royal Society report, are that our share of spend on science as a proportion of our GDP is no higher now than it was when this Government came to power and no higher than it was during the Thatcher years. We have not solved the problem and we must not be complacent. I urge the Minister not to be complacent because we are far, far away from the target of 2.5 per cent. of GDP being spent on science, and the trickle-down effect of the failure to meet that target can be seen in physics and so many other subjects. I look forward to hearing his response to this debate.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 11:27, 23 March 2010

I congratulate my fellow Oxford MP, Dr. Harris, on securing this important debate. Physics is vital to Oxford and Oxfordshire, to science in the UK and to our economy more generally. I, too, thank the Institute of Physics and others who have sent me very helpful material on the matter. It was an Institute of Physics report that suggested that nearly 6.5 per cent. of the UK economy is critically dependent on physics research. Beyond that, the physical sciences drive something like a third of the UK economic output.

High-tech manufacturing accounts for half the manufacturing jobs in the UK, and the UK is a major venue for science, with UK businesses attracting £4 billion in inward investment to fund research and development. Such increases in private investment in research and development followed rises in public investment in science. In that sense, the increases over the past decade, which I was pleased the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, have had a significant and dramatic impact on the UK economy. In that context, it is all the more tragic that we face some of these pressures and dilemmas.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we have only to look at the long-term impact of the Apollo space programme in the United States to see how what could be regarded as pure research or the pursuit of scientific goals directly impacts on the capability of the economic sector to make profit for the industry? Indeed, the United States is still benefiting from the investment that it made in the 1960s.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

Yes, indeed. The difficulty of forecasting the economic impact of blue-skies research is something that I will come to later.

I share the concerns voiced by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon about the pressures facing the Science and Technology Facilities Council in general and physics funding in particular. As I have said, those pressures are tragic, given that they come after an unprecedented investment in science in recent years. I certainly reinforce the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked about the future of the STFC grants and I urge the Government to look very carefully at that area of funding again.

There is an important question to be asked about who should carry currency risk; there is indeed a case for its being a responsibility of the Treasury. However, if that is the case, there must be an understanding and an agreement of the long-term real international currency-weighted value of the commitment that is being made to these international projects.

As I said, Mr. O'Brien, UK science was starved of investment for many years before 1997 and a real difference has been made by the increases since.

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

The right hon. Gentleman said that science was "starved" of funding. However, as Dr. Harris has pointed out, the percentage share of GDP that was invested in science during the years that he mentioned is exactly the same as the percentage share of GDP that is invested today. So is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that the Government today are starving science of money?

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

No. Of course, there has been a considerable increase in GDP as well. The figures that I am citing today-for example, the science budget is nearly £4 billion a year now, having been virtually doubled-show that there has been a very substantial increase in investment, and science has benefited from that. I acknowledge the pressures on science funding and indeed I am calling on the Government to look again at the situation facing the STFC in general and physics funding in particular. However, it is only fair to acknowledge the progress that has been made and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do so.

Furthermore, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon referred to the importance of science in the context of the general election and the debates that we will be having in coming weeks. If the Conservative party wants to cut public expenditure more quickly than the Government are proposing to, Adam Afriyie must say either that cuts in science funding will be greater than those proposed by the Government or that funding will be cut somewhere else to prevent the cuts to science funding that would otherwise happen. There must be an honest debate about cuts too.

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

I am really glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that issue, because it is entirely in the Government's hands to produce a comprehensive spending review. They have refused to do so and that is what is creating all the uncertainty around the STFC and many of the other research councils. So it is a bit rich of the Government to accuse the Opposition of not coming clean on figures when they have all the figures to hand and all of the powers to make a decision to hold a CSR.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I did not actually accuse the hon. Gentleman of not coming clean. What I said was that, as the Conservatives had come clean and said that they wanted to cut public expenditure harder and quicker than the Government are proposing to, there are questions that they had to answer.

I apologise, Mr. Olner. I think that I called you Mr. O'Brien a few minutes ago. That was my mistake and I apologise for it.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

One Mr. O'Brien is younger than me and one is older than me.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the debate. We often face each across this Chamber because we have many interests in common. I hope that he will recognise two important points. First, the capital spending of his Government-the Labour Government-has been significant, in higher education in particular. That must be recognised and I recognise it.

Secondly, however, the recurrent funding in science spending as a whole is not a doubling. The doubling of the science budget has run simultaneously with the reduction in spending from departmental budgets. So, although there has been a 40 per cent. real terms increase in overall science spending-not a doubling of the spending-science is only getting its fair share of GDP growth. That is more than science received under the Conservatives, but it is no more than science's fair share and that is why we are still well behind other countries in the proportion of our wealth that we spend on science and research.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

Like the hon. Gentleman, I want science and physics to have an even fairer share.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned capital. I want to talk briefly about the Science Research Infrastructure Fund, which was another success story in terms of the boost that it gave to facilities and to staff morale by attracting staff from overseas. It also impacted positively on student numbers and encouraged greater use of facilities by businesses, including smaller businesses. However, since the SRIF ended and funding became part of the full economic cost of research allocated by the research councils, there is now some concern that the money is not being spent within universities in support of the research infrastructure, doubtless because of other pressures that the universities face. I wonder if the Minister can say something about that subject.

I also wanted to talk about the research assessment exercise and how it is developing. That exercise also had a significant impact on the science and innovation base, by helping to improve the overall quality of UK research. Nevertheless, it is of concern that its successor-the research excellence framework-has "impact of research" criteria.

In mentioning those criteria, I return to the point that was made by Lembit Öpik, who has now left the Chamber, when he talked about the long-term benefits of big projects and blue-skies research. That emphasis on "impact" is probably a consequence of a shift in the thinking of at least some of those steering UK science policy for publicly funded scientific research to demonstrate economic and societal impact.

However, there are real difficulties about the criteria and the methodology of the research excellence framework, and it is hoped that they will not be too restrictive for physics and other disciplines. We can all probably think of many cases of breakthroughs in physics-in relativity, quantum mechanics or whatever area-where it would have been very difficult at the outset of the research to have said what the consequences and the benefits of that research would be. How the difficulty of demonstrating the benefits of research fits within impact criteria based around the economy and society is another issue that it would be wise to look at further.

This debate matters not only because science is important in its own right, but because it means jobs, prosperity and welfare for the future, both for those who work in science and for those in the many jobs that are generated by science. In Oxfordshire, we have seen big successes, including the Harwell science and innovation campus, and major facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source and the ISIS neutron facility in Harwell, which are global centres of pioneering research. The Rutherford Appleton laboratories are developing new techniques to help in the development of fusion. The tier 1 computing centre at the laboratories is the UK focus for processing data from the large hadron collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or CERN.

Sharp Laboratories UK, which is based in Oxford science park, is another example of a company based in Oxfordshire. It employs more than 100 people and it conducts world-leading research and development, creating technologies such as advanced flat screen displays. Companies such as Sharp Laboratories UK are based in the UK because of the strength of the UK science base and because of the graduates trained in cutting edge science, which that science base provides. We have a good record in Oxford and at Oxford university in spinning out companies from physics research. Companies such as Oxford instruments are now well known world leaders and newer companies such as Oxonica and RF Sensors are bringing physics research to the market, generating local jobs in the process.

If we are to sustain that success-surely there ought to be general agreement that it is vital that we do so-we must more effectively resolve these questions of basic funding. We also need to look still further at the support that is given to businesses as they develop, grow and apply the benefits of scientific research, because the recession has put pressures on science businesses, as it has on other businesses, and perhaps especially on smaller science-based companies. As we know, to bring a piece of world-leading research to commercial applicability and ultimately to profit can take several years and can require several stages of investment.

The recession and the situation in banking has meant that some companies are not getting the right money at the right time. If the UK is to continue to exploit the strength of our research base, there is a need to focus support on these science companies, through the provision of long-term investment in start-ups and through large-scale science-focused venture capital funds. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what further can be done to support the commercial application of science in that context.

All the economic benefit that we get from our strength in science, including the critical mass of talented people that physics requires, is stimulated and sustained by public investment in science. Given the demonstrable value to the economy of scientific research, will the Government reaffirm their commitment to fund increases in basic science spending in line with the science and innovation framework for the decade from 2004? Will the Minister offer some hope and encouragement to physics in universities, which, as we have heard, is under such pressure at the moment?

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 11:40, 23 March 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Harris on securing this debate and on analysing the situation so effectively.

I am not a physicist, so I needed to reflect on why physics in particular faces a problem and why it is so important. I looked briefly at what physics research has provided us with. It includes obvious things that we use every day, such as the world wide web, or that some of us might have to use, such as radiotherapy and other cancer treatments. Modern techniques for cancer diagnosis and treatment depend on physics research, and advances in physics-based diagnosis and therapy will continue to lower cancer mortality rates and improve the health of the nation.

Much of the research that we do not hear about will almost certainly make the most important changes to how we live. Physics is responsible for the development of a vast array of technology, including technology to tackle climate change and for magnetic resonance imaging, now a routine technique for medical research. The list goes on and on. Of course, we cannot take physics in isolation.

I was recently pleased to be paired with a scientist last November through the Royal Society scheme, and we had some fascinating discussions on the links between research, policy making and funding for research. The Royal Society recently published a report entitled "The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity", which contains two urgent messages. The first is that the UK needs to place science and innovation at the heart of our long-term strategy for economic growth; the second is that we face a fierce competitive challenge from countries that are investing at a scale and speed that we may struggle to match.

To quote from that important report:

"Ten years into this new scientific century, the world is slowly recovering from a severe financial crisis. Food security, climate change and health inequalities are rising up international policy agendas. And countries such as China, India and Brazil are reshaping the economic and political landscape. Faced with such uncertainties, the UK must build on its existing strengths. This country has a proud track record of achievement in science and engineering. Today, thanks to sustained investment"- credit must be given where it is due-

"we have the most productive research base among the world's leading economies. Our universities are ranked second only to those of the USA. And the outputs of our research are increasingly threaded through the economy."

The report goes on:

"It would be disastrous if, at this stage, there was a withdrawal of support for our world-class universities, or the incentives which have been put in place to encourage translation, commercialisation and knowledge exchange. At the same time as we have improved our record on science and innovation, other countries have improved theirs...While the UK contemplates further reductions in spending on higher education and research, most other major economies, including the USA, China, France and Germany, have outlined ambitious plans to increase investment and boost their innovation performance."

In my view, the Government have not used the all-important fiscal stimulus provided at the onset of the recession to invest in science infrastructure. The VAT cut of £12.5 billion could have been spent much more productively.

The Royal Society goes on:

"If the right policy choices are made now, the UK can remain at the vanguard of international science and secure its prosperity throughout the scientific century."

Its recommendations include prioritising investment in excellent people, strengthening Government's use of science, reinforcing the UK's position as a hub for global science and innovation, better aligning science and innovation with global challenges and revitalising science and mathematics education.

Similarly, the Institute of Physics manifesto for the 2010 general election calls for science funding that will keep the UK at the forefront of research, a fiscal and regulatory environment that fosters science-based innovation-

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I have been mulling over the hon. Lady's point about the VAT cut. I put it to her that that is not a good example of where money could be found. The VAT cut was a short-term fiscal stimulus to help soften the recession and get the country out of it. It was the sort of measure that can be turned on and off, so it would not have met the long-term needs of science. I do not think that we want to use short-term devices to fund science; long-term commitments are needed.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. I was just identifying how we could have approached the fiscal stimuli. There were important choices to be made at that point.

The IOP also calls for access to high-quality physics teaching for every child. I have a lot to say about that. It is a whole package. It starts from the time a child begins to understand the world that we live in and continues through true engagement in science at school to university, a PhD and further research, if funding exists. The Royal Society recommends that we provide incentives to recruit teachers, retain them and attract them back to science subjects, and that we commit to increasing the number of primary teachers with science expertise. That is important.

We do not have enough primary school teachers with specialist scientific qualifications. How can we inspire pupils if we do not have staff with qualifications and enthusiasm? It is sad that we have lost enthusiasm even in our secondary schools. Cuts in experimentation have made science a less attractive subject. Of course we have new syllabuses, but they do not necessarily increase take-up at A-level and in further study, as we hoped. We should establish new expert groups to advise on the development of science and mathematics curriculums and qualifications.

I sit on the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which recently undertook a short inquiry into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. One question that arose was the position of women in physics. The comment was made that if we could attain gender equality, we would almost have cracked the problem of the shortage of physicists. Only 22 per cent. of physics A-level students are female, and that figure decreases throughout the career progression. Only 15 per cent. of research assistants and less than 5 per cent. of physics professors are female. We clearly have a gender issue that must be tackled more rigorously than it has been so far.

It is interesting to note that the engineers that the Select Committee interviewed were far more upbeat about the future. We can do it, but there is a lot more to be done. It is likely that the Minister will talk about all the incentives put in place to attract more science teachers, but the fact is that we have not done enough. Young people need an improved science education, whether they are destined to become professional scientists or scientifically literate citizens. Like other areas of education, science and mathematics have suffered from rapidly changing political expectations and reforms.

The No. 1 priority must be the quality of specialist teachers. Prior to 2009, the UK had failed to meet its recruitment targets for secondary science and mathematics teachers every year for more than a decade. There is so much to be done. The Royal Society's research suggests that without excellent teachers there is little hope of inspiring children to stick with science. What more will the Minister do to tackle that situation, starting with the first levels of education? If we crack the problem of getting excellent people, will there be the necessary funding?

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made an important reference to the STFC. On 11 March, Times Higher Education reported:

"The Science and Technology Facilities Council will be restructured in a move that, it is hoped, will protect grants for astronomers and physicists in the future. The council has faced a series of funding crises, caused in part by a fall in the value of the pound, which pushed up the costs of subscriptions to international facilities. This has forced the STFC to withdraw from international projects, run national science facilities below capacity".

We have heard of new arrangements that will improve the situation, but there are still uncertainties. Professor Foster of Oxford university welcomed the announcements from Lord Drayson, but said:

"This doesn't help with the current disaster. There is no hope on the horizon and no new money."

It is reported that the STFC is pulling Britain out of 25 international projects.

It was announced in the pre-Budget report that £600 million would be cut from the funding for universities and research. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that in the context of the Budget. What is the future and where is the hope? Like my hon. Friend, I would like the Minister to be clear about the recent funding of the STFC and what the future offers. The future is clearly fragile for research in physics and other sciences. We need clear, encouraging commitments today.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Shadow Minister (Science and Innovation) 11:52, 23 March 2010

I congratulate Dr. Harris on securing this timely and relevant debate. It is pertinent to ask about the future, given that there has been no comprehensive spending review to establish the security and stability of funding.

The hon. Gentleman raised the future challenges for physics, in particular the exposure to exchange rates. There may be a ring fence for science, but it feels like the bolt cutters are at work when changes in the exchange rate are not compensated in full. He raised the issue of loans. The Science and Technology Facilities Council was able to operate this year, last year and the year before because of a loan from the Government, but loans have to be paid back and so add pressure for the future. I look forward to the Minister's comments on that.

The hon. Gentleman then took a wonderful canter through the landscape of physics in Britain and alighted on the fact that the number of people studying for the physics A-level has been falling. To add some numbers to that, I should say that it has fallen by 5,000-from 33,000 people in 1997 to 28,000 in 2008. That is not a good record on A-level physics. I hope that we will do better in future.

There have been some great contributions. Bob Spink spoke about the large hadron collider. I assume that there is a link with his constituency; if so, he did a good job.

Mr. Smith made a considered contribution. I feel I was a bit bullish for jumping in too early because his point was that although science funding has been increasing-I agree that there has been an increase in the absolute level of funding-there are still challenges. I welcome his words. He focused on the research assessment exercise and spoke of successes in his constituency. He did his constituents proud in his representation of the work that takes place there.

Annette Brooke gave a gentle and considered view on physics. She admitted that she does not come from a physics background and focused on the societal benefits from physics in the longer term and the Royal Society's report. She paid particular attention to the plight of teachers and made the plea that gender equality might solve the teaching and student problems in physics.

I am conscious of time and want to give the Minister as much time as possible to respond to the questions that have been raised. However, I will say a few words about the terrain of physics in Britain. As we look forward to the election and beyond the recession, it is clear that we cannot go on with the debt-fuelled economic model that prepared us badly for the downturn and has left us ill equipped for recovery.

Sir James Dyson prepared an in-depth report at the request of the Conservatives entitled "Ingenious Britain", which looks to the future of science and physics in Britain. It rightly says that there should be no more talk of Britain as a post-industrial state. I notice that that phrase has crept into our dialogue, but Britain's future should not be considered in those terms. As the Royal Society put it, this will be a "scientific century". Advances in science, engineering and technology will continue to determine our success as a nation, as they have in the past. Britain will need not only more scientists, but more designers and engineers to turn the science into the high-tech products and services that create jobs. Today's debate is a great chance to highlight the contribution that physics will make.

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]

Physics underpins much of what we think of as technological progress. The Institute of Physics has highlighted 10 case studies to show how curiosity-driven research has led to practical results. Medical diagnostics, satellite navigation and advanced manufacturing rely on advances in the physical sciences. Many hon. Members have iPhones and personal digital assistants, which have come about largely due to physics and the space industry. There are few better examples than the work of Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, which gave us the worldwide web.

Unfortunately, despite the increase in funding that I have acknowledged, physics has had a rough ride under the Government: at least 22 physics departments have closed since 1997; funding for individual physics students, undergraduates in particular, has fallen by £170 in real terms; and Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that the proportion of physicists in UK universities has fallen over the past decade.

The Government's main physics body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has lurched from crisis to crisis with the pressures placed on it by the Government. The Government have broken faith with the science community, in particular when it comes to physics; they have led it up the garden path and lulled it into a false sense of security by churning out endless rhetoric about protecting science, while slashing the science budgets for this year and next year.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

On the subject of rhetoric, will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that under a Conservative Government there would be no cuts in science spending in the next year? Secondly, does he accept that the Treasury should take the risk of currency fluctuations, as was proposed recently by Lord Drayson?

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

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those questions. I have made it absolutely clear that we are committed to two things over the next year: to the future of science and to a multi-year ring-fenced science budget. There is nothing wrong with the ring-fencing principle. I make it 100 per cent. clear that we are not committed to this Government's budget up to 2011. However, that matter does not particularly relate to science.

On the Treasury question, there is clearly pressure on the STFC in particular and science councils in general in relation to exchange rate fluctuations. I would like more flexibility in that area; the Government sign bilateral-international-agreements, for which they are supposed to pay, yet when the exchange rate changes, the hit is taken by the research council or the facility in respect of writing the cheques. That cannot be right, and work needs to be done on that issue. However, it is above my pay grade to make policies on behalf of my party at the moment.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the Treasury, but someone from his party will have to say something if there is going to be proper three-party politics with specifics. May I bring the matter back to my earlier question? I was not sure what he was saying. Is he saying that if his party is in government next year, when we will still not be out of recession, it would not cut spending on science overall because of the importance of science spending as a vehicle to aid recovery out of recession? Will he be a bit clearer on that? I am still not certain about the matter.

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

I noticed that when the hon. Gentleman was talking about the science budget, he used the word "hope." I can use more than the word "hope" about the future science budget.

It is completely unfeasible for an Opposition party that has no access to the Government books to determine what the budget will be this side of an election. I cannot do that because, as I said, it is above my pay grade to do so. If he is asking me whether I would like the science budget to be maintained at the current level, the answer is that I would, of course, like that to happen. Would I like the budget to increase? Of course. However, given that the Government have virtually bankrupted the country, the question is whether it is possible even to maintain the budget that they have. Of course, I will fight tooth and nail to try to do that, but as I say, it would be entirely incorrect for an Opposition party to make a budget before they have succeeded to power.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised these questions, because there is a duty on politicians-particularly those in the Government, who have access to the books- to be as direct and straightforward as they can about future funding levels. The Government have had the opportunity to carry out a comprehensive spending review, and they have refused to do so. Their arguments are incredibly feeble: that somehow there is uncertainty about the future and therefore they have to create more uncertainty by not having a comprehensive spending review to set, at least, the minimum benchmark for science. That has a disproportionate impact on science because, if the STFC-among other research councils-does not know what the 2011-12 budget is, it cannot allocate the research grants this year. The Government have added to the uncertainty around physics in particular, and they need to deal with that matter as soon as possible.

There are questions about the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Council and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which formed the STFC. I remember being opposite the then Science Minister, Ian Pearson, when he took great pleasure in boasting about how the STFC budget would rise by 13.6 per cent. However, we and the science community knew that its near cash budget-the cash available to spend-was completely flat for that three-year period, as can be seen from the figures published by the Government.

If that was not bad enough, the financial outlook today is much bleaker than in 1997. At the very least, we owe it to the science community to be clear and honest about the challenges ahead. Major physics cuts have already been made. STFC grants are down by 10 per cent., and studentships and fellowships have been cut by 25 per cent. That is largely a result of the uncertainty created by the fact that the Government have not had the comprehensive spending review and allocated the budgets for future years.

Twenty-seven significant STFC projects have been abandoned, £5 million has been cut from the National Physical Laboratory and £573 million has been cut from universities this year. Capital cuts have hit physics particularly hard. As I think the Minister acknowledged when we last debated the matter in the House, further cuts of £600 million will be made by 2013. That is an overall Labour science cut of about £1 billion. We need to acknowledge that if we are to have a coherent and honest debate about physics.

Adding insult to injury, the Government have stubbornly refused to hold a comprehensive spending review, which I can only assume is based on cynical political reasoning and the black art of propaganda-the desire not to tell people what the Government's reckless spending means for the future. That, again, adds to future uncertainty. The result is that the STFC has held back its commitments.

In fact, if the Government had been straightforward and produced the comprehensive spending review and the science settlement for the following three years-even if it were at a lower level-there would be at least some certainty within the science community, and the STFC would not have had to pull back the number of grants that it was allocating. A big question needs to be answered about why the comprehensive spending review was not held. Does the Minister acknowledge his or the Government's-I know the matter is not his particular hat-contribution to the uncertainty that is being felt?

The falling value of sterling has already precipitated funding cuts, which has forced other research councils-not just the STFC and those related to physics-to put their hands in their pockets, take away their own research money and give it to the STFC, so that it can cover the exchange rate fluctuations that have been caused by international agreements entered into by Governments. I welcome the review of those arrangements, but we need more certainty around the direction that the Government are taking.

If the Government refuse to tackle the debt crisis, the STFC's costs could rise even higher because the pound will probably plummet further. Ultimately, currency is a sign of the world's confidence in a particular economy. If the pound plummets further, the STFC's costs will increase because of the exchange rate differences. Put simply, Labour's debt crisis is the single biggest threat to the future of physics and science funding in the years ahead. We need clarity going forward, rather than a Government in denial. I hope there will be no denial today. I know that the Minister is a straightforward chap, and I am sure he will not be in denial this afternoon.

We must take action to play down the deficit and restore confidence in the public finances. That is why if there is a Conservative Government, we will hold a Budget within 50 days, and deal with the matters of the multi-year ring fence. We will allocate a multi-year science budget that will be ring-fenced. That will help us provide a stable investment climate for research councils in the long term.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

There has been a lot of debate about the meaning of "ring fence"-we have also debated that in the Select Committee on Science and Technology. Does the hon. Gentleman's reference to ring fence mean that the money will not be raided within the year for other spending, or does it mean that the amount in the ring fence will never go down because it is protected in some way-that it will either stay the same or go up? Will he be clearer about that? It would be of great benefit to the understanding of what we are discussing.

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

That is a complicated area, because there are many different types of ring fence: parliamentary ring-fencing, where the budget is voted for separately; Treasury ring-fencing, where there are hundreds of little pots all over the place; and general departmental ring-fencing in one or two areas. I am talking about using the Government's existing definition of the ring fence. Whether we will consider the elements within that ring fence is another question, particularly given the exchange rate pressures on the ring fence at the moment. That needs to be looked at. I am referring to the existing definition of the ring fence and nothing more than that.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the Government's definition of the term "ring fence" is that money allocated in-year, for a certain year, is protected from being raided for other things? Would he extend the definition of ring fence, so that planned spending-for example, that outlined in a CSR-is also protected? It is not clear that the Government ever mean that by the term "ring fence". It is important for people listening to this debate to know whether, when people say that there will be a ring fence, that means money will be protected year on year from being cut or whether it merely means-this is important in itself-that it will be protected from cuts within that year.

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

I would be happy to divert the debate to that subject, but it could take quite some time. To be absolutely clear again, we are committed to a multi-year ring fence for the science budget, with pretty much the same terms under which it currently operates, but we are not committed to Labour's budget. I will be happy to chat with the hon. Gentleman about precise definitions after the debate, but I want to conclude my remarks in the next two minutes so that the Minister has time to respond.

There are some vagaries in the statements that the Government and the Science Minister have made on physics funding. It makes some sense to move the space budget to a new space agency and to look at a way of creating a buffer between the STFC grants and its fixed costs, but can the Minister provide any more detail on the Government's plans for that area? The new arrangements announced by the Science Minister on 4 March are pretty vague, so will the Minister explain what the Government mean when they say that they will be

"looking at options for managing the currency risks better"?

What options is the Department looking at, and what did the current Science Minister mean when he said that

"the Department expects to continue to provide STFC with a level of protection similar to that which has been provided this year"?

Why did he use the words "similar to", rather than giving a definitive statement? Has the Department budgeted to compensate the STFC for those exchange rate fluctuations? It is a straightforward question. Are the Government planning to compensate fully or are they not?

What assessment has the Department made of the likely cost to the STFC of future exchange rate fluctuations? Is there an estimate of what the effect might be? Physicists and the STFC will want to know the answer, as will the science community overall, and vague language only adds to uncertainty, so the debate provides a good opportunity to tidy that up. Finally, will the Minister now admit that the Government to a certain degree botched the creation of the STFC in 2007? Ministers decided to merge the other two research councils to create the STFC, so will he admit that the structural changes announced by the Science Minister on 4 March will return us to the pre-2007 arrangements?

Britain can be proud of its reputation for world-class physics, astronomy and space science, and we can be optimistic that British physicists are working today to generate new ideas and inventions to fuel a high-tech recovery for the future, but we must face up to the reality of the current difficulties if we are to secure a stable climate for investment for the future. Labour's debt crisis is the single biggest threat to physics over the next decade. I hope that the Minister will agree with me that the future of physics is at serous risk if the Chancellor refuses to tackle the deficit seriously in tomorrow's Budget.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Higher Education and Intellectual Property) 12:12, 23 March 2010

I begin by congratulating Dr. Harris on securing the debate. He brings great expertise to these matters and continues to return to them in the House, and I recently had exchanges with him in the Science and Technology Committee. I also thank the other Members who have spoken. It has been a good debate, with contributions from my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith, who attends nearly every debate on higher education and such matters, and the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie). If time prevents me from addressing all the points that have been raised, I shall of course respond in writing.

The timing of the debate is fortuitous because, while we have been debating, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Science and Innovation have been speaking at the launch of a new body, the UK Space Agency. Its creation is yet another demonstration of the Government's commitment to science. Its launch was attended by many schoolchildren who have been enthused by meeting men who have stepped on to the moon, and that is yet another demonstration of our belief that a strong British science base is essential if we are to have the bright social, economic and academic future to which Members have referred today.

Hon. Members know that the public finances are tight. The Government cannot turn away from that or deny it. I cannot guarantee that the unprecedented increases in public funding for science that we have seen over the past 13 years will continue at the same rate in the next few years, but I can say that the claim that the hon. Member for Windsor has made publicly-that the Government plan to cut £1.2 billion of public funding for science over the next five years-is false. He has added that he cannot give a commitment that his party would not do likewise; that claim, by contrast, is all too credible.

I assure Members right from the outset that the Government remain absolutely committed to science. Indeed, my ministerial colleagues and I continue to make the case within the Government at every opportunity for increases in science funding by virtue of the contribution to growth that we believe our science base has made and must continue to make in future. I hope that Members will recognise our commitment to science, which, in relation to the debate, is probably best described in the document "Higher Ambition", published in November 2009, which sets out our commitment to STEM. That strategy relates to much of what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said about enthusing young people and having the teachers. Indeed, the strategy goes beyond that because it asks our universities to realign and move in that direction because we believe that it is so central to our economy.

Lest Members should think that those calls fall on deaf ears, that initiative, which has been carried forward by successive Ministers, has brought record levels of public funding in science, including the 10-year science and innovation investment framework, which was initiated not in the Departments that previously had responsibility for science, but in the Treasury, and it was led by the Prime Minister. That is our commitment to science, and we have had it for many years.

It is clear from the debate that Members believe, as I do, that physics is a crucial element of that commitment to science and to our way of life. Physics provides a fundamental understanding of the world and is at the heart of our civilisation and our standard of living. Through the study of physics we are able to make breakthroughs in many other fields of study, including health care. Many advanced medical diagnostic treatments follow fundamental research in physics. Just about every modern appliance is underpinned by physics, from our mobile phones to the internet and high-definition televisions, on which many of us rely.

Physics forms the basis of our high-tech, advanced economy and employs many people in this country. Important contributing sectors to the UK economy include electronics and optoelectronics, which employ between them over 1 million people. High-technology physics-based industries will help to ensure that the UK is able to compete successfully in the modern global economy, and we will also look to physics research to help overcome the major challenges that still exist in the century before us. Much that has been said about green technology is underpinned by the importance of physics. There are other challenges as well in respect of the underpinning and our better understanding of the mechanics of climate change and greenhouse gases, all of which require the expertise of good physicists.

Given the key role of physics in our society, it is clearly important that we invest, and continue to invest, in science and technology and the training of scientists. We have not had a Save British Science campaign because we have not needed one. Our record on support of the science base is strong, and the Government remain a champion of it. In 2010-11, funding of science and research will have doubled against what it was in 1997. My Department's total investment in science and research will have increased from £5.5 billion to nearly £5.9 billion, which is a 7 per cent. rise.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned Save British Science-now the Campaign for Science and Engineering. We should pay tribute to its work. It was set up in my constituency in 1986 to save British science because the level of funding of science in 1986 was such that science needed saving. Does he accept that the level of funding-not just gross domestic product share, but in real terms-is now the same as it was in 1986? It has increased, but it has increased only back up to 1986 levels, when Save British Science was created to save British science from that level of funding.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Higher Education and Intellectual Property)

I recognise that there has been substantial investment. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said in her contribution, this country may have the most productive science sector. Therefore, by any definition, if one looks at outputs, research papers and quality, we can be proud of the investment that has been made over successive years. It means that we remain second only to the United States in global scientific excellence as measured by citations and a range of indices of which our scientists can be proud.

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

We were talking about straightforwardness, honesty and clarity. I am not quite sure that I heard the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. Will the Minister confirm that spending on science has only just, in the past year or so, approached the level that it was at in 1986-87?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Higher Education and Intellectual Property)

I said that we did not have a Save British Science campaign, which he knows that a past Administration put up with. He also knows-I was coming on to capital-that the budget for higher education capital at the time we came to office was about £75 million. Notwithstanding the savings that we have asked the sector to make, it is £404 million this year, and we have spent about £6.4 billion on capital alone. That goes to the heart of the cost of science on our campuses, which requires investment in facilities, particularly when we are asking universities to encourage young people across the country to take up physics. It takes investment, and investment of more than £2 billion has been made since 1998 to help address the long-term under-investment in university infrastructure, buildings and capital equipment.

However, we also rightly want to ensure that we are getting uptake among students. I am aware that there have been concerns about the number of students taking physics and other STEM subjects. It is because of that that we have particularly asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support the growth of STEM, and, in this funding year, it has set up a £10 million fund to help universities make the transition to STEM subjects.

I am pleased that between 2003 and last year, the latest period for which figures are available, the number of home students enrolling on first degrees in physics rose by 13 per cent., and over the same period, home students taking physics PhDs rose by 37 per cent. The trend is a positive one, and demand continues. In fact, the latest figures from UCAS show that applications are up by 13 per cent. on last year.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I must challenge those figures. I have never understood why Ministers choose the baseline that they choose when they say that something has risen by, for example, 13 per cent. I often thought that it was random, but now I think I can see that they just choose the lowest point and then compare the current position to it.

There was a significant dip between 2001 and 2003-I do not know the reasons for that. If the Minister is talking about the low point, I should say that it was 2003. However, on the latest figures that I can find, we are still below where we were the year before the baseline that he used. Could he explain why he always uses that baseline rather than, say, 1997, which would seem to be a more rational baseline?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Higher Education and Intellectual Property)

I have the figures in front of me: first degree entrants in 2002-03, 2,990, and in 2008-09, 3,555; masters programme entrants in 2002-03, 545, and 555 last year; and PhD entrants in 2002-03, 525, and a growth last year to 805. That is a huge increase, on any analysis, so I do not recognise the numbers that the hon. Gentleman has arrived at. I do not think that this is a matter of dispute. We are seeing the uptake of STEM subjects at GCSE and A-level rising steadily, and that is feeding through to our campuses.

On research, which was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East, some have claimed that the quality and volume of physics research have suffered as a result of this Government's policies, but the facts show that the opposite is true. Physics has been and continues to be treated generously, as it benefits from its strategic importance. After the 2008 research assessment exercise, the Government asked the funding council to protect the share of quality-related research funding to STEM subjects from decline due to higher increases in research in other areas, and therefore the volume of staff submitted in all subjects has risen by 12 per cent., and in physics by 3.6 per cent. So there was also good news on the funding that physics was able to attract.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has been referred to again, as on several other occasions. Of course the Government take the matter seriously, and are already acting on it. There is no denying that the STFC has faced problems, and the Government recognise that better management of international subscriptions through measures to manage exchange rates, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities are needed to allow the STFC's grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability.

On 4 March, my noble Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation announced new arrangements for the STFC that are designed to ensure that it can plan with greater predictability and provide its community with more stability through better management of pressures arising from international subscriptions such as CERN, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities such as Diamond.

Those two measures, which are supported by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society, will address the two main sources of uncertainty that the STFC has historically faced. Lest it be thought that those two learned societies did not greet my noble Friend's announcement with some pleasure, and given the work that had been put in by Mike Sterling, their reaction is worth quoting:

"We have been particularly concerned about the way in which unforeseeable rises in international subscriptions due to the falling value of the pound have put extreme pressure on the funding available from STFC both for research grants and the running of UK-based facilities. Today's announcement demonstrates that the problem has now been recognised and we look forward to seeing how it will be addressed."

It will be addressed in the coming months.

Much that has been said about the STFC is historic. We recognise that there have been structural issues, but my noble Friend has sought to address them. I hope that physicists will be pleased with that-

Photo of Jim Sheridan Jim Sheridan Labour, Paisley and Renfrewshire North

Order. We must move on to the next debate.