I beg to move,
That this House
has considered science and research in the UK and regional economies.
I am delighted to do so with you in the Chair, Mr Owen, and I take this opportunity to welcome the new Minister for Universities and Science to his job. I am looking forward to having many engagements with him on issues relating to higher education.
I move this motion as a Member representing a city whose wealth was built on innovation, from Benjamin Huntsman’s invention of crucible steel production in the 1740s to Harry Brearley’s invention of stainless steel in 1912 to the work today of Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. Science, research and innovation have driven our city’s economy, just as they have for the country as a whole.
However, we face a challenge, because a generation ago the UK was one of the most research-intensive economies in the world and now we are one of the least. We have slipped from leading the OECD countries in research and development spend as a percentage of GDP in 1979 to our position now, where we trail behind all our competitors. The US invests 2.8% of its GDP in research; on average, both OECD and EU countries invest 2.4% of their GDP in research; but the UK now spends only 1.7% of its GDP on research. That is less than half the 3.9% of its GDP that is invested by South Korea, which, as a result of that investment, remains a major manufacturing nation.
Where have research and innovation been lost? Most strikingly, they have been lost within the private sector. The old world of R and D was dominated by the big companies—the likes of GEC and ICI—and their loss took out big chunks of our innovative capacity. The obsession with short-term returns for shareholders, which distorts our equity markets, has changed the attitudes of investors. The dynamic of long-term investment for long-term reward that drove the industrial revolution and built our economic strength has gone. Today there are just two UK companies among the top 100 companies around the world for R and D investment.
For some time, the impact of the decline in private sector investment in R and D was masked by the continued public sector investment of successive Governments, but that changed under the coalition, despite the best efforts of David Willetts, who occupied the Minister’s job for most of the coalition’s time in office and was a real champion of science and universities. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering highlighted in its “Science is Vital” campaign last year, publicly funded research slipped to less than 0.5% of GDP in 2012.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the situation is all the more perverse given that for the research investment that is made—particularly significantly through universities—we get more bang for our buck than other countries in citations and innovation, and therefore that if we put in more bucks we would get more bangs?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and he makes a point that I will come back to and reflect on shortly.
The drop in our publicly funded research to 0.5% of GDP takes that research to its lowest point for more than 20 years. The latest figures, published by UNESCO in March, put the UK’s publicly funded research at 0.48% of GDP, which is well below the EU average of 0.67%, the OECD average of 0.71% and the G8 average of 0.77%.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has dwelt a lot on the percentages and on where the UK stands in the league table, but is that situation solely down to investment and finance? What does he put it down to? What is the difficulty? He said that the UK now has only two companies that are ranked highly in the world for R and D. What is the fundamental problem?
The fundamental problem in relation to private sector investment in R and D is the dominant culture of short-termism in investment. People are looking for quick gains, but what we need to rebalance our economy is the long-term investment that drove economic growth in this country in the first place.
Echoing the point that my right hon. Friend Mr Smith made, according to a report produced by CaSE last year, “The Economic Significance of the UK Science Base”, private sector R and D output rises by 20p per year in perpetuity for every £1 spent by the Government on R and D, so there is a real return on public sector investment and it stimulates the private sector investment that David Simpson referred to by raising the UK’s knowledge base.
That is the real challenge, but there are also real opportunities, because as a country we have enormous strengths, above all our universities, which are highly productive. To echo again the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East made, despite representing only 4.1% of the global research community, UK researchers produced 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited papers in 2011, the last year for which I have figures available. That puts us at No. 1 in the world in the sector. Crucially—I make this point as a northern MP—at a time when we all share a concern about the regional imbalance of economic growth, universities are one of the few assets we have that are spread evenly across the country, and they are able to generate economic growth in all regions and all nations of the UK.
Clearly, universities draw their investment widely, from several sources, and not just from public funds. They have grown their own investment in R and D by 40% in the past decade and now generate more than £3.4 billion a year. However, public investment levers in other funding, and academics in receipt of research council grants have been shown to be more outward-facing and more engaged in the commercial application of their research.
The strength of that research in our universities attracts foreign investment into the UK, as well as international students. According to a British Council survey of 5,000 18 to 34-year-olds from China, India, Brazil, Germany and the US, the fact that the UK has world-leading academic research was the primary attraction for them to come here and study in our universities. Those international students bring more than £10 billion of economic benefit to the UK, including to our regional economies. I know that in Sheffield alone the net value of our international students, who are approaching 9,000 in number, is £120 million a year. Thousands of jobs depend on that money, and not just in the university sector.
My hon. Friend is making a profound point about the impact that our first-class universities have on regional economic development. However, is he as concerned as I am that more than 90% of non-university research in the UK takes place within the golden triangle of Cambridge, Oxford and London, which means that outside universities, the regions are starved of scientific investment?
Indeed—I know that my hon. Friend is proud to be a graduate of Sheffield University. He makes an important point, and we need to be careful that even with the positive developments such as the Francis Crick Institute in London, public investment in research does not get sucked into the golden triangle that he referred to at the expense of universities around the country. As I said a moment ago, the great strength of our university network is its dispersal around the country. We need to ensure that funding for research is spread across the sector and across the country.
York has two excellent universities. The University of York is ranked in the 10 top universities for research, and five of its departments are in the “excellent” category, right at the top of their league. Yet the relationship between jobs and growth in our city and academic achievements in research and development is not being built. Should not the two come together for economic growth across our city?
I was a student in York and am well aware of the strength of the two universities. My hon. Friend is right; linking research with its commercial application is critical. Some progress has been made with the impact approach taken in the sector, although there is more to be done. We considered that issue in the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills during the last Parliament. Although there is more to be done, we should recognise that a huge amount is already being done to link research and its application. I shall mention a few examples from Sheffield.
We would be foolish to lose our advantage in world-leading research, but it could happen if we do not take care. “The Plan for Growth”, published by the Chancellor and the Minister’s predecessor in December 2014, acknowledged the challenge:
“If we fail to move quickly to secure our position in a globalised world, then it is highly likely that other countries....will do so ahead of us. We not only run the risk of missing out on new opportunities, but also of losing the position of strength that we have today”.
The Government acknowledge that we can and must do more.
Innovation policy now needs to focus on developing industrial and private sector research and development capacity, building on the UK’s strong and well connected science base. It will do that by working with universities. For example, to take up the point made by my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell a moment ago, the University of Sheffield works closely with Rolls-Royce, Boeing and more than 100 supply chain companies. Also in my constituency, Sheffield Hallam University secured Toshiba as the first technology partner in the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, designing new products to help promote the integration of exercise into people’s daily lives and address common health issues. Hallam’s new National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering is supported by more than 40 companies, including Mars and Nestlé UK, to support growth in the food industry through improved manufacturing technology and staff capability.
Across my city, and across the whole university sector, science and research are creating jobs, but we could do more.
My hon. Friend talks about research in universities, but it starts earlier than that. On Saturday, I was privileged to visit the excellent Hopwood Hall Further Education College in my constituency, including its excellent animal studies facility. Small amounts of research are being done there, which helps students on their path towards university. However, funding for FE colleges is being cut, and I wonder what impact that is having on the availability of fledgling research for those wanting to go to university.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about acknowledging research taking place outside the university sector. I said earlier that foreign investment is driven significantly by countries with strong research capacity and strength, but it is driven equally by countries that commit to the development of skills. The cuts in the adult skills budget that my hon. Friend mentions, and particularly in further education, will weaken our capacity and our potential for economic growth.
We could do much more than is being done in the examples I have given. We could build partnerships in developing infrastructure for low-carbon energy, which we could then export to the world. If we shrink away from such a challenge, China will pay for the new generation of power stations to be built and we will miss out on the opportunity to help shape our own future. We will have little leverage in insisting that some of the investment is spent on creating jobs in the UK, and we will pay for it through increased electricity bills for decades.
What should we do? I have three suggestions. First, let us stop making things worse. We should recognise the damage done to the UK by the structural shortcomings of our economy. Research and development is a national asset and we must not incentivise companies to do less of it, or make it harder for our universities to transform our economy.
Secondly, we must certainly not threaten the important stream of research funding that comes through our membership of the European Union, because as I am sure the Minister knows—I am sure he will endorse it—the UK does disproportionately well from European Union research funding. In 2013, for example, the last year for which data are available, we won €1.11 billion out of the €9.6 billion allocated under the seventh framework programme, FP7, which was the predecessor of Horizon 2020. Were we to exit the EU, that would clearly be at risk, at enormous cost to our universities and the communities in which they are driving economic growth. Similarly, we must not undermine the flow of talent into our country by the types of measures that we have already seen affecting students or by new restrictions on tier 2 visas. I am sure the Minister agrees with me on that point as well, although whether all his colleagues will is another question.
Thirdly, we should recognise and maintain our strengths. We should build on what we have that is positive and do more of it. The UK catapult centres, where universities and industry work together, are making an important start. At the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in the Sheffield city region, more than 100 companies partner with university research to win jobs and orders for the UK. Some of them are giant companies, such as Rolls-Royce, and others are the high-tech supply companies that support them.
It is not only the companies that benefit. Research demands skills, and more than 600 young people are now training as advanced apprentices at catapult centres. They are fully funded by companies, as recognised by Times Higher Education in its widening participation initiative of the year award. Those people are working in a research environment and have the opportunity to progress to degrees, even MBAs and PhDs, all within a research setting. How was the AMRC in Sheffield built? By universities and industry working together, and through European funding and regional funding under the old regional development areas.
We should invest in other areas too, with a sense of national purpose. Our ageing society will face huge human and social costs as incurable neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s become even more common. Social, technical and medical innovations are urgently needed to deal with this, as the NHS struggles to deliver more with more limited resources. Places like the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience will make that possible. We know that we need to decarbonise our energy supply, but the existing low-carbon alternatives are just too expensive. Research and innovation will change that.
We also need to build capacity. The Chancellor has talked about our economy needing an “extra gear”. That extra gear is research and innovation. We need more capacity in our industry, but it will not happen if we do not support the research strengths of our universities. Every industry, every city and region needs transformational research to drive the growth and wealth that we all need. In the last Parliament I served on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and we highlighted that challenge in our report on business-university collaboration, in which we recommended unanimously—in a cross-party Committee dominated by Government Members—that the Government aim for 3% of GDP to be spent on R and D by 2020. Above all, I would welcome the Minister’s response on our Committee’s challenge.
We are at a crossroads. The erosion of the UK’s capacity to technologically innovate was not inevitable; it was the unintended consequence of a series of choices made over decades. But we can reverse it. If we do not, we will be condemned to continue on our current trajectory of low growth and poor trade performance and will ultimately lose power over our own economic destiny. I urge the Government to recognise the vital contribution of research innovation to the UK, to ensure that we can thrive in a globally competitive environment.
Order. A number of Members wish to speak, but I will call the Front Benchers, including the Scottish National party spokesperson, from 10.30 am. I will also allow a few minutes for Mr Blomfield to wind up. Mr Byrne had indicated to me that he would be late, and I will allow him to respond from the Front Bench.
I congratulate Paul Blomfield on securing the debate; we have worked together on a number of university and immigration issues. He made slightly disparaging comments about some Government Members’ views on immigration, but I suspect that he was not including me among them. We have worked together in particular on the importance of being an outward-looking nation and attracting the brightest and best people. That applies not only to our universities, but to many other areas that are important to research in the corporate world.
The Government correctly aspire to make the UK the best place in the world to run an innovative business or service. Instinctively, we know that to achieve that requires a strong financial sector, a plentiful supply of highly skilled people from across the globe—ideally, of course, with significant numbers of the indigenous population being trained—and progress in creating intellectual property and a thriving science and research community. All those ingredients can be found in London, the part of the country that I represent in the House. The capital’s universities have put themselves at the heart of innovation and of the drive to bring finance and business together to commercialise that innovation.
My constituency is home to three of the capital’s—indeed, the world’s—top universities: Imperial College, King’s College London and the London School of Economics. Their relentless rise in the university league tables coincides with our city’s seemingly unstoppable growth as a premier destination for global talent, capital and ideas. Just as the metropolis has married financiers with start-ups to create a booming tech sector, our universities have become adept at collaborating with the city’s business, philanthropic, government and research communities, and that is beginning to reap huge dividends. I am not suggesting that we should in any way be complacent; I take on board the statistical concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, who made valid points.
Graham Stringer pointed out that there is a golden triangle, which is sadly some way south of the Pennines. The London-Oxford-Cambridge golden triangle has more science and tech workers and faster industry growth than California. In 2007, Imperial College integrated its medical faculty with St Mary’s and Hammersmith hospitals. Only eight years on, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is a globally respected centre for medical research, with patients benefiting from cutting-edge care and academics able to trial state-of-the-art treatments on London’s uniquely diverse population.
Imperial is similarly collaborating with Aviva Investors on a new White City campus, Imperial West, to support science start-ups and ensure that the UK benefits commercially from breakthroughs made in its university labs. A problem going back to Victorian times is that we have cutting-edge research, but do not glean the commercial benefits once the research makes its way into general products. We clearly have to get that right. I am not suggesting that there are easy solutions, as this problem goes back 120 years. The Minister might have some bright ideas, but I would not blame him if he felt that this is a work in progress.
The plan for Imperial is that the university will soon be virtually independent of public funding. One of the spin-outs based on the campus, DNA Electronics, is already transforming academic discoveries into serious commercial propositions, offering affordable chip devices that can test for genetic diseases and drug intolerances within minutes.
Amid healthy rivalry between London’s top institutions, there are significant partnerships that we should applaud and relish. Imperial, King’s College and University College London, for example, have joined forces with the Government and others to build the groundbreaking Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research in King’s Cross. Once open, it will complement the arrival of Central Saint Martins in nearby Granary Square.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the friendly rivalry between universities in his constituency. We need to encourage such rivalry right across the United Kingdom, so that organisations such as Innovate UK can develop and progress. It is in all our interests for the progress he sees in London to be replicated across the entire nation. Does he agree?
I very much agree. Perhaps understandably, there was a certain amount of cynicism when the Chancellor of the Exchequer first talked about the northern powerhouse two years ago—he represents a northern seat, albeit in leafy Cheshire—but it is none the less important. I have battled with a number of colleagues in London on both sides of the divide on the issue. I think that we should be investing money in High Speed 3 well before we even consider putting money into High Speed 2. There is a strong case for building high-speed rail—indeed, high-speed transport— connections between our regional centres.
We could debate the broader issue of London’s dominance. I understand why there is a lot of hostility towards that dominance, but this country has a single global city of 8 million people and a cluster of cities with populations of about 1 million. In an ideal world, we would build another city from scratch with a population of about 3 million to be a global player, to try to counter London’s dominance within the UK.
A huge amount of the investment that comes into London, however, would not come to the UK if it did not come to London. It is not a zero-sum game between London and the rest of the UK. More importantly, a huge amount of the construction and contracting work that comes in for London-related projects often goes out to the regions, not only to the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world but to Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and many of the country’s second-tier cities—I do not mean that disparagingly—where huge amounts of work can be done.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. London is my capital city, and he is absolutely right that it has technology and transport attractions that nowhere else in the United Kingdom has. However, London and the golden triangle get a disproportionate amount of scientific funding—not the universities—that could just as easily go into the regions and probably have a greater benefit. The Diamond Light Source was moved from Daresbury in the north-west to Oxford. The Francis Crick Institute, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, could just as easily have been placed in Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I am not sure I can necessarily answer. Given his criticisms of Oxford, he might get a kick from directly to his right, from Mr Smith.
Amid the great strides in technology and science, London is also an important centre for leading global research in the social sciences sphere, with the London School of Economics at the forefront. The sheer quality of research undertaken by the LSE is regularly attested by peers to be world leading. In the recent research excellence framework, the LSE was ranked as the top institution in the UK for its proportion of four-star, world-leading research. All that means that the LSE and the nation have extensive global reach, in particular within the public policy and governance sphere, to institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD and World Health Organisation. In the social sciences, however, it is harder to commercialise that work. Without mainly public funding, the LSE could not undertake the high-quality research that underpins its impact and provides the UK with considerable soft power globally.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, there was much feverish gossip about the pressing need to rebalance the economy away from an over-reliance on banking and finance. That task has been successfully undertaken here in the capital city, with the creative, tech, research and education sectors drawn together in what I regard as a virtuous circle, which in some cases has helped to spur physical regeneration. I touched on King’s Cross, a classic example of that—the Olympic site will be another. That has served only to entrench the dominance of the capital in the wider UK economy and has not addressed that rather more elusive rebalancing act: boosting the regions and other nations of the UK. As a London MP, I recognise that that is important—not least because of the ever-louder klaxon call of hostility towards London, something worrying for the rest of the UK.
The real challenge is how the rest of the UK’s universities, innovators and start-ups compete with the London and Oxbridge research powerhouse, and I look forward to hearing the views of other Members on that. One fifth of Government research funding is now claimed by our top three universities—that golden triangle—and the capital city has more than 100,000 square metres of new research facilities in the pipeline. Furthermore, the south-east and east of England and London account for some 52% of the research and development carried out in the UK.
If the Chancellor’s northern powerhouse and the broader devolution agenda are to work, he should examine how London’s universities have not just integrated academic excellence into the heart of this global city but provided a compelling educational offering to the world through the relentless building of links with the worlds of industry, commerce, Government and finance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield on securing this debate and on setting out so eloquently the vital role that science plays in his city, across the north of England and in the wider UK economy.
My hon. Friend demonstrated clearly the need for policy that supports an environment in which research can flourish. His concerns are clearly shared by colleagues across the UK, including in Nottingham and the wider east midlands, where they are felt not just by people working in our universities but by businesses large and small, and our local enterprise partnership, D2N2. Everyone recognises the key role that science—the life sciences, in particular—has to play in the future success of our region.
Our local authorities are also keen to promote regeneration and the creation of good jobs, and have identified the potential for science and technology to be leading sectors driving growth in our economy. But local and regional success requires national support, and the UK cannot meet the economic, health, security and environmental challenges facing our society without a Government who champion science and research.
My hon. Friend has already set out how Government investment in science and research creates a virtuous circle, leveraging investment from industry, raising productivity and creating more high-value jobs. Quite simply, if we want to grow the economy and make the UK globally competitive, investing in science and research is an effective use of public money. Indeed, a failure to commit to future investment will not only break that beneficial cycle, but undermine the UK’s competitive advantage and damage our economic outlook. Any Government who were serious about long-term economic planning would not be cutting the science budget, yet, unfortunately, over the past five years that is exactly what has happened.
As my hon. Friend said, the “Science is Vital” campaign has highlighted that freezing the science budget disbursed annually to universities and research institutes in cash terms means that its real value has fallen by around 15% since 2010—a decline that puts the UK firmly at the bottom of the G8 on Government support for science. In the UK, university research makes up a higher proportion of total R and D compared with our competitors. Far from crowding out other investment, that Government support attracts outside funding in; as my hon. Friend said, UK universities themselves have grown their own R and D investment by 40% in the past decade. We also have a very efficient research base, producing a much higher proportion of highly cited publications than might be expected. We punch above our weight.
A 2014 analysis paper by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recognised, however, that the UK’s long-term pattern of under-investment in public and private research and development was holding the UK economy back, and concluded that
“a level of R&D spend consistent with securing future economic success is likely to be closer to the 2.9% average of our comparators. Public sector expenditure may need to rise more sharply in the short-to-medium term, partly to develop the necessary talent and partly to catalyse private sector investment.”
Last December, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee reached a similar conclusion, recommending that the Government aim for a target of 3% of GDP to be spent on R and D by 2020. My first question is: how will the Minister ensure that the UK does not fall further behind or miss out on new opportunities, thereby risking the strengths that we have?
This is not simply an issue of the UK’s place in a global race; it is also a local issue—one that matters directly to my own constituency. Nottingham’s strength, particularly in life sciences, is long standing and well recognised. We have two world class universities, in the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University, and one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe. We are proud that BioCity, the largest bio-incubator in the UK, was established there in 2002, as a unique collaboration between our universities and the East Midlands Development Agency. It now sustains over 650 employees working for around 70 companies on its main site, undertaking innovation and turning science into economic propositions.
Those more recent developments build on our heritage. Nottingham has been home to Boots for more than 150 years. Its Lenton headquarters and manufacturing and logistics centres make it one of the largest private sector employers in the city. The development of the Nottingham enterprise zone, which includes the Boots site, provides huge opportunities for future growth, and MediCity, a collaboration between Boots and BioCity designed to support innovators in consumer healthcare, medical technology, diagnostics and beauty products, is already home to 40 start-up companies. Just last week, the D2N2 local enterprise partnership approved a £6.5 million grant of local growth fund towards a new state-of-the-art life sciences complex being built by Nottingham City Council to expand BioCity and create hundreds of new jobs in the city.
I welcome that and other Government-backed investment in capital infrastructure, but although high-profile announcements sound good and the strategic commitment to new facilities and equipment over the period 2016 to 2021 is welcome, without sufficient resource funding such new facilities will not meet their potential. Nottingham has all the building blocks in place, but adequate Government support for research remains critical. As has already been said, it is a question not only of the total value of research support, but of its regional distribution; my hon. Friend Graham Stringer made that point forcefully in the debate.
Glenn Crocker, chief executive officer of BioCity, has also highlighted the fact that London and the south and east of England continue to receive a disproportionate share of total investment, both public and private. If the Government are serious about economic rebalancing—that is about not just a northern powerhouse, but the midlands as well—that situation needs to change. I hope that when the Minister responds he will set out how he intends to address the distortion and ensure that Nottingham, which certainly has the people, facilities and strong and viable business propositions, also gets the financial support it requires to build the thriving technology sector to which we aspire.
As an MP without a background in science, I have been fortunate enough to participate in the Royal Society’s pairing scheme, and the opportunity to build links with real practitioners has been very valuable. I approached my former pairs for their views before today’s debate, and one thing that they expressed was that concern about resource funding. As physics Professor Philip Moriarty succinctly put it:
“There’s no point funding bright shiny new pieces of kit if there aren’t researchers there to use it”.
I would like to say more about the Medical Research Council Institute of Hearing Research at the University of Nottingham, which I visited last week, its huge contributions and how it operates in a multidisciplinary environment, which is one of the most important aspects of our universities and can be a catalyst for new thinking. People may remember the story that appeared in the press about a 10th-century potion for treating eye infections, which was discovered by an Anglo-Saxon expert from our school of English. It was tested by bio-medics and found to be successful in tackling MRSA, which scientists have been trying to do for some time. The ability to work in a cross-disciplinary way is important.
The importance of blue-skies research should not be forgotten. Peter Mansfield is famous in Nottingham for building the first magnetic resonance imaging scanner, but he started with a physics experiment on solid-liquid interactions and did not anticipate the impact of his work. Often the impact of work is difficult to predict or quantify, and we must not lose blue-skies research in the drive for value for money.
I have three things to say to the Minister in concluding: first, what commitment is he making to knowledge transfer partnerships? They are among the most important long-running Government growth and innovation initiatives. They celebrate 40 years this year and are valued in my city. Secondly, is he willing to discuss with the Home Office the effect of immigration rules—particularly those on post-study work visas, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned? At a time when we are particularly conscious of women’s role in science and research, and when it has been in the press spotlight—yesterday was National Women in Engineering Day—what do the Government intend to do to ensure that we celebrate the talents of everyone who would like to be involved in science research? There is a persistent gender imbalance.
Finally, I invite the Minister to visit both the universities in my constituency, if he comes to Nottingham. Alternatively, if he and his colleagues find themselves in Ningbo in China or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, I invite them to visit the extraordinary campuses of the University of Nottingham. More than 11,000 students are studying there for British degrees, and carrying out cutting-edge research, creating a bridge between the UK and Asia.
Order. I am not putting time limits on speeches, but, as I said, I will be calling the Front-Bench speakers at 10.30, so hon. Members can do the maths. There are four hon. Members wanting to speak, including Mr Shannon.
I will certainly keep within the time limits. I thank Paul Blomfield for bringing this topic to the House. My hon. Friend Mr Campbell has left the Chamber, but at one stage my party had the second largest number of Members present, and that shows how important the subject is to us in Northern Ireland.
I want to talk about research on health technologies, and disease prevention and cure. The UK is renowned for its research capabilities. The importance of science and research has been recognised by successive Governments that have sought to protect the science budget from significant cuts. That speaks volumes, but many people in the science and research community have said that our spending is mediocre by international standards. That is a fact of life, so how can we work better with private partnerships to make things happen? The impact of science and research is tangible across the regional economies. In Northern Ireland we are lucky enough to be home to fantastic research universities, which are trailblazers for scientific research across the board.
Queen’s University Belfast is a pioneer and has made breakthroughs in medical treatments and disease. Its work on improving patient care in the treatment of bowel cancer is one example. It uses the latest state-of-the- art techniques to define the genetic make-up of bowel cancer cells and that will no doubt bring significant advances in diagnosis rates and treatment. There is also a company in Portadown, in the constituency of my hon. Friend David Simpson, which has projects to develop better diagnostic texts for prostate, ovarian and breast cancer. Yesterday’s ovarian cancer figures showed that Northern Ireland has the worst recovery rate and life expectancy rate in the UK; 70% of those who get it die within five years. Advances are needed, and they are happening at Queen’s University.
Terumo BCT—a blood technology company—has made great contributions domestically and globally to the detection and treatment of disease. Terumo is based in Larne, and 280 skilled people are employed there. In my constituency, TG Eakin manufactures high-quality medical supplies and has made significant contributions to the science, health and research community. In 2005 it launched its own research and development department, and is now successful beyond Comber in my constituency. Its 280 employees are in Comber, Cardiff and the constituency of Lilian Greenwood. Those companies make real-life contributions for the long term, to people’s lives, wellbeing and health.
I want quickly to talk about schools and the post-16 group, and about the focus on careers advice. What discussions has the Minister had with other Ministers to ensure that such advice encourages young people to look towards science? We need to focus on the science skills necessary to improve the core of a modern British and global economy. Science and research play a significant part in the creation of wealth and jobs, and we need to help prepare young people to exploit the opportunities in the market and to get well paid skilled jobs. That will require us to take into account the role of the secondary sciences, as the Science Council urges us, and not to consider only what are conventionally thought of as the science sectors.
I will try to speak more quickly than Jim Shannon. I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield on obtaining the debate, which gives me the opportunity to praise the stellar success of science in Oxford, and the enormous benefits it brings to our city, our region and the country. The gross value added of the Oxfordshire local enterprise partnership is the highest in the country outside London. The University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University are crucial to its success, providing many of the projects for the local growth fund, as well as driving Oxfordshire’s strategic economic plan, which is entirely innovation-based.
The best thing about science, research and the economy in Oxford, however, is the sheer excitement and ambition of so much of the work being done. I want to give a couple of examples: with the pulling together of big data and advances in molecular biology, and with the work of the Precision Cancer Medicine Institute and the collaboration of 200 interdisciplinary teams from across Oxford University feeding in to that, there is a real chance that Oxford will be in the lead globally in work to personalise cancer treatment properly, and to increase the rate of cure—not just treatment of cancer, but curing it.
Secondly, the Higher Education Innovation Fund set up the Sustainable Vehicle Engineering Centre at Oxford Brookes. That has been used by BMW and all the major automotive companies in the development of electric vehicles. The university has just launched an innovative new undergraduate degree in business and automotive management, in partnership with BMW. That is university innovation in the lead in a crucial national industry.
That quality and potential in the field of innovation and breakthrough is replicated across the universities, centres and science parks that we are fortunate to have in Oxfordshire. At the annual SET for Britain poster presentations locally and here in Parliament, it is a privilege for me to see that there are always so many stunning and prize-winning entries from young Oxford scientists. Research in Oxford is sustaining thousands of jobs, and is spinning out companies, having been an early pioneer of university spin-outs with Oxford Instruments. That was set up in 1959 and is now a global leader. Many others are treading the same path, and more could do so.
There are three key ways in which Oxford’s potential is being held back by the state, which should be helping us. First, shortage of housing supply is driving the price to earnings ratio and rents to the highest in the country outside London. That risks damaging the ability of the science community locally to recruit the brightest and the best, as well as making life hard for all the technicians and others whose teamwork supports the innovators and entrepreneurs. Please will the Government allow us to relax the green belt in a measured way to let Oxford and its science grow.
Secondly, I make a plea, as others have done, to the Government to change their rhetoric and practice on immigration. Many young scientists, in particular, are not on high earnings, and face a hand-to-mouth existence climbing up the research ladder. There is a danger that the earnings thresholds on settlement will discourage talented young scientists and their partners from coming here. Yet the forefront of scientific research is a global labour market and the Government should remember that. An all-party group on migration report earlier this year on UK post-study work opportunities for international students showed good evidence that the abolition of the old post-study work visa has damaged the access of students from many countries—notably India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—to higher education in the UK. When they do not come here to do science courses, domestic students lose when the courses are closed down. The Government need to change their stance.
The third point is that, as others have said, we need to get the Government to commit to increasing research funding as a proportion of GDP. The previous Government ring-fenced research funding, recognising it as a powerful catalyst for economic competitiveness and recovery. Compared with our global competitors, the UK under-invests in R and D, and we must remember that a much higher proportion is undertaken in universities here than in competing countries. I therefore ask the Government to commit to increasing research funding in general, and in particular in those universities, such as ours in Oxford, that have shown that they can deliver the outcomes that the country needs.
I echo the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to seize the opportunity of the forthcoming Budget to commit to increasing research funding and thereby stimulate economic growth.
I will attempt to speak even faster, Mr Owen.
In the Marx Brothers film “Go West”, the brothers realise that the train that they are embarked on simply does not have enough fuel on board and they spend quite a long time running through the train and smashing up the carriages to get wood to put in the engine in order to get the train to the station. The train gets to the station, but unfortunately it is not a train any more. That is where we are with research and development, particularly higher education R and D, in this country. We are smashing up our own resource to keep the show on the road. It is a very good show. For example, we have 12% of global citations for 1% of the world population. We are home to 29 of the world’s top 200 universities. We are first in the G8 for scientific papers. It is a very good story to tell, but how long will it continue if we continue to invest less than 0.5% of GDP in public R and D, as we have heard is happening? What does the future hold? Will the train get into the station in a clearly recognisable form and be able to get out of the station for future journeys, especially as other countries are stepping up their efforts? China is aiming for a figure of 2.5% for public R and D by 2020. Sweden is developing substantially its R and D spending as a percentage of GDP. In South Korea, the amount for R and D was 2.3 trillion won in 2012. Many countries are going in precisely the opposite direction from us.
This is not a debate about the future in abstract terms. Let me take as an example my university, the University of Southampton, which is one of two universities in the city. Southampton University is not only among the top universities in the country, but makes, as was recently enumerated, an enormous contribution to the gross value added not just nationally—we are talking about £2 billion gross value added and 26,000 jobs—but regionally and locally. Its research has clear outcomes. For example, the fibre-optic research that Southampton did over a period of years has spawned an entire photonics industry in the UK—it is worth £10 billion and has 70,000 employees—and a substantial photonics cluster in Southampton.
Southampton’s SETsquared initiative brings together a number of universities to incubate businesses and spin-offs from the research done at universities. That is now regarded as the prime business incubator involving the university sector in Europe. In the science park, there are 86 companies; 29 are start-ups or spin-offs.
The research and development funding that the university obtains has a real impact in the local community, in the region and nationally. The question is what will happen if that funding tap is turned off in the future. I am not saying that there have not been substantial capital innovations recently. The £200 million centre for advanced materials research, which we have talked about, represents a substantial capital improvement. It is the business of just keeping the whole thing going that we are falling down on in this country.
On those threats, does my hon. Friend agree that a further danger is any threat to our position within the European Union? In my university, the University of Cambridge, 12% of the research budget comes from the European Union, but even more important are the collaborative networks with other EU countries, which people tell me are vital. Is that a further threat?
It is a substantial further threat. Indeed, if we shut ourselves away from Europe, we will throw away the advantage that we have in this country from our membership of the EU in terms of our future R and D. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
This is something that we perhaps do not notice happening. It is easy to miss it, and there are not catastrophic consequences from disinvesting in R and D as far as universities and research centres are concerned, but it is potentially catastrophic for the future competitiveness of this country and the future of the sort of arrangements that I have explained exist in Southampton and have an impact in the area, the region and the country as a whole. I urge the Minister to take careful note of this debate and ensure that the investment that should be there for the future is put in place and that commitments are made to ensure that that carries on coming in to support our universities and our research activities, which are so valuable and such a source of potential fuel for this country’s ambitions across the world.
I thank the hon. Members who cut their speeches short, because like me, they probably had a lot to say. I do not want to go through all the benefits of research and development, because those have been well outlined in previous speeches. All I want to say is that the two universities in Northern Ireland—Queen’s University and the University of Ulster—have an excellent record on research. Indeed, Queen’s is ranked eighth in the United Kingdom for research intensity. That research benefits not only the Northern Ireland economy but almost every individual in the country.
We can look at an example of the benefits here in London. I am talking about the buses, which are cleaner, quieter and more efficient as a result of work that started in the 1990s at Queen’s University and was then transferred to Wrightbus in Ballymena. It has now resulted in new buses running around the streets of London. That has helped Wrightbus become one of the leading technology and engineering companies in Northern Ireland.
Another example concerns food safety. Queen’s University took the lead in that regard. Indeed, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University was asked to set up the taskforce to deal with food safety after the horsemeat scandal, and much of the research that was done at Queen’s now enables laboratories around the world to detect multiple contaminants in food. I could talk about all of that extensively.
However, there are challenges that need to be faced. The first has been mentioned already. The Government need to give a commitment on the amount of money available for research and development. I recognise that the previous Government ring-fenced research and development spending, but a commitment to spending
3% of GDP on research and development, even in times of austerity, would help productivity and growth and have long-term consequences, even though the lead-in period is sometimes quite long, as Queen’s University research has shown.
It has been identified that although a lot of research goes on, the link between research in universities and small and medium-sized enterprises in particular has been weak. Some larger companies see the value of devoting resources to research, but some smaller companies do not. That is a big challenge, whether we seek to address it through tax incentives or by encouraging the universities to be more proactive, because productivity and product range need to be increased the most in small and medium-sized enterprises.
Another challenge is EU funding. There are huge opportunities on which we are not capitalising. What can the Government do?
Skills shortages are another issue. Universities are already identifying skills shortages, especially in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, maths and languages, which means that we need to start from primary school and continue through secondary school, and also that we need teacher training. We need to encourage universities to get a cohort with those skills.
The last challenge, which has been mentioned, is immigration. Much of the research at the University of Ulster is undertaken by students from overseas, and some schools would not be viable if we did not have that influx of overseas students. The Government need to think about that when they consider their immigration policy.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and it is a particular pleasure to respond to this debate, secured by Paul Blomfield. I have heard much about his inspiring leadership in the higher education sector.
I start by making a declaration of interest. I am still an honorary professor at the University of Stirling, and in recent times I have undertaken a number of ethical reviews of research proposals into matters such as tobacco. One great strength of UK universities that has not been mentioned in this debate is their approach to ethical research, of which universities throughout the UK can be tremendously proud. Our universities’ strength of ambition to conduct high-quality, leading ethical research is increasingly becoming a selling point. In a few days’ time I will give advice at the request of the University of Dundee and the University of St Andrews, for which I will be paid the princely sum of nothing—I think that is a fair reflection of the quality of my comments to come.
In another context—it is not exactly a declaration of interest—I wanted to say this at some stage in my parliamentary career and now is an appropriate time. My late brother, Jim, who died not all that long ago, graduated from Glasgow University before emigrating to Canada. He became a leading scientist and, after a number of years, was chairman of the OECD science and technology committee. I hope he would be pleased that I am speaking in this debate.
Scotland has a remarkable tradition in higher education and research. Even today, 77% of all research by Scottish universities submitted to the research excellence framework is classified as “world-leading” or “internationally excellent,” which is ahead of the UK average. Some 86% of Scottish research is judged as being “outstanding” or having “very considerable” impact, which compares with the UK average of 83.9%. Sammy Wilson talked about impact brilliantly in his three minutes and 57 seconds.
Scottish universities also excel, and have a great tradition, in science. Hon. Members gave many examples from their constituencies, but I will give just one example not from my constituency but from Glasgow University, which ties into the importance of considering these matters not merely in the context of a constituency, of Scotland or of the UK but internationally, too. South Glasgow University Hospital, as well as catering for more than 1,000 patients, hosts a campus of Glasgow University and its world-leading Stratified Medicine Scotland innovation centre, a state-of-the-art clinical research facility for clinical trials. The hospital will also be the future site of the university’s Europe-leading imaging centre of excellence. A number of hon. Members have pointed out the fundamental importance of European connections to our universities. I would say that it goes beyond Europe: our global connections in the UK, and in Scotland, are of fundamental importance and are to be treasured.
Scotland’s universities are proud of their Scottish roots, but they are equally proud of being outward-looking and highly collaborative within the UK, within Europe and internationally. What might be described as the best of our universities are in a worldwide research ecosystem. Such interchange is important to everyone. Engagement is important to Scottish universities, and they also have something to offer when they engage with others.
In practical terms, we want to see the continuation of the dual support system for research funding in the UK. We want to see more UK-wide and Europe-wide collaboration that underpins excellence in research. Some hon. Members talked about the value of localised competition in small places such as London but, looking more widely, I am pretty sure that many London universities benefit from how they relate with universities in, for example, California, South Africa, Germany and many other parts of the world. The same is true for Scotland and every constituency with a university.
I am slightly surprised that nobody has made significant mention of the Nurse review of UK research councils. The consultation phase closed in April, and Sir Paul Nurse is now considering the evidence. I am pleased to say that the Scottish Government have already arranged to have further consultations with Sir Paul in the coming weeks, as has Universities Scotland. From that review we hope to develop more imaginative approaches to research funding that recognise, for example, the connection to innovation, which others have talked about so eloquently in this debate.
On European research partnerships, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned the importance of the seventh framework programme for research. It indicates the importance of that European connection to Scottish universities that, by the time the programme ended in 2013, Scotland had been awarded €636 million in funding. Scotland has received 11.2% of the UK’s European Research Council funding, which is well above our population share. For Scottish universities it is fundamentally important that we have strong and continuing links with the European Union, as well as with others across the globe.
I will conclude with a couple of questions for the Minister, one of which I have not mentioned thus far. The immigration policy pursued by this Government is a barrier to attracting leading research talent from across the world, as some Opposition Members have already mentioned. That is critical. We are particularly concerned in Scotland, and we call for the return of the post-study work visa to enable people who are here to study for higher research-end degrees to continue contributing. It is completely and utterly insane that the Government are discriminating against such people when they have so much to contribute to this country. We ask the Government, in the coming Budget, to address the fears of some of our universities about what may occur. They fear that there will be a squeeze on research funding at a time when, as many Opposition Members have said, we need increased investment in R and D for the benefit of productivity and innovation.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I apologise for missing the beginning of the debate. I add my congratulations to the Minister; it is good to see him in his place. I am obviously sad that I am not sitting in his place. None the less, if there has to be a Conservative Minister, I am glad that it is him. He is a fully signed up member of the thinking classes, despite what his father has to say, and I am sure he will distinguish himself in his new office.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield. It is good to see him back with such an increased majority, which is testament to his extraordinary work in his constituency and in the House over the last Parliament. It is with characteristic speed that he has secured this debate.
We have managed to achieve a degree of consensus on science policy over the past 20 years that has served this country well. We need to preserve and enhance that consensus during this Parliament. However, now is the time to begin making progress on a number of substantial policy issues. In this morning’s debate, some of those issues have become clear. As we set about that task, it is important that we keep our eyes on the prize that is there for the taking with science policy over the next decade or two.
Last year was a bumper year for British science, with extraordinary achievements from landing probes on comets to advances in medical science, but, as Sir Paul Nurse said—it is important that we pay tribute to Sir Paul’s leadership of the Royal Society—the progress last year represented the fruits of years and years of patient chipping away at the coalface. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian
Greenwood) and others have said this morning, we are in jeopardy of destroying the foundations of the progress that we saw last year unless important policy changes are made.
Over the next 10 years, we could seize the fruits of the very different world taking shape around us. The majority of the world’s people now live in cities; the majority will soon be interconnected with the cloud; and the internet of things will bring new networks to bear. We are now able to work together in a completely different way, and of course there is a new premium on us as a world making the right decisions. The decisions that are made over the next five to 10 years will have a critical bearing on whether we succeed in keeping global temperature rises below 2° C. As my right hon. Friend Mr Smith and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South spelled out, there is the potential for great progress in medical science and beyond if we make the right decisions over the next few years.
We in this country have a parochial interest in some of those decisions being taken in a correct way, not least because of the impact of science and innovation policy on our lamentable productivity performance. I am glad the Chancellor has now woken up to the crisis in British productivity growth, which is worse today than it was at the end of the 1970s when we used to call it the British disease. What the rest of the G7 now finishes making on a Thursday night takes us until the end of Friday to get done. We will not raise living standards in our country unless we close that yawning 20% productivity gap with the rest of the G7.
I will in a minute.
We have heard three clear policy priorities that I hope the Minister will attend to. The first relates to money. As we have heard this morning, Britain is seeing not growth but substantial decline in its science budget, yet we are at a crossover moment in global science spending. China will probably spend more on science this year than the EU28 put together. By 2019, China will spend more on science than the United States of America. Four of the 10 biggest tech firms in the world are now Asian. Shanghai’s results in the programme for international student assessment are well in advance of our PISA results here in the UK. We are now at a crossover point that we perhaps last saw in 1455, when the good jobs in the world were created in the east and the cheap labour jobs were created here in the west. If we are to guard against that, we must make more progress on funding.
The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee was absolutely right to say that the right target for science spending in this country is 3% of GDP. There is a cross-party consensus about that figure in Germany; Korea has already exceeded it; and it is the norm in parts of Scandinavia. What we need to see in the Budget in a couple of weeks’ time is the launch of a consultation by the Chancellor on the measures that would most effectively bring in private sector money. Some of those measures would be national policy, but, as we have heard this morning from my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and for Nottingham South, some would ensure that science begins to regenerate our cities and towns. This is about not just crowding global spending into the UK but making sure that we unlock the regenerative power in science throughout the country. I hope that one of the ideas put on the table as part of the consultation will be a radical expansion of university enterprise zones, which are a good idea that is currently confined to only four towns and cities in the UK. We should use university enterprise zones far more radically in the years to come.
Secondly, we need a new consensus on technical education. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Skills, has said that he is interested in agreeing high-level principles that would guide a technical education system for the future. We go through this crisis decade in, decade out in this country, and we have got to begin making progress. I suggest that the right place to start is by putting a serious submission to the Treasury that calls for the Chancellor to save our further education system. We will not be able to build a world-class technical education system if we kick out its spine, and as Alison Wolf made very clear this morning, that is precisely what is coming. We cannot build a world-class technical education system if we are shutting down further education colleges all over England and closing down adult education. That is a good place to start rebooting our technical education system for the 21st century.
Thirdly, we need changes to our immigration system, which we have heard a lot about this morning. We in Parliament should be calling for the free movement of scientists and students. That is the only way we will be able to make sure that this country is connected to the best brainpower, wherever it happens to be born. I was the author of the first post-study work visa when I was the Minister responsible for immigration. It was not perfect, but it was a lot better than the system that we have today. If we are to ensure that we train and educate the best students for the years to come, we have to look again at how we put in place a much better post-study work visa, and I would be happy to work with the Minister on getting that right.
Finally, I underline the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central made for a new consensus in Parliament. Some 350 years ago, two groups of men from different sides of the political spectrum came together at Gresham College, on the site where Tower 42 now stands, in the constituency of Mark Field. On one side of the divide were the royalists and on the other side were the parliamentarians. At that moment in November 1660 they decided to put aside historic divisions and work together in the interests of science. The Royal Society was born on that afternoon after an astronomy lecture delivered by Sir Christopher Wren. We need such consensus again. If the royalists and parliamentarians could do it in 1660, the Labour party, Conservative party, Scottish National party and others could perhaps make the same move. I hope the Minister will work with us constructively and creatively, and I hope he will take to heart the points that he has heard this morning. Over the days and weeks to come, in the run-up to the Budget, he would do well to read again the excellent opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, on this important subject. I congratulate Paul Blomfield on prompting discussion on a key aspect of Government policy.
The UK regions are at the heart of the Government’s economic strategy. The Government are mindful to ensure that investment should not get sucked into hyper-concentrated areas, such as the golden triangle, at the expense of the excellence that can be found in many other parts of the country. That is a matter to which I have been paying close attention in my first few weeks in my role.
We believe that science and research has a central role in the regions and the Government want the national economic recovery, which has been under way for a number of years, to continue to benefit all parts of our country. Investment in research based in the regions is an absolutely key part to that. The extra gear our economy needs is to be found in R and D capabilities in the universities in our regions as well as in the golden triangle.
UK science is an international success story and a major driver of growth and attractor of inward investment, as hon. Members have mentioned. It is not always recognised that it can make a huge contribution to local and regional economies and to rebalancing the economy, a goal to which the Government are strongly committed.
By way of illustration, I will take a quick regional tour of the investments we have made in recent months, starting from Land’s End and going all the way up to John O’Groats, many of which will contribute to our goal of rebalancing the economy. In the south-west, synthetic biology has been assisted by a £14 million investment in a centre for synthetic biology in Bristol. I will detour via London, which, as Members have already mentioned, has well-known strengths and new investments in institutions such as the Francis Crick Institute and the Alan Turing Institute. Just north of London, we have recently invested £12 million in a centre for agricultural informatics and sustainability metrics near Harpenden and work will start there this summer on modelling more efficient food systems.
Further east, we have just invested £44 million in Babraham and £26 million in Norwich in research into agri-tech. In the west midlands, not far from the constituency of Liam Byrne, we have an example of what will help our ambition to make the midlands an engine of growth. As part of the Government’s £270 million investment in new quantum technologies, Birmingham University has just secured £35 million towards developing an internationally leading centre of excellence and a quantum technology hub. That is in addition to plans for a new national college for high-speed rail, which the right hon. Gentleman described as a
“once in a generation opportunity to transform our local economy.”
The manifesto we published before the general election had a strong commitment to building the northern powerhouse. That is becoming a reality and our investments in centres such as the Hartree Centre and the square kilometre array, the largest scientific experiment in the world, will support that objective. I could add to that list our various investments in graphene such as those at the National Graphene Institute and the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central will be impatient for me to cross the Pennines. He will know that, in the Sheffield city region, £10 million has just been invested in a new facility for aerospace and other sectors at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. In York, we have invested £27 million in a quantum communications hub as part of our national programme.
As we head further north to Scotland, we continue to support Scotland’s fine scientific tradition. Just last year, the Chancellor announced a £16 million contribution to a new stratified medicine imaging centre of excellence in Glasgow, which will unite world-leading clinical academic expertise in stroke, cardiovascular disease and brain imaging to aid our understanding and treatment of a range of human diseases. Other examples in Scotland include Edinburgh University’s national computing centre, which has benefited from funding for ARCHER, the UK’s top supercomputer, which is now being used by 1,000 academics and people in industry.
I turn to issues raised by Members, and by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill in particular. I thank him for his generous welcome; it is a pleasure to be in this relationship to him. I have always enjoyed talking with him and I hope that we can have a productive and cordial relationship in the months ahead.
There is strong cross-party agreement about the role that investment in science and research can play in solving our productivity challenge and the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Government are truly committed to that. Our manifesto is evidence of that: investment in science and research runs through it like words through a stick of rock and it is a personal passion of the Chancellor. Science and research therefore is front and centre of our solution to the productivity puzzle and such investment in our regions will be one of the key ways in which we will try to plug the productivity gap that holds us back.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the 3% target, which has been an ongoing question in public policy debate for some time. As he will know, previous Governments attempted to introduce R and D-related targets without success. An isolated target does not lead to behavioural change in and of itself; it needs to be complemented by additional policy measures. It is not clear that 3% is the optimal target and there is no evidence that it would lead to an optimal level of investment for the UK. Evidence suggests that the UK under-invests compared with other major research economies and that there would be economic benefits from increased investment, but the aim of achieving 3% GDP spend on R and D is set out at EU level and is not a UK target. The investments we make as a country are recognised as being particularly fruitful. We are recognised as being an excellent place in which to innovate and get very high returns on scientific R and D investment.
Without pre-empting the battles that the Minister will no doubt have with the Home Office, the immigration question is close to our hearts. He will appreciate fully that if the brightest and best from across the world come here, they will go back to their countries as ambassadors for this country for the rest of their lives and often build up businesses with links to us. We lose that at our peril: such links will then go to Canada, the USA and Australia, and the point has been made that, without significant numbers of overseas students, leading postgraduate courses will simply close down, which will be to the detriment of our own indigenous population.
That is an important area, and indeed my first speech as Minister was on that subject at the Going Global conference a few weeks ago. I was clear about the positive contribution that international students make. Our postgraduate study options aim to attract the brightest and best, and we welcome any student who can secure a gradate-level job with a graduate salary. We need to clear up misconceptions that have arisen in important countries—India in particular—about our openness; we offer a warm welcome to international students. I note my right hon. Friend’s important points.
May I quickly turn to a couple of other points made by Members?
Lilian Greenwood kindly invited me to go to the various universities in Nottingham and I look forward to doing so. I note her points about women in engineering and yesterday I had the great pleasure of being at the Parliamentary Links Day, where I was delighted to see a packed room with so much consensus behind the need for greater diversity. In support of Government investment in Nottingham, I point to recent investment in the synthetic biology research centre. I am sorry that I did not have time to come to other Members’ contributions.
The number of Members present and the quality of the debate reflects the importance the House places on this issue, as well as the need for the Government to get it right. My right hon. Friend Mr Smith made a powerful case about the impact of research in Oxford. That is important, because while Oxford is often seen as one of the classic ivory towers, he demonstrated how such research works with business to develop economic growth. Oxford is utterly engaged in driving the local economy, just as other universities are around the country.
I appreciated working with Mark Field in the previous Parliament on migration and I recognise that he is not alone in his thinking on the Government Benches. Indeed, I think it was three or four years ago that the Minister wrote a powerful piece in the Financial Times that explained where the Government were getting their policy wrong on international students and I hope that he will continue to make that case within government.
The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) underlined the importance of research across the regions and nations of the UK.
Motion lapsed (