[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Science and Research

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:15 am on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 10:15 am, 24th June 2015

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.