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7 July 2008 : Column 1226

That brings me to a point on which we must be careful about our thinking. Of course basic science is absolutely essential—I have no problem in saying that. However, we have a habit in this country of giving a status to basic scientists that we do not give to applied scientists, and certainly not to the category known as engineers. That is a national weakness. The trouble with my saying that is that people will take it out of context and say, “Well, the former Minister was really trying to say that we should downgrade basic science.” That is not what I am saying at all. We should raise the status of other scientists to that of basic scientists.

The whole process pushes basic science into coming up with “the idea”, or an emergent idea. It may not be the one that was predicted—that is the whole joy of basic scientific research. However, the point of discovery has become the point of publication, and vice-chancellors admit to me that it is often the point at which they say, “Right, go back and do some new work so that we can get a five-star department next time.” Whether the research be at Durham, Cambridge, Oxford or Imperial college, it hangs in the air somewhat, even though in many cases it could connect with that of other scientists. Increasingly, discoveries need to be exposed to those in other environments and disciplines so that we can capture their full benefit. That is a gap in our current work.

Certain changes have been made, and I welcome them. The Technology Strategy Board is examining some of the work that is being done, and I have spoken to it. It has been put at arm’s length, which is a good development. I am not criticising it, but I would go further. My report suggested an innovative projects agency, which would have a budget of £1 billion. Before our Front-Bench spokesman starts jumping up and down, I should say that that would not be new money. It would be a combination of what I regard as the far too diffuse Government expenditure on R and D, the post-discovery basic science process. The agency’s budget would therefore be three to four times that of the TSB.

I shall give the Minister a piece of advice. He might not like it, but the great joy of being a Back Bencher in opposition is giving advice freely. The regional development agencies are a nightmare, and he should pay rigorous attention to them. Frankly, he should throttle their scientific expenditure. Time after time I have heard academics and others say, “Oh, the RDA!” Most RDAs are risk-averse and do not have a proper idea of what they want to do. They love the concept of nanotechnology without having the remotest idea of what it is or what it involves.

One vice-chancellor said to me that he had spent a year trying to persuade his local RDA—I shall not name it—to involve itself in a very exciting project. In the end, he used his own university funds and found some other way of covering the funding gap because the RDA spent the whole year saying, “It’s a wonderful project, but we’re not quite sure.” The Minister should get the money back from the RDAs and give it to the TSB. In a way, he would be doing what we have said we will do if and when we come back into power. My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) might criticise me for publicising an idea that I have given him, but in the national interest we must make much more effort to focus what we do. My report makes many other suggestions, but it is available on the web, so I shall not bother to go into them now.

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The challenge that we face is getting more and more extreme. We have to show the people whom we want to attract to this country that we are doing exciting research. We need to attract and retain PhD research students. A considerable percentage of our current PhD students are from abroad, and we need to keep them here rather than allow them to go elsewhere. We need to work much more closely with industry, because a lot of the really challenging research beyond the basic is done in industry laboratories. The interconnection between those laboratories and universities is critical.

To pick up on something in the Select Committee report, we must be a little careful about full economic costing. It is an extremely good guide to a university about its cost base, and if the FEC outcome is too high, the university knows that it has its internal overheads wrong. However, if FEC becomes a sort of bible that cannot be varied, many of the companies that want to work with universities will shift their contracts abroad. I could give chapter and verse of what has actually happened in several cases in which universities have said, “Well, this is the FEC of our postgrad. It is £100,000 a year, and like it or lump it.” That is not the way to stimulate research. Many big companies now have research centres around the world and will concentrate on the areas where they think there is both individual, human expertise and a climate for research and development.

Dr. Gibson rose—

Mr. Taylor: Of course I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is my very honourable friend.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that much research in this country is paid for by charities and voluntary groups? They suffer under the VAT regime, which must be examined. We welcome their money for cancer research, for example, but they have to spend astronomical amounts on VAT on buildings and on renting space in universities, because ground space now has to be paid for per foot. That saps a lot of the well gotten money that the public give.

Mr. Taylor: I judged my willingness to give way well, because that is an extremely powerful point and I shall do no more than simply endorse it. It shows that our universities and the Government need to be flexible in how VAT is applied.

We are in a very competitive situation. Our historic strengths in science, technology and engineering are still there to be admired, but the challenge will be greater in the next few years. The outpourings from universities in India and China are getting greater, and more importantly those universities are getting shrewder. The Indians have gone well beyond just being a nation to which we outsource. There is now creativity in those countries.

In my report, I cited the chief executive of Novartis in China. The company had put £100 million into a new research centre in Shanghai, and I said to him, “But surely there is not yet the depth and understanding of research in Shanghai to justify that.” He said that I had missed the point, which was that a lot of the Chinese diaspora that had spread to America was beginning to
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come back, at least for part of the year, and the company wanted to be there to capture it. These are exciting times for Chinese universities, and we must ensure that they are exciting times for our leading British universities as well. That implies an even more radical look at how we fund research and how we tie basic research to capturing the innovation that is possible in our society in a competitive world.

So two cheers for the Government, and credit to them for the money that has been spent on the science base, but I add the caveat that they could be doing something much more radical. Given that they might have only another 18 months, they should get on with it.

8.19 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and to accept his invitation to be radical. We have heard some criticisms of the STFC, but many other aspects of the science budget need to be tackled in the debate. I do not get heavily stimulated by talking about budgets—I find it rather boring. Having run a department, in which I had a few million pounds to budget, I was quite creative, but I think that I got out just in time.

Scrutinising the research councils is very much part of a Select Committee’s work. It takes me back to the time when we scrutinised the Medical Research Council, which is now extolled for its work. However, I remember that our Committee’s report was much more vehement than the report about the STFC. It created a hum in the community, but in the case of both research councils, the hum came from the grass roots. Those who are conducting the research and doing the work feel that something is not right. They suddenly find a way through the parliamentary scrutiny system to get to a Department with which they find it difficult to engage. It is not always the fault of Departments or Select Committees that we have not picked up on the problem. Scientists are not great communicators in the political process and we must tackle the issue of getting our young people who are coming through the system to realise where the money comes from. I hold my hand up and admit that too many scientists and technologists believe that the world owes them a living and that, if they come up with a smart idea, it will immediately be funded. Things have never been like that and, in my opinion, never should be. One has to make the case, justify what one is doing and show what benefit it gives the world, whether it is blue-skies research or research into a product.

I left research partly because we were having to get rid of people, and employ people on one-year, six-month and one-month contracts in awful laboratories. It was therefore inspiring to hear in the Chamber in 1998 that Government money, alongside Wellcome Trust money, was being invested in refurbishing laboratories, which were dripping with damp. Every university now has a good laboratory. I believe that that has stimulated many young people to come into research—perhaps not enough, but at least something has started to happen.

I introduced a ten-minute Bill, which I discussed with Lord Sainsbury, and said that we must double the science budget. Blow me, we doubled it—I should have asked for it to have been quadrupled. I made a dreadful
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mistake. I remember the conservatism among the scientific community, which thought that the measure was only a crazy ten-minute Bill. We knew that things could change and they did. That continues and we need further resources, as we have heard all evening.

Much of the science around us has resulted in great health benefits to people in this country. My speciality is cancer, but I am interested in health generally. The bucket loads of money that we have given to cancer were driven by the research knowledge that emanated from scientists and medics in this country as well as in the United States. The discovery of oncogenes stimulated a field of cancer research, on which the Government picked up. They doubled the budget for research and treatment. We now have cancer plan 2, and we have realised that there is a journey to take on palliative care, on which there is further research to be done and clinical trials to undertake. The trials must not take place abroad—we should carry them out on our patients here because patients in a clinical trial generally do better and we get more information. We need more nurses to help get patients into clinical trials and so on. That is beginning to happen. Under the aegis of the cancer tsar, Mike Richards, there is great drive. Science, medicine and evidence underwrite all that continuing work.

Today, there was a meeting in this place for ethnic minority groups from different communities, mainly in London. It has been realised that the cancer rates in different sub-populations—major populations in parts of the country—are different. Ten years ago, none of us realised that that was a problem. Now that we do, medical understanding is excellent. Women with breast cancers from Indian communities in the east end of London have a different culture and different problems in entering the national health service. We suddenly woke up to that and we are doing something about it.

New procedures emerged from the Darzi report last week for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to make drugs and technologies available throughout the country. Primary care trusts now have to justify why somebody is not an exceptional case. If there is an exceptional case, everybody in the country who is in the same category must get the exceptional treatment. That is a major step forward, which I hope will get rid of the postcode lottery. We are therefore learning.

Sometimes there is a lack of political drive in this country and from the Government to make things happen even faster. For example, we often cut research. I am especially interested in honey bees. Hon. Members may not be excited about that, but honey bee research has suddenly captured the imagination. A friend of mine said that it was the only subject discussed in a general committee meeting of the Labour party on the Isle of Arran. I understand that there are problems in Scotland, but honey bee research is an amazing field. Yet what do we do in this country? We sack the people who are conducting the research at Rothamsted. What did we do about BSE? We cut the research into BSE just before it happened. The previous Government cut the money for wave energy research, but now it is a fashionable subject for research, which provides great stimulation and experience. We were good at cutting money for research. We had an amateur approach of saying, “Well it’s not very important at the minute, so we’ll cut the research.” That has gone.

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We must do more on dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as myalgic encephalomyelitis. Rare cancers—pancreatic, liver and kidney—do not get the same services as breast cancer and so on. There is therefore a good reason for believing that we have a big research future that will need much more money.

It has also been said that commercial influence has been brought to bear on research in our universities and institutions. Research from this country and the United States led to the internet. Basic research led to it and its exploitation. There would be no silicon valley in California without that basic research. I could cite case after case—for example, DNA, a small short note in nature, which revolutionised the world. We should protect that basic understanding.

Research councils need to be examined, and Select Committees should scrutinise them. They also need to think about how they can join together. For example, I know people who worked on atmospheric chemistry in three different departments, but they never spoke to each other. The previous speaker mentioned the fact that we have to get people in cross-cutting areas. The people who drink coffee together work together; the people who drink together get things done. That is my motto. People must work and discuss their problems with each other over the odd pint or half pint, depending on one’s taste.

Some research councils also have too many establishment figures making the noises. It is easy for that to happen in Britain. What is wrong with having good graduate students or members of the public on those councils, to listen and talk about the issues? I think I know why. When we put the public on to certain committees, such as on genetic modification, and when we had those juries, they have embarrassed a lot of the scientists by asking, for instance, “What does that mean?”, “How does that happen?” and so on. The public ask for the basic information, which is very important in science. Research councils have a heck of a lot to learn.

Last Monday, we discussed food scarcity in this place and we talked about plant genetics, or at least I did. The development of different breeding programmes—not necessarily genetically modified, but different programmes, involving different types of wheat and maize, for example—could lead to plants that can withstand drought and live in inclement parts of the world. Plant genetics gets a rum deal in this country, in terms of medical science and medical experiments.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): It is a little known fact that at the age of 12, I aspired to being a plant breeder, but I never got there. The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically trenchant speech. Does he agree that one important aspect is not merely the cross-cutting of different departments, but the ability to maintain certain national capacities in order to take a strategic view and move things forward? Where one is simply decentralising to the research councils and looking at peer review and so forth, the difficulty is that when we need a lever to pull, we suddenly find that we have no one left to pull it.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes the point that I was about to make. For example, we have the edge in stem cell research, although one would not know that from listening to those who talk about science. If somebody made a big breakthrough in that
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field, for instance at Imperial, Dundee university or wherever else—the research is going on all over the place—where would it be exploited? I would guess that such a breakthrough might end up in California or somewhere else. The people there, or in India, China and so on, would know exactly how to take it into development. We must learn not just how to compete and how to beat those countries, but how to work together. After all, their students come over here, are very friendly towards us and then they go back, so there can be interchange.

Mr. Ian Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. The lesson that the Roslin institute learned from the cloning of Dolly the sheep was quite instructive. PPL Therapeutics, the company involved, subsequently moved to the United States. Many people in the science community in the United States simply could not believe what we had managed to do and were determined to get hold of the technology as quickly as possible. We are in a very competitive global market.

Dr. Gibson: Yes, it is a competitive market, but who makes the competition? I do not feel that scientists—at least not the ones I know—have ever been competing with each other. We compete with each other over who gets their paper in Nature or in the journal of this or that institute. However, the quality of the paper that someone publishes is important, too, and not just to their kudos, but to the world in general, because it is more read.

One point that the hon. Gentleman did not make is that papers now do not have just one or two names on them. All the best papers have about 20, 30 or 40 names on them of people who have interacted in different ways in that subject—one can look in Nature to see that. There are very few lone wolves these days. We have moved on from the days of the magic amateur monk who discovered breeding problems in peas. Science is big now and it needs money. We no longer have rich Darwins who can sail round the world, make wonderful observations in that amateurish way and take a long time to publish their work. Things are not like that anymore. After all, Darwin published only because Alfred Russel Wallace was breathing down his neck and was going to publish anyway, so he had to beat him to the punch. The world is different now, but there is still a bit of amateurishness in our science. We tend to think that we are very clever, but competition and, even more so, co-operation are very important.

Let me finish by saying something about the regional development agencies, of which there has been some criticism. The ones of which I have experience—in the north-west and north-east—are magic. The way they have interacted with the universities and the community is great. The situation is very different in the east of England, where we have had our moment in the sun. I wanted to make Norwich into a science city, which would not cost a penny—indeed, that is mentioned in the report that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) talked about.

There is a cluster of really good centres of excellence around Norwich. It is the same in Dundee, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Durham. We can go all round the country and see places known as science
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cities. Some people think that “science city” is just something that is put up on a sign at the entrance to a city, but it is not. It is a concept involving people working together in industry and science, and in centres in which young people learn about science. It also involves schools that are scientifically erudite in the sense that they have special status. There are schools that specialise in engineering, for example.

In the Select Committee on which I serve, I remember asking a representative of the Royal Academy how many special schools did engineering. The answer was, “I don’t know.” I would have thought that that would be one of the first things that a member of the Royal Academy would want to know. Surely they would want to know whether there were enough schools of that kind and whether we were encouraging enough young people to go into that field. Surely they should be asking what the Royal Academy should be doing to make that happen.

We need the science city concept, and regional development agencies that do not just play the game of co-operating but actually do so. We must also ensure that we do not have any more instances of science centres closing. There are 20 per cent. cuts being made in Glasgow, for example, by a nationalist party that works on the basis of its supreme excellence in everything—because things happen differently in Scotland—yet it is closing science centres. We have a real battle on our hands right across the board. I believe that the science budget should have been quadrupled and, by gosh, as long as some of us are still breathing, it will be.

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