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7 July 2008 : Column 1239

Today, importantly, we have had strong, but measured and evidence-based, criticism of the Government in this matter from Labour Members. I agreed with pretty much everything that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, except his concern that we ought to be worried about micro black holes. I am not convinced by that, although I guess it makes for a good story on the “Today” programme.

The report has messages that the Government must heed and take cognisance of. I share the view of other Members that it was disappointing that the Government did not seem to acknowledge any way in which they could improve matters, except by renaming the science budget. I look forward to the Minister accepting—I hope he accepts that he will not be criticised for this—that improvements could be made to the Government’s performance. For example, the reputation of this country, not just in science but as a collaboration partner, is at stake. Sir Keith O’Nions accepted that there was the potential for harm to the UK’s reputation in international partnerships either by decisions that were hard to understand or by decisions that were unnecessarily precipitate and did not seem to be based on adequate consultation or adequate peer review in terms of the quality of the process as well as the outcome.

The reputation of the UK is increasingly important because so much science is now done in big international collaborations. A few members of the Select Committee present here had the pleasure and privilege of going to see the large hadron collider before it was closed. My view of that could be described in one word: “Wow”—“Wow” at the scale of the undertaking, at the scientific ambition in terms of the questions it will answer and at the recognition there by the scientists of all nationalities of the UK’s contribution. Concern was raised there—the Committee touched on that in the report—about whether that was to be maintained.

Although there was a firm commitment by the STFC to continue to invest in ATLAS and the big experiments, there were two smaller experiments—LHCb and ALICE; not the ALICE at Daresbury, which forms part of the RLP programme, but another one—which were categorised as medium or low priority. I noticed in the revision to the delivery plan published in the last few days by the STFC that LHCb has been upgraded, but I could not find in a sea of acronyms the right one for what was happening to the UK’s commitment to the ALICE experiment at CERN. I remain concerned about that. I do not know whether the Minister could wade through the acronym soup in the document that we received to find that out for me. Those are small experiments but they are international partnerships at CERN.

The themes that have come out of the debate are the overall level of funding, dealt with by the hon. Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and others, the direction of funding and whether too many cross-cutting programmes are determined by Government, sapping the room for manoeuvre of individual councils. I gave a speech this morning at a conference on cellular senescence, the molecular biology of ageing. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council was represented there and set out clearly what its contribution was to a cross-cutting programme.
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Ageing is one of the cross-cutting programmes that the Government have laid down and there is nothing wrong with that.

Another issue was transparency and I shall dwell on two points, one of which is the transparency of the process. This point was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough in respect of whether the Government essentially interfered, legitimately or illegitimately—I will come to that—in the scientific plans of research councils, through the CRS process of asking to see draft delivery plans, there being a view from Government about whether those were adequate. New plans would then come back and the funding would be signed off. If the delivery plans in effect say, “We’re thinking of this because we think project A has scientific merit”, and the Government response in effect says, “Well, we think project B is the one that ought to be funded, and if you come back to us with that recommendation, you will be rewarded in the comprehensive spending review,” that will clearly be an example of the Government having an influence over strategic, or even sub-strategic, decisions. We will not know whether that has taken place or not, because we cannot see both sides of the correspondence.

It is interesting to note what the Government said on this in respect of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in response to the Select Committee conclusion in paragraph 116 of its fourth report. The Committee said:

The reason is, I think, not material. The Government said:

That gives the Government a lot of scope to influence the decisions of the research council at a strategic, or even sub-strategic, level.

The Minister might be surprised to hear this, but I do not think that if the Government were transparent about doing that, there would necessarily be anything wrong with that. It is public money, and as long as politicians do not intervene in the peer review process to change the judgments made about the scientific merit of the proposals—there might be a danger of that, but if there were transparency it would be dealt with—the Government are entitled to say, “We want to have more spending on ageing” or cross-cutting on stem cells. They will have to defend themselves for doing that because there is an opportunity cost, but they are entitled to do so as they are in charge of public funding. However, if they do that, it has to be transparent. They cannot have it both ways, as it would be corrosive if there were a feeling that scientific decisions were being interfered with in a way that was not open.

The same applies to regional policy. I represent a constituency in the golden triangle, but I think that it would be legitimate for the Government to say, “In this
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science budget, we think a certain proportion should be spent in all regions”—or a particular region, perhaps—“as a matter of Government policy, and we are accountable for that, as people can vote for us or not.” However, the Government cannot seek to have it both ways by saying, “We do not interfere with decisions about where specific projects go, but Daresbury, for example, will be a science and innovation centre”. I think that the Minister has to accept that that implies there will be some large science there, otherwise he would have to accept that it was not going to be a science and innovation centre. We need to know whether this is more than a case of fingers crossed.

Mr. Ian Taylor: This issue has come up several times, and I want to remind Members that there was a trade-off. When the Diamond synchrotron was going to be placed in Oxford—a decision I thoroughly supported—north-west Members were less than happy. I do not blame them for that, but there was a straight trade-off. It is now being dignified with the concept of regional policy, but it was a straight trade-off.

Dr. Harris: There was an article in The Guardian on 20 May that recaps the debates. It set out:

a fourth-generation light source—

at the time, I think—

One would think that that combination suggested that he was clear that, if he were still science Minister he would direct funding towards Daresbury. However, he goes on to deny—now, I think, as I assume these are contemporaneous comments—

and he says:

Actually, it could be done on a mixture, as long as that was made clear, and regional factors played a part.

I resented the allegation made in Westminster Hall on 1 April by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) who, without informing me that he intended to make the point—I have informed his office that I intended to complain about it—said that I had called for Daresbury to be closed. Members of the Committee who attended the evidence sessions and the visits will know that my concern was that the Government should be clear and honest with Daresbury about its future, because we are dealing with people and their careers. The people to whom we spoke said that the Government said that it had a bright future, but the decisions made by the STFC told them otherwise. That is why it is important that the Government are willing to engage with the Committee’s recommendation to start a debate, perhaps through a White Paper, on regional policy on science. It may be that the Minister does not know the answer, and the Government should not be criticised for not having the right answer, but we should at least have the debate.

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I turn now to the recommendation made about the research council itself. Questions are always raised in Select Committee inquiries about who is to blame, and the temptation is to blame the research council staff—and we strongly criticised them. However, the danger is that that is seen as scapegoating someone who has to make difficult decisions. It is true that the Committee said that those decisions were made badly, but sacking the management is not necessarily the answer, because the problems will live on.

I was concerned that the STFC may have misinterpreted one of our recommendations, which was to improve communications. I do not think that that meant that it should improve its spin. The announcement sent by e-mail on 3 July included a list of highlights of the STFC funding programme, and I looked down it to find some lowlights, because I expected that some of the cuts—some of which have been confirmed and are uncontentious—would be mentioned. However, none of the cuts was mentioned except the ExoMars mission, on which it states:

However, that disguises the planned and agreed cut. I even waded through the executive summary of the report, and no mention was made of cuts. Then I went to the individual pages, and it is hard to find the answer for some of the projects. On solar-terrestrial physics, the implementation document merely states:

It is my understanding that the agreed programme of support is actually a cut. It states:

That is another cut. The document also states:

which is another cut. I am not criticising the decision, but the STFC should be more open. We have communication, but it is the wrong kind of communication. It is unclear whether Daresbury will receive significant investment in respect of the ERLP-ALICE project for the future.

The Committee’s report was a balanced one, and—notwithstanding that I am a member—I think that it should be congratulated. The contributions that we have heard today should focus the Minister’s mind on the challenge he faces to restore the confidence of the physics community in those who govern its budgets.

9.18 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): In this debate on the science budget allocations, I rejoice in the simple fact that under a Labour Government—my Government—the science budget will have doubled in real terms by the financial year 2010-11. We all visit colleges of further education, university and industry—anywhere the science base operates—and we now see some amazing things being done. I say thank goodness for that, because the future of this country relies on added value and our science and innovation.

I believe that the two major reviews that have been mentioned, one published by the noble Lord Sainsbury and the other by Sir David Cooksey, have influenced
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the way in which scientists, and perhaps the Government, have been thinking about the future of science. Nor should we forget that the three national academies have received extremely good settlements. The Royal Academy of Engineering received an increase of 31.5 per cent., the British Academy received an increase of 23.7 per cent. and even the Royal Society received an increase of 18.2 per cent. Those are significant increases.

When I was elected to Parliament in 1997, the UK science base that I left was in the doldrums. I remember that every year in my department—the department of chemistry and applied chemistry at the University of Salford—the central library sent us a list of essential journals and publications, and we had to go down the list and decide which of them we would cut out of our research budget. That happened not for one year, but for two or three. Essential posts remained unfilled. No maintenance was done. We did not have the money to replace our nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Large instruments across the infrastructure lay unreplaced for decades. That was no way to conduct research in Great Britain.

When the research assessment exercise came along, science and engineering departments that carried out applied research suffered badly. Nearly all the departments that relied almost entirely on applied research are now closed—including the three great engineering departments at the University of Salford and even my old department, which was the largest chemistry department in Britain when I taught there.

Today, the picture is quite different. The infrastructure in our universities has been improved, in my opinion, beyond recognition since 1997, with huge investments not only in buildings but in other major capital schemes. The instruments that were not bought in 1997 are all there now. There are some superb instruments in some superb departments.

I visit the University of Manchester regularly, as I am on the external advisory body of the school of chemistry there. Every time I visit, there are cranes lifting things backwards and forwards and new buildings going up. I visit the laboratories, as I have for decades. I have never seen such state-of-the art laboratories as those I can now see by walking into any science department at that great university.

We have pulled ourselves up to be the second in the world, behind only the United States, in the citation ratings for papers published by British scientists. Let us not forget, either, that the Labour Government came to power at a time when we had a job retaining graduates for postgraduate studies. We recognised that problem and one of the first things we did was to increase the remuneration for MSc and PhD students. That remuneration is not brilliant, but it is better than it was—in fact, it is double what it was—under the previous Government.

The Government should be congratulated on those significant increases in the UK science research base, not only because of the research grants that they give through the science research councils but because of the major investment to which I just referred. Regrettably—I cannot understand this—the Government are instead under fire, despite all that progress. So what went wrong? Why have the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities
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and Skills and the Minister for Science and Innovation been on the back foot, instead of on the front foot where they should proudly be?

The simple explanation, in my opinion, is that the two major reviews that I have just mentioned, combined with the significant shift in research priorities to meet the needs of a modern society, have resulted in significant cuts in some research programmes. Let us not forget that other research programmes have benefited significantly. There has been a significant shift in the Medical Research Council research budget and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council research budget—a shift towards the life sciences, perhaps, and away from the physical sciences. Let us not believe that the money is not there; it is just being moved around.

Let us consider the Haldane principle. It was established in 1919 and recommended that non-departmental specific research should be managed through research councils—that is, that decisions on expenditure should be determined by scientists rather than by politicians. Ninety years later, that principle is still in place. Our Select Committee concluded that perhaps it had been breached. In addition to full economic costs, the research councils have had other significant expenditure. The Technology Strategy Board and the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research have been mentioned, and we should also mention the Energy Technologies Institute. The creation of those three institutes alone has required a considerable shift in funding. We are talking about agreements made by scientists—people in the field—and not entirely by Ministers. However, I do not have time to go into the details.

The seven research councils have decided to go for interdisciplinary research like never before, and our Select Committee has pressed them to do so. We have said that we are fed up with the research councils being like seven silos, with the scientists in one silo never talking to those in the other six. They are now beginning to talk to each other. Research Councils UK was established, but it did not really bring that about. I hope that the identification of six significant areas that will benefit the public, whom we represent, has now been recognised. Some of those areas have already been mentioned.

The question is whether the Government have breached the Haldane principle. Our report suggests that they have. The July issue of Chemistry World was published just a few days ago, and I want to cite two articles in it by distinguished gentlemen. The first is by Randal Richards, who is no lightweight in the field of science. He recently retired as director of research and innovation at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and latterly he was its interim chief executive. He wrote a letter to Chemistry World, and I shall quote part of it:

He rejects the suggestion that the EPSRC, and by extrapolation the other research councils, has failed to conform with the Haldane principle. He reminds us that the research councils were

when they withdrew end-of-year flexibility resources to the tune of £70 million in the last financial year.

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