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Lord Colwyn: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for the clear way she introduced this order this evening. I also wish to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for the well-informed understanding of the problems that are concerned with this aspect of research and development.
My noble friend may be aware that I asked a Question on 12th January drawing the Government's attention to the need to promote high quality research in the area of gene therapy and to undertake a co-ordinated approach to new treatments and scientific research.
On 12th January I declared an interest as a director of a biopharmaceutical company. Although I can see only a very tenuous connection between my directorship and our debate this evening, in view of the current climate I declare that interest this evening.
My noble friend corrected me and said that although the US spends about 10 times more capital on gene therapy as the UK, the UK leads the world and that lead is the result of very good basic science allied to the clinical environment provided by the NHS. As a result, the UK has been able to attract leading scientists.
She also laid to rest my fears that the UK was taking an unco-ordinated approach to scientific research. The MRC and health department, through the appointment of Professor Michael Peckham as director of research and development, are responsible for the nation's co-ordinated approach. In addition, a number of advisory committees and councils have been established to assist in that process, one such council being the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. I am pleased this evening to acknowledge its foundation and offer it support and encouragement.
In view of the assurance of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, I ask my noble friend whether the UK is doing enough to ensure that it remains a world leader in scientific research and, in particular, gene therapy.
Can the CLRC truly perform its first objective to full potential if capital investment remains at current levels? Many core technologies around the country are currently dormant. To promote research by providing facilities or additional technical expertise may well not be the answer as I guess that it is additional funding which will eventually convert core technologies lying on the laboratory bench into economic reality.
If the CLRC fulfils that objective it is likely that the community, and more importantly the business community, will have a far better understanding of the promise that scientific research and particularly genetic research holds for the nation. I hope that, as in the US and Europe, more private capital in the form of
If the CLRC is successful in educating minds and organisations with substantial capital awaiting investment opportunity, it will successfully fulfil its other objective objective (b), which is designed to ensure that the CLRC contributes to the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom and the quality of life. I welcome the order.
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, I too should like to intervene briefly to welcome the order. Before I do so I should like to thank my noble friend the Minister for the comprehensive way in which she introduced the order and also to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, to her new responsibilities on the Front Bench. I am delighted that she has joined the team.
In a sense this is unfinished business from the reform of the research councils last year, as my noble friend the Minister reminded us. I wish to draw attention to the exemplary way in which the Office of Science and Technology has undertaken the review. It has not rushed it. It has taken a great deal of advice, from scientists and customers. It has taken into account accountability and funding arrangements. The fact that that has taken 18 months from the announcement of the previous research councils demonstrates what a thorough job has been done.
There is one small matter about which I would be concerned had I to direct the new council, namely the support required from the Department of Trade and Industry. At present the Department of Trade and Industry is rather fickle in regard to research funding. It seems to be changing its priorities. It clearly feels that its previous contribution to research is not something which it wishes to maintain. I hope that the newly appointed director has been given an assurance from the Department of Trade and Industry, although I do not expect the Minister to answer that point because clearly such an assurance would not be public knowledge.
I wish to draw attention to an unfavourable comparison with how research might have been reorganised. This emanated from the Efficiency Unit scrutiny of public research establishmentsan exercise which the House of Lords Select Committee regarded with some horror, as did the Select Committee of the other place. It was based purely on reasons of efficiency. Members of the House may remember that the proposals revolved around reorganisation on either a disciplinary or a regional basis, and, if that could not be decided upon, the proposal was to have directors of rationalisation.
The Select Committee considered that it is necessary to reorganise research from time to time. It is clearly necessary to review the scientific bases and priorities, value for money and accountability, as is well demonstrated by the draft order before us tonight. What
In the Select Committee report which came out in November we draw attention to the fact that where rationalisation had taken place in the past it tended to have the characteristic of bringing together government departments, research councils and users of the research and producing a solution which appeared to meet everyone's requirements. We quoted the example of Horticultural Research International, which had brought together sites from the former agriculture and food research council and from the Ministry of Agriculture and put them together under one direction.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, the debate has benefited from a number of distinguished and valuable contributions, which I welcome. In particular, I should like to welcome that of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, from the other side of the House. It is very nice that two of us from the class of '93 are here this evening.
The noble Baroness asked me several questions, particularly about funding, as did my noble friend Lord Colwyn. There is no reason to suppose that there will not be enough funding. The management certainly believe that they can attract enough investment. Currently they have a demand for some key facilities which exceeds the supply by three times. The laboratories have demonstrated their ability in the past to attract significant research projects from research councils and also external funding. The research councils will remain the main customers.
The noble Baroness also asked whether they thought that the new research council could attract investment. The laboratories have currently already initiated research work for over 150 companies. I am sure that the noble Baroness would not wish me to read out the names, but, to give a few examples, there is a £10 million investment from Japan and a £19 million investment in the Central Microstructure Facility for research in micro-electronics and micro-engineering, funded by five industrial partners and the DTI. There is also a £5 million contract to design and build the world's largest superconducting solenoid for CERN, with most of the components being made by United Kingdom industry.
The noble Baroness also asked whether the new council would be accountable. I should like to assure her and the House that it will be fully accountable. Like existing research councils, the new council will have to make an annual report to Parliament and publish accounts audited by the National Audit Office. The new chief executive, Dr. Paul Williamsto whom my noble friend referredwill be the designated accounting officer and will be responsible to the permanent secretary of the Office of Public Service and Science. Ministers will be answerable to Parliament.
The noble Baroness was also concerned over whether or not there might be job losses at the laboratories. We do not believe that there will be any direct impact on jobs at the laboratories arising simply from the change of status. Levels of employment will obviously depend upon the ability of the management and staff to attract customers. New arrangements intended to increase the laboratory's competitiveness should have a beneficial impact on employment.
The noble Baroness was also concerned as to whether basic research might be threatened. We neither intend nor envisage that the laboratories will become short-term contract laboratories. They will continue to work mainly for the other research councils, which have the support of basic research as part of their missions. The mission of the new council refers explicitly to its role in providing facilities and expertise to support basic research.
The noble Baroness was anxious about European funding. We expect that the laboratories will be successful in bidding for European funding and it will be in addition to other income from public sources. I also wish to assure her that the change will not interrupt the work of the laboratories.
My noble friend Lord Colwyn was worried about capital and we understand that it is essential to ensure that the CCLRC facilities remain competitive. So do its research council customers. We envisage that they will continue to support the laboratory with the funds necessary to carry out their work. My noble friend Lord Colwyn was also worried about gene therapy. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announced on 2nd February in the debate in another place on the allocation of the science budget that additional funding of some £3.5 million is to be provided for the Medical Research Council to take forward its important work on genome. That underpinning research work should lead to an improved understanding of our genetic make-up and subsequent treatments of the type referred to by the noble Lord.
The Government are working to establish a framework to ensure that we get maximum impact and maximum value from our national strengths in science and engineering. Within that framework, the creation of this new council is an essential part of the research council structure. In my opening remarks I mentioned that the proposed order received cross-party support in the other place and I am very gratified by the support it has also received from your Lordships and in particular my noble friend Lord Selborne.
It is notable that both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have welcomed the Government's plans. The Royal Society described Daresbury and Rutherford-Appleton as national assets. They are indeed and I believe that our proposals mean that we will get the best from them. I therefore commend the draft order to the House.