I thought you would be interested to read the transcript of an interesting debate on 'Science and Research in the regional economies' that I took part in yesterday in Westminster Hall.
Wednesday 24 June 2015
[Albert Owen in the Chair]10.39 am
Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): 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 the Member for Sheffield Central (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
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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 the Member for Oxford East (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.
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
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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 the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (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.
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The Minister for Universities and Science (Joseph Johnson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, on this important subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (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 the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (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
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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.
Mark Field: 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
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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.
Joseph Johnson: 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.
Joseph Johnson: The hon. Member for Nottingham South (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.
Paul Blomfield: 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 the Member for Oxford East (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 the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (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.