HC Deb 18 May 1992 vol 208 cc13-4
30. Mr. Alan W. Williams

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how much Government funding will be for civil research and development for 1992–93.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. William Waldegrave)

Government funding of civil research and development for 1992–93 is expected to be just over £3 billion, an increase in real terms of more than 2 per cent. over last year.

Mr. Williams

I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. I also congratulate the Government on the establishment of a new Office of Science and Technology. As the right hon. Gentleman has a distinguished academic background, will he examine the condition of British science and look at the international comparisons for funding research and development, an area in which Britain is falling further and further behind competitor countries?

We need to spend more on research and development and to change the emphasis from defence to civilian R and D. We also need to place a much higher value on the work of research scientists, on which we depend for the seedcorns of future industrial prosperity and an improvement in the quality of life.

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave my appointment and the establishment of the Office of Science and Technology. This is an important step in raising the profile of science and technlogy and will bring together our capacity to make a proper strategy for science and technology.

In the past, the problem has been one of not enough research and development in the private sector. Our public sector contribution stands up well to comparison, although I am glad to say that that, too, has been improving. There is also more private sector research and development now.

Mr. Brooke

I join the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) in welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new post. Given the wide variety of demands on the science budget. is he minded to consider changing the determination of priorities in the way that that money is spent?

Mr. Waldegrave

Now that we have a new opportunity with the establishment of the Office of Science and Technology, it would be right for us to consult widely and to discuss with the science community whether there should be changes in the advisory structure. At this point, I have no bias one way or the other. I shall be consulting widely and discussing with the Royal Society, research councils, university scientists and others what they think might be the best way forward.

Mr. Pike

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy accept that far too much research and development is still being transferred overseas—largely as a result of the Government's failure to recognise the importance of this country's manufacturing industries and of research and development remaining here? When will the Government do more to keep Britain at the sharp end of new industries, high technology and export markets?

Mr. Waldegrave

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not mean to talk down our science-based industries. In my previous post, I saw a great deal of the British pharmaceutical industry, which is perhaps the strongest in the world for a country of our size, with a balance of payments surplus of £1 billion annually. This country has great strengths, and we should learn from them in trying to improve performance in industries that may need more work.

Dr. Michael Clark

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the disappointment felt by several right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House that important aspects of funding for civil research and development are interspersed with others, however important, such as the citizens charter? Has my right hon. Friend noted that today's Order Paper contains only five questions about science but 14 about other matters for which he has responsibility? Will he give an undertaking to the House and to the science community that his time, effort and attention will be devoted more generously to science than is reflected by the ratio of science questions to other questions on today's Order Paper?

Mr. Waldegrave

The ratio of science questions is a matter not for me but for right hon. and hon. Members who table questions—and the lottery. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—who is in his place and will have heard my hon. Friend's remarks—will respond to any request for change. That there is now a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for answering science questions is to be welcomed.

Dr. Bray

I welcome the Minister to the Office of Science and Technology, which was proposed by Labour, rather than by the Conservatives. Is he aware that unless he and the President of the Board of Trade find some way of rapidly increasing our technological competitiveness, this country will find itself facing another deep depression in the latter part of the 1990s? Given that increased basic research intensity as a percentage of gross domestic product is an essential element in increasing technological competitiveness, what is the right hon. Gentleman doing about it?

Mr. Waldegrave

In fact, we did not adopt Labour's proposal. That proposal was for a Minister for Science, but outside the Cabinet, which was a poor suggestion. We have done rather better. As to what action we are taking, the hon. Gentleman knows very well that we are increasing science expenditure in real terms over the next three years. The hon. Gentleman surely welcomes that and recognises, as I do, that the fact that Britain's share of world trade has been gaining for the first time in the past three years shows that things cannot be as bad as he thinks.