HC Deb 01 November 1995 vol 265 cc298-9
13. Mr. Flynn

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what new proposals he has to improve the application of scientific invention to industry. [38661]

Mr. Ian Taylor

The Government are committed to innovation and wealth creation through science and technology. The £40 million foresight challenge, the Office of Science and Technology and DTI competitions in industry/academic collaboration and technology transfer and the improved Smart, Spur and Link schemes are recent initiatives.

Mr. Flynn

What sort of example is the Conservative party setting in regard to the application of scientific inventions on the Internet? The web sites of the Labour and Liberal parties are fully interactive, but the only way to interact with the Conservative site is by means of a game which features the Prime Minister playing cricket and invites the public to "spot the ball". Is not one of the reasons why this country has slipped from 13th to 18th in the prosperity league the fact that all that the Conservatives can offer it on high technology is balls?

Mr. Taylor

I was in charitable mood and intended to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting a science question on the Order Paper following the transfer of responsibility for science to the Department of Trade and Industry, but he has mentioned a competition that Labour would constantly fail, because it can never spot the ball.

We have done an enormous amount to advance all the technologies in this country and their application on the Internet and the super-highways. We have made possible new processes which help education, hospitals and schools. The Conservative party's Internet site is independently regarded as the most exciting of the political parties' sites, as indeed it must be, as I launched it at the Conservative party conference.

Mrs. Lait

I thank my hon. Friend for coming to Hastings last week and visiting Instrument Technology Ltd.—a company which is applying industrial techniques to the sciences of vacuum generation and semi-conductors. Does he agree that there are administrative blockages in some of the international scientific programmes such as CERN? What action is he taking to try to help British companies win contracts?

Mr. Taylor

I valued my visit to Hastings last Friday, and I was impressed by the company that my hon. Friend took me to see. There is no doubt that it is one of the leading companies in the vacuum generation part of the industry, supplying research to establishments such as CERN. Unfortunately, many of the procurement techniques adopted by CERN make it difficult for companies to tender properly. Having led a trade delegation to CERN about a year ago, I am engaged in continuing discussions with it.

Mr. Ingram

Is the Minister prepared to accept that what is happening in the international prosperity league table is mirrored in the league table showing percentage of gross domestic product spent on research and development? The United States spends 2.72 per cent. of its GDP on research and development and Japan spends 2.93 per cent. while Britain is much further down the league, spending only 2.19 per cent. Given those figures and the link between research and development expenditure and industrial performance, is it any wonder that Britain has slumped to 18th place in the world prosperity league table?

Mr. Taylor

I am beginning to think that the record has stuck. Throughout Question Time the Opposition Front Bench has been given evidence of which it was not previously aware, but it has not yet adjusted its own records. Our science base is widely regarded as excellent. The research in our universities and the work done by the research councils is remarkable and our science and engineering base has grown by 10 per cent. in the past 10 years, so we need not suffer by comparison with other countries. Indeed, in many of our best industries—the pharmaceutical industry, for example—we are world leaders.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position shadowing me on science. When he has considered some of the establishments in this country, he will realise what the centres of excellence are. Nevertheless, I concede that we must do better: there is no question but that there are too many holes in our good performance and too many sectors where there is not enough read-out from the excellent science base into industry and where British industry is not examining the longer-term requirements of encouraging science, both applied and basic, for the benefit of competitive performance. The purpose of the DTI and the Office of Science and Technology is to try to remedy that, both by encouraging the science base and by increasing technology transfer and innovation.