HC Deb 19 February 1997 vol 290 cc907-9
4. Mr. Evennett

To ask the President of the Board of Trade what measures his Department is taking to promote the United Kingdom's science base. [15025]

The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

The science budget has risen by 17 per cent. in real terms since 1986–87. My Department has a vigorous programme to promote the understanding of science and an appreciation of the importance of the science base in national competitiveness and quality of life. Key activities at the moment are the Year of Engineering Success and the next National Week of Science, starting on 14 March.

Mr. Evennett

I congratulate my hon. Friend on maintaining the science budget for the forthcoming year, despite the restraints on public expenditure, and on his work to promote science throughout the country. Has he any figures or evidence to show how well science is being taught and what developments are being made in our universities?

Mr. Taylor

The teaching of science in our universities is crucial, and I have been heartened by the number of universities that I have visited that have demonstrated that teaching is alive and well and that the concept of scholarship is very much to the fore. We are probably the most cost-effective university research community in the world: 1 per cent. of the world's population producing 6 per cent. of the world's scientific research output, 8 per cent. of its publications and 9 per cent. of its citations.

Mr. Ingram

The Minister's facts are interesting, but they fly in the face of reality. How does he answer the criticisms of companies such as SmithKline Beecham, which pointed out in a letter to me today that the United Kingdom is the only major Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country that is showing a fall in total research and development spend as a percentage of gross domestic product? Who should we believe is telling the truth: companies such as SmithKline Beecham, or the Minister?

Mr. Taylor

I do not think that there is any doubt that I am telling the truth, because I am speaking in the House and giving the figures. I see that Opposition Members are kindly nodding in agreement with that statement. I would never criticise SmithKline Beecham, which is an important company in this country, but there are clearly differences of emphasis.

I have talked to George Poste, the head of research at SmithKline Beecham, who acknowledges some of the difficulties that the company faces in ensuring that even its internal researchers keep up with the equipment demands faced by the pharmaceutical industry. It is inevitable that universities will face similar equipment demands. That is precisely why we targeted our research equipment exercise during the past year. We intend to do that again, bringing in £50 million this year, closely targeted on our best research universities, and SmithKline Beecham has been making a positive input into both the formulation and the delivery of those policies.

Mr. Key

Does my hon. Friend agree that the science base in this country, in both the private and the public sector, is thriving, taking on the world, and beating it? Is he aware of the great success of the special health authority, the centre for applied microbiology and research at Porton Down, which in its new incarnation is taking on American companies and is second to none as an international operator in the field in which it dominates a large slice of world action?

Mr. Taylor

I am happy to confirm my hon. Friend's comments, especially about microbiology. The importance of the microtechnologies in this country, including nanotechnology, which is of an order of dimension smaller, is well evidenced by the support that we give. A BBC 2 programme the other week gave the wrong figures: we have spent £135 million on nanotechnology in the past five years, and this year alone we have injected a further £25 million into such schemes, including some by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.