HC Deb 25 February 1999 vol 326 cc526-8
3. Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles)

What plans he has to increase the budget for research in the physical sciences. [71594]

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

The allocations of the science budget to the separate research councils following the comprehensive spending review provision of an additional £700 million over the next three years were announced on 27 October 1998. That increase compares with the last settlement of the previous Administration, which resulted in a real-terms reduction in spend. Spend on the physical sciences for the years beyond 2001–02, like all other areas of science, will be reviewed in due course.

Mr. Stewart

Technical and engineering-oriented universities such as Salford will welcome this settlement—particularly as the physical sciences and engineering have done better from the comprehensive spending review than from 18 years of Tory rule. It was difficult for universities to train graduates and post-graduates because of the state of disrepair that the Conservatives permitted during their period in Government.

Will the Minister join me in calling on all fields of science to work in partnership to make the most of cross-disciplinary projects and the joint infrastructure fund in order to advance knowledge in the United Kingdom? That fund—comprising £300 million from the Government and £300 million from the Wellcome Trust—is much appreciated. I hope that the Minister will ensure also that there is proper balance in the distribution of that fund throughout Britain.

Mr. Battle

I agree with my hon. Friend's approach: yes, it is important that we adopt new cross-disciplinary strategies. However, it is important to stress that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council budget will increase over the next three years by £86 million, from the already high figure of £380 million. For example, funding for maths will rise by 17.5 per cent. and funding for chemistry by 7.5 per cent. The £600 million joint infrastructure fund to which my hon. Friend referred may be used by science institutions in all fields to upgrade laboratories and other buildings. Bids are welcome.

My hon. Friend mentioned cross-disciplinary activity. I believe that Salford university, Salford city council, local education, medical, industrial and social bodies and my hon. Friend are all involved in the Gemysis project. That is an example of how new technology can blend the traditional science disciplines with the wider world. If others follow Salford's example, we shall move forward much faster.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

That is all very encouraging, but I am sure that the Minister is aware that this country devotes a lower proportion of investment to research into civil aviation than do any of our European Union competitors. Will he take the good news further and confirm that his Department will not cut, and indeed will maintain, the budget for the civil aviation research and development scheme?

Mr. Battle

We are considering CARAD's budget in detail and sympathetically. CARAD is being supported. Since we came to power we have substantially helped the aerospace industry with launch aid to British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce. That was significant investment in research and development projects, so the aviation sector cannot claim that we are not backing it fully.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

While I welcome the boost in research funding, is my hon. Friend aware that less than 1 per cent. of research council funding is devoted to the "D" part of R and D, or that only a paltry 2.5 per cent. of overall Government R and D funding is devoted to industrial development? In all friendliness, I tell him that that Tory legacy is simply not acceptable and is damaging our long-term competitiveness. What will he do about it?

Mr. Battle

I would not like my hon. Friend to think that the science budget was all. The increase of £1.4 billion was intended to underpin the science base, but the comprehensive spending review has enabled the Department to increase by 20 per cent., to £220 million, the innovation budget, the aim of which is precisely to help to move ideas out of laboratories and into workshops. That will help a range of schemes to enable ideas to be turned into practical, productive, economic work.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Is not the key issue the fact that the Minister for Science, Lord Sainsbury, is seen to be biased towards the biosciences rather than the physical sciences? Yesterday's decision by the public health committee of the Labour-controlled Local Government Association to recommend that 26,000 schools ban GM foods reveals that it is unwilling to trust the science Minister, whether he is involved in a blind trust or any other sort of trust. That also demonstrates how important it is to have a science Minister who can serve on Cabinet sub-committees dealing with these subjects.

Unlike Lord Sainsbury, the Minister for Energy and Industry is not tainted by conflicts of interest and is directly accountable to this elected House. Why does he not ask for his old job back? If he asks to be science Minister again, we will support him.

Mr. Battle

This Government's top priority has always been and will continue to be to ensure that GM crops and food do not threaten environmental health or public safety. We shall proceed with care and caution on the basis of the best available scientific advice. Scaremongering and spreading rumours, as the Conservative party has done in recent weeks, is most unhelpful. The attempts of Opposition Members to impugn the integrity of my noble Friend Lord Sainsbury demonstrate that when a team is losing badly its last line of defence is to go for the man, not the ball—and that is exactly what Opposition Members are doing.