HC Deb 09 November 1999 vol 337 cc922-3 5.51 pm
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the establishment of a national science strategy; to create a National Science Strategy Council to monitor levels of funding, to consult scientific organisations and to advise the Secretary of State; and for connected purposes.

I hate to get in the way of a good argument across the Floor.

It is becoming ever more apparent that science and technology play an important, central role in determining political decisions and will do so in future. We heard the phrase "Science is on our side" in the beef debate, and it has been said that good science will take the debate on genetically modified organisms—or indeed on cannabis, cancer treatments or other matters of public concern—forward. Such phrases are part and parcel of life in this House and of our way of life in general. They bounce around the airwaves and are often on people's lips.

It is important for the politics of the environment that we take science and technology seriously. In September 1999, a dramatic rise in global land temperature raised the prospect of typhoons and environmental problems that must be taken seriously in our political decision making. Even health changes in human populations may be affected by such rises. Scientific assessments and information can inform, but not pre-empt, political decision making.

Science and technology plays, and will continue to play, a major role in the so-called enterprise culture. I believe that it underpins the whole issue. Without a solid scientific base, it will fail. Such a base has been maintained over the years in the United Kingdom and can certainly be correlated with wealth creation. However, it has been delivered amateurishly in the periods of boom and bust. There have been more busts than booms in scientific and technological advance. Only if that base is sustained and allowed to grow, will we be able to play a competitive role in the world and create a viable economy.

I am grateful to the Royal Society of Chemistry for its support. The Bill would establish a national science strategy, spearheaded by a strategy council to monitor sustainable funding, which would increase in real terms over 10 years. It would consult relevant scientific organisations, advise the Secretary of State and ensure that there is a national programme for research and development in science, technology, engineering and medicine. The body should report to Parliament and could address the problems of education and training across the whole system.

Among the problems that the council could consider are the training of science graduates and postgraduates, the medical school curriculum—which desperately needs reform—continuing education and science in our primary and secondary schools. A holistic approach to science and technology is essential if we are to produce a work force capable of thriving in a high-tech world. It would replace the reactive mechanisms that we employ in government now that seek solutions for each problem as it comes along.

We would do well to remember that public support for science and the investment required in it is a function of how well we can explain to the public why science is important in the contributions that it makes to economic development and to improving the quality of our lives. It is vital for the whole scientific community to begin to communicate effectively to the public the value and applicability of their research.

In the words of Harold Varmus, the director of the United States National Institute of Health, we must concentrate on the destinations of science, the answers, the miracles, the cures", and not get bogged down in talking too deeply about the journey itself. If we are to maximise the benefits that we get from the exciting scientific developments taking place today, scientists will have to talk about the destinations and benefits of science. Varmus represents in the United States what I think that we need in this country: a voice for the long-term benefits in science and medicine, achieved by investing heavily in basic science.

As we move into a world of e-commerce, the intensification of information technology and the human genome project with its potential to revolutionise medicine, the call for a focused strategy, a sustainable resource flow and the doubling of the science budget becomes deafening. The Bill recognises the explosion in science and technology and seeks to address its importance by creating a structure for a national science strategy to take us into the next century and deliver the benefits in a co-ordinated manner that the public can understand.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Ian Gibson, Ms Judith Church, Dr. Michael Clark, Mr. Nigel Jones, Mr. Anthony D. Wright, Mr. Ivan Henderson, Dr. Ashok Kumar, Dr. Doug Naysmith, Mr. Tony Clarke, Mr. Hilary Benn, Dr. Desmond Turner and Dr. Brian Iddon.