HC Deb 05 July 2004 vol 423 cc660-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

10.32 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

The subject of the debate is the need for a development sciences research council. I shall speak rather quickly because I have a lot to get in.

I begin with a problem, which is somewhat indelicate to state. Human beings have a propensity to defecate in places that are clean and do not bear the signs and smells of others of their species. There are also advantages to performing that bodily function near a running stream. So far, so natural. A tribe of a few hundred souls, camped by a fast-flowing river, might suffer no great disadvantages from what one could describe as natural toilet arrangements. If their neighbours down-river are not too near, or if the river flows fast enough, they might suffer no ill effects. However, if the population increases and inordinate pressure is put on a community's natural infrastructure, there will come a time when the natural arrangements have terrible consequences.

For example, the tribe might need to access ground water. Water gets polluted and water tables can become not a source of life, but agents for blindness and early death. A society caught in transition, clinging to the old ways but under pressure from "progressives" to change, clinging to a set of customs and cleaning rituals that seem no longer effective, might find it difficult indeed to adjust its culture and ways to take account of new knowledge. That applies especially when the new knowledge is scientific in character and describes invisible organisms that have the propensity to threaten life itself.

When those who propound the new knowledge enjoin all the members of the tribe to defecate in the same place, when they then say that the products of the toilet must be collected together and either dried to make biofuel or treated to be spread on fields, and when they are asked to drink only water collected by evaporation on funnel-shaped plastic sheeting, strong cultural resistance is hardly surprising, yet that is the programme that Professor Silas Lwukumba at the Kigali institute of science and technology advocates. I should like much of his work at the institute to receive proper support.

There have been solutions to those problems. Sometimes, tribesmen of the kind that I have described have been commanded or compelled to adopt the ways of their conquerors, but we now live in times in which the abolition of a community's modus vivendi is rightly seen as neither the right nor the prerogative of those with a more scientifically advanced culture. Most of those involved in development issues have given up what might be called the push model. Unfortunately, the pendulum might have swung too far in favour of a pull culture, in which only a tribe that asks for something gets anything at all. In that new, liberal way of dealing with problems, many development workers now claim to work only on problems that the tribe itself specifies as a problem. That cannot be right either. Those who are familiar with western science are often good at knowing the vast variety of resources available to solve problems in the developing world. We acknowledge, of course, that many of those problems are themselves products of inappropriately applied western technology.

Scientists should not always wait for those in developing countries to specify their problems or to say which of their needs they want to be addressed. Sometimes, western scientists know that there is a problem even when, as with sanitation, the problem consists of certain invisible organisms. I shall give an example of this. I recently returned from Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. In one area, there is a major problem with ground water, with the chromium level at 16 times the World Health Organisation recommended level, and fluorine at eight times that level. That is a potential problem, in terms of water purification, and a potential opportunity.

For all I know—I am pursuing the matter—a mining engineer might feel that the levels that I have mentioned might be worth an assay. If it turned out that there were local rocks with high levels of chromium, there might lurk in that water impurity a resource that could help that community to move from extreme poverty and starvation towards having an industry and a worthwhile source of income. People who ask those who know no science to decide how their problems should be solved might condemn them never to escape the sentence of extreme poverty and an early death.

We need neither a push model, in which solutions are imposed on people who might not be ready for them, nor a pull model, in which western societies and engineers might decide not to vouchsafe an analysis or a solution until it is asked for. We need a push and pull model—a co-operative model—in which both the community and a helping agency are given a sense of ownership both of the problem and of its solution. Those who recognise that a culture has ways that are conducive to its own immiseration or destruction should work with such groups to evolve new cultural forms that respect the old culture but moderate it so that changes can be introduced that work with the grain of that culture but are more protective of the health and life chances of the members of the tribe.

I am arguing that, in a development context, we need what we might call a push and pull model for intervention. Such a model would bring together experts from very different disciplines to work to push appropriate technologies on to communities at a pace and in a style that identified and worked with the belief systems of the beneficiaries of such new arrangements. In the case that I have mentioned in Rwanda, for example, a push and pull model for development would bring together engineering, philosophy, anthropology, language study and chemistry, among many other disciplines.

How well equipped is the UK to help with push and pull development models? I submit that our own capacity in this regard is weakening, and I shall make some suggestions here about how it might be strengthened. I submit that, in strengthening our own system, we would also be protecting and enhancing our own capacity to retain a healthy economy, although that is not my central concern in this debate. Why is the UK not well positioned to translate our scientific expertise into programmes that will assist the development of poor countries? I have time here to address only two of many weaknesses. First, science in the UK has a bad image. Secondly, our structures are ill equipped to translate whatever scientific expertise we do have into projects that will benefit developing countries. My treatment of the bad image will lead to recommendations on our structures.

On that bad image, when the public hear "chemical" as a noun, they are more likely to associate it with "toxic" than with anything positive. Science has a poor profile with many citizens, and if people in the UK see in an article about pollution a picture of a man in a white coat standing beside a river, they are more likely to think of him as a cause of the problem than the person who has the power to solve it.

One key question that we need to address is to what extent scientists address the question of that bad image. In my view, they address it not well at all, yet if one visits a poor country one is struck forcefully by one key difference between such a country and ours: in our country, one is surrounded everywhere by science and the technology derived from it.

In the poor country, 80 per cent. of the population work on the land, but even with that huge effort they are barely able to feed themselves. A store half-full of maize in November will result in death by famine in February. I have seen such stores. Meanwhile, in our country only 3 per cent. of the population need work on the land. With chemical inputs, agricultural knowledge and high-tech machines, they produce enough to feed the rest of us. That leaves the remaining 97 per cent. of the work force to produce a huge range of goods and services for the betterment of quality of life for the population not just of this country, but of countries far beyond its borders.

It seems absurd on the face of it that science and technology should be held in low regard by the hundreds of millions of people who gain so much from them, but in many western countries they are rated so low as to be constantly vilified. Part of the negative picture of science is derived from what it has done to threaten the quality of life rather than improve it. Whether it is the nuclear bomb or the gases in the chambers of the holocaust, most people can think of an example of scientific knowledge turned to terrible, evil account. Whether it is a dam that floods a valley and destroys the livelihood of thousands, pesticides on fruit, experiments on animals or the premature release of genetically modified crops to the environment, most people can cite an example of a scientific technology that discomforts or alarms them.

Those examples stack up to a negative image. The result is that a large majority of young people switch off science—they have no ambition to do it—to the point that our capacity to develop new scientific ideas and technologies is eroded.

My suggestion for what might switch young people back on to science is as follows. Young people are often idealistic and, if they can, they want to help in particular those in the world who face premature death or avoidable painful diseases. Most young people do not consider science as having a positive connection with those goals, yet manifestly it has.

A high capacity to do science or engineering in the UK not only brings the potential security of our being able to make and pay our way in the world in a century that will undoubtedly be characterised by new discoveries, but ensures that we have the capacity to help other countries, including some of the poorest in the world, to build their capacity to address the terrible problems that so many of them face.

One suggestion that I have is, in essence, simple: teach youngsters science and technology in the context of how the ideas, techniques, mechanisms and material studies can help radically to improve the quality of life in the poorest parts of the world. We should be making in education explicit connections between science, technology and development, but it is hard to make those connections at present. One major obstacle is the structure of our research councils. I want to suggest how that structure should be changed.

I shall focus the rest of this speech on engineering, because that is an area where, increasingly, our capacity in the UK is being compromised and because engineers have done very little to make any explicit connection between their subject and development issues. Engineering has a research council—the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council—but does it take much interest in development issues? No. Could it take much interest in such issues? Only with difficulty. After all, the job of the research councils is to push back the frontiers of knowledge, and in that cause they allocate grants for research on problems that are at the cutting edge.

An academic in an engineering faculty in a university will develop an interest in development issues at his peril, for the current wisdom is that those who do engineering in developing countries are not so much pushing back the frontiers of knowledge as applying what is known already in a new situation. Applied research is regarded as of lower grade in the university's research assessment exercise—RAE—on the understandable grounds that while many people can apply a known technology to a new situation, it is a rarer gift to be able to develop a new technology in its entirety. The research council, the EPSRC, funds the latter type of projects and not the former.

The matter does not end there. If a university department gets a low RAE score, it gets less money, and its continued activity, even its continued existence, is threatened. Its existence is especially threatened when in addition to a low RAE score, it finds it difficult to attract students, and engineering courses generally do so, not least because, in addition to engineering's image, which I mentioned, it is perceived as needing high mathematical skills, and students notoriously avoid such subjects. Engineering is expensive, because it needs equipment that costs a good deal of money, and often needs considerable space to be housed. If an engineering department did dedicate itself to working on the problems of developing countries, it would also need to conduct its operations both in the UK and in those countries. Once again, those operations would be expensive to the point that it would be difficult to generate the resources to ensure continuing funding.

I can summarise those factors as follows. A university engineering department—I speak with some passion, as my university's civil engineering department has just closed—which decided it wanted to use its expertise especially to address the problems in developing countries would be financially unviable. It would fail to attract EPSRC money, a high RAE score, a sufficient number of students, the space needed for its operations, or the necessary funding for travel. In short, such a decision would be suicidal. The wonder is that a few departments still try valiantly to do their best.

The result of these considerations is that engineering departments in universities are rational if they fight shy of being seen as a resource for capacity-building in developing countries. The effect of that, basically, is to connect them to rich countries, which in turn consolidates the perception of engineering as unresponsive to the greatest of human needs—those of the poorest in our globe.

Of course, the engineering profession lacks a voice that might proclaim that the subject does contain idealists who want to use their skills to make the world a better place for the poorest as well as the richest of their fellow human beings. To start with, engineers divide themselves into myriad respective constituencies, so that civil engineers do not talk in the same breath as electronic engineers. The body that one might expect would speak for all engineers, the Royal Academy of Engineering, seems to be dumb on most of these issues. Recently, it has even declined to give evidence to the Science and Technology Committee about development issues on the basis that it "lacks the expertise".

The Royal Academy of Engineering was not always dumb. Its chairman, Alec Broers, said to me today: Throughout the 1990s, on behalf of the British Government, we ran the UK secretariat for the UN's International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction"— supported by the Royal Society— which ceased at the end of the decade once the funding from DFID had dried up. In its prime this was a very substantial activity. DFID has much to answer for. There have been major vacillations in DFID about whether it wanted an infrastructure programme, and it has recently incorporated its engineering division into a policy area that now does not explicitly mention engineering at all. That is not surprising, as, increasingly, its main functions seem to be economic rather than technological.

Why should all this matter? What has been done? And what can be done? It matters because it is a matter of life and death. Only if money is translated into scientific and engineering skills in a push-and-pull model will the welcome, improved financial commitments made by this Government serve to improve life chances. Real material changes in infrastructure benefit the poor—let us consider my Rwandan example—and those changes are not easily translated into a Swiss bank account.

What has been done? It would appear that if anything there has been retrogression rather than progression, despite DIFD's increasing budgets. That is because it lacks a scientific culture. It cannot even decide to have a chief scientist. Its policy echoes that of Churchill, who wanted his scientists on tap but not on top. I want them nearer the top than DIFD's economists would like.

What we must do is ensure that if we can put development sciences on the same level as other studies to try and avoid the problems that come from having research councils that are specialised rather than at least one being explicitly interdepartmental—and there is no more interdepartmental subject than the future of the globe itself—we can give our system an incentive to put people into this area of work. That would mean that excellent work in development sciences of any sort would receive the five-star rating that is so essential to continuing departmental funding in our universities. It would also rescue development studies from the clutches of departments of economics. I am not saying that economists do not do valuable work, but the emphasis in DIFD should shift. Scientists should not be constantly consigned to membership rather than leadership of a team.

If my Rwandan sanitation problems were taken seriously, that would bring together experts from every one of the existing research councils—except, perhaps, the particle physics one. What if a team were able to solve such a problem in a way that was eventually adopted so that it became standard, widespread practice in Rwanda? Does anyone seriously think that it would not be a first-rate problem, whose solution would require great intelligence and ingenuity of just the sort that distinguishes the most exceptional achievements in other sciences?

I do not argue for a development sciences research council as a sop, so that those who work in the area might be compared with those who work in particle physics. I make my case because the problems are just as demanding as the problems of particle physics, and those who apply themselves to such problems should achieve appropriate recognition. Co-ordination of knowledge from a number of different areas in the interests and service of mankind is itself a first-rate intellectual challenge.

Those who say in derogatory fashion that in development work we apply known knowledge to a new area are quite wrong. Whenever we bring a body of knowledge to bear on new problems, we are likely to find that the knowledge with which we started is radically deficient, and needs amendment and rethinking. That is just what the best research so often produces. The award of moneys for such a purpose by a development sciences research council would be a powerfully effective use of resources; and, at last, the full range of ethical concerns of scientists and engineers would be manifest.

10.53 pm
The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) on securing the debate. I listened with interest to his example about the provision of toilets in the developing world. Let me begin by drawing his attention to the work of Phoenix Developments, a company based at the University of East London's docklands campus in my constituency. It is dedicated to the development of a low-water-consumption toilet, specifically because the engineer who leads the company wants to contribute to well-being in the developing world and to achieving the millennium development goals, with the same passion that my hon. Friend showed in his advocacy of the engineering profession.

My hon. Friend made an effective case for the creation of a development sciences research council. I know there is a lively debate about the subject between different members of the Science and Technology Committee, and I look forward to seeing its conclusions in due course.

Let me begin by referring to a couple of speeches made recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—who I am delighted to see is present—reflecting the importance that he attaches to the subject. I was present last week when my right hon. Friend spoke at the annual dinner of the Institution of Civil Engineers. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said that engineers have done very little to make an explicit connection between their subject and development issues. However, my right hon. Friend made a very clear connection in his speech between international development and engineering. Indeed, his speech was very well received by the ICE, and I certainly came away from that event with the strong impression that, in fact, there is a very deep commitment on the part of engineers that their skills be used in addressing the problems of poverty in the developing world. We took a collection at that event for a charity called "Engineers Against Poverty", which, if I understood correctly what was said that evening, my right hon. Friend's Department supports. That reflects the aspiration that my hon. Friend has been calling for.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also spoke recently to the Foundation for Science and Technology. He echoed my hon. Friend's view that science and technology can indeed be critical to achieving long-term and sustainable development, and I know that he is looking forward to giving evidence this week to the Science and Technology Committee. I, too, would like to acknowledge the importance of the Committee's current work in looking into science and technology's role in international development policy.

In his speech, my right hon. Friend pointed out that his Department has a very clear mission–to help reduce world poverty—and that everything that his Department does has to be judged against that yardstick. He pointed to examples of science playing an extremely important role when he spoke about: Every day, 16,000 people contract HIV/AIDS, and a further 8,000 will die from it. Women are increasingly the most affected, and … science can help. The UK is a world leader in microbicides. Imperial College and the Medical Research Council are developing vaginal microbicides in the form of a cream, or gel, that reduce the chance of HIV/AIDS infection. DFID is putting £17 million into large-scale effectiveness trials of possible microbicides. With only moderate uptake, they could prevent 2.5 million deaths every three years". In a changing world—climate change, conflict, population growth, killer diseases and the challenge of pulling Africa out of poverty—science and technology need to produce solutions for developing countries. Malaria kills 3,000 people a day. We do not yet have adequate, high yielding drought-resistant crops appropriate for the diverse and rapidly changing ecosystems of Africa. So it is right that increased attention be paid, not just in the UK but internationally, to how science and technology can contribute to international development.

Kofi Annan has commissioned 10 taskforces to review progress on the millennium development goals, one of which is concerned with science and innovation. The inter-academy council of sciences has just undertaken a study to develop a strategy for building worldwide capacities in science and technology. The New Partnership for Africa's Development, an African-led initiative, will discuss the role of science from an African perspective. Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, made a presentation today at the Africa Commission's London School of Economics brainstorming event on capacity-building in science and technology. So this is a truly international effort, and the UK is very strongly represented.

Is a UK development sciences research council the best way to equip the UK in helping developing countries to evolve the new technology that will prove of lasting value? DFID is certainly looking into ways of developing a more coherent approach to the funding of development research. That is particularly important in the context of the two White Papers on international development that have been published since 1997, both of which highlight the importance of science and technology. On the one hand, a dedicated council would give development research a high profile and increase opportunities for a multidisciplinary approach. On the other, such a council might discourage existing research councils from working on development, as the Medical Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council extensively do, for example.

It is not always easy to separate development issues, and it is better to consider the relevance to development of all research. My hon. Friend's suggestion is a valuable idea and one that will repay careful reflection on the part of the Government. I assure my hon. Friend that it will receive that.

I wish to respond to some of the specific points that my hon. Friend made about the research assessment exercise, and I note his concerns. He may know that the most recent UK research assessment exercise was carried out by the four UK higher education funding bodies and was completed in 2001. The purpose of the exercise was to provide authoritative and comprehensive quality ratings for research in all disciplines. The funding bodies recognised—as my hon. Friend pointed out—that the research assessment exercise does not deal well with interdisciplinary research. In preparing for the next exercise, the funding bodies have been consulting and exploring ways to improve performance.

It was announced in February 2004 that the next exercise, planned for 2008, will use quality profiles to provide a fuller and fairer assessment of research carried out in universities and colleges in the UK. The funding bodies believe that that new approach, which has been fully supported in the consultation, will provide a fairer and more accurate way of assessing and funding research quality.

To respond to my hon. Friend's point about education, my right hon. Friend's Department recognises that raising awareness of development issues among people in the UK is extremely important. My right hon. Friend is especially keen to reach out to young people. His Department allocates £6.5 million a year to development awareness, and part of that money has financed the production of a book for key stage 3 and 4 pupils. It has been very popular. DFID also funds a booklet on developing a global dimension in the English school curriculum, which is also very popular. It is published jointly with others and sent to every teacher in every subject at every stage in the school education system. His Department is about to publish a similar booklet for Scotland and is in discussion with the Welsh Assembly.

My right hon. Friend's Department, together with the Office of Science and Technology, is currently consulting on support for the Kigali research institute, which my hon. Friend mentioned. The Department has recently introduced a post of head of profession—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.