HL Deb 01 February 1982 vol 426 cc1117-9

2.43 p.m.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action is being undertaken to ensure that basic industrial research in the United Kingdom is developed and marketed to our advantage.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, the Government provide encouragement for the development of all industrial research through a variety of schemes designed to help companies to launch new or improved products and processes more quickly and more effectively. The Department of Industry spent over £200 million on research and development in 1980/81. This included research in its own and other laboratories and over £100 million spent directly in industry. The department works closely with the research councils to ensure that basic research, relevant to industrial needs, is effectively developed.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend the Minister for that Answer and appreciating the efforts being made by Her Majesty's Government in this connection, may I ask him, in relation to basic industrial research, whether there is anyone monitoring the achievements and discoveries made, which might have application to other basic research in progress or completed? May I also ask my noble friend whether, if this is so, this would not cut costs and save duplication, and increase still further our competitive position?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, it is the function of those directly concerned with individual research projects to monitor their effectiveness and what they are achieving, but I hope my noble friend will know—I am sure he does—of the role of the British Technology Group. The National Research Development Corporation and the National Enterprise Board, working together under this new title, the British Technology Group, have particular responsibilities to exploit and market the results of publicly-funded research from universities and Government laboratories, and to keep an eye on this part of the scheme. Perhaps my noble friend would like to know that the total amount of money spent on research in this way is of course very much more than the figure I have given, but I rather directed my answer towards that spent specifically on industrial research. But, if my noble friend would like a more detailed breakdown of the totality of what is being spent, I will try to get it for him.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the most favourable circumstances for ensuing profitable development is the overall profitability of the industry responsible for the development?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I entirely agree with that, and that is why it is so critically important that industry be in a position where it can make its profits and therefore plough back more resources into research.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, while acknowledging the importance that the noble Lord correctly gives to industrial research, is he not aware that the future looks rather grim in this particularly vital respect if the cuts in education proceed right through the comprehensive schools, technical colleges and our universities, and that the effect of this can be very serious and have a deleterious effect on industrial research and, indeed, cast a shadow over our industrial future?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will be glad to know that in fact the expenditure by the research councils, which finance much of the research activity in universities, is being maintained at broadly the current levels throughout the period up to 1983–84, and that indeed the five research councils will spend a total of £447 million in that way.

Baroness Wootton of Abinger

My Lords, how does the noble Lord the Minister reconcile this with the drastic cuts in university grants, particularly to universities such as Aston in Birmingham, who have specialised in technological research of industrial value?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that the figures I have given are the correct figures. The way in which the funds are apportioned is of course up to the universities themselves to decide, but in the case of the specific topic on which we are talking today—namely, research—I think I have indicated that that is in fact being maintained at the current levels.

Lord Wynne-Jones

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for what he has been saying, which is very valuable, but will Her Majesty's Government bear in mind that, despite the considerable sums of money which the Government are quite rightly giving to the research councils, none of the money which goes to universities can be used for the overheads of the universities in maintaining the research? In other words, if a sum of, say, £10,000 or more is given for a particular piece of work, the university has to find the overheads for that work, and this can be a very serious matter. It can often amount to something like 20 per cent. of the total cost of the research.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very fair point. I cannot comment upon it here, but certainly I will discuss it with those concerned.

Lord Spens

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that a symposium of directors of research of about a dozen of the largest companies has now started to meet fairly regularly under the chairmanship of the professor of cybernetics at Brunel University in order to see whether they can establish some form of library of research products which individual companies perhaps no longer need to use but which otherwise might lie on their shelves unused by anyone else? They are having a meeting next week, I think, and I am pretty sure that they have invited a representative of the NRDC.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Young)

My Lords, would the noble Lord, Lord Spens, be good enough to put his question?

Lord Spens

My Lords, I put it at the beginning. I said, "Is the Minister aware …?".

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the answer is, No, the Minister is not aware—correction: the Minister was not aware; he is now aware.