§ 3 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield rose to call attention to the work of the research councils and the resources available to them; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Some of your Lordships may recall that earlier in the year I moved a Motion calling attention to the first joint report of the Associated Board for the Research Councils and the Advisory Committee on Applied Research and Development. We had a wide-ranging debate which was wound up in a very encouraging and positive way by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. When the question of moving the present Motion arose, I thought at first that it might be premature to revert to an aspect (although a very vital 578 aspect) of this broad subject, until I found that the debate had taken place over nine months ago—a sufficient period of gestation for Government policies as well as for human beings.
§ I sense a continuing feeling of unease and concern in many quarters at the direction which our policies for science are taking and, in the context of this Motion, especially but not exclusively, our policies for basic and strategic research, for they and applied science are coming closer together in many respects. The number and standing of noble Lords taking part in this debate is eloquent testimony to this concern.
§ The recent annual reports of the MRC, the AFRC and the SERC emphasise their particular anxieties. There is the report of the Scientific Policy Research Unit of Sussex University, with its gloomy conclusions. There was even a recent "Horizon" television programme, which some of your Lordships may have seen.
§ The research council system as it exists today has evolved in a pretty haphazard way. I shall not attempt to deal with the position of any individual council. Among the speakers today are many noble Lords who will speak with an authority which I do not command. But it may be helpful if, by way of introduction, I remind your Lordships briefly of how we came to the system as we find it today, and then make one or two general observations on which I hope the Minister will comment when he comes to reply.
§ I shall not waste your Lordships' time on the situation as it existed in the 1950s and early 1960s. This, as your Lordships will recall, consisted of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and three research councils working under the aegis of the Lord President of the Council, assisted by an Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, and. from 1964 onwards, by a Chief Scientific Adviser. But three points are to be noted about this system. First, science policy was represented at a high level in the Cabinet. Secondly, a distinction was made at the outset between research done and sponsored in departments and that done in the DSIR and research councils. And, thirdly, defence research and development remained in the first category, which emphasised its separation from civil science. This has been a continuing cause for concern and I shall return to it later.
§ A change at the top was made in 1959 when a Ministry for Science was set up under the present noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, and the Atomic Energy Authority was added to the birds under his wing. This arrangement worked rather well, but in 1964 a committee was set up under the noble Lord, Lord Trend, to review the whole organisation of civil science. The committee recommended, first, that the Ministry for Science should be abolished and that basic science should be brigaded with education in a single Ministry; and, secondly, that the DSIR should be abolished and its functions distributed. Thus, the Science Research Council would take over the funding of graduate places in universities in physics and astronomy; and NERC would take over the Nature Conservancy, the Geographical Survey and other work. Thirdly, the Council for Scientific Policy would be abolished and an advisory board for the research councils would be set up to oversee the work of the research councils and to advise the Secretary of State 579 for Education and Science on the distribution of the science budget. Fourthly, the committee recommended the establishment of an industrial research development authority to deal with applied science.
§ When the Labour Government of 1965 came to implement this report, they accepted the recommendations on the organisation of basic research, but rejected the recommendation on the applied side and shovelled this increasingly vital activity, with the National Physical Laboratory, the National Engineering Laboratory and other functions of the DSIR, into the capacious maw of the Ministry of Technology—that monstrous bureaucracy so ineptly inaugurated by Messrs. Wedgwood Benn, Cousins and Snow.
§ Although we are principally concerned today with basic and strategic research, I venture to comment that, in spite of the valiant efforts of ACARD and the sponsorship of the DTI, the organisation of applied science has never fully recovered from the rejection of the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Trend, on the applied side.
§ Next, in 1971, came the Rothschild Report, which led to the development and definition of what came to be called the "customer/contractor" arrangements. And finally, after a number of intermediate reports which I need not mention, in 1981 came the report of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Government. The Government, while accepting the main thrust of the report, and adopting some of the recommendations in a different form, rejected a number of others. I shall not rehearse the story today, but I shall refer to one or two of the recommendations towards the end of my speech. However, 1981 was also the year of the cuts in higher education, and the year when the science budget—which in the 1960s and the 1970s was increasing at varying rates year on year—was, in effect, frozen. This had unfortunate consequences on the resources available to the research councils, and to these I shall now turn.
§ The resources rest on a tripod, the three legs of which are the science budget, commissioned research and the operation of the dual support system. The science budget, from which the research councils receive their grants in aid, was, according to the original Government position, to be maintained at a constant level in real terms. I do not know whether the Government would now claim that this has been the case; I think that they would not do so, but perhaps the Minister will express a view on the matter.
§ In 1983 the Advisory Board for Research Councils put forward a powerful case for an increase in the science budget, which was turned down by the Government. This was, in fact, a major rebuff. Moreover, the councils, with their reduced income, are faced with constantly rising costs—for example, for superannuation and pensions and for salary levels usually above the 3 per cent. allowed for in Treasury forecasts—a situation which I regret to say I understand is called "de-indexation".
§ The budget for 1985–86 was announced in another place on 12th November. As I understand it, increases over the draft budget have been announced in three areas: restructuring of the research councils, the 580 financing of research projects and, in the university context, the equipment grant. There seems to have been no new money provided, the increases apparently having been made possible by a decrease in student support grants. I ask the noble Earl the Minister to enlarge on this statement. In the context of the need, the increases seem to be at the margin. I cannot truthfully say that I think that they go to the root of the problem. Nevertheless, in my view, the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on having had, in a hostile environment and at the cost of incurring considerable odium in some quarters, the courage to dip into his own budget and take three steps back from the brink.
§ Nowadays the Treasury enforces cuts by the imposition of cash limits. I have no objection to that policy. Indeed, when I was at the Treasury I was inclined to be critical of some of my colleagues who endeavoured to double guess the expert departments in their own expertise. Clever though my colleagues undoubtedly were, I did not think that that was a very sensible or profitable approach, and I was even then inclined to the policy of telling applicants how much money was available and letting them decide on its distribution.
§ However, there is a corollary to that. Some Minister or agency, other than the Treasury, should monitor the long-term effects—both political and economic—of the cash limits policy. Further, the Treasury imposes these limits on individual departments and organisations, thus reducing the flexibility of the system as a whole and the possibility of redistributing resources through virement to which—in my day at any rate—the Treasury were in any case very much opposed.
§ The second leg of the tripod is commissioned research, mainly from departments under the Rothschild criteria. But, as was demonstrated by Sir Ronald Mason's Report on Commissioned Research, which was published a year ago, this system has not worked as intended. Moreover, and perhaps more seriously, the general cuts have led to a reduction in the amount of research commissioned in the past two years. Indeed, it has fallen sharply—in the case of NERC by 30 per cent. in a year.
§ The success of the Rothschild system was, in a nutshell, dependent on strengthening the science component in the commissioning departments, and this has not happened. No provision has been included—as was intended—for strategic research in the contracts; and the bureaucracy of the commissioning arrangements has not been demonstrated to be cost-effective. I ask the Minister to tell your Lordships what action has been taken to meet these and other criticisms in the Mason report and to follow its recommendations.
§ The third leg of the tripod is the dual support system, by which the University Grants Committee finances the research infrastructure in the universities—that is, the salaries of the staff and the equipment of the laboratories—and the research councils provide earmarked funds for particular research projects in the expectation that the work will be carried out in a well-found university department. This expectation can no longer be relied upon owing to the cuts in the UGC grants. This has meant that the 581 research councils have had to devote a higher proportion of the funds available to them to shoring up the other half of the system. The £10 million now added to the equipment grant of the UGC is a step towards meeting a very large shortfall indeed which has built up over recent years.
A wag put the situation to me the other day as follows: university research was cut off at the knee, thus unbalancing the system; the research councils were then similarly treated, which helped to restore the balance, though at a level considerably nearer the ground, thus bringing to mind the lines from the Ballad of Chevy Chase:
and for Witherington your Lordships may substitute any research laboratory or council of your choice—
For Witherington I needs must wail
as one in doleful dumps,
For when his legs were smitten off
he fought upon his stumps".
§ But, seriously, the tripod has become destabilised. The science budget leg has been reduced in real terms; the Rothschild leg is not working properly, with commissioned research sharply down; and the dual support system is crumbling.
§ How have the research councils dealt with this situation? They are redeploying their resources to the best of their ability. Since 1981 they have in any case been evolving with the times. Thus, the SRC have turned into the SERC; the ARC have turned into the AFRC; and the Social Science Research Council have turned into the Economic and Social Research Council—all denoting a change of emphasis in their research objectives and priorities.
§ The councils are of two kinds: the first typified by the SERC, which are mainly grant-giving; the second by the AFRC and the MRC, which mainly run institutes. It is obvious that it is much easier to cut grants than to close institutes. There is mounting evidence that on the research grant side an increasing number of high grade graduate students are being turned away and that others do not think it worthwhile applying. There are of course no grounds for suggesting that every research institute should be a permanent fixture, and it may well be that some research projects are allowed to continue for too long. However, the closing process costs money, reduces the funds available from the science budget, interrupts research programmes and lowers morale. The bad effects may be short-term, but in many advanced technological fields time is of the essence. The additional grant by the Government to meet restructuring of costs seems to be designed to meet this problem, at least in part. This running down process is taking place at a time when our main industrial competitors are gradually increasing their expenditure on basic research.
§ Members of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology, during a recent visit to Washington, were made aware of the extent to which President Reagan has increased the United States budget for basic research. In Japan we met the members of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Councillors, the upper house of the Diet. We were told that in the opinion of that 582 committee Japan was not devoting sufficient resources to basic research.
§ Comparisons with other countries as regards effort in this field are made, which show that the United Kingdom comes out quite well. But these usually include the Ministry of Defence "spend" on research and development, which, if I am not mistaken, is over 50 per cent. of the total. A very high proportion of this goes on development; for example, of new weapons. If this is subtracted, as it should be, from the total, the comparison with other countries as regards expenditure on basic research puts us in a very much worse light. Moreover, the report of the Science Policy Unit of the University of Sussex, to which I referred earlier, has measured a decline in basic research in the United Kingdom. If the Minister has seen this report, I should very much like to know what he thinks about it.
§ I must briefly mention the international dimension, and our membership of collaborative scientific organisations like CERN and the European Space Agency. This is managed by one or more research councils, and it involves the consideration of foreign, and particularly of European, policy. I have not the time to expand on this today but it is a factor of great importance requiring special and probably separate treatment and finance, and it might form the subject of another debate in due course.
§ Who, I wonder, spoke up for science and technology in the recent Star Chamber? I expect the answer will be that it was the Secretary of State for Education and Science, but I venture to make three observations here. First, the science function in the department is minimal in relation to its other responsibilities. In his statement about expenditure on science and education in another place on 12th November the first 21 paragraphs dealt with education, and only the 22nd dealt with science.
§ The staff dealing with science in the department is relatively very small. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, told us forcefully last week that the efficiency of an organisation is not to be measured by the number of its staff, and I heartily agree with him; but there is such a thing as a critical mass, and I suggest that the staff in the department, however able, is still sub-critical.
§ Thirdly, there is no scientific adviser in the department. Your Select Committee recommended that the chairman of the ABRC should be invited to perform for the department more of the functions—and I emphasise "more of the functions"—of a scientific adviser in another department, but this was turned down by the Government on the grounds that it would detract from his independence. But would it? I think it was rather a specious objection.
§ Anyhow, it was with this and other considerations in mind that your Select Committee recommended in 1981 that there should be not a Minister for, or of, Science and Technology, but a Cabinet Minister designated to speak for science and technology in addition to his other responsibilities, advised by a Government chief scientist and a council of science and technology covering both basic science and its 583 applications. This was rejected by the Government, but I still think that there is much to be said for it.
§ For example, the Minister would be able, as I suggested earlier, to monitor the long-term effects of the cash limits imposed over the whole field of activity. Secondly, I believe that the received doctrine is that departmental organisation is vertical and the research council organisation is horizontal. In a horizontal organisation, especially when money is tight, there are bound to be disagreements between departments and councils which the ABRC may have difficulty in resolving but which a Minister, assisted by a council, would be able to settle. I have little expectation that the Minister will tell us today that the Government have changed their mind. But, let me say that in the meantime the ABRC/ACARD interlocking arrangement is, I believe, working as well as can be expected.
§ I conclude by asking the Minister two broad questions. First of all, are the Government fully conscious of the disquiet and anxiety at the decline in Government support for basic and strategic science; and, if so, do they regard it as being without justification? Secondly, it seems to me that the policy of the Government in regard to science and technology is running fundamentally counter to their main and wholly admirable objective of restoring and improving our industrial performance and our competitiveness as a trading nation. Indeed, it is, I suggest, actually undermining that central policy. We are falling behind in basic and applied research at a time when, to meet the objectives, and in order to catch up with the competition, we ought to be increasing it. Are the Government aware of that fundamental inconsistency? My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Lord Walston
My Lords, we are doubly in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield: first, for enabling your Lordships to discuss this vitally important subject and to listen in the course of the debate to many distinguished scientists and others with great experience on these matters; and, secondly, for the masterly way in which he has introduced the subject, running briefly but fully through the earlier history of scientific research in this country, then bringing us to the present situation, and finally making some pertinent suggestions for improving the situation. I am sure that I am only expressing the views of all your Lordships in thanking the noble Lord for what he has done.
There is general agreement that since the end of the last war we have experienced in this country a decline in our traditional industries: in heavy engineering, in shipbuilding, in textiles, and in matters of that sort. At the same time—and this is generally accepted—there has been a general decline, a relative decline, in total industrial production, and above all in our share of world trade.
The only reason why our balance of payments is not in serious difficulties today, and why sterling retains the low level that it does instead of sinking still lower, is because of North Sea oil. But North Sea oil, as we know full well, is a diminishing asset. Most experts tell us—and I have no reason to disbelieve them—that by the turn of the century, at the latest, the production of 584 North Sea oil will have peaked and will be starting to decline. When that happens the strain on our balance of payments, the strain on sterling, the cost of our imports, is going to rise in a truly terrifying manner unless we are able to develop alternative means of production and of export.
The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, reminded us last week that we are now entering, in a new industrial revolution, the age of high technology, and we must consider where we should look in order to redress the imbalance which will otherwise arise when our oil supplies start to diminish. We must concentrate on developing all our industries based on high technology and building up an export trade and a productive capacity that will ensure that we at least retain our present position in the economic world, and I would hope improve it still further.
What are we doing in order to bring this about? We start, of course, with an enormous advantage. We have in this country magnificent places of learning—old places, new places, departments of scientific research of all kinds—which are second to none in the world, and we have teachers who are able to attract young men from all over the world to share their experiences and to profit from what they have to tell them. This is based, of course, on an age-old tradition, a tradition stemming from Newton, from Rutherford, from J. J. Thomson and very many others. The father of the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, was one of the great pioneers in this respect. So we do have these enormous advantages over any other country in the world.
But on this foundation that we have, we are not building—we are not building as we should. The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, mentioned the report of the team from Sussex University Science Policy Research Unit, and it does give some very disturbing facts. It says, for instance, that it is in the strategically important areas such as applied and solid state physics, metallergy, optics, analytical and physical chemistry, polymers and chemical engineering, that our decline has been most marked, and it goes on to point out, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, just touched on, that, compared with our other industrial rivals, particularly the United States, Japan and West Germany, we are lagging far behind. They all spend 50 per cent. more than we do on science and on engineering research. Now that is a very frightening situation. Why is it taking place now?
Well, of course, the short answer is shortage of money. Industry here is notoriously reluctant to spend on R & D compared, for instance, with the United States, Japan or West Germany, as I have said, and perhaps it is an indication of that that the only regret I have about this debate is that there are few, if any, noble Lords from industry who are speaking in it today. Is that—I hope it is not—an indication of the lack of interest of the industrialists of this country in this subject?
It is not only industry which is dragging its feet. The Government are beset by financial stringency.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, I can in fact count nine noble Lords who are heavily involved in industry taking part in the debate.
§ Lord Walston
My Lords, I am very glad to be corrected by my noble friend and I hope that they will make it very clear to us that they at least, so far as their own industries are concerned, are doing all that is necessary to promote industrial research in their particular field.
However, it is with the Government side of the matter in particular that I am concerned, and one is tempted to ask why, after five years in office, we are still suffering so much from financial stringency that we are not able to afford the money which is necessary for this type of enormously valuable and essential work. But I shall forbear from asking that question because I do not want to bring party politics into a debate which transcends in importance anything of that kind. There can, though, be no getting away from the fact that the financial stringency argument, while it is not actually killing the goose that lays the golden egg, is undoubtedly so starving it that it can only produce a fraction of the eggs of which it is capable, and those eggs take far longer than the nine months of gestation to which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, referred.
My only personal experience in these matters is with agricultural research, and I hope your Lordships will bear with me if I point out some of the effects that these cuts are having on agricultural research, though I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, will go into this with far more knowledge and detail than I can.
In the 'thirties, my Lords, in the days when there was plenty of food in the world—at least so far as we were concerned—and there was no question of food shortages, we spent a considerable amount of money for those days on agricultural research. And not only on agricultural research, but on basic research which, so far as could be told at the time it was started, had no bearing whatsoever on agriculture. I am thinking, in particular, of the Low Temperature Research Laboratory in Cambridge and the work that it did then, which made possible the freezing of semen. This was developed by that very great practical scientist, Dr. Hammond, and his colleagues, in Cambridge between the wars and led to artificial insemination. As a result of the low temperature research work, the work of Hammond has been able to have a far greater impact than it could possibly have had otherwise. Also, the types of selective herbicide which are now universally used to such very great effect throughout agriculture—which we shall be discussing in rather more detail tomorrow afternoon—stem from basic work which was carried out in this country in the 'thirties, and my goodness they were of value to us in the years immediately following upon the war when food was really short.
Now, in cash terms, as I understand it, the funds of the Agricultural and Food Research Council are static, but we must not forget that, to their activities, the letter F has been added. Quite rightly, they now have to concern themselves with research relating to food and not to agriculture alone. They also have, quite rightly, to pay more attention to environmental questions, which are becoming increasingly important, and, of course, there is money to be paid out for redundancies in many of their research institutes. So, while it may be possible from the book-keeping point of view to say that there has been no 586 reduction in the amount of money that they have, in point of fact, so far as the institutes themselves are concerned, the reductions are very significant.
Now may I ask your Lordships to look for a moment with me at the work done by the Institute of Animal Physiology, also near Cambridge? In passing, it is worth mentioning that it is because of the original basic research done there many years ago that kidney transplants became possible and, from that, all the other types of transplant about which we read so much in the newspapers today. That is the type of interlocking research—the result of basic research—which cannot be foreseen at the time. But, although in some ways it may be said—I know that some rival institutes say this—that the Institute of Animal Physiology has got off relatively lightly, this year it has had to make enforced savings of £400,000 as a result of reduced cash limits. It succeeded in doing this only by freezing vacancies, and by some redundancies. Next year it expects cash limits to be at least £200,000 short of the sum needed to continue its existing reduced programme, and there is a likelihood of still further cuts in the years to come.
It is hardly surprising that it is now scarcely possible for it to plan new research enterprises or to recruit well-qualified staff to tenured posts. The effect of that on the whole of agricultural production, and possibly on other forms of activity, including medical research, is quite impossible to quantify.
The other Cambridge research institute with which I have close connections is the Plant Breeding Institute. Here, for instance, in the current year 1984–85 it has had a cash reduction of £120,000. In 1985–86 this will probably be of the order of £160,000, and it may well be that in the subsequent year that cut will increase to £250,000. All these are very significant sums in the budgets of relatively modest institutes—institutes which are making a very real contribution to the economic welfare of one particular industry, albeit a very important industry. They have had to meet these cuts by, for example, abandoning work on the genetic engineering of certain types of wheat which would make them resistant to aphid infection—a very important factor which would reduce costs and, incidentally, reduce the use of herbicides—where great advance has already been made. That is one of the areas which has been singled out for cuts. There has also been a serious number of staff redundancies.
These are the things which are happening in just two institutes. But more important than the actual cuts in the work is the effect on morale. There is now far less security than there was; there are far more redundancies; and there is a squeeze on necessary equipment. Your Lordships can well understand the almost impossible task that is imposed on the directors of these institutes—directors who are primarily scientists, and extremely distinguished scientists—when they have to spend so much of their time not only effecting these cuts but in trying to keep up the morale of the staff as a result of the cuts. And there is always the question: "Where will the axe fall next? Will it be in the department in which I work? Will I find myself without a job?" So it is no wonder that many of the best young scientists are not looking for work in this country, but are looking for work 587 overseas, particularly in the United States, and that the middle aged scientists, who are still relatively footloose, are tempted by offers coming from overseas, particularly offers to those who have already made their reputation.
Just one final word. There is no hard and fast link between basic and applied research. Applied research cannot prosper without basic research, and it is impossible to tell what basic research will be useful and what will not. They are completely interwined, and any attempt to cut the one but maintain the other is bound to fail. If we are to meet the challenge of the coming years, if we are to preserve the value of sterling, if we are to maintain a healthy balance of payments, we must build on the industries of high technology and on our great scientific tradition, and we must not starve those centres of research either of funds or of the top quality scientists who work in them.
§ 3.45 p.m.
My Lords, I should like straightaway to get an expression of gratitude and a declaration of interest off my chest, as well as an apology. I am afraid that as a result of a very long-standing engagement I am unable perforce to attend for the whole of this debate, which is on a subject of great interest to me. Perhaps I should add the avowal that the occasion for my enforced absence happens to be the unveiling of a remarkable portrait delineating the remarkably handsome features of a Member of your Lordships' House. Modesty compels me not to reveal his identity.
We are all grateful for the gift to this House of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. We should be particularly grateful to the noble Lord, a mentor of mine at one time, for focusing our attention on the growing erosion of the science base in this country and on the grave position with which the research councils are faced at the present time. On these matters the noble Lord brings to our discussions a marvellous wealth of experience, as demonstrated this afternoon in his wide-ranging, powerful and pungent speech.
I am by nature a sedentary gentleman, but I get around the world a bit these days as chairman of an organisation called the British Overseas Trade Board. Time and time again it is borne in upon me that our ability to earn our keep in a very competitive world, our ability to pay our way in the world through our exports, depends in very large measure on those of our industries and those of our companies which have a high scientific and technological content. That is the point which the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has just made. But first-class technology calls for a first-class scientific base, and without that base we shall not be able to hold our place in the manufacturing and exporting sun.
However, it is as chairman of one of the research councils, the Medical Research Council, that I wish to make a modest contribution to the debate. It is as such that I declare my particular interest, and I propose stringently and strictly to restrict my comments to that particular research council. As a result of that, my remarks will be niggling and microscopic, but perhaps for that reason illustrative, because I am only too well aware that the stresses and strains with which we are 588 faced at present in the Medical Research Council are not unique to that council. They are common to them all, and to some of them in perhaps an even more accentuated form.
The prospects for medical research in this country (and there are noble Lords who will be speaking after me who know a great deal more about this subject)—an area in which Britain has made a proud contribution to the alleviation of human suffering—should be very bright. In the past year, for example, we have been able to take important initiatives in four important areas, establishing new programmes in neurobiology, in psychiatry, in tuberculosis and, not least, in that hitherto unduly neglected, rather mundane, area of medical research; namely, dentistry.
There are other, rather extraordinary possibilities almost within our grasp, possibilities which could bring great benefit to the health and therefore the economy of our nation. Moreover, for reasons which I do not fully understand, we are at present faced with an unusually high degree of really first-class, alpha applications for grants for medical research within the university world. Our ability to implement, to give effect to, these opportunities depends upon cash—and spare cash is just what we lack.
That may sound a rather curious statement from the chairman of a council with a budget funded from the science Vote which comes to the not inconsiderable sum of around £120 million a year. Yet despite good housekeeping—and I can vouch for the good housekeeping—the MRC's room for manoeuvre is desperately limited these days. Many of our commitments are necessarily medium or longer term. For example, let us take out-house research: as the grants to universities terminate, the money is recycled into new grants; but the resulting cash is insufficient to meet all the good applications for good, new work. Or take in-house research. Even if we close research council units in which the council employs its own staff—and we have closed 20 units in the past eight years; we are not very static about this—the money derived from these closures flows slowly to us because of the commitments to existing staff.
Again, in medical science, as in other branches of science, the sophistication and the cost of equipment is rising explosively. Thus, even in good times our margin for manoeuvre—for new initiatives—is limited. But these are hard times and we have already suffered a serious reduction in our income, and we are perhaps facing a further reduction. It is true that our grant-in-aid for the present year was more than for the past year, but only in false cash terms. Given inflation, this has meant a significant reduction in our budget in real terms. Moreover, a number of extraordinary items of expenditure—rather exceptional—beyond our control, have further reduced our disposable income, and by a substantial amount. I shall not worry your Lordships with all the details of these abnormal—apparently quite trivial—cuts in expenditure. Like most matters of budgeting, they are incredibly boring.
They relate, however, to four areas. First, salary increases following a university pay award well in excess of the Government's cash limits; secondly, an increase in our superannuation contributions—a demand on us which came out of the blue following a 589 recommendation from the Government Actuary, which was no doubt accurate. Thirdly, a loss relating to what is politely called "rounding down" in our grant-in-aid by a kindly sponsoring department; and last but by no means least, increases in our subscriptions to certain international bodies—for example, the quite excellent International Agency for Cancer Research—resulting in large part from exchange fluctuations over which we, let alone the Treasury, have but little control. Be that as it may, these cuts, together with a cut in real income, mean that our already marginal room for manoeuvre has been virtually eroded.
Not only is the council's ability to fund new work now in question but, even worse, our capacity adequately to meet our existing commitments is now very much in doubt. For example, the council have been forced to impose an overall cut of over 21 per cent. in the running expenses of our units. We have also been unable to support over half of the top class, alpha, high-scoring applications for long-term grant support. What worries me—and what I think should worry all of us who have the future of medical research, and all research, in this country at heart—is that while the present prospect is stark and difficult, the future could well become grimmer still. This is because for us, at least, the advisory board for the research councils has imposed fines—the polite term is so-called levies—of an additional £1 million and £2 million in our grant-in-aid for the next two years. These sound small sums, but when your margin of manoeuvre is limited they are very significant. Those fines have been imposed on us to help bail out other research councils which perhaps find themselves in an even more invidious position.
Let me make one point clear. I am not criticising the advisory board. It is an admirable institution with an admirable chairman. I do not dissent from what the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, said about the higher organisation of science and the science Vote. What I am trying to focus on—admittedly, through a very narrow lens—is the now pretty critical situation for scientific research in the country as a whole.
I should like to illustrate that situation—again on a narrow, microscopic front—by mentioning some of the stark expedients which have been forced upon this particular research council, the Medical Research Council. In the coming year we shall be cutting in half our normal provision for capital equipment. We shall be severely curtailing our capital building budget. We shall be reducing by 25 per cent. and by 7.5 per cent., respectively, the support which we give for long-term grants and shorter project grants to the universities. That is serious enough. It is even more serious given the cuts in the University Grants Committee support for university research in recent years. Those are two legs, the second leg of which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, spoke.
Finally—and no less serious—this year we have been forced to make a reduction of about a third in the number of training awards which we make to the university sector. If this goes on we shall be faced with a situation in which our ability to exploit new opportunities in medical research will be hamstrung by a shortage of trained workers. It is precisely the 590 situation with which this country is faced at the present time in information technology. It seems to me cavalier needlessly to incur it in medical research.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl (whose speech interested me greatly) whether there is any strong reason presented for these cuts which are being imposed?
My Lords, I think that it is some of these Tibetan philosophies which have something to do with it—which a noble Earl spoke to your Lordships about not long ago. But they come from a desire—and a desire with which I align myself—to curtail so far as it is possible Government expenditure. That is the simple reason. I greatly hope that the gravity of the situation will be matched by a response from the Government. It would be churlish not to mention small mercies like the recently announced decision to increase the science Vote by £14 million; and in this context I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, in the tribute that he paid to the Secretary of State for Education and Science. It was deserved because it was a difficult and brave decision. I note that £6 million of this Vote is to go towards major restructuring. Therefore, may I ask my noble friend who will be replying whether this gets SERC and the MRC off the levy hook next year and beyond that? As for the future, I urge the Government to build these additional funds into the science Vote baseline and to do all that they can to ensure stability for basic scientific research—stability in real terms.
In addition, there are a couple of shorter-term, circumscribed, microscopic palliatives which I should like to suggest to my noble friend. They are palliatives which at least give additional first-aid and a little bit more room for manoeuvre, certainly to one research council. For example, the Treasury in their benevolent way could help to fund the MRC pension scheme as they have helped in the past.
Secondly, the Government could revert to the original position with respect to the funding of international medical research organisations whereby items outside a particular research council's control, such as inflation or the exchange rate, do not cut into and emasculate councils' budgets. Thirdly, I would repeat this point. The Government could relieve the MRC and the Science and Engineering Research Council of the levies imposed upon them for the next two years in order to help out some other research councils—admirable bodies—in their even greater difficulties. It seems quite wrong in principle——
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, could the noble Earl possibly put a figure on these additional grants for funding that he would like to see given by the Government? I admire his optimism; and of course his reference to "restructuring" is only a polite word for cuts and redundancies.
My Lords, I am always very polite. I find it terribly difficult to retain figures in my elderly head, but I would assure noble Lords that the funds which I am referring to are microscopic. In the foreword to the latest report of the Medical Research Council, Sir James Gowans, the Deputy Chairman 591 and Secretary, and I stated unequivocably—and I quote our words—that,in medical research, the science base of the United Kingdom is in danger of being severely damaged".We did not use those words lightly: nor were we just referring to the ability in this country to produce Nobel prize-winners in this field of research, as we have done in the past. I am proud that my particular council has in one particular laboratory—the molecular biology laboratory at Cambridge—no fewer than six Nobel prize-winners. I do not think there is any laboratory in the world which can equal that, and I think it is a just cause for national pride.
But we had other things in mind. We had in mind the great opportunities now before this country for medical research. I shall cite just two almost random examples. There is, for example, the money required to fund new research in the fascinating, opening and expanding field of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging—a field in which we are still world leaders and from which a large commercial dividend stands to be won. But this will need money. There are, not least, the great possibilities opening up for us in transferring our accumulated experience in molecular biology, where again Britain is in the world lead, directly into the clinical and medical sphere, and particularly in the field of preventative medicine. And money for that, too, is needed—not vast sums.
But Sir James Gowans and I had more homely fields also in mind. For example, absence from work due to sickness robs this country of some 150 million man days of productivity each year. There is also the cost of caring for the 700,000 people—a formidable and frightening number—in this country who suffer from senile dementia, which amounts to over half a billion pounds. These two are areas where the MRC needs more cash for its continued attack upon these problems. The danger to the future of medical research in this country is now, I believe, real, and so are the glittering opportunities. I would express, in conclusion, the very strong hope that the Government will continue to ponder very hard indeed both the dangers and the opportunities.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ Lord Gregson
My Lords, may I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for introducing this timely debate this afternoon. As a contribution to this debate, I should like to say something about the importance of the work of the Science and Engineering Research Council; but before I do so I want to say a few words about the problems which set the scene and underline the significance of this research council. I doubt whether there is anyone in the House this afternoon who is not aware that last year we went into negative balance of trade in manufactured goods for the first time in recorded history. But I wonder how many of your Lordships are aware of the alarming rate of change from positive balance to negative balance. In 1981 we had a positive balance of £5 billion; in 1982 we had a positive balance of £2 billion; and in 1983, a negative balance of £2 billion. So far this year, including the third quarter, we have already recorded a negative balance of £3 billion, and the third quarter, 592 if projected at an annualised rate, is running presently at a negative balance of £5 billion.
For a nation that has to import one-third of its food and nearly all its raw materials, that is a very unsatisfactory state indeed. In normal circumstances that would spell bankruptcy, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be drafting his letter of intent to the IMF, pleading with them to bail us out, and we would all be suffering a drastically reduced standard of living. But this is not so. As the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has pointed out, we are awash with North Sea oil: £20 billion sterling of it per annum at present market prices. It is like a thumping big win on Ernie but, like wins on Ernie, it does not last for ever and in the next few years North Sea oil will peak out. Of course it will not disappear overnight and we shall certainly be dragging the dregs out of the North Sea well into the twenty-first century. But that top slice, which presently balances our books in terms of overseas trade and which is the surplus over our own requirements that we presently sell around the world for dollars—and very useful dollars they are—is the bit that disappears first and probably it will all have gone by the early 1990s.
I will readily admit to being a pessimist in this circumstance, but I should like briefly to comment on what the optimists claim. First, they claim that we are in a post-Industrial Revolution decline and that the service sector will take over from the manufacturing sector. I would suggest to your Lordships that this is rubbish. For the service sector to take over the role of our manufacturing industry we in this country would have to provide half the services of the whole of the Western world. It is just not credible, and I wish that people who keep repeating this nonsense would really have a good look at the facts.
Secondly, it is suggested that the dividends and interest of the millions which the institutions have invested abroad instead of in British industry will somehow replace the bonanza of North Sea oil. The increase expected (according to the Bank of England) in dividends and interest between now and the early 1990s is approximately an additional £2 billion. That does not seem to me to equate either to the £10 billion credited to North Sea oil sales abroad, or to the £10 billion lost in trade in the manufacturing sector. In any case, I wonder how many of those marvellous investments, in view of the world debt crisis, will turn out to be bad debts rather than good dividends.
But it is the third claim of the optimists that worries me most. This claim is that as North Sea oil runs out, the value of the pound will collapse, our goods will become more competitive on the world markets and we shall restore our balance of payments position. Well, we currently have an outstanding example—an experiment to prove the rule—in that the pound has halved in value against the dollar. The pound has dropped against the dollar more than any other of the principal currencies in the Western world. So to the Americans our goods are now incredibly cheap, and the Americans, because of the strong dollar, are sucking in imports at an unbelievable rate. This year they are heading for a trade deficit of 130 billion dollars, which makes ours look like village post office economics. But are they sucking in imports of British goods? The answer to that is, yes, but at a much lower 593 rate than our principal competitors. Great Britain has increased its trade in its principal market, where we have a common language, at less than half the rate of our continental competitors and a quarter of the rate of the Japanese.
If one looks at the areas where our exports are increasing, one has only to walk round the shops in America to see woollen goods, fine china and the occasional Jaguar, which left the drawing board 20 years ago. We are not exporting to America goods with a high technological content. I believe that this in itself spells danger. I believe that as a nation we are becoming technologically obsolescent: a creeping disease that is so insidious that when you are living in it you hardly notice that it is happening, but for those looking at us from outside it is becoming only too apparent.
The Cabinet Office last year published a joint report on research and development which points out the importance of high value-added manufactures to the United Kingdom, but they go on to say that over a wide range of products the unit value of United Kingdom exports is now less than that of the corresponding imports, and there are whole sectors of products based on high technology which are now wholly or substantially met by imports. If we are to stop this creeping malady, there can be no question but that we have to increase basic research, applied research, product development and the supply of well-trained, capable people to support a campaign to recover the ground that we have lost, which is turning us into a technologically obsolescent nation. This drive to regain our lost place in the world's trade of manufactured goods starts with basic and applied research. That is why the work of the Science and Engineering Research Council is of such great fundamental importance to the future economic well-being of this nation.
Furthermore, it is quite impossible to have centres of educational excellence without underlying centres of research excellence. There is no way you can attract people to universities of quality to teach our future scientists and technologists, who will prevent this country from sinking into an economic abyss when North Sea oil starts to decline, without a research base of recognised international excellence. It really is totally illogical to be cutting or restricting our basic research in science and engineering when our trading partners are providing a dramatic increase in order to cancel out Great Britain in the world trade market.
It is a nonsense to send the seed corn of the future to the miller to pay for the tax cuts of today. It simply must not be allowed to happen. Any Government which do so will be condemned in history for evermore.
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Lord Swann
My Lords, I hope that I, too, may be forgiven if I leave this interesting and important debate before the end, but I have a long-standing and inescapable engagement in a good cause. As a natural scientist, or perhaps in honesty I should say once a natural scientist, as well as once a member of two of the scientific research councils, I first thought of talking about the areas I know most of; but I guessed, correctly, that there would be no shortage of noble 594 Lords who would say all that I could, and say it better. I therefore decided that I would talk about that least favoured, and in some quarters decidedly least loved, of the research council quintet; namely, the ESRC, or, to give it its current full name, the Economic and Social Research Council. I also want to talk about the ESRC for another reason, namely, that in the last 15 years I have become increasingly involved in complex social problems, where good research leading to an understanding of the problems is sorely needed by society.
My first encounter with that sort of problem was at the BBC. It involved, among others, someone I used to meet there from time to time, Mrs. Whitehouse. She and her colleagues feel, as do many others, that television violence, whether as fictional violence or simply the news coverage of violence, goes on to cause real violence. It was an accusation which troubled me and the board of governors, and no doubt it continues to do so. We looked at such research evidence as there was—some of it good, some of it not good—and the foremost conclusion that one could scarcely fail to reach was (and I suspect still is) that violence has no single cause and is a very complex social problem that is far from being disentangled. In all probability its causes are a complex of social attitudes on the part of those who resort to violence, together with a complex of attitudes and behaviour on the part of those against whom violence is directed.
One would be bold and unwise to say that television has no effect, but my guess, for what it is worth—and much more research is needed—is that television's effect is only part of the wider effect on society of swift modern communications, which include, of course, radio, the press, the telephone and quick travel. Nowadays, in contrast to 100 years ago, we all know what other people, miles away, are thinking and doing and getting away with. But, of course, the reaction is equally speeded up. I doubt whether the present widespread revulsion against pithead violence, for instance, would by now have built up to the level that it has were it not for modern communications.
My second encounter with a complex social problem was when I took on, after leaving the BBC, the chairmanship of a research institution, the Technical Change Centre, as it is called, financed in part by one of the large charitable research trusts and in part by two of the research councils. Its concern, briefly, is to investigate why Britain has, with rather few exceptions, fallen so far behind in adopting the new technologies. As the Wall Street Journal concluded not long ago in a rather brutal survey:No European country ranks as the leading source in any technological area. In most fields the top European country—usually West Germany—ranks as a distant third. All other European countries virtually cease to register as widely recognised sources of technology leadership".This is not the moment to talk about the research that the Technical Change Centre has done in its, so far, three years, though I believe it has been valuable. But, just as with violence on the BBC, it leaves me in no doubt that we are dealing once again with a very complex problem where there is no single solution, and there are certainly no simple solutions.
The universities are often enough blamed for the innovative inadequacies of British industry—it is a 595 point of view I am sure we shall hear more of this afternoon—and as an erstwhile vice-chancellor I cannot but regret that British universities have been very slow in building links with industry, even though they have moved a long way in recent years. In the last resort, however, universities are not companies and they do not have the resources to carry their research, be it pure or applied, very far into the stage of development. And they most certainly have no direct influence when it comes to taking the crucial managerial and financial decisions that a company has to take if it is to embrace the new technologies upon which national wealth now depends.
Why, then, has Britain made such a poor showing? The reasons can only be complex and must lie deep in the attitudes and capacities of management, and in the attitudes of workforces. It is this web of interrelated factors that the Technical Change Centre is trying to unravel in a variety of ways. Once again the roots are multi-causal, complex and ill-understood. As I found myself commenting in the foreword to our last annual report:The problems are not so much scientific and technological as human, centring in a variety of ways round the economic and social. It is ironic, therefore, and not always fair, that these disciplines, which are so crucial to our industrial well-being, have acquired in some circles a rather poor image".It is in a quite different area, however, that I have had to look most closely at research in the social sciences. A few years back I took over the chairmanship of a Government committee on the educational needs of Britain's ethnic minorities. It has been known for quite a time that some minorities, most notably the West Indians, have been seriously under-achieving at school, thereby exacerbating yet further their economic and social deprivation, caused in the first instance by prejudice and discrimination in the employment and housing markets. Much the same is true of the Bangladeshis, whereas other Asian groups do broadly as well at school as the indigenous whites. Why is this and what should be done about it?
Having taken much written and oral evidence, we turned to published research for its answer. I myself read extensively for months. There is some very good research but there is much that ranges from the not-very-good to the decidedly poor and parti pris. In the course of my reading, one essay stuck in my mind. It was by Dr. Bhikhu Parekh, a former member of our committee, who left his British university to become, on secondment, vice-chancellor of a university in India. In his essay, Dr. Parekh first lists the many factors which have been thought by different research workers to contribute to ethnic minority under-achievement. He notes six major factors and about as many minor factors; I need not trouble your Lordships with what they are.
Dr. Parekh goes on to note the defects of the research debate that has gone on in recent years. His list is revealing. First comes what he calls the fallacy of the single cause. Second comes the assumption that a factor which affects one group must necessarily affect another group in the same way. Thirdly, the debate is conducted at too abstract a level to relate to the reality of the school or the child, to permit sensible discussion or to have clear policy implication. Fourthly, most 596 participants are deeply committed to specific theories and either ignore others or dismiss them with a bundle of sweeping generalisations. Lastly, the debate on so sensitive an issue—where every possible explanation points an accusatory finger at someone—rapidly becomes politicised.
Dr. Parekh believes (and so do I) that one can extract at least some fairly reliable conclusions from the better research. But his critique of the general picture is, I am sure, only too accurate. This will not surprise opponents of the social sciences—though I should interject here that I believe the ESRC's record in this area is a good one—and such opponents will no doubt go on to argue that the whole exercise is not worth the money that is spent on it. I must disagree, for reasons which I shall try to explain.
Your Lordships may very well say to all this, "Yes, we agree that there are many important economic and social problems, and it would be a great help to society if we understood them better. But social scientists have been spending Government money studying them for quite a long time and we are not much wiser. And, in useful practical terms, what has emerged? Rather little." I would have to agree in large measure—and, I believe, so would most social scientists. But they would surely add a proviso, and so would I.
In terms of the growth of knowledge and the development of the science, these are early days. To go on from their present embryonic state to argue that the social sciences will never become as practically useful as the natural sciences does not follow, and the whole weight of the history of the natural sciences argues very much the other way. Had research in the physical sciences been dependent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on government funding in the way it is now, one can hardly doubt that voices would have been raised about the desirability of cuts. And, had medical research been so funded, one must doubt whether it would actually have received any money at all. One is bound to suspect that even half way through the last century a medical research council would have been regarded as a prime candidate for pruning. Fortunately for posterity, money came in other ways.
It has to be remembered that the scientific knowledge we now take for granted took a long time and much effort to acquire—and the nearer we get to biological systems, the longer it has taken and the more difficult it has become. Human societies are not only the most complex of all the biological systems; they tend also to be the least susceptible to what is perhaps the most powerful of the scientific methods—namely, the controlled experiment. So, if it took until the latter part of the last century for medicine to begin to prevent and cure disease, we can hardly be surprised that the social sciences are only now beginning to accumulate the understanding they need in order to become practically useful. No scientist can seriously doubt that the methods of science which have proved so immensely powerful in understanding the natural world will, in time, unravel the complexities of man's economic and social activities.
We ought to remember also that the political and dogmatic overtones of the social sciences which so infuriate politicians and others—understandably—as well as their tendency to oversimplify, have their 597 parallels in the early history of the natural sciences. They, too, had their tenaciously-held dogmas—if less obviously political in the current sense of that word. Indeed, one can perhaps detect dogmas even in present-day natural science, though they tend to melt away as they are subjected to the advance of knowledge—and early science certainly oversimplified. Indeed, I believe that these defects, as we now see them, are probably an inevitable phase in the development of any science.
I do not think, therefore, that we should worry too much about economic and social science dogmas. They, too, will melt away in time—and more rapidly, the faster the subjects develop. They are regrettable of course—chiefly, because they tend to hold back the key advances—and they are liable to squeeze new minds with new ideas. But the remedy is not to give up hope and support but to encourage and support the best and most rigorous research. By this, I do not necessarily mean copying the precise methods of the natural sciences and I do mean fostering ideas which do not necessarily fit into established wisdom. The ESRC could do worse than try to list the dogmas in its area—be they dogmas of technique or concept—and build into their peer review system an academic counterbalance and some detached outside viewpoints. Perhaps they do; I can only hope so.
In short, I believe that we should spend more and not less than we do on the smallest and cheapest of the research councils. The ESRC consumes only £22.4 million out of a total research council expenditure of £516 million—just 4 per cent. If there is no money overall—and I profoundly hope that there will be—then I at least would prune just a little off the others; 1 per cent. all round, perhaps, for a start.
I say that for two reasons. In the first place, I believe that, given time, the social sciences can do as much for our society—albeit in a different way—as the natural sciences have done and are doing.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, may I put a question to the noble Lord? There are many people who are well-disposed towards these studies who would prefer to call them social studies and not social sciences. In other words, has the noble Lord considered the possibility that the whole phrase "social sciences" is very misleading?
§ Lord Swann
My Lords, I agree in large measure, but I would also say that there is no clear distinction between what one might call the social end of the biological sciences and the biological end of the social sciences. If one wishes to remove the word "sciences", I see no objection: "science" really only means "knowledge".
Secondly, I believe that the key factors limiting the growth of the national wealth—on which the total research council budget ultimately depends—are, as I argued earlier, not so much scientific and technological as economic and social. The ESRC is presently putting great weight on research into these areas and in the long run it can only be to the advantage of the other research councils to forgo a little now.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, I start, as did my noble friend Lord Jellicoe, by declaring that I have a close involvement in today's subject as chairman of one of the research councils—in my case as chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council. Also, like my noble friend, I must declare my indebtedness to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, who once again has drawn our attention in a masterly way to the erosion of the science research base in this country.
It is a matter of some consolation that your Lordships' House returns to this subject quite frequently. The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, reminded us that it is nine months since we debated a subject allied to today's debate. I believe that it is very appropriate that we should have such a debate. The noble Lord explained very clearly—I do not think anyone need reiterate it—how, whatever might have been the hopes of the present Administration that the science Vote be maintained and with it the research thrust, sadly this simply has not been the case. We had the cuts in the UGC some four years ago and we have had also the in-built momentum caused by the cost of research itself. It appears to be an immutable fact that research, machinery and technology get ever more expensive and with it just to stay in the same place appear to come costs which we fail to recoup. The result—by whichever measure one wishes to choose—is that the research that we are undertaking in this country is diminishing. This again, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, pointed out, has been clearly expounded by a paper at Sussex University.
The sad fact is that we are now having to decide which of our growth industries we are able to underpin with research; and this at a time when we live in an age of high technology. It is the unenviable role of the Advisory Board for Research Councils to have to make some of those decisions. The ABRC pointed out to the Government in 1983—again, very clearly, I felt—that it simply was not adequate any more even to attempt, albeit unsuccessfully, to maintain the science Vote if we were to try to achieve for research what we had tried to achieve since 20 or 30 years ago—the adequate underpinning for technology which was becoming ever more expensive and ever more complicated. There had to be increased expenditure and an increased priority given to research expenditure. This point was not taken.
The expenditure which was given to the science Vote for the ABRC to give advice to the Secretary of State remained static at first and I maintain, as would others, that in practice it has diminished. With it has gone an opportunity. Whatever other public expenditure costs the Government (who I have to say I support from these Benches) wish to pare, the one that I, as a farmer, would suggest we simply cannot afford to cut—the seed corn—is, by this inability to answer the 1983 recommendations of the ABRC, the area that I fear, by default, the Government have chosen.
There is perhaps one area in which insufficient advice is given to the Government—and, goodness knows, plenty of advice is given in this area of research priorities. It is the balance between defence research and civil research. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord 599 Sherfield, who reminded us that over 50 per cent. of research expenditure in this country goes on defence. That may be right; I do not know. But I wonder whether the Government are satisfied that the mechanism which reviews the balance between civil research and defence research is adequate. Certainly I know that there was some concern that the spin-offs from defence research were inadequately finding their way through into industry. The Secretary of State for Defence addressed himself to this problem and, again, I should be very interested to hear from my noble friend the Minister when he replies as to whether the Goverment are satisfied that real progress has been made in interlocking industry into defence research.
Wider than that, if we accept the premise, which so many other speakers have made, that we are under-funding research and that whole blocks of industry are going to suffer, are we right to assume that we can still afford, unlike most other countries, I believe, to put over 50 per cent. of our research investment into defence?
The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, referred to the tripod, which is the funding arrangement for research councils, and I should like in particular to address myself to the commissioning leg of that tripod. I must take up the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, to address myself in particular to agricultural and food research simply because it is certainly the area which I know best. I must say that I believe that those other research councils which derive part of their funding from commissioning face exactly the same problems. These problems, again, were referred to in a previous debate. At the time the customer-contractor principle was being adopted—that is, the time when Lord Rothschild's report was adopted, albeit in a modified form—I remember that in that interesting and long debate in your Lordships' House grave concern was expressed as to whether research could adequately be funded through the commissioning procedure and whether the funding was likely to be affected by the vagaries of Treasury support or political whim. It was pointed out then that even applied research implies a time-scale which does not fit in neatly with the year-by-year expenditure through normal accounting procedures. Then, as often since, assurances were given that the requirement to give continuity of funding of research was understood and that the department would be able to undertake this responsibility adequately.
Of course, if one now looks at the agricultural departments—I do not refer just to MAFF; I also refer to DAFS and to the department in Northern Ireland—one sees that they are, for reasons which I think we all understand, under very close scrutiny on public expenditure. It may well be that the changing emphasis in our policy towards agricultural production requires an assessment as to how expenditure within those ministries should be best deployed. It is certainly the case that an increase in output is no longer a prime objective. But if for the moment we look at the requirements of the producer at a time when we recognise that the common agricultural policy has led us up something of a cul-de-sac, that systems of agriculture have been supported which now perhaps look untenable, that the prices the 600 producers are going to receive for some commodities will be reduced somewhere down to world prices and that in other commodities there will be constraints put on production levels, as is the case already for milk, I think there is a very firm onus on those commissioning departments to give to the producer the options which research and development are designed to provide. Indeed, it is exactly there where the research service and the development services are finding themselves under great pressure in a farming industry which is in great confusion, after years of expansion, suddenly finding that priorities have changed. To have the research capacity reduced at this time could be seen as a final blow to an industry which has been so responsive in the past to technological changes.
I am sure that I do not need to remind the Minister of the debate we had not so many months ago about cuts at the Welsh plant breeding station. The noble Baroness, Lady White, will remember that she and others in this House forcefully pointed out that there were many areas of agriculture which were suffering great difficulties and that they looked with great suspicion at the concept of achieving quite modest economies in research at a time when the industry would need all the support it could get.
Yet another debate—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, will refer to this when he speaks to his Select Committee's report—emphasised how we must improve the agricultural and environmental research interface. Great concern has been expressed, not only in this House but also elsewhere, on the environmental impact of agriculture and allied industries. The Government quite correctly gave a commitment to increase their research capacity in this area.
Later this evening there will be a debate on animal welfare or subjects allied to it. I am sure that it will be the wish of the public as a whole to see the research capacity in this area maintained if not increased.
To take a further area, perhaps not so much the Ministry of Agriculture as the Department of Health and Social Security has produced several reports—one is this report I hold in my hand, the Diet and Cardiovascular Disease Report—suggesting that there should be changes in the diet of this country: we should reduce the amount of fats that we eat. I understand that this report has in the main been accepted by the Government and there are implications there not just for the producer but also for the food industry and the consumer.
There have been recent reports on the sad state in which the food industry finds itself. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, has already referred to the Advisory Committee on Applied Research and Development's report on the food industry. Again, the Government, quite correctly, in my mind, have said that, yes, this is a strategic industry which finds itself in some difficulties, perhaps because the industry failed to support its own research adequately some years ago. Nevertheless, the case is that we are now losing market share. The fast moving technology is not being adequately developed in this country. There must be further expenditure in this area.
All the areas I have quoted come firmly under the category of commissioned research. As others have explained, that is not to say that the science Vote itself 601 is not being eroded. However, it is the commissioned area to which I was particularly addressing myself. I would make the very strong plea that before yet further cuts are forced on the Minister of Agriculture and his colleagues in Scotland and elsewhere, very careful consideration be given to these and other issues, which the public, and indeed the farmer, are expecting to be funded.
It must not escape your Lordships' notice that it is rather ironical to have two speakers from these Benches pleading special reasons why cuts in public expenditure, however many there should be, should not affect their own vested interest. I think there is a very firm onus on the research councils and others to look at the possibility of perhaps developing a fourth leg—I suppose it will no longer be a tripod; perhaps I should now call it a table—to the funding of research councils. Something which the Secretary of State for Education and Science has suggested to universities and others is that they should be looking at increased funding from industry and from alternative areas.
I would say that all research councils do receive quite considerable sums of money from other such areas. For instance, I think the European Commission has fairly imaginative proposals. But if I can suggest one palliative to add to those which have been suggested earlier, there is a strange concept called attribution. For example, if you get money—in some cases, not always—from a source such as the European Commission, as, for instance, the head of a research institute of whom I spoke earlier, you then find that you have that sum of money docked off your budget. I know this causes great frustration. It really is counterproductive in every sense of the word. It certainly discourages managers of research institutes from going flat out for such funding from Europe. I ask the Minister whether he can assure us that the Treasury are going to take a more enlightened view on this rather small area.
While I am talking about palliatives, there is just another small one. The Rayner Review has pointed out areas where, by better housekeeping, research councils can make ongoing savings in both running costs and once-and-for-all costs. Those once-and-for-all costs tend to be capital sales. Again I am sure that the Rayner Review proposals are sensible. However, very often the research councils will find that if they make those sales the money is clawed back. I suggest that, at a time when we all recognise that capital is short in research, every inducement should be given to these research institutes or research councils to reinvest those capital sums which they have been able to redeploy.
What other sources would make up the fourth leg? I am very excited by the prospects of the Agricultural Genetics Company. This is tapping City money for what is admittedly the glamour area in agricultural and food research, biotechnology. But the intellectual property is very valuable and certainly many see value of an enormous commercial excitement coming out of these research programmes. Our own Agricultural and Food Research Council's programme is five years old. Certainly there will be funding from that source. I am sure that this principle of inviting industrial and City funds can be exploited further.
602 The story of pyrethroid insecticides is one of the great success stories in the agricultural industry. I think I am right in saying that the value of these pyrethroids is expected to be something like one billion US dollars this year. The royalties from that—which I hasten to say do not come straight back to the research institute, which is Rothamsted, but go into the Treasury—are very considerable.
There will be others following. There are programmes which follow it precisely. But there will also be others in slightly different areas of agrochemicals which will be great money spinners. Again, when we harness the commercial potential to the research requirements, I see opportunities to make up at least part of the deficit in funding about which we have all talked so much today.
There are other more mundane opportunities to which perhaps I could draw the attention of the Government, which affect the Agricultural and Food Research Council. The National Seed Development Organisation, which is really the rent collector for plant variety rights, which are bred by the public sector, is, I know, up for review at the moment. I am sure the opportunity should be taken to look very carefully at the opportunities to put some of those royalties—which again disappear into the Treasury or into the Ministry; I am not sure which—back into research. It is a good principle if you can give people encouragement by letting them see royalties go back to their institute. It seems to me good management. The agricultural engineering industry and the food industry are both sectors which rightly look to public research to help underpin them, but they should in turn be prepared to invest more than they have in the past. I say no more on that.
Lastly, it leaves the agricultural producer, who again, quite frankly, is at the moment being asked to fund a bit more of his development service. A figure of 20 per cent. has been suggested by the Minister of Agriculture. I have no doubt he will be asked very soon to fund part of his marketing in the form of giving support to Food From Britain. I make no apologies for adding to the shopping bill which that producer is going to be asked to fund and saying that he should be looking carefully at his contribution to research. He has done well out of research over the last 20 to 30 years. As I have said before, industry is technology led. Yet, compared to other industries, his contribution is not very impressive. That is entirely true of all sectors. The sugar beet grower and the hop grower are small areas of agriculture. Nevertheless, they pay large sums of money towards their research. There are individual groups of farmers and the like who do likewise.
However, I would suggest that particularly the sectors of agriculture which are well organised—I refer to milk, for which we have the Milk Marketing Board, meat, for which we have the Meat and Livestock Commission, cereal, for which we have the Home Grown Cereals Authority—all have the structure which already exists to make a contribution, if they so wish, towards their own research and development. I suggest that for the very parochial reason that it is very difficult to ask the Minister of Agriculture to fight fiercely to retain this research capacity against these other competing claims if he cannot at the same time 603 point out that the industry itself expects to pay as other industries would.
We have heard much from many speakers—I am sure we shall hear more during the course of this evening—about the lack of stability and the low morale at present existing in research institutes. We have to recognise that there will be times when difficult decisions have to be made as to what are priorities in research. It is going to cause difficulty. It is the job of research managers to overcome those problems. However, I think we are entitled to say, "Let us have at least a figure which will be the final funding level for research in whatever sector and thereafter the funding will be protected".
This is the requirement which I go back to and which was mentioned at the time of the Rothschild Report. If we continue to keep research in some degree of turmoil, the research results will suffer. That is most certainly the case today; it is certainly the case in the Agricultural and Food Research Council; and I have no doubt that it is the case in the other research councils as well.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Lord Todd
My Lords, I should like first of all to echo earlier speakers in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, not only for bringing before us the subject of the research councils but for presenting the general problems to us in such an admirable way. I could touch on a great many points that he made but it is quite unnecessary after his exposition. I was particularly pleased that the noble Lord should bring this matter forward. The research councils are a vital component of the provision that we make in this country for promoting research. Especially is that true of university research, which is the area with which I personally have been most concerned in my career. They do that by being a part of what is called the dual support system—a system which has been described to us already this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield.
That system was for long the envy of scientists in most countries. It depended on the University Grants Committee making, in the course of setting the general grant for individual universities, provision for each university to maintain an adequate research base—that is to say, to fund properly equipped laboratories and other facilities. The research councils then came in by providing from the Science Vote money necessary to provide the extra expenditure called for particularly good forward-looking projects, described in the official literature as researches of "timeliness and promise".
I said that that system was the envy of scientists in many countries, but I am afraid that it is not working very well today and it has not indeed been working well for some years. It is almost exactly five years ago that in a presidential address to the Royal Society I drew attention to this very problem that we are talking about today; but nothing much has been done during those five years. Accordingly, the problems which were clear enough then are, if anything, clearer today and more urgent.
604 There is not much point in our bemoaning the alleged weakness of this country in technological innovation if we are not prepared to tackle seriously the problem of funding the research on which technological innovation today almost invariably depends. Our deficiencies in financial support for research were set out in general terms today by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and in one particular instance, the case of the Medical Research Council, they were set out admirably and in detail by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe.
I could say, as we all could, "Let us have more money for these councils". That is all very well. It would be very nice, and I hope very much that they will get more money; but I think that I should like to look at some aspects of the system as we have it now to see whether we are doing all that we can. In other words, I should like to ask what has gone wrong with the dual support system. That is a pretty complex question, but I at least think that I can identify three major causes of our troubles. The first two involve consideration of that sacred cow of our university system which goes under the name of academic freedom.
I have mentioned that the Government, through the UGC, always included a sum in the university grant which was to provide the basic requirements for the maintenance of research and scholarship. No precise sum was ever mentioned. It could not be because that would have interfered with academic freedom. One must never tell a university how much of its grant it may spend on anything, so no precise sum was specified. But I think that it was assumed that about 30 per cent. to 35 per cent. of the total grant would be devoted to this purpose.
When the financial winds began to blow cold, as they did first some years ago, I am afraid that some universities at least found it a good deal easier to absorb the cut-backs by raiding this part of the budget rather than other parts of it where they would have the awkward and tiresome business of dealing with people. This of course simply meant increasing pressure on the research councils—and, incidentally, on the charitable foundations which were called upon to make up the deficit. That is the first of my three causes.
The second is related to that. When the Robbins Report on Higher Education was implemented—and that implementation is a matter which, as many of your Lordships know, I opposed at the time—the form of implementation led to the creation of 20 or so new universities, most of which proceeded to follow as closely as possible the traditional pattern of university education which in this country is set largely by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It was accordingly assumed that all of them would be free to pursue what research they wished; that they would all have the basic support necessary through the UGC; and that that could then be topped up by the research councils.
Although I think it was a foolish decision, this might have been all right if money had been unlimited, but money was not unlimited. As we all know, money has become tight recently, and it shows every sign of getting tighter. The difficulty caused by that is going to be just that much greater because of this belief that all 605 the universities should be free to develop research as they wish.
The third reason that I have to explain the difficulties of our dual support system concerns the size of the Science Vote from which the research councils are financed. It is to the credit of Government that they have sought—with varying degrees of success, but they have certainly sought—to maintain the value of the science budget in real terms; that is, at a roughly constant level. That, however, has not been enough to prevent very serious hardship. First, we have the combined effect of the two causes that I have mentioned already, but there is a third which is at least equally important. That is the ever-increasing sophistication in equipment for research which has been mentioned by one or two earlier speakers this afternoon. As research advances, so does the sophistication of the equipment needed to carry it out; and this rate of increase is far beyond that of the retail price index.
Let me give your Lordships one little example that I happen to know. About 25 years ago or a little more, I as an organic chemist came across the fact—a new one to me—that in physics a phenomenon had been discovered and was being looked at called nuclear magnetic resonance. I thought that that might be useful to what I was doing in chemistry. I tried to find out about it, and I discovered that there was an instrument—the first instrument of this type—being made commercially in America. I thereupon managed to rake together the money to buy one. I may say that I did not get it from a research council. I obtained it in fact from the Wellcome Trust, but that is neither here nor there. I acquired the money. I cannot remember the exact sum, but I think it was about £12,000, which was quite a lot of money in those days. But I bought this instrument.
Since then nuclear magnetic resonance has become an indispensable tool in chemistry and, as we have heard today, it is now penetrating into medicine. As it has become essential for all the chemical schools to have these instruments, they descend upon the research council for the money. Of course, instruments have been getting steadily more and more sophisticated year by year. Only the other day I was asking my successor in the chemistry department in Cambridge what their new instrument, which they are purchasing at the moment, is going to cost them. He said, "A little over a quarter of a million". With that rate of increase in sophistication, just to keep the money supply to a research council at the level dictated by the Retail Price Index is not going to help a great deal.
These are the kind of reasons that got us into trouble. What are we going to do about it? I should like to look first at research funding, which is met by the university grant and which has been steadily eroded for various reasons, some of which I have just outlined. I have already drawn attention to the vast increase in the number of our universities which occurred in the 'sixties. In all these universities, as in the older ones, the view seems to be held that teaching can be of university standard only if the teachers are engaged in research and that all university teachers, and hence all departments, are capable of first-class research.
606 I do not accept either of these views. There are good departments and bad departments, and there are academics who are effective in research and academics who are not. There is, in my view, much scope, and indeed need, for selectivity in research support. Not all departments in all universities should be supported, in my view, as potential centres of excellence in research. I should even consider it possible, under certain circumstances, that a hierarchy might be developed in the university system in which some of the universities devoted themselves essentially to teaching and that research would not be universal in all departments in all universities but would be distributed, perhaps even in a limited number of universities. This is not the first time I have said this, and I do not expect that that view would find a great deal of favour with some of my fellow academics. But sooner or later they have got to face up to this problem. Money is tight, and it may well get tighter.
Let me turn to the other vital component, the research councils, which are financed through the science Vote of the Department of Education and Science. They are being hard hit financially and although individually they differ in the extent of work which is carried out by their own staff in institutes or in units associated with universities, they are, overall, the main source of extra funding for research in universities both through provision for research expenditure and for grants to postgraduate students. I cannot go into detail about all of them, but for various reasons the Medical Research Council seems—if all I hear from my university colleagues is correct—to be peculiarly badly hit and a number of important MRC units in universities widely acclaimed for their work in a variety of branches are in dire straits. I think the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, would confirm that.
As a chemist, my own contacts have been much more with the Science and Engineering Research Council, or, to be more precise, with its earlier manifestations: the Science Research Council and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. I should like to draw attention to some of its problems.
The sorry pass to which the council, the SERC, has come—and through this deficiency the sorry pass to which the country has come—is highlighted by the steady growth in the percentage of first-class, so-called alpha research grant applications which have to be turned down because they simply have not got the money. In my own subject for some time now well over 20 per cent. of such applications have had to be refused out of hand. In this situation, and in the light of the knowledge that large increases in the science Vote are not very likely in the immediate future, I think it is about time that we looked at our priorities. Already the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has drawn attention to the very large defence research budget. I shall not touch on that. I was looking at the annual review of Government-funded R & D for 1983, which was issued this year by the Cabinet Office. In it I see, on page 26, that out of a total disposable SERC budget of £191.8 million in 1982–83, £49.9 million went to nuclear and particle physics, £38.9 million to astronomy, space and radio, £41.3 million to engineering and £47.3 million to the rest of science. I find this distribution a little bit odd, especially when I remember that the whole of medicine, through the 607 Medical Research Council, gets just a little over £100 million a year.
This disproportionate spending, or apparently disproportionate spending, on nuclear and particle physics in particular is not new. As long ago as 1964, if you look at the final report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, of which I was at the time chairman, you will find that we were very much concerned then with the cost of nuclear and particle physics. Compared with what CERN proposes to do now, it may seem rather humorous, but at that time the great problem was: should we take part in a terrific scheme to produce a 300 GeV machine?
If we take the present situation about expenditure on nuclear physics and the new proposals for CERN, I have no doubt whatever that a very strong case can be made out for going on with them—a very strong and reasonable case for high expenditure to keep in the forefront of nuclear physics. But an equally strong case can be made out for many other branches of science and I would repeat now what I said in 1964. Government should not, and must not, try to control or decide what research is done, but they must surely decide how much they propose to spend on various kinds of research; in other words, they must determine national priorities.
Now, as back in 1964, we have got to ask ourselves, and the Government must ask themselves, whether, assuming that they have no more money available than they have indicated they will give, it is reasonable to devote such a large proportion of it to one particular area of science—an area of science, I believe, which is likely to be of much less immediate value to us as a country—rather than to a number of the other areas of research which are now being starved of resources. My Lords, I believe that in this matter we have got our priorities wrong.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords. I step into this debate very gingerly. I am neither an academic nor a scientist and I have no connection with any research council or research institute. My sole justification for taking part in this debate is that I am a politician and it seems to me that it is pointless to have a debate of this type unless one is trying to get across a message to the Government, and the message that is coming across and which should come, in view of the distinguished contributions that we have had to the debate, concerns the danger of a country in our situation cheese-paring about producing what is essentially the seed-corn for future development. Whatever developments we may have in the future, industrially, technologically, medically, agriculturally and so on, will depend largely upon the basic research that is done now. It is a fairly self-evident proposition that a country should spend that proportion of its resources on research that need dictates. When one looks at a country in our position—and we had a pe-eminent industrial position but, technologically, we have fallen steadily behind other countries—it seems to me that the need is obvious.
It clearly emerges from the debate so far that this is not a subject which lends itself to across-the-board economies. When one decides what type of research 608 one requires, it seems to me that the across-the-board economy which is so often applied by the research councils is inappropriate.
I want to concentrate my few remarks this evening on one particular aspect of research about which I know a little—that is, agricultural research. Our minds have been directed recently by the famine in Abyssinia to food production and its difficulties in various parts of the world. It so happens that, during the publicity that has been given to the Abyssinian debacle, I learned that we are now producing enough food in this world to feed adequately the 4 billion people who live in it. That is a great development that has taken place over the last two decades.
The reason why we have famine in areas like East Africa, Abyssinia and so on is connected not with the production of food world-wide, but with the difficulties of distribution, and it arises particularly in those areas where they have benefited the least from agricultural research. There are other areas of the world which were very much subject to famine—for example, the Far East. However, as a result of the "green revolution", and so on, their agricultural production has increased enormously and they are therefore able to look after themselves.
I am told that, if one translates world food production overall into the production of reasonable meals, we produce the equivalent of 12 billion reasonable meals per day—enough to provide each person with three reasonable meals. I mention that fact because it seems to me that it stems from a great deal of the agricultural research work that has been done in this country.
I know of one agricultural research station—the Welsh Plant Breeding Station at Aberystwyth—and its particular contribution. I know that, because of the research done there in the early years of this century, in the 1930s and so on, particularly by Sir George Stapleton and the distinguished team which he controlled, that station was able to advance the production of grasses and forage crops probably more than any other station in the world. I have been assured by scientists from Cambridge that Aberystwyth is still regarded as pre-eminent in the world for research on grasses and forage crops.
We know now that the research carried out by Stapleton on the production of improved grasses and the techniques he used have resulted in them being copied in various parts of the world. I mentioned in a previous debate his influence on Australia, New Zealand and on the green revolution in other parts of the world. As a result of research started at that station, there have been produced drought-resistant and disease-resistant grasses which have enabled the world to develop enormously.
From the national point of view, there has been perforce, as with most agricultural research stations, an across-the-board cut which has now resulted in the Aberystwyth station, for example, being reduced to a budget of £3 million per annum, which is not enough to carry out its national research as the essential grass breeding station for this country. Most of our grass grows in the western area but this station serves not only Wales but the western region altogether. Quite apart from that, its research, which has such an influence on the rest of the world, is affected. That is 609 one example where I have knowledge of the eventual effect of the across-the-board economy. If this is going on in different areas and in different departments of which I know nothing, its eventual result would tend to suggest that this country and the world will suffer.
Our country has surely made a pre-eminent contribution in basic research to the development of mankind in industry, technology, medicine and agriculture, to give only a few examples. I very much agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Swann, when he said that basically we are concerned in this whole matter with the question of attitude. A confident country that is developing has confidence in its research and it goes ahead with its research programmes in confidence, although some of its research will inevitably prove to be barren. On the other hand, a confident country also goes ahead with its research programme in the knowledge and confidence that it will benefit from it eventually. It appears to me that basically what is wrong is our attitude towards research, which affects us in so many ways.
I said at the commencement of my remarks that I was speaking in this debate because I am a politician. I am fully aware of the fact that one cannot in a democracy get people very excited about the government curtailing scientific research because few of the populace appreciate its importance for their future and their children's future. But we in this House do appreciate that, and that is surely the message that we want to get across to the Government.
§ 5.18 p.m.
The Earl of Cranbrook
My Lords, after having been brought so refreshingly home to our political base by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, perhaps I should apologise to your Lordships for reverting once again to a scientific intervention. I speak as a member of the Natural Environment Research Council and not, I must emphasise, from the elevated position of chairmanship, as have two noble Earls who have spoken previously from this side of the House. I do not in any way speak for the Natural Environment Research Council, which has not put forward to me any particular points that it wishes to be made. I speak from my personal experience.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, mentioned in his introductory remarks, this particular research council, for historical reasons, consists (to use the noble Lord's term) of a somewhat haphazard mix of institutes: the BGS (the geological survey) is very large; the Institute of Virology is very small. Nonetheless, it has a coherence and a cohesion. However much the leader writer of Nature may thunder, as he did recently, I remain convinced that there must always be in the national interest a strong and vigorous research council devoted to the science of the natural environment.
I draw your Lordships' attention to a small selection of subjects of vital national importance that fall into the area of the NERC responsibility. First, we are an island, or islands; our coastal and shelf seas receive run-off from one of the world's major industrial centres. In national terms it is vital for us to be informed of the robustness of this system, its capacity to absorb inevitable amounts of pollution, and the stability and productivity of the biotic elements within it.
610 We must understand the interlinkages of the living marine systems with the non-living processes, such as sedimentation. We must understand the roles of the oceans in the cycling of gaseous pollutants—sulphur dioxide, the nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Oceanic processes are involved in releasing these to the atmosphere and, perhaps, in the case of carbon dioxide, in providing an ultimate sink system for the permanent fixation of this potential pollutant. Again, we must pay attention and have regard to the potential of the sea as a disposal site. This is a controversial issue, but if we accept that on land pre-emptive neutralising disposal is permissible, why, prima facie, should it not also be excusable and useful at sea?
Those are just some examples of the areas of research of the Natural Environment Research Council in which I see a vital national and international need. But this afternoon we are talking primarily about the resources that are available to our research councils, and attention has been concentrated on material resources rather than on intellectual resources, and it is with these that I shall deal.
As has been mentioned sufficiently often this afternoon, the Department of Education and Science allocation—the so-called science Vote—has remained more or less stable. Some noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, have drawn attention to a number of problems, including one which I myself have mentioned on a previous occasion: the problem of pay awards which breach cash limits. After cash limits have been set, pay awards are permitted by the Government outside the control of research councils that make a nonsense of the cash limits.
Mention has also been made of the excess of alpha grade research applications that cannot be funded. I have satisfied myself in this quarter that in the Natural Environment Research Council this is not because there has been a drift in the assessment of applications. It is not that the alpha has been enlarged; it is genuinely that the resource has become limited in relation to the number of applications.
However, as again has been emphasised often enough this afternoon, it is in the area of commissioned research that the problems are greatest. From my experience in NERC, I doubt whether we can any longer accept that the system is working as it was intended to work. At meetings of the council I have heard the head of an institute describe the present system as "chaotic". Institute directors find that frequently the proportion of their funding which is due to come from Government commissions is not known to them until partway through, half-way through or even later through the financial planning year. It is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to operate in a balanced fashion if funding is as unpredictable as that.
On the other side of the coin, I have heard in council a department representative describe the system as a "morass". So I am forced to ask—and I should be grateful if my noble friend could take note of this in his reply: is it made clear to departmental heads exactly what are the mechanics by which they must go about commissioning research from the research councils? What arrangements are made at departmental level to ensure that the National Environment Research 611 Council Institute directors are used as a point of first contact when it is decided to commission research in relevant fields?
A particularly cogent example that is before us all at the minute is the problem of acid precipitation. At a time when NERC scientists had identified this as a priority for scientific research, and at a time when on a wider scale the whole of the environmental movement in this country and elsewhere in Europe saw it as a pressing international, political and environmental problem, Government funding was initially low; it sunk to a negligible level; and then suddenly there was an enormous turnabout. It is now a band-wagon to be jumped upon, and one has to ask why. Where is the long-term planning for Government research? Is this a political panic? Has it suddenly sunk in on someone that this is an issue? In which case, is this an uninformed response to some rather poorly evaluated stimulus? Did someone somewhere see a TV programme and think, "My goodness, we must do something about it"?
In the NERC, as has been made clear by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and doubtless in the other research councils, the response of institute directors to declining commissioned income has been to look for it outside Government funding. I am surprised that, speaking from his position, the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, did not refer to this as a quadruped rather than as a table. But NERC has set up its own internal marketing agency and is actively devoting considerable resources to seeking commissions outside its normal field of support. It has had some very successful commissions abroad. It has found work in Indonesia and, like so many other research organisations, it sees the growth and outward-turning of China as an area of great potential support. This is stimulating for NERC scientists. It is good work; it is competently done; it earns foreign currency for the nation.
But I seriously question whether or not it is the proper function of a national research council to be out there in the market. From where I sit in the NERC and from outside it I very seriously doubt whether our national research institutes should primarily be concerned with doing research which is in our own national priorities or whether they should be looking outside for it. Is it right that these research institutes should be competing with other agencies in the private sector?
Moreover, I seriously wonder whether it is right that the senior scientists and directors of NERC institutes should be devoting their time, or requiring other people to devote time, to the preparation of competitive bids which inevitably have only a limited expectation of success but which, nonetheless, in order to be competitive, must be properly and carefully prepared. It is an expensive occupation. Is it right that our national research institutes should be in this field competing with the private sector?
Personally, I believe that the principal customer for our research councils in the contractor-customer system should be the Government through their departments, local government and Government agencies. In the case of the NERC, the Nature Conservancy Council springs to mind. This will 612 require closer co-operation than at present appears to exist both from my own evidence and from the evidence produced, in the case of AFRC, by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. There must be the capacity to review the problems before they are right in our laps and to plan and commission research on a proper timescale. Long-term exchanges must be the forerunners of the actual commission itself. There must be an atmosphere of confidence between the principal and the agent.
Like other institutes, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, suspected, the NERC has been applying across-the-board economies. The NERC has been slowly shedding staff by a policy of only partial replacement through natural wastage. If needs be, I have no doubt that the NERC can, and will, undertake more radical reforms in order to adapt to current financial climates as they are seen. But if the Government seek a leaner, fitter NERC, I believe that the Government must themselves review their procedures for commissioning research to provide the stability and the confidence that will be needed. Only if this confidence exists will the research councils attract the good scientists and let these scientists do good science and not get bogged down in financial and managerial problems which seem at the minute to occupy so much time.
I come to the final question. Let us go back to the beginning and ask just what happened to the good intentions of the Rothschild arrangement? What happened to the proportion of commissioned research which was to be devoted to strategic elements? What happened even to the 10 per cent. over FEC—full economic costs—which were supposed to be there in commissions?
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord Adrian
My Lords, I speak as a university scientist, and perhaps I should add that I have at the moment no formal connection with any of the research councils and so I have to speak from a general point of view without any very particular knowledge of the kind that we have had already from noble Lords. May I add my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for bringing this debate to the House this afternoon, and say that I agreed almost entirely with everything he said. I have also to apologise to the House as I, too, have an engagement which I have not been able to avoid, and I am afraid that I shall not be able to stay to the end of this important debate.
The plight of the research councils, indeed the plight of basic science in this country, has become a national issue. The Royal Society, the Science Policy Unit at Sussex University, reference to which we have already heard, television programmes, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, all in their own ways are telling the same story—that we can no longer claim to be holding our own among the leading scientific countries of the world. One has to ask why this should be so. Certainly the curtailment of expansion and now the actual contraction of funds available for the basic science enterprise must have played a part.
I do not now want to question the size of the science Vote, but rather to ask whether we are getting value for the money that we spend. I find it inconceivable that if we ordered matters aright, we should be unable to 613 have some world-class science for a spend of close on £1,000 million, and nor do I claim that we have yet reached that sorry state. Indeed, there are notable recent successes to our credit. But I am concerned that the present ways of organising basic science in this country and strategic research create a danger of money being less and less efficiently spent.
We can still praise, I am glad to say, the basic science that the research councils do, but nevertheless I think we can ask—at least ask—whether some of their mechanisms for doing it are ideal. Additionally, I am persuaded that the Government avoid a major responsibility by failing to provide strategies and policies designed for this particular period of contraction with an understanding of the problems faced by the research councils and the universities—policies which I believe must have as a clear aim maintaining the quality of the scientific endeavour of this country.
The Government's apparent unconcern may be either on principle or because there are few in Government who have first-hand knowledge of how science works in this country. But the effect of this "vacuum at the centre", already noted three years ago by your Lordships' Committee on Science and Technology, adds greatly to the adverse effects of purely financial cuts.
For the truth is that the research councils and the universities, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Todd, have not been any more exempt from the syndicalism of post-war years than have the nationalised industries or the Government services itself. I do not think we can reasonably expect them to be any better at dealing with necessary contraction.
Multi-layered committee structure, management problems, centralised wage bargaining, unionisation of the work force and increased liabilities for redundancy and retirement are just as much problems for the research councils and often make it difficult to reallocate their resources in a way best calculated to preserve the quality of scientific output.
In the last year, as the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, has told us, we have seen the Medical Research Council cut expenditure on consumable supplies, chemicals, radio-isotopes and such like necessities, so hard that some work actually had to stop, and now, so that it can begin again, it has had to plan large reductions in support of research at universities and support for training fellowships. These damaging plans had arisen because the council's disposable income was to have fallen by £4 million in 1984–85.
Work at MRC institutes had already been damaged—and now there were to be further reductions in university work. These proposed reductions had partly been caused by money directed to the AFRC for its reorganisation. In order to reduce the AFRC, itself one of the smaller research councils, the MRC, SERC and indirectly the universities were to have borne a heavy cost. One shudders to think of the knock-on effect on universities if, as may well become necessary, the SERC or the MRC themselves have to be restructured.
Yesterday's announcement from the DES seems to go some way to recognise these dangers, but the science community has some excuse for feeling that it 614 is living in a world of hasty and ad hoc expedients, imposed by a Government who seem only at the eleventh hour to grasp the nature and consequences of their acts. We must be thankful, and indeed are thankful, for the extra money for the research councils which has just been announced—and it is reassuring to hear that it will go towards restructuring and towards university work—but I have to say that already students at Cambridge, and I believe elsewhere, are today demonstrating about the new charges on their parents which will provide this new money.
If we are to see, as I fear we shall, more students forced into debt by the inability or even the unwillingness of their parents to pay, it will not comfort us much at the university to think that their hardship is supporting the research councils. If this charge were in turn to discourage some from going to university to read sciences, the decline in our science base would be reinforced.
It is interesting, my Lords, to look at your Select Committee's Report on Science and Government and to read the following comment from its conclusion:From one Government to the next adjustments of the machinery to fit the people available makes obvious sense. The present Government has chosen to do without a Minister for Science and Technology, a Chief Scientific Adviser (in name) or a Council on Science and Technology. But many of the functions which the Committee have identified as necessary are in fact being carried out by one means or another".Three years on the consequences of our Government's choice are plain to see and I believe that your Lordships' committee, of which I had the honour to be a member, would not today be so willing to believe that one means or another was good enough.
§ 5.39 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, like all the rest of us, I, too, am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, not for the first time, for having taken an inititative in bringing this extremely important matter before your Lordships' House. I am also grateful to the two chairmen of the Medical Research Council and the Agricultural and Food Research Council respectively for two most impressive speeches. I noticed that the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who is to reply to the debate, was listening with serious attention to those speeches, as well he might. He could hardly have had a better exposition of the problems which face those responsible for the research effort in this country than was contained in the contributions from the two noble Earls I have mentioned.
Although the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, made a reference to Sir Keith Joseph's announcement last week, which was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, just now, I have been surprised that otherwise little attention has been paid to this initiative, because from a political point of view it really is a most remarkable exercise. Sir Keith has publicly hypothecated, for the benefit of the research Vote, the money to be drawn from better-off parents of students in higher education; and this is, to say the least of it, an unusual political gambit. It is a courageous one, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, indicated. Is it perhaps the boldness of despair? This is not the occasion to discuss the equity of imposing such charges on the families of students already committed to university courses, though this factor will undoubtedly add to Sir Keith's 615 political problems with some of the supporters of his own party. But one cannot help asking oneself what happens to the science Vote next year, or the year after, if the politics go wrong, which is not entirely inconceivable. However, that is a matter for the future.
The significance of the exercise, however, seems to me to be that it illustrates the recognition in the Department of Education and Science that Britain is slipping badly in the international league table of scientific and technological research and development, so that even unorthodox measures have now become politically admissible. The immediate question before us surely must be, therefore: will Sir Keith's initiative work? Is it too little? Is the sum of £24 million to be added to the science Vote and the UGC equipment grant next year a mere bagatelle? I think it was intended to be more than that.
As a stopgap for the year 1985–86, to which the announcement referred, the answer must be that it will be a significant but temporary alleviation of the otherwise nearly intolerable pressure on the research councils' budgets. In particular, I had understood that the £6 million to be set aside primarily for restructuring by the AFRC, and to a lesser degree for the other research councils, would be likely to remove the threat of a special levy on the Medical Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council, though I was interested to observe that the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, is not as yet convinced of that. I had understood that that was the intention. It certainly signals the fact that the DES accepts that restructuring can be not only painful but costly, as anyone concerned with implementing the corporate plan of the AFRC is by now acutely aware.
So this bonus announced last week is necessary and welcome as far as it goes. So also is the £8 million to be used partly to top up funds to cover the "alpha quality" applications for research grants which SERC in particular, but also the other research councils, have recently been obliged to turn down to a most disturbing degree. One has only to read the relevant passages in the SERC and the MRC annual reports to grasp the need to spend more on encouraging our potentially best scientific brains. The rest of the money announced by Sir Keith as a bonus will go to funding other urgent priorities. The £10 million to be allocated to the UGC for additional equipment grant is likely, so we are told on the grapevine, to be distributed very selectively indeed. We can all, I think, guess at some of the favourite sons who will be receiving the bulk of that money. Again so far as it goes it will no doubt be a helpful supplement, but I am afraid that it will leave a great many university institutions still bereft of necessary funds for updating equipment or for securing equipment without which they cannot adequately carry on the research in prospect.
This announcement of extra money for the research vote has been designated by the top people in the Research Councils—I quote some of the phrases that I have heard them use in the past few days as providing—"a breathing space", "a stay of execution", "a brief respite"; a brief respite, my Lords, before the slow erosion of British scientific endeavour starts all over again. This was the warning that some of us received at a meeting held in your Lordships' House last evening.
616 Why the pessimism? Because some of the basic factors in our slow but persistent decline over the last few years remain with us. Reference has been made to them by several noble Lords during the course of this debate. The realisation of the prognosis by Sir David Phillips, the chairman of the Advisory Board of the Research Councils, that, unless there is a commitment by Government to at least a steady state of funding in real terms, the erosion which we have been suffering over the last few years will continue, means that, in the next decade, public support for scientific research and development in this country could be reduced by up to 25 per cent.
Now, that is a very striking and shocking figure. This estimate was made before the recent announcement of the extra £24 million for 1985–86 but, as has been pointed out, it simply postpones that estimated reduction by a couple of years at best. The cumulative effect year by year of persistent under-funding of costs, of allowing only 3 per cent. for salaries and pension indexing, when even the Chancellor of the Exchequer admits to an inflation rate of between 4 and 5 per cent., repeated regularly year by year, can undermine a very significant proportion of our national research effort. This has recently been coupled with a decline in the value of sterling which affects a field where some of the action is necessarily international. There is indeed a danger that Britain will be regarded more and more as an unwelcome partner in international co-operative efforts because we can appear keener on cost-cutting than on exploiting the new frontiers of knowledge. This can be extremely serious in certain endeavours where the very scale of the work demands an international rather than a national effort.
It is now fashionable to quote the words of the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, who we are delighted to have with us on this occasion, because his remarks are indeed so apposite. In his much admired speech last week he surely put his finger on the root cause of many of our current ills—the failure of the present Administration to recognise the essential difference between recurrent and capital expenditure, between spending and investment.
This is what bedevils much of our science research policy. Cost effectiveness, corporate plans and a degree of selectivity are necessary and desirable, but only against the acceptance that a considerable proportion of research, including especially basic and strategic research, as opposed to day-to-day problem solving, is investment and should be treated as such. The Government are selling off our capital assets without adequate re-investment in our physical infrastructure. Even the CBI appears to have noticed that. If the Government continue to regard our intellectual infrastructure in scientific and technological research and development as annual expenditure, which can regularly be eroded, then the politically courageous manoeuvre of the Secretary of State for Education and Science will provide only the very briefest respite. In three years' time we shall be, in real terms, back where we were.
Other noble Lords have mentioned the report of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University, which pinpointed some of the hazards which we face as a nation. The recent OECD report on Science and Technology Indicators—indicators of the national 617 resources devoted to research and development—suggests that Britain has now dropped to the bottom of the list of major R & D countries within the OECD area. If one takes other bases of calculation by proportion of GNP devoted to research and development or by expenditure per head of population, we are markedly insecure in relation to our competitors.
While we welcome Sir Keith's brave gesture, the sooner the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes the road to Damascus the better. If he does not, our medium and long-term outlook is bleak. As has been suggested in particular by my noble friend Lord Gregson, we shall be back in the position where some of our ablest people will be tempted to look elsewhere and where great multinational companies, which regulate so large a proportion of the world's industrial and technological research, will regard Britain as an assembly area and not as a main source of exciting initiatives and fruitful ideas.
However, we ought not to despair. We still have a good and very highly regarded scientific community. We need not drop behind, still less sink down, if we make up our minds to use our resources intelligently and are not beguiled by the prospect of pie-in-the-sky tax cuts, so evident in the Chancellor's statement last week.
I have taken this line because I feel passionately that those who are wrestling with these problems of national research and development deserve the support of interested lay persons like myself who see this as a real threat to the long-term future of our nation. That is why it is fair to put this point of view to Her Majesty's Government, who are, after all, responsible as the guardians and trustees of our future prosperity and the quality of our society and our economy. Unless we get this right, the various details which have been touched on in this debate, important as they are, do not really matter all that much.
There are one or two relatively minor points, of which the Minister has received notice, that I want to touch upon simply because I have a particular personal interest in matters concerned especially with the natural environment. I entirely support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, about the aspirations of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station—with which the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, I am quite sure, is by now adequately familiar—but I am also concerned with the work of certain bodies for which continuity is of the essence. One cannot study long-term trends in the natural environment unless one has available an adequate continuum of data. Such work is not as exciting as high technology, and is perhaps not economically so important, but it is an essential basic tool for the natural scientist.
In this I am thinking of work such as that carried out by the Geological Survey and the Soil Survey (both of which have their current apprehensions) and also the adequate monitoring of certain natural conditions. Such areas are tempting to those seeking inconspicuous economies. But as the history of acid rain (as it is popularly called) shows, such economies can be at a much larger ultimate cost.
Finally, there is another point of minor interest in the total picture, but important for some of us. I should like to know from the Minister what has happened to 618 the fair promises given last July in the debate on the report on the relationship between agriculture and environmental research, presented to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Adrian. In particular what coordination has been achieved, not only between DoE and MAFF with the Natural Environment Research Council and the Agricultural and Food Research Council and their respective satellites, but also with the stated intention to bring in the Economic and Social Research Council? I believe that there has recently been a meeting which may have had some fruitful results.
Time is getting on and I shall not pursue any of the other matters which might well have been raised in this debate, but I reiterate our considerable gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for having initiated a discussion which must be impressive by any standards.
§ 5.55 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, the noble Baroness has taken the words out of my mouth. I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Sherfield, but, as the time is late, like her I will not dwell on its expression.
Of the 55 years that have elapsed since I attained my majority, 24 have been spent serving on the Science Research Council and the Medical Research Council, and a further 12 as chairman of the Meteorological Committee. Two-thirds of my adult life has been concerned with the subject we are debating this afternoon. In the course of that time I have developed some strong opinions of my own on certain aspects of it. My opinions are not necessarily those of others and I do not expect everybody to agree with me. I can only state what I believe myself, as I did to Mr. Reginald Maudling 20 years ago.
At that time a new government had come to power and was wrestling with the recommendations of the Trend Committee and with the problems that arose out of setting up Mintech—the Ministry of Technology. At the same time, the Conservatives were then in opposition but they put on their thinking caps and were preparing to think what their attitude to all these vexed questions was. Mr. Reginald Maudling convened a colloquium of interested parties, to which I was invited and to which I spoke. After it he asked me whether I would be good enough to put my views in writing and send them to him.
This I did. I told him that the impossible structure of DSIR was owing to its trying to run all the government research laboratories, which were the proper responsibility of government, together with an industrial university axis, as it were. The trouble with the Ministry of Technology was that after shedding the university side it was trying to operate on an industrial and defence axis. In my view, no fewer than three big departments at the apices of a triangle could correctly represent what needed doing—the Department of Education, which became the Department of Education and Science, Defence and Industry, with the 40 industrial research associations that it had inherited from the old DSIR.
Inside that triangle I suggested that there should be a system of advisory councils doing what my noble friend Lord Todd has emphasised must be done, 619 settling priorities as between one demandant and another. The different client states of each Ministry would all make their own demands and the Minister had to decide what priorities should be assigned to each of them. Outside that lies a field for executive action, if necessary through executive councils, one of which would be a research council, of which a number were brought into being. I emphasised that the characteristics of a research council were that it should be executive, making its own decisions within the limits of the budget allowed it by its Minister, but it must be regarded as non-initiatory: it would not be there to start projects; it would be there to receive and to respond to demands for research funds primarily from universities. Its function would be to be selective, to pick for support those research projects of special timeliness and promise. There was a very real public relations problem in adjusting the relative demands of big science and little science—big science being nuclear physics and astronomy and little science being the others.
In order to establish that justice was being done the peer assessment of projects put forward was strictly judicial. The research councils ought not to embroil themselves in running research stations, possibly in competition with work going on in the universities. After grappling with the grouping of all the rest of the Government establishments under one of these three headings, there was still quite a substantial number of them out on a limb. I could not see any natural collective grouping under which one could compose them. I saw absolutely no reason—and here I quarrelled with the established doctrine entirely—why each should not be the responsibility of one relevant Ministry. To illustrate my point—and I must talk in terms of the ministerial structure of the time when I was giving this advice—let the Road Research Laboratory be the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport; let the Building Research Board be the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing.
It was always thought that research was something so misunderstood by arts graduates that they could not possibly be entrusted, within the framework of the Civil Service, with responsibility for a research laboratory. I challenged this. I said, "This is nonsense! If you give a man a responsibility to discharge, he will, as a responsible person, discharge it to the best of his ability. He is not required to do research if he is responsible for it; he is merely responsible for seeing that he gets it done. He can have a research council, he can have an advisory council, to keep him on the straight and narrow path. They can help him find a good director for his laboratory and so on; but, for the rest, I see no reason to suppose that it is necessary to group these all under one Ministry and there is no indicated Ministry to do it under."
I further added the rider that the two cultures must not be kept so apart that they are not allowed to collaborate and to meet one another. They will always remain apart. The best thing to do is to put them together into one organisation and let each understand that the other is not, as Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron, "mad, bad and dangerous to know".
The recommendations that I made to Mr. Maudling at that time in fact very largely came to 620 pass—although whether or not as a result of my making them I have not the slightest idea. But, at a due point in time, the Department of the Environment came into existence and my triangle became a square with four Ministries, one at each of the four corners, but with the same internal structure as I had advocated from the start. A relevant National Environment Research Council was set up.
So I felt that things were going very well—it was exactly what I wanted to see—when a new principle was enunciated, cutting right across the whole thing. That was the customer-contractor principle, as expounded by the noble Lord, Lord Rothschild. This seemed to me entirely to cut across the Halsbury principle of straight-line responsibility from Ministry through to research laboratory. I was very much against it from the outset. Its first casualty was the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, which had been a protégé of mine for many years and whose solvency I had successfully ensured by making it an industrial research association. It simply became insolvent while the DTI was wondering what to do about it. It just had to fold up—no money. If it had been a company limited by guarantee, like so many of these things, I should have gone to prison for running a business knowing it to be insolvent.
So far as the Medical Research Council was concerned, apart from going through the motions of pretending that we were adopting the customer-contractor principle, it was a dead letter from the word "go". And nothing is heard of it now. Its latest casualty is the Geological Survey—and I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, is not here to listen to what I am going to say, but I am sure that he will read it in Hansard tomorrow. This I am very interested in because it involves another old protégé of mine. When I was on the DSIR advisory council, it had much too much work to do to carry out all its supervisory responsibilities in council, so it deputed them to one of its members. I was told off to be a visitor to the Geological Museum, with the result that I paid regular annual visits to Sir William Pugh, then the director—and I am talking of back in the 1950s, a long time ago. It was very convenient because I was also the chairman of the advisory council for the Science Museum next door; so that, whenever I visited one on business, I visited the other for fun as well. I got to know that Geological Museum very well. Of course, it has now been transferred out of the ambit of NERC and has been telescoped with the National History Museum on terms that nobody quite knows. The structure of the future joint organisation has not been worked out; and it is not good for morale for people to be there not knowing exactly what is going to happen to them.
What went wrong with the Geological Survey as opposed to its museum, its interface with the public which had been taken away from it? It reached the point where 75 per cent. of its funds were going on commissioned research. That was far beyond any principle that the Rothschild Report indicated and it is a very dangerous situation to be dependent for 75 per cent. of your work on commissioned research. This was reflected in the staff employed. When the system started in 1965, they were employing 380, I believe. By 1979 they were up to 1,150, of whom three- 621 quarters were on commissioned research. And then the blow fell. The NERC decided that it wanted to spend less on geology and more on biology—although, for heaven's sake, there are three other research councils concerned with biology. The ARC is concerned with biology; the MRC is concerned with biology; the SERC is concerned with biology, and so is the NERC. Biology was not really being badly under-represented in this sense.
Then the whole system collided with the most disastrous mistake that the research councils had inherited from the soft hand of the early 1970s. This was the soft, wet period in our history when a most unwise understanding was come to between the research councils, and the scientific Civil Service generally, and the trade unions by which there would be early tenure establishment of employees of the research councils. I think it is absolutely wrong to take a young research assistant and give him tenure for life in some particular job which you have got to hold open for him for ever. Tenure should mark a commitment by both sides, employer and employee, to be dedicated to one another. Tenure in the universities is by committed academics, to ensure their academic freedom for all time.
What happens with a research council whose numbers have increased during a growth period from 380 to 1,150? What happens when it gets the treble incidence of this unwise arrrangement—which the Treasury should never have allowed it to make—with the trade unions about tenure of establishment; a reduction in Government purchasing power, leading to cuts in research budgets generally; and the NERC decision to spend less on geology and more on biology?
I can tell you what has happened. They have just managed to knock down staff numbers to 920 established staff, whom they cannot get rid of except on ruinous terms. The average salary of a geologist in the office is £12,000 a year; but if you want to have a geologist in the field you have got to add another £6,000 a year for his residential expenses, his travelling expenses and any instrumentation that he wants, and so on. The only way that the Geological Survey can be solvent at all is to withdraw all the geologists it possesses from the one place in the world which furnishes their raison d'être and put them into offices in London instead of out in the field in Scotland—great areas of which are marked "not surveyed in detail", and have been so marked on the popular geological maps that one buys.
This really is an absolute tragedy. I am reminded, in the context of management of research councils and so on, of a very popular sketch in one of Dick Emery's ever-popular reviews. It is of an overgrown idiot who is engaged on some fairly simple but, it is hoped, remunerative operation with his father. He has just one simple thing to do and he always manages to misundertand it and do the exact opposite. As he and his father survey the havoc that he has wrought, he looks up with a bright smile and says, "Dad, I think I've got it wrong again". That is exactly how we have been handling our research councils for all this time. councils for all this time.
What is to be done about it? I do not know, but I know what I would do. I would take the Geological Survey and the Ordnance Survey and put them 622 together as one organisation, out of the scope of the National Environment Research Council, and make them the departmental responsibility of the Department of the Environment. That is what they ought to be, and if you have no split responsibility—there was a whole consortium of Ministries supporting this and then they withdrew their concerted support—make it a straight line responsibility of one Minister and you will get some sense out of the system. But as things now stand, I give it up!
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I just point out that in fact the Ordnance Survey is under the Department of the Environment, and they are not making a very good job of it?
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, the sooner somebody kicks the Permanent Secretary and makes him make a good job of it, the better. That is what "line responsibility" means.
§ 6.10 p.m.
The Earl of Bessborough
My Lords, I am sorry the noble Earl has not gone on longer because he has entertained us more than any other speaker this afternoon and this evening, and he has also spoken very wisely as well. Like all previous speakers, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for having called attention to the research councils and their resources. I have been involved, not as long as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, but for some 20 years since I was Parliamentary Secretary to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, when he was Lord President of the Council and Minister for Science, and later as Under-Secretary of State for Science and spokesman on these subjects, both science and technology, in opposition.
As I think I have said on more than one occasion—the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, reminded me of this only the other day, and I certainly said it when we were drawing up our report on Science and Government under his admirable chairmanship—I have always thought that the arrangement whereby a Minister for Science (who then happened to be the Lord President of the Council) was responsible for both basic and applied research worked very well. The Minister then had a relatively small office of some 60 people—it was not, I would emphasise, a department or a Ministry—in Richmond Terrace, responsible for following the work and answering in Parliament for the research councils, and with close relations with the noble Lord, Lord Todd, as chairman of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, who also made some very wise remarks this afternoon. We had close relations with him, and also with the DSIR, including the industrial research associations, as well as the Government research establishments, and, of course, with the Atomic Energy Authority itself, of which the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, was then chairman.
We might conceivably go back to that sort of arrangement, or we could, as was recommended in the report on Science and Government, at least have a Cabinet Minister, a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, speaking for both science and technology. The noble 623 Lord, Lord Adrian, quoted the relevant passage, and I will not repeat it.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and I have worked together for many years with different hats on, before, during and since the second world war; and there is no one in your Lordships' House who has a higher opinion of his remarkable qualities and ability than your humble servant. During one period, which I should like to mention this evening, when we worked together in West Africa, we both served the grandfather of my noble friend Lord Swinton, whom I am very glad is to reply to this highly important debate. I know how much his grandfather, looking down on us from on high, must appreciate the fact that he is sitting on our Front Bench.
It has always seemed to me extraordinarily difficult to decide what proportion of Government funding should go into basic and what proportion should go into applied research and development. During most of the period in which I have been interested in this subject—and indeed I wrote a book about it, commissioned by the Clarendon Press, covering, inter alia, the complex problems of priorities—I have worried about this. At that time we in Britain seemed to put a much higher percentage of our GNP into basic and purely curiosity-orientated research than a country such as Japan, which spent only a very small proportion of its national income on basic research and put most of its funds into application and development, with considerable commercial success, as we all know, all over the world.
In saying this, I am certainly not advocating any reduction in the expenditure of our five research councils; and indeed with many of your Lordships, I was particularly gratified to learn last night, at a meeting with Sir David Phillips, the chairman of the Advisory Board of the Research Councils, and Professor John Kingman, the chairman of the Science and Engineering Research Council, that the work of the councils was now about 60 per cent. applied and only 40 per cent. basic. That seems to me to be a trend in the right direction. I recognise, of course, that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has admitted that the cuts in university funding in recent years have fallen more heavily on research than on teaching, and that the effect on research is apparent in a reduction in departmental and laboratory expenditure by universities from their recurrent income over the three years 1979 to 1982.
It is clearly for this reason, among others, that, as I see it, the Government have encouraged the shift of this year's higher education intake into the public sector, and I am glad to see that the funding of the research councils from the science budget has increased quite considerably, as has already been indicated, over the past four years. I see, for example, that the budget for the Agricultural and Food Research Council has gone up from £29.5 million in 1979–80 to £46.5 million this year; that the budget of the Economic and Social Research Council has gone up from £16.8 million to £22 million; that the budget for the Medical Research Council of £57.2 million has virtually doubled to £117.2 million, and that, adding in another two or three million pounds from the Department of Health and Social Security, this then 624 goes up to the figure which was given by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, of £120 million. Then, the Natural Environment Research Council has gone up from £36.6 million to £65.9 million; and the SERC, as I say, from £175 million to £278 million, an increase of over £100 million.
Even taking into account inflation and the more expensive and sophisticated equipment mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Todd, these increases are not wholly insignificant. I am glad to learn, too, that there are thése contributions made direct from departments—not only from the Department of Health and Social Security but also to other research sectors from other appropriate departments. Only last week it was announced the funds would be made available for science and research additional to those anticipated for 1985–86; that for universities the UGC would decide on the distribution of an additional £10 million a year to modernise laboratories and equipment, this being an immediate, if only interim, response to the UGC's advice that the equipment grant should immediately be increased to the level indicated by the equipment grant model.
I also note that the Advisory Board of the Research Councils will advise the Secretary of State for Education and Science on the allocation of £14 million, of which £6 million will go on restructuring (as I think has been mentioned) in order to allow for more cost-effective use of resources in the future. Moreover, the capacity for scientific research in universities has been expressly assisted by the Government's £4 million "new blood" scheme, which has funded 200 posts in the natural sciences and technology.
Whatever other noble Lords may say—indeed, whatever the noble Baroness may say, who, as usual, made a most interesting, useful and slightly controversial contribution—or whatever was said on the BBC 2 "Horizon" programme, which I watched attentively, these additional funds are significant. I see that both the UGC and the Advisory Board of the Research Councils have agreed that better value for money could be obtained from research support services. I see also that the Rayner-style committee reported in September 1983 that savings could certainly be made in stores, purchasing, estate management, workshops and library services, with a total saving of £3.3 million a year, and that a once-and-for-all £5.3 million could also be realised.
I know, too, that the UGC is seeking to be more selective in the allocation of research resources and is considering ways of improving targeting and control. In that connection, noble Lords should look at the ABRC/UGC joint report of 1982.
With these figures in mind, I must admit that I felt I could safely support the Government and my noble friend on the Front Bench in their present policies concerning research and higher education. However, I should be glad to have my noble friend's comments on a paper which I received on Monday from the Natural Environment Research Council—not from my noble friend Lord Cranbrook but from the secretary of the council—in which they recognise that, although the Government have sought to protect the real value of the science budget, reflation has not kept pace with the increase in the cost of our sciences.
625 Although the NERC told me that every effort would be made to increase value for money—my noble friend Lord Cranbrook more or less indicated this—the NERC believe it to be most unlikely that the level of scientific output can be maintained and consider that the council will have to withdraw from important areas of work, including many of commercial and international significance. The support of training and research in universities and polytechnics will have to become much more selective. I should be grateful for my noble friend's comments—as, no doubt, would my noble friend Lord Cranbrook—and also for my noble friend's comments upon commissioning and the other points which my noble friend Lord Cranbrook made in what I thought was an excellent speech.
Much as I understand the qualms of highly respected Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors of certain universities and of the chairmen of certain research councils, I think that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has pursued as wise and sensible a policy as is possible within his budgetary limits. The more I look at basic research the more I feel that this should perhaps be conducted upon an international basis, in the same way as fusion research is carried out at Culham—the Joint European Torus—and in the European Strategic Programme of Research in Information Technology—ESPRIT—and, maybe, also through CERN, which I do not believe we should leave.
However, overall, I support the Government's policy regarding the research councils. Frankly, I am not so worried about the work of the research councils as I am disturbed by the facts given in the full-page advertisement of the Engineering Council which appeared today in the national dailies. This is the most disturbing page I have seen in any national daily for weeks. I do not believe that these facts have been mentioned by noble Lords. However, I believe that they should look at them very carefully in order to see how the percentage of the market in so many industrial sectors in the world has fallen dramatically over the last two generations. It makes me want to echo the words of my noble friend Lord Stockton in his maiden speech in your Lordships' House:What is happening to our beloved country?All I can say is that I hope that as a result of such cries of anguish, such cris de coeur, this trend will now be reversed, especially in the new technologies: in information technology, in what I call AI—not artificial insemination but artificial intelligence, although I wonder whether the two might not ultimately be brought together in some way—and in other technologies such as space and application satellites, which can be commercially attractive.
So far as the research councils are concerned, let them carry on as best they can, with the Government funding them as generously as they can.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ Lord Hunter of Newington
My Lords, I also should like to add my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for a most brilliant introduction to this debate. At this late hour I wish to make only one or two points. All the main points have been made, some 626 more than once. This has been one of the most brilliant debates to which I have listened in your Lordships' House.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, referred to the fact that in the 1960s the science Vote grew at the rate of 10 per cent. and that although its growth rate declined towards the end of the 1960s it remained positive. This occurred against the background of low industrial productivity and increased inflation. The reason for this was, I believe, because of the unquestioned belief that money spent on science represented a wise investment which would yield economic dividends.
What actually happened during the late 1960s was a crisis of confidence. Events seemed to fall short of expectations. In Westminster and Whitehall the mood was growing that the liberal support of science and its reorganisation, following the Trend report, had not delivered the goods and that the time had come to rethink the relationships between science and government. One of the questions which faces us in our debate today is whether this confidence has been restored.
As we know, two things happened. The Secretary of State for Science, Mrs. Thatcher, set up a CSP committee under the chairmanship of Sir Fred Dainton, and the Prime Minister, Mr. Heath, set up a central policy review body under Lord Rothschild, whose first study concerned government research and development. As the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has said, the situation today is compounded by the action of the Government on their reports. The CSP report was completed in 1971 and was available to Lord Rothschild while he completed his report. The CSP report classified research as basic, strategic and tactical.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has said, the real difficulty occurs over strategic research. This is likely to increase the understanding of basic science and to generate knowledge; but the outcome cannot be predicted, as noble Lords have said, particularly at the time the work is undertaken. The MRC are, in my view experts in strategic research, as the number of their Nobel prizes indicates. This point was made by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe.
Because of the mood in Government and Whitehall that the scientists had not been delivering the goods, judgments were made by Government following the Rothschild Report which form the background to this debate. One question is whether the Chief Scientist's proposals have worked well and whether Government departments are the proper source to initiate strategic research. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has already mentioned this important factor. Has the customer-contractor principle of Rothschild succeeded in this strategic area, albeit against the background of financial stringency? Is our machinery the wrong machinery? The Rothschild recommendations included, as noble Lords will remember, the transfer of very substantial sums to various departments to deploy as they thought fit, and the funds were taken from the ARC, the NERC and the MRC. For some reason the SRC, as it then was, remained relatively unscathed, in spite of its strong engineering and technological connections.
In the end, as noble Lords know, something of each of these reports appeared. The CSP's proposal resulted 627 in the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, and Rothschild's proposals for a Chief Scientist were accepted in 1972. We now have just over 10 years' experience of this system. What happened between the long-standing and prestigious research council, the MRC, and the DHSS? What problems faced its Chief Scientist? There was a conviction that the MRC gave full weight to the need of the DHSS for strategic research. In consequence, the Government returned to the MRC the money which had been removed, about nine years later. There is a view that a Chief Scientist is probably not necessary in the DHSS, because they have such a close relationship with the MRC. Some feel it would certainly avoid a great deal of bureaucracy and paperwork.
What of the other research councils? There is some evidence that the chief scientist's organisation is a positive bar to easy relationships with the relevant research councils. The Government must not have been very happy with all this, otherwise they would not have set up the Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Chilver. As noble Lords will know, his board has vitalised the situation, and they now have joint membership with the ABRC—and we recently saw a joint report by the two chairmen.
What should happen in our penurious state? Should funds for strategic research be returned to the research councils? Certainly your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology received evidence in one of their inquiries that departments could not find the money for strategic research, such was the pressure of immediate events and the shortage of resources. But there is the other point that strategic research does not fit easily within departmental boundaries because the concepts are so often wider. As has been said by many noble Lords, the fundamental policy of the Government in this field contrasts with that of many governments abroad—our rivals—who are pouring money into strategic research.
There is a new look in the universities. Strategic research has a new prominence, as indicated by the public statement of the noble Lord, Lord Flowers, when he was chairman of the vice-chancellors' committee. Perhaps we have all learned an important lesson in the past decade.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ Lord Kilmarnock
My Lords, this debate is of such importance that we in the Alliance seriously considered devoting to it one of the very few days allocated to us for debates of our own choosing. Fortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, has been able to obtain an earlier date than we could have offered. We congratulate him on that, because there is real urgency in arousing the awareness of the public and of the Government to the severe threat to our basic research base, which could have very important implications in the future for the health and prosperity of the nation.
I want to speak mainly but not entirely about the MRC, to whose plight several noble Lords have already drawn attention—notably, the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and the noble Lords, Lord Todd and Lord Adrian. The noble Lord, Lord Todd, said that 628 the MRC was particularly badly hit, and we have to remember that the figures given recently by the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, were cash figures and not figures in real terms.
I want to get down to brass tacks. The noble Earl, Lord Swinton, will no doubt recall that I addressed a Starred Question to him on 1st August concerning a proposed grant-in-aid to the MRC for 1984–85. The noble Earl made two statements then which I subsequently found hard to reconcile. At column 788 of the Official Report for that day, the noble Earl said:the Medical Research Council's grant-in-aid for 1984–85 represents very approximately the same share of the science budget as in 1983–84. However, the council is having to accommodate within its cash limits some unavoidable increases in expenditure",which he then detailed. The noble Earl continued:Therefore, it faces a drop in disposable income, which it estimates might be about £2 million".Later, when I pressed the noble Earl, he stated at column 790:As to this great fuss about the cuts"—and I ask your Lordships to note those words—I must point out that the council's 1984–85 grant-in-aid is £117.2 million compared with £113.7 million in 1983–84".When I asked the noble Earl whether this did not represent a cut in real terms, he answered:My Lords, I think that is just about level pegging".But how can the noble Earl reconcile his claim to level pegging with his earlier admission of a drop in disposable income of £2 million? In fact, the figure is nearer £4 million if inflation is taken into account. After all, it is disposable income that counts. I assume that the phrase "level pegging" is a slightly more colloquial version of the ABRC's planning guidelines to the MRC on the basis of "level funding". But whichever phrase one uses, surely it is clear that it is not being met.
I would suggest to the noble Earl that the real situation at the moment is that the increase from £113.7 million to £117.2 million represents a growth of about 3 per cent.—which is at least 2 per cent. below expected inflation. That is just the position this year. Over the next two years there is the additional requirement mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, that the MRC should contribute £2.7 million to redundancies in the AFRC and the NERC. Can it conceivably be right—I have asked the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, this question before, and I ask it again—that monies voted by Parliament for scientific research should be syphoned off to pay for redundancies in other councils? Surely restructuring should be treated quite separately.
Why is it that the research councils are not receiving the same help with their redundancies as the universities? Why is it right that the universities should receive additional government funds for redundancies but that the research councils should not? The logic of this defeats me. It is possible that the £6 million to be provided for restructuring, and to which several noble Lords have referred, may be applied for that purpose. I hope this will be the case, and I look forward to hearing the noble Earl's reply on that point.
Our concern cannot be limited to this year or next year. There is a growing danger that cumulative under-funding will eventually cripple our research effort. If 629 the MRC is to be confined to 2.5 per cent. cash-limited increases over the next 10 years as against inflation forecasts of 5 per cent. and 6 per cent., this is estimated to lead to a minimum decrease in real income of 17 per cent. over the decade. I have seen estimates of decreases as high as 25 per cent. in real terms. How can the council plan ahead or even make the most cost-effective use of its units and staff under the shadow of such grim expectations? The brief respite to which the noble Baroness, Lady White, referred will do little to allay those grim expectations.
Turning to more specific concerns, I want to discover from the Government how much importance they attach to medical research in relation to preventive medicine. This must surely be a very high priority in the programme of any Government concerned to contain National Health Service costs due to demographic and other demands. To mention only a few fields, the MRC is working on transplantation immunology (think of the failure rate there!); on cardiovascular disease, for which there are 230,000 admissions annually; on AIDS, that terrible scourge; and on environmental medicine. In the field of community care, they have funded a highly relevant care attendants' scheme on the subsequent progress and re-admission rates, etc., of elderly patients who have been discharged from hospital, and the financial implications of community care. This kind of research is crucial to the success of the Government's own care in the community policy.
I should like to mention one other area, which is currently the cause of widespread public concern. I refer to cot deaths. At present, it is the subject of controversy and appalling worry to young mothers. I understand that suggestions that suffocation and, in some cases, infanticide are among the most frequent causes are unfounded. Only on Monday in the Guardian Dr. David Southall, a senior lecturer in paediatrics, explained why more, not less, research into cot deaths is required. Few people perhaps realise that it is the commonest form of death in the first year of life, affecting between one in 500 and one in 1,000 babies.
I am aware of a particularly interesting project at Manchester in which new methods of preventing respiratory distress syndrome in the pre-natal infant are being pioneered. If such children are born prematurely, there is a greater likelihood of cot death; but there is no guarantee for the funding of this research beyond the next 22 months. Would it not be a tragedy if it had to be terminated, or if some other line of inquiry of equal quality had to be turned down by the MRC because it was funding redundancies elsewhere? What would the young mothers and the future mothers of Britain think about that?
There are many things of great promise that the MRC would, I understand, want to pursue if funds permitted. There is one that I want to mention in particular because it would build on and, in effect, become the application side of the well-known molecular biology fundamental research at Cambridge. This would require new money—not fast money as I think the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, said—because it involves a new hospital centre for molecular medicine. But we have to realise that some capital and recurrent expenditure will have to be made 630 if we are to become internationally competitive on the applied side of this rapidly expanding field. As my noble friend Lord Walston said, starving geese do not lay golden eggs.
We must not confine our concern to the MRC alone; or I must not. There are five councils, to all of which short-term uncertain funding is damaging. On the whole, research is cumulative and the spin-off, whether in commercial developments or the better use of public funds, is dependent on that accumulation. A longer and much more consistent look at funding is therefore required. A five- to ten-year plannning framework is preferable in research terms and almost certainly more cost-effective than short-term, one-off grants. No one is asking for tenure for life. I hasten to assure the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, that we are not in favour of that, either. But a very worryingly large number of highly qualified PhDs—potential high flyers—are still on short-term grants well into their thirties; living literally from hand-to-mouth and from one short-term project to the next.
The team I mentioned earlier in relation to cot deaths is led by a highly qualified young woman PhD who, since starting her career, has been on one 18-month grant, one two-year grant and two three-year grants. At 32 she has no formal career structure whatsoever. There is little possibility of lateral movement into commerce or industry. With those prospects the word is spreading that "research is dangerous". The young hopefuls are speedily demoralised, and the more prudent aim at the Civil Service or something else which is more secure.
Is that the climate we want to foster; a climate in which the best people are discouraged from going into research and those who have gone in are discouraged from staying in the game long enough to exploit the full potential of their work? There has been talk of the brain drain—I think my noble friend Lord Walston spoke about it—by which talented people are syphoned off from the system and rescued by other countries. But is there not an earlier problem, which might be called the brain barrier, which simply discourages people from entering the system in the first place?
It is not only the position of talented individuals that should cause us concern. It is especially the case in preventive medicine that the shorter the term, the less worthwhile will be the results; the more sophisticated the technology, the longer will be the training time required to master it. I am reliably informed that on a three-year project one spends the first year getting the method right, the second getting some results, and the third shopping around for new funds to continue the job. The productivity of highly trained people is, therefore, severely curtailed by reliance on three-year grants.
On these grounds one had hoped that the MRC would not be forced into following the growing practice in other councils of reducing their five-year programme grants in order to fund cheaper three-year projects with a reduced salary bill. So it is alarming to learn from the MRC's letter to the vice-chancellors that a main ingredient in their "package of stringent measures" will be to reduce long-term programme grants to universities by 25 per cent. as against the 7.5 per cent. reduction of three-year projects. It is 631 devastating to hear—no, I do not think that "devastating" is too strong a word—from the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and others, that over half the high scoring alpha applications for new programme grants will have to be refused. It is not a question of turning down the dross, but rejecting the créme de la créme! It is clear that the council has only taken this drastic course through force majeure, and I hope we shall hear from the noble Earl that the Government have finally realised the gravity of the decisions into which they are forcing the MRC and other councils. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, referred to a similar situation in the NERC.
The MRC case is very telling and has received powerful advocacy—much more powerful and weighty than any I can deploy—and so I want to say a few words about the reconstructed ESRC, to which the noble Lord, Lord Swann, referred, which has the smallest budget of all and is doing increasingly valuable work. I was amused by the first sentence of the review of a book of Professor R. E. Pahl's in New Society on 18th October:British social science has taken a bashing in recent years, for being trivial, boring, irrelevant and stuffed with pat-a-cake ideology and prefabricated jargon".The reviewer goes on to contrast this with the post-Rothschild social sciences which are slimmer, fitter and committed to a more muscular and rigorous research programme. I think many of us will welcome this development, although I am not sure that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Swann, who wants to trim 1 per cent. off all the other councils in order to fund further developments there.
I am extremely interested in the Centre for Health Economics and the Centre for Addiction Research; others will welcome the Industry and Employment Committee's new project on competitiveness and the new research into the use of computers in schools. But I want to ask the noble Earl one question in this field. All disciplines need the tools to carry out their jobs. Data collection is a very expensive business. Social scientists say that laymen do not appreciate the cost of surveys. The United Kingdom Government Statistical Office has been extremely helpful in the past, but cuts in staff have made it less accessible. Therefore, social scientists, including economists, are making increasing use of the data archive held at Essex University. This is partly supported by the UGC and partly by the ESRC on short-term research contracts. This inhibits investment in hardware and makes it difficult to take full advantage of the new information technology. Does the noble Earl not think that this is shortsighted, and can he give us an undertaking to see that this archive, which has been described to me as the Rutherford Laboratory of the social sciences world, is securely funded on a regular basis in future?
Finally, what of the advice given to the Government by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils on the proper level of scientific research spending? I found it pretty scary to read Professor Sir David Phillips, who has already been referred to several times this afternoon, in evidence to the Commons DES Select Committee on 19th June this year, on page 5. He says:Even if one accepted the need to restrain public expenditure"—632 I would not want to speak against that—the inescapable conclusion one comes to. looking at the forecasts, is that for those departments which support basic and strategic science there is likely to be an erosion in the funding over this period and we read this document"—I think he refers to the Green Paper on Public Expenditure—as telling us that we must look forward to something like a 25 per cent. decline in scientific research over the next 10 years".Later Sir David explains that the breakdown of types of research varies according to the branch of science in question; but in the case of the MRC it is roughly 25 per cent. basic, 40 per cent. strategic and 35 per cent. applied. But one cannot have the applied research without the other two.
Later, in the same evidence, Dr. Bodmer says:It is our responsibility to support the basic science base and the basic science base is ultimately the source of all science that has application".He says that no one in their right mind would support biotechnological research into cancer simply for its commercial application; but,unless we see that basic research continues to be supported we shall see the loss of the source of innovation that is needed for applications that are commercial".He criticises the Government document referred to by Sir David Phillips for not even deigning to mention science as important for the economy of the country; and this is a point made by the MRC in another submission where it expresses its hope,that the ABRC will impress upon the Government the longer-term benefits that a small shift of resources"—a small shift of resources—in favour of the science Vote at this particular time would confer on the future welfare and prosperity of the United Kingdom".Later, at a session of the evidence on 19th June, Dr. Roberts said,Just to be ludicrous, and this is the magnitude of it, if we talk about withdrawal from an area such that we can find 25 per cent. savings, it probably means withdrawing from medical research. I am not advocating that but I believe that we are glossing over the magnitude of the problem".Those were Dr. Roberts's words.
These are weighty comments from serious men, which it would be folly for the Government to disregard. It is high time the public were informed of what is going on, and I hope they will at least get an inkling of it from this debate. It is absurd to apply the pudding basin principle to public expenditure cuts—half an inch off all round, snip, snip, snip. In some cases the locks may be too long and in others too short already. The tragedy here is that only a tiny amount in relative terms is required to preserve our national pre-eminence in scientific research. The noble Earl, in the exchange I quoted at the beginning of my speech, referred to, "this great fuss about cuts", as if it were much exaggerated, much ado about nothing. I hope this debate has convinced him that this is not the case, and that he will represent to this right honourable friend the Secretary of State, with all the force and urgency he can command, the strong and authoritative views expressed this evening on all sides of your Lordship's House.
§ 6.51 p.m.
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, can be well satisfied with this debate. 633 Perhaps it may be appropriate if I were to say what was the origin of the debate. It was the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, who was so concerned about the situation in the medical research council that he was really demanding action and—and the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, will confirm this—possibly action by the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, on Science and Technology. However, the House of Commons are also looking at the research budget. Lord Sherfield, as chairman of the committee, initiated a debate which, as always on this sort of subject, has been of a very high class indeed.
I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, is not here. He made a coy remark at an earlier stage saying that he had to attend the unveiling of a portrait of, I would say, a very distinguished Member of your Lordships' House. Everybody got the message that it was the unveiling of Lord Jellicoe's own portrait that he had to attend. So we think it is quite right that he should be with us in spirit even if he is looking at his own picture.
I always find it interesting to wind up a debate, especially when the facts have been so brilliantly deployed. I am bound to say that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, really needs reading again on publication, as do many others. I look at those who have taken part. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, said it was a pity that industrialists, people from industry, were not taking part. I stretched it a bit hard when I said there were nine, but I do regard him, as a farmer, and the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, as representing very successful, important sectors of industry. Perhaps equally important, there were eight distinguished scientists. Again I include the noble Lord, Lord Walston. I wish he were here.
Oh! he is here. He once had a research fellowship in bacteriology. We have four Fellows of the Royal Society. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, represents both categories because at one time he was head of the research department in Decca and I think I am right in saying he is responsible for the long-playing record, and he has filled almost every scientific post. I am very grateful to him for saying that one does not have to be a scientist in order to take part in discussions of this kind. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that it is vital that all those of us who have tried to take an interest in these matters should continue to do so. To take Lord Halsbury's speech, if I may say so, I always find great trouble with Lord Halsbury. He is one of the most articulate and convincing people. When he has finished speaking, I think he is absolutely right. Luckily, after a while it wears off. Unfortunately, some of his ideas wore off other governments.
I really must say something to the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough. I will give him 100 per cent. full marks for loyalty. Either the department, doing their best, or the Conservative Central Office gave him a paper which purported to say just how well the Government were doing; whereas it must be obvious that, for good or for ill, the situation is anything but satisfactory. The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, who has just been 634 speaking, has given all the figures and others have given them before.
I hope that when the Minister comes to reply he will not attempt to ride off by saying that really the science budget has all been retained and everything is splendid, when all the evidence shows the opposite. We cannot all be wrong. Not only have these distinguished scientists taken part, but we have also heard members of our own Science and Research Committee, no fewer than five of whom actually held chairmanships of particular committees. They have come to the same view. Since the Minister has covered such a wide field, I would urge him to read those two admirable journals, the New Scientist and Nature, which do a splendid job in educating those of us who are not scientific. Nature, which is very objective, does say that the impoverishment of the British research enterprise is not in question. This is in the light of the extra funds that have been available.
I suppose one should congratulate the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Since he is a member of this Government, I suppose it is fair to say he has done rather well, but at some price: others are having to be sacrificed. However, there is no doubt that the evidence is pretty damning and that we do see potentially a real decline in the scientific effort. I am talking about the basic scientific effort. I think one of the messages that has come out today is the importance of the basic research.
For instance, I was very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, spoke up for the Natural Environment Research Council, which is quite severely threatened these days, especially since the occurrence of these particular problems with the geologists. Incidentally, I am very glad the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, referred to the geological situation, which is a result of the decline in the commissioned research, if I may say so, a direct consequence of the acceptance of the Rothschild Report. Both the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook (I think it was Lord Selborne), have said that when we debated the Rothschild Report before there was a kind of easy guarantee that the money would be forthcoming and we now know it is not forthcoming. This is having a shattering effect on the long-term functioning and the continuity of research councils and other bodies, the universities, and indeed the scientific and academic worlds. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Todd. He will know that we have been debating these issues for practically a generation, and they are important.
However, I think we are clearly in a more difficult and dangerous position than we realise. If I may quote the position on NERC's income, in 1980–81—and this is for the benefit of the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough—it stood at a peak of £102 million. That is at 1984–85 prices. In 1984–85 it was set at £92 million; and another £5 million, much to my pleasure, has been devoted to Antarctic research, which has come out in addition. There is no doubt that those figures pose a serious threat to the efficient functioning of these bodies.
I do not propose to talk very long on these matters because I think the case has been very fully made. However, again if one looks at the AFRC, this year, despite the extra money—I do not know whether the 635 noble Earl, Lord Selborne, mentioned this—there will be 400 to 500 redundancies.
When we come to consider "restructuring"—it is a lovely cover word—I should like to say something about it. Restructuring in industry is quite different from restructuring in a university or government establishment. It means, in effect, that one has to pay out fairly large sums in redundancy. Almost certainly one has to drop certain forms of activity. It may even be desirable to drop some of them because other things come along.
In industry, restructuring should always improve profitability. I have been involved quite recently in the restructuring of a company where the numbers were dropped by 40 per cent. Very generous redundancy was paid; and higher production and profits resulted. That is not happening in the restructuring in government. Again it is an anxiety that government departments have been cut to the bone. Certainly we watch with great anxiety what is happening in industry.
I have no need to refer to the Sussex University study, which has already been well referred to. I think that it is apparent that whatever else is happening, there is a decline in our position in the world share of research and development.
I want to stress that however hard the department has tried—and I give it full credit for what it seeks to do—it is constrained in a strait-jacket. Those people in the general world who press for this, that or the other in industry or elsewhere may not appreciate the fact that we are to a large extent talking about academic work in this debate. But it is the academic work—the strategic research—that is in danger of being seriously reduced. The theme of Sir Andrew Huxley at this year's parliamentary and scientific dinner was that our research effort is in danger of being seriously reduced. Our research effort has been one of our great glories. Obviously there is a limit to the amount of money one can spend on research in this tremendously expanding field. There are so many striking opportunities for scientific development in industry, in science and in the laboratories that one cannot begin to meet the opportunities. But there is a real danger that if we start cutting back at this moment we shall damage the whole operation.
When one looks at, for instance, the Jack Lewis study on research grants and the effects of these, the situation is very alarming. I expect that the noble Earl has read it. If he has not, I ask him to look at what is said there:The science board has experienced great difficulties in managing a complex portfolio of grants, studentships, central facilities and international agreements. It has consistently maintained that research grants should have the highest priority of funding, but nevertheless has equally consistently had to provide less for this item in its budget than it would have wished because of financial pressures. Morale in most areas of the academic community is low because of the unfunded alpha-graded problem".I am sure that the Minister is well aware of it, but I wish to draw his attention to the fact that it is appalling that those projects for research which have been graded Alpha—which means that they are the highest quality—are not to receive grants. The figures and the statistics are there. Some of the statistics can be qualified, and that qualification is explained. The 636 trouble arising out of the delay and uncertainty is the loss of continuity. Again one needs to stress that.
What are the other ill effects? One of them has again been referred to in the recommendations. It is that there is a real and potential movement of research workers away from the United Kingdom. This should be monitored systematically. I would draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, some years ago when we were confronted with this problem, we sent the well-known writer William Cooper (Harry Hoff) to America to help draw people back to England. I hope that the Government will examine that.
There are many other problems which I do not have time to go into. I should particularly like to draw attention to an area which has not been satisfactorily dealt with except on an ad hoc arrangement—multi-disciplinary activities crossing the borders of different councils, as Browning said,on the dangerous edge of things".That is an area which I hope will be given further attention.
I have already mentioned the geologists. I should like to come back to what my noble friend Lord Gregson said when he referred to the fact that as a nation we are confronted by the most serious problems. Even this year the price of a barrel of North Sea oil has dropped by a dollar. I give the Government full credit for sincerity in pursuing their policies. I do not agree with them in a lot of respects, but they are concerned and they believe that economy in public expenditure will lead to a more vigorous and successful country. But cutting or allowing a decline in this area runs entirely contrary—if I may have the attention of the noble Earl who is about to reply——
§ Lord Shackleton
My Lords, the noble Earl was also talking at the same time, but he is very clever at these things. The Government should be consistent in their policy to make this country more effective industrially and to make economies in public expenditure. But this is a field which cannot be funded overall by private enterprise. There is no solution down that path. That is not to say that we should give a blank cheque to the universities or to the research councils. But basically, if they are to sustain their policies, out of that £1,500 million—£1½ billion sounds a bit more—which is set aside for tax cuts, a relatively small proportion (and I know that everybody is saying the same thing) would make all the difference to something which is fundamental to the development of our national prosperity.
I hope that when he comes to reply the Minister will take note of the arguments that have been put forward, particularly those of the noble Lords, Lord Gregson, Lord Todd and Lord Adrian, who have asked the Government to give rather more of a lead and for there to be selection in this area. I should also have liked to ask the Government, although there is perhaps not time at this stage, about their attitude to supporting co-operation in Europe. Incidentally, nobody, as far as I know, has mentioned Scotland in the debate. I do not know how much Scotland is suffering. The research councils' writ does not run over all the research establishments in Scotland. Basically I ask the 637 Government to reckon that the year of grace, which is really only a very partial year of grace, is not adequate. We hope that they will introduce a sustained policy for the support of science and particularly of basic science.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ The Earl of Swinton
My Lords, like noble Lords who have already spoken, the Government are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, for initiating this debate. His contribution and those of other noble Lords have been thoughtful and of great interest. I look forward to reading what they said in my own time, and I shall also draw my right honourable friend's attention to the debate.
I shall try to respond to as many of the points made as possible, but I am sure your Lordships will all agree that it has been a long and wide-ranging debate. Among the subjects that have come up are pyrethroid insecticides and herbicides; TV violence; senile dementia, which I am sure is not a problem for any Member of this House; and 20-year-old Jaguar cars, which may well be. Seriously, if I miss out any noble Lords or Baronesses, I shall do my best to write to them.
Before responding, however, I must briefly set the scene. The research councils are often thought of as five identical bodies, differing only in the areas of science they support. While there is a grain of truth in that, the differences between them are almost as striking as their similarities. Some of the councils operate largely by awarding research grants to university scientists; some operate mainly through their own institutes. Again, some are funded entirely by grant-in-aid from the science budget of the Department of Education and Science; some receive substantial income, in addition to their grant-in-aid, from other departments, from overseas countries and from bodies such as the European Community in respect of commissioned research. I might add that many of those contracts, especially overseas ones, are won on merit against stiff opposition. Yet again, some councils conduct or support extensive work in other countries; some virtually confine their work to the United Kingdom. Nor are their histories comparable one with the other. Where, however, they do closely resemble each other is in their determination to promote and support science of the highest quality—a determination which is shared by the Government.
I should here like to pay tribute to the way the councils—by which I mean not only the chairmen and members of the actual councils but also their Staffs—have steadfastly pursued excellence and continue to do so in spite of some unavoidable difficulties in recent times—difficulties not of their own choosing. I should also like to commend the councils for the part they play in maintaining the high regard in which British scientists are held by their peers in other countries. The dual support system for university research, of which the research councils are one leg, is a peculiarly British arrangement and has its critics. But it nevertheless appears to suit our national temperament and it has no doubt played a part in fostering British science to the point where it is held in high esteem internationally. But by far the greatest factor in this is, of course, the skill and inventiveness of our scientists themselves.
638 The noble Lord's Motion is in part concerned with resources and most noble Lords have spoken on that theme. In one sense this debate is timely, therefore, as it was only last week that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science announced that the science budget for 1985–86 will be £587 million, which includes £14 million additional to previous planning figures. My right honourable friend went on to say that he intends £6 million of the additional money to be used for restructuring of certain of the research councils. I think this may come as good news to the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock.
My noble friend Lord Bessborough went into some detail about the finance arrangements. I am grateful to him for this and also for the kind remarks he made about my late grandfather. I do not think, therefore, that I need to go into details on the financial statements, about which he was thoroughly accurate. My right honourable friend now awaits the advice of the ABRC on how the enlarged science budget should be distributed between the research councils and the three other smaller bodies which are also funded through that budget. I understand that that advice is likely to reach him shortly. I should add that in formulating its advice the ABRC goes through each research council's plans for the next three years in considerable detail as part of the "Forward-Look" exercise. The head of each council plays a major part in this dialogue.
This additional money is hard evidence of the Government's determination to maintain their support for basic science at a particularly difficult time for public expenditure. At the same time, the Government would wish to give the research councils every encouragement in the endeavours they are making to attract money from the private sector. I welcome the comments made by my noble friend Lord Selbourne along these lines. I recognise the difficulties in this, and there is no question of our wishing to substitute private for public sector funding on a large scale. But it would be wise of the councils to recognise that the public purse is not bottomless—indeed, from what the chairmen and other noble Lords have said today, I am sure that they know this already—and that some easement may equally well be secured by increasing their income from the private sector, even if only marginally.
Obtaining the best possible value for money demands tight management. I am glad to say that the heads of the research councils are co-operating fully with my right honourable friend and with my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science in seeking to increase efficiency, to transfer technology to industry, to publish corporate plans and to translate into their own operations the principles of the Government's financial management initiative. The councils are also active in seeking international collaboration wherever that is possible and desirable. The Government will continue to look to the councils to promote these and similar measures so as to maximise value for money.
I turn now to some of the points raised in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, asked what the Government are doing by way of response to the report by Sir Ronald Mason. This report was addressed to the chairman of the ABRC and it is 639 therefore for that body to decide whether to respond to it, and, if so, how. I understand that the ABRC has discussed the Mason Report and that its recommendations are influencing the board's thinking and the general thrust of its work. I might add that I understand that the report has also been discussed by ACARD.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, and also, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Todd, asked about research in the universities and UGC funding. Research is considered an area of particular priority by this Government. In 1984–85 the DES will be providing over £1,000 million to research, about £550 million for the science budget and about the same amount through the grant made available to the UGC. The Government, however, acknowledge that there is some evidence that the reductions in the grants allocated to the universities have fallen disproportionately on research. It is because of concern expressed in a number of reports about the effect on research that my right honourable friend invited the UGC to consider, in putting their advice to him on the future development of higher education, what measures might be undertaken to increase the resources devoted to both fundamental and applied research for the sake of the quality of our science and for its contribution to the economy.
My right honourable friend also referred to the need, in the light of the pressures on public expenditure, to consider the case for greater selectivity in the funding of research activity and greater specificity of funding, including recognition of institutions' success in seeking research monies from external sources and increased co-operation with the research councils. I have read with particular interest the UGC's recent advice to my right honourable friend about research provision and, like him, welcome the committee's proposals for a more systematic and selective approach to the allocation of the UGC block grant to the universities. This should reinforce the selectivity already in force on the research council side of the dual support system.
My noble friend Lord Jellicoe and a number of other noble Lords, but particularly my noble friend, drew my attention to the state of the MRC and its budget. The council's 1984–85 grant-in-aid from the science budget is £117.2 million as compared with £113.7 million in 1983–84. I know that the council regards its current allocation as representing a £2 million drop in disposable income because of inescapable increases in outgoings, and that the ABRC and, in turn, my right honourable friend will take account of this when deciding the allocation of next year's science budget. The council must, of course, operate within whatever grant-in-aid it receives in 1985–86 and later years, even if this means painful decisions about priorities.
As to the future, the MRC's allocation for 1985–86 and beyond has not yet been announced. I am aware that the ABRC, in their advice last year, provisionally recommended that the MRC and the SERC should contribute to the restructuring costs of the AFRC and the NERC and that the MRC have discussed their financial position with my right honourable friend. This is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, was making very forcefully. The 640 allocation in the science budget of £587 million recently announced for 1985–86 will be a matter for advice from the ABRC, after which my right honourable friend will decide on the level of funds to be made available to the MRC. I have no doubt that he will take the MRC's representations into account.
My noble friend Lord Selborne and the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, asked about defence research and development. The Government are committed to maintaining expenditure on defence, including research and development related to defence needs. In our view, the balance between defence R & D expenditure and other areas of R & D expenditure is about right. Most defence R & D is in the fields of applied research or development. An insignificant part of that budget is devoted to basic research. Nevertheless, my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Education and Science are concerned to minimise any duplication that may exist between research council-supported work and work undertaken for the Ministry of Defence. Some of the latter is in any case carried out in universities on a contract basis. The annual review of Government R & D expenditure published by the chief scientific adviser in the Cabinet Office gives the Government an opportunity to review the balance of R & D provision across all departments.
The noble Lord, Lord Todd, made fairly strong comments about high-energy particle physics. I hasten to add that I am in no way a scientist. I do not think I got even an O-level in any science subject, so I may be slightly out of my depth here. The SERC expects to spend a total of £52.6 million on high-energy particle physics in 1984–85—about 19 per cent. of its allocation from the science budget, of which some £35.6 million is the United Kingdom subscription to CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.
On 22nd March this year my right honourable friend published the 1983 advice that he had received from the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. This contained a careful discussion on the case for keeping under review the competing claims of current and new areas of scientific research. He also announced his agreement to the ABRC and SERC jointly undertaking a review of United Kingdom participation in high energy particle physics, under the chairmanship of Sir John Kendrew, the President of St. John's College, Oxford. I understand that Sir John expects to be able to report to the chairmen of ABRC and SERC by Easter next year.
In giving his agreement to the review, my right honourable friend made it clear that should the ABRC recommend any change to the United Kingdom's relationship with CERN, this was a matter for Her Majesty's Government, to be considered by due process and in consultation with other members of the organisation.
A number of noble Lords, not least the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, drew my attention to the Lewis Report on the rejection rate of alpha-rated research grants. Research grants are the main way by which the SERC supports research in the universities. In recent years the council has had to reject an increasing number of research grant applications on financial grounds. The rejection rate is now some 30 per cent. of 641 applications which the council has graded alpha. This is a matter of serious concern to the council and the Lewis Report was produced to identify the consequences of this phenomenon. I might add that the additional money in the science budget in 1985–86 should allow a better acceptance rate.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, asked about agricultural and environmental research. The relationship between agricultural and environmental research and the useful report on the subject prepared by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Adrian—who we were glad to hear earlier this afternoon—was discussed very fully in the House in July. I know that since then the research councils and the ABRC have been looking carefully at the recommendations which concern them.
The Agricultural and Food Research Council has established a working party under the chairmanship of Professor D. C. Smith, who was an adviser to the Select Committee. I understand that the AFRC's working party will be taking into account the views of NERC and of other bodies and will seek to define the areas of research which the Select Committee thought were grey areas and to define the respective responsibilities of councils in these areas. I expect the ABRC will be consulted on the group's findings in due course, and the group is expected to complete its work in the spring.
The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, mentioned the transfer of control of the Geological Museum from the NERC to the Natural History Museum. I understand that this transfer of control will take effect from 1st April 1985 and that the decision to merge was made principally on the grounds of science and museum management and practice. I understand that the British Geological Survey's library will remain in the Geological Museum building for a short period after 1st April 1985 until the NERC have made alternative arrangements for access by London-based organisations to the reports and maps now held in the library.
My noble friend Lord Bessborough asked me to comment on a letter which he had received from the NERC. I think that he quoted a pessimistic passage based on an assumption that over 10 years the science budget may decline by 25 per cent. in real terms. This is a worst case assumption based on maintenance over 10 years of level funding, which is in reality less because of pay settlements and the numerous reasons that your Lordships have raised this afternoon. The NERC are not yet at the point where they are seriously considering withdrawing from a major area of work, although like all research councils they are under heavy pressure. A further assumption is that commissioned research will decline at the same rate as the science budget. I hope that the real picture will be much less severe.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, mentioned cot deaths. I understand that the Medical Research Council, through its research grants scheme, supports much work which may turn out to be relevant to sudden infant death syndrome or "cot death", as it is commonly known. I am aware that the incidence of cot death is increasing, and this is clearly a very worrying problem. The MRC spent £244,000 in 642 1983–84 on work on problems of this kind. The DHSS is, I understand, sponsoring a study into cot death based at Sheffield University. In addition to this work a registered charity, the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death, promotes research into the causes and prevention of cot death by means of grants to individuals. I hope that noble Lords will agree that substantial effort is being devoted to solving this dreadful problem.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, also asked about the ESRC's data archive. I understand that the ESRC are discussing the future of the archive both internally and with the Government, but I cannot at present say what will be the outcome.
I must emphasise the confidence felt by the Government in the research councils as eminent bodies with great prestige and with a high degree of independence conferred on them by their charters. The peer review system, whereby scientific priorities are essentially decided by scientists rather than being decreed by the Government, is the cornerstone of the research council system. It has stood the test of time and has survived intact through successive Governments of both main parties. This Government have no intention of seeking to change that basic tenet of the civil science system.
I would recommend to noble Lords the 1983–84 annual reports of the research councils, copies of which have been laid before your Lordships' House. These give an idea of the immense spread of scientific activity which the councils in aggregate cover. I shall not attempt to describe the spread in detail; an example or two must suffice. One or more councils support research into the distant parts of the universe; the most basic particles of matter; climatology; plants and animals; medical matters (both laboratory-based and clinical); robotics; information technology, and so on. Indeed, noble Lords, have referred to some other areas in the course of this debate. Experimental work is carried out throughout the earth's surface, including in Antarctica, where British science is pre-eminent, on the sea-bed, in the oceans, and in space.
Finally, I would again make the point that, within the limits of overall public expenditure constraints, the Government will continue to give the fullest possible support to civil science and in particular to the research councils.
§ 7.28 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield
My Lords, I should like first to thank all noble Lords who have taken such a spirited part in this debate, many of them at considerable inconvenience to themselves. Their contributions have combined to make a very interesting and comprehensive debate and they have, incidentally, been far too kind to my own contribution. Secondly, I thank the Minister for his reply. As the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, said, I had the privilege of acting as the Foreign Office adviser to his grandfather when he went out as the Minister Resident in West Africa in the summer of 1942. I have many memories of that experience, both serious and amusing, and I certainly benefitted a great deal from the experience.
I have to say that the range of my expectations of the Minister's reply was not high, and the result was well 643 within the middle of the range. Perhaps it was an error for me to have raised the question of whether or not the science budget has been maintained in real terms, because it has proved to have been a bit of a hare and has produced a large number of rather confusing figures. There is no doubt that in the last two or three years the amount that has been spent on research, as opposed to things like superannuation, restructuring and pensions, has fallen, and that is the crucial point.
As regards international collaborative research, which we did not discuss in detail, it is perhaps important to make the point that, although international collaborative research has many and important advantages, it does not follow that it is a means of saving money. It may probably have the opposite effect, and this is a point which must always be borne in mind.
In conclusion, I express the hope that the noble Earl the Minister and his colleagues will reflect on the points made in this debate in the context of our future as an industrial nation. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.