HL Deb 24 June 1998 vol 591 cc244-6

3 p.m.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the comprehensive spending review has taken note of the substantial increase for basic scientific research in the Japanese and American budgets and the consequences such expenditure can have for growth, innovation and jobs.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis)

My Lords, the potential benefits in terms of sustainable growth and quality of life from investment in basic scientific research are among the relevant factors being considered in the comprehensive spending review. It is also taking note of the expenditure by other countries, including Japan and the United States of America.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer which I shall interpret optimistically. Will he agree that the fall in government expenditure on science in the period 1981 to 1996 from 0.7 per cent. to 0.4 per cent. of GDP has had an extremely harmful effect on the science base of this country? Will he also agree that the drastic cuts in capital expenditure funding for universities in the 1995 Budget has made it extremely difficult for our world-class scientists to carry out their research effectively? Finally, will he agree that only by something like a doubling in real terms of funding expenditure on science in the next 10 years can we hope to make any progress in catching up with our major competitors?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the overall spending on research is not simply a question of government funding. It is a question of looking also at the private sector. Although I do not wish to sound complacent, while it certainly could improve, the percentage spend on basic research has increased from 20 per cent. in 1986–87 to about 30 per cent. in 1996–97.

I fear that my noble friend will have to await the outcome of the comprehensive spending review—he will not have to wait very long—in order to enable me to answer the other two questions to which he specifically drew attention.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us would look forward to the outcome of that review with a great deal more confidence if the channel of communications between leading scientists and Ministers were considerably improved? At the moment, that channel is distinguished in the way that it is clogged.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord. I do not believe that the number of discussions that my honourable friend Mr. John Battle, the Minister responsible for those matters, has had would represent a clogging in the relationship between the scientific community and government Ministers.

Although I did not anticipate that the noble Lord would view the comprehensive spending review with confidence, I look forward to it. Overall, I believe that that is the right way to proceed and that it is right to wait at the moment because I am obviously inhibited from saying anything about the Government's expenditure plans in that regard.

Lord Paul

My Lords, will the Minister inform the House what the Government are doing to encourage the use of the benefits of research by making it more productive in this country?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, we believe to regard science as one of the top priorities, alongside the others which have been identified by the Government, is the right way to proceed. It is a top priority for us. Indeed, it is dealt with separately and that is absolutely right. Therefore, I believe that the Government's approach to the paramountcy of expenditure on R&D and scientific research is of the greatest importance.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following on from the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, about the increase in basic scientific research expenditure in America and Japan, will the noble Lord indicate how the combined basic research within the European Union compares with that of those two countries?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I cannot give an answer as to the totality of expenditure on research in the European Union. However, the position in Japan and the United States is a little at variance with what the noble Lord seemed to infer in his question. The past record of Japanese public investment in that regard has not been consistent. There have been rises followed by falls. That has been an extremely inconsistent performance. As regards the United States, there is an increased expenditure premise but that is founded on funding from the tobacco settlement. I am not sure whether or not that has been finally agreed, but I think not. Moreover, it is subject to congressional approval. It seems to me that the thesis of that is that you only get the money if you smoke and, having regard to a previous Question, that is not a very good idea.