HL Deb 21 November 2002 vol 641 cc511-4

3.15 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, following the recent World Summit at Johannesburg, they will be focusing more of their scientific research and co-ordination work towards the goals of international sustainable development; and whether this policy will be extended to all relevant government departments and organisations funded by government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the issue of sustainable development already runs through the work and priorities of the UK science base. Research councils are committed to supporting the research and development to understand and address priorities such as climate change, sustainable energy, biodiversity, water and health. The science budget attracted substantial new funding in the latest spending review and details of the allocations will be made public shortly.

In addition, departments such as DfID, DEFRA, the Department of Transport and DTI undertake research in support of their policy interests relating to sustainable development.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his encouraging response. Will he change the wording of the affirmation required of researchers seeking government funds? The 1993 White Paper introduced the worthy but limited objectives of improving "wealth creation" and "quality of life". Will the Minister start consultations about introducing wider objectives?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, improving the quality of life also includes the objectives we would have in terms of international development. It is a wide-ranging phrase and would be taken also to include that.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, is the Minister aware that only last week the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was concerned that government departments would do no more than pay lip service to the objectives of sustainable development? In the light of that, what will the Government do to ensure that sustainable development is put at the heart of policy making?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we already do a great deal across a wide range of departments in initiatives in this area. We have the sustainable technologies initiative, which includes developing an understanding of socio-economic aspects of the adoption of sustainable technologies. There are also the enviro-wise programme; the waste and resources action programme; the market transformation programme; and the work of the Carbon Trust. So already a number of important programmes are in place and we have taken action in areas such as energy research for sustainable development, which will have a major impact.

There are already major programmes and we also have in this country some of the finest research in places such as the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Hadley Centre for Climate Change, which are recognised as being world-class centres.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, bearing in mind the emphasis placed by the UK at the Johannesburg World Summit on access to safe water, has any scientific research been conducted in the UK with a view to providing third world countries with effective and low-cost methods of testing drinking water for arsenic and other heavy metals? Will the Minister also say whether with our increased emphasis on wind energy we might be in a particularly convenient position to transfer those technologies to third world countries where high average wind speeds obtain?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we carry out a lot of good research on wind energy. We can transfer technology in exactly such areas to markets of the developing world. In fact, we recently welcomed a report from the innovation and growth team on environmental industries and services. Energy and wind energy is part of that, as is the way in which we increase our share of those markets in this country by transferring that technology to the developing world.

I am not certain about the position on water. I believe that we have some good research, but I shall write to the noble Lord setting that out specifically.

Lord St John of Bletso

My Lords, as an extension to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, do the Government have any plans to extend their scientific research and co-ordination to assist African scientists and researchers on vital sustainable development goals?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we already have substantial ongoing research for African countries. I believe that that will continue to be extended. We have an MRC research station in the Gambia, and DfID does a good deal of work and research in Africa. One of the most interesting examples is the research work that has been done on a disease affecting cassava; namely, cassava mosaic virus. Two hundred million people in Africa benefit who might otherwise suffer as a result of the disease. The work has been developed at a cost of £3 million over the past 10 years and the gross monetary benefit is about £80 million. So there are substantial programmes, with very substantial benefits.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I ask the Minister in what respects? The programmes to which he has referred are suggested to be wholly defective.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I have just given an example where £3 million of research money was spent on traditional breeding of new varieties of cassava. That gave a benefit of £80 million. By anyone's standards—certainly by mine— that is an extremely good cost-benefit ratio.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister recall the report of the Science and Technology Committee of this House, published in May this year— which I chaired, and to which he was kind enough to give evidence— indicating that the fate of the systematic biologists who are needed for the implementation of so much sustainable development was found to be in a parlous state? When will the Government give their response to the report, and which department will be leading on that response?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am sure that it is going to be given shortly. I believe that it will be given jointly by the OST and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because both were involved—the DCMS is also involved—so I think that the response will have to be across government. The DCMS is heavily involved in the question of places such as the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, which are very involved in the biodiversity debate.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, there is much excellent. publicly funded research in this country on, for example, sustainable agriculture. Does the Minister accept that if only there were a mechanism to fund its application in the third world it would help to meet the objectives set at Johannesburg? Does he agree that for the lack of this relatively small amount of pump-priming money we are wasting an opportunity to help the third world?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am not sure that I do agree with that. I think that money is available and some research establishments in this country do a very good job doing just that.

Forward to