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Science and Research

June 24, 2015

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate; we have worked together on a number of university and immigration issues. He made slightly disparaging comments about some Government Members’ views on immigration, but I suspect that he was not including me among them. We have worked together in particular on the importance of being an outward-looking nation and attracting the brightest and best people. That applies not only to our universities, but to many other areas that are important to research in the corporate world.

The Government correctly aspire to make the UK the best place in the world to run an innovative business or service. Instinctively, we know that to achieve that requires a strong financial sector, a plentiful supply of highly skilled people from across the globe—ideally, of course, with significant numbers of the indigenous population being trained—and progress in creating intellectual property and a thriving science and research community. All those ingredients can be found in London, the part of the country that I represent in the House. The capital’s universities have put themselves at the heart of innovation and of the drive to bring finance and business together to commercialise that innovation.

My constituency is home to three of the capital’s—indeed, the world’s—top universities: Imperial College, King’s College London and the London School of Economics. Their relentless rise in the university league tables coincides with our city’s seemingly unstoppable growth as a premier destination for global talent, capital and ideas. Just as the metropolis has married financiers with start-ups to create a booming tech sector, our universities have become adept at collaborating with the city’s business, philanthropic, government and research communities, and that is beginning to reap huge dividends. I am not suggesting that we should in any way be complacent; I take on board the statistical concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, who made valid points.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) pointed out that there is a golden triangle, which is sadly some way south of the Pennines. The London-Oxford-Cambridge golden triangle has more science and tech workers and faster industry growth than California. In 2007, Imperial College integrated its medical faculty with St Mary’s and Hammersmith hospitals. Only eight years on, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is a globally respected centre for medical research, with patients benefiting from cutting-edge care and academics able to trial state-of-the-art treatments on London’s uniquely diverse population.

Imperial is similarly collaborating with Aviva Investors on a new White City campus, Imperial West, to support science start-ups and ensure that the UK benefits commercially from breakthroughs made in its university labs. A problem going back to Victorian times is that we have cutting-edge research, but do not glean the commercial benefits once the research makes its way into general products. We clearly have to get that right. I am not suggesting that there are easy solutions, as this problem goes back 120 years. The Minister might have some bright ideas, but I would not blame him if he felt that this is a work in progress.

The plan for Imperial is that the university will soon be virtually independent of public funding. One of the spin-outs based on the campus, DNA Electronics, is already transforming academic discoveries into serious commercial propositions, offering affordable chip devices that can test for genetic diseases and drug intolerances within minutes.

Amid healthy rivalry between London’s top institutions, there are significant partnerships that we should applaud and relish. Imperial, King’s College and University College London, for example, have joined forces with the Government and others to build the groundbreaking Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research in King’s Cross. Once open, it will complement the arrival of Central Saint Martins in nearby Granary Square.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman refers to the friendly rivalry between universities in his constituency. We need to encourage such rivalry right across the United Kingdom, so that organisations such as Innovate UK can develop and progress. It is in all our interests for the progress he sees in London to be replicated across the entire nation. Does he agree?

Mark Field: I very much agree. Perhaps understandably, there was a certain amount of cynicism when the Chancellor of the Exchequer first talked about the northern powerhouse two years ago—he represents a northern seat, albeit in leafy Cheshire—but it is none the less important. I have battled with a number of colleagues in London on both sides of the divide on the issue. I think that we should be investing money in High Speed 3 well before we even consider putting money into High Speed 2. There is a strong case for building high-speed rail—indeed, high-speed transport— connections between our regional centres.

We could debate the broader issue of London’s dominance. I understand why there is a lot of hostility towards that dominance, but this country has a single global city of 8 million people and a cluster of cities with populations of about 1 million. In an ideal world, we would build another city from scratch with a population of about 3 million to be a global player, to try to counter London’s dominance within the UK.

A huge amount of the investment that comes into London, however, would not come to the UK if it did not come to London. It is not a zero-sum game between London and the rest of the UK. More importantly, a huge amount of the construction and contracting work that comes in for London-related projects often goes out to the regions, not only to the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world but to Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and many of the country’s second-tier cities—I do not mean that disparagingly—where huge amounts of work can be done.

Graham Stringer: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. London is my capital city, and he is absolutely right that it has technology and transport attractions that nowhere else in the United Kingdom has. However, London and the golden triangle get a disproportionate amount of scientific funding—not the universities—that could just as easily go into the regions and probably have a greater benefit. The Diamond Light Source was moved from Daresbury in the north-west to Oxford. The Francis Crick Institute, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, could just as easily have been placed in Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle.

Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I am not sure I can necessarily answer. Given his criticisms of Oxford, he might get a kick from directly to his right, from the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith).

Amid the great strides in technology and science, London is also an important centre for leading global research in the social sciences sphere, with the London School of Economics at the forefront. The sheer quality of research undertaken by the LSE is regularly attested by peers to be world leading. In the recent research excellence framework, the LSE was ranked as the top institution in the UK for its proportion of four-star, world-leading research. All that means that the LSE and the nation have extensive global reach, in particular within the public policy and governance sphere, to institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the OECD and World Health Organisation. In the social sciences, however, it is harder to commercialise that work. Without mainly public funding, the LSE could not undertake the high-quality research that underpins its impact and provides the UK with considerable soft power globally.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, there was much feverish gossip about the pressing need to rebalance the economy away from an over-reliance on banking and finance. That task has been successfully undertaken here in the capital city, with the creative, tech, research and education sectors drawn together in what I regard as a virtuous circle, which in some cases has helped to spur physical regeneration. I touched on King’s Cross, a classic example of that—the Olympic site will be another. That has served only to entrench the dominance of the capital in the wider UK economy and has not addressed that rather more elusive rebalancing act: boosting the regions and other nations of the UK. As a London MP, I recognise that that is important—not least because of the ever-louder klaxon call of hostility towards London, something worrying for the rest of the UK.

The real challenge is how the rest of the UK’s universities, innovators and start-ups compete with the London and Oxbridge research powerhouse, and I look forward to hearing the views of other Members on that. One fifth of Government research funding is now claimed by our top three universities—that golden triangle—and the capital city has more than 100,000 square metres of new research facilities in the pipeline. Furthermore, the south-east and east of England and London account for some 52% of the research and development carried out in the UK.

If the Chancellor’s northern powerhouse and the broader devolution agenda are to work, he should examine how London’s universities have not just integrated academic excellence into the heart of this global city but provided a compelling educational offering to the world through the relentless building of links with the worlds of industry, commerce, Government and finance.