Lord Taylor of Warwick’s speech in the House of Lords, 9th September 2020
My Lords, first, I thank the committee for its excellent report. I declare an interest as a former university chancellor. I was honoured to be the first black chancellor of a British university at Bournemouth University, which rightly prides itself on equipping its students for the world of work, in particular in technology. I was especially privileged during my time as chancellor to open a new business school there to encourage even more local and international partnerships with companies.
I was also privileged to present in this House the Bill that created Britain’s first ever DNA database. Over recent years, the importance of data and data protection has become increasingly apparent. The present Covid-19 situation emphasises the need for accurate and up-to-date data. This requires people with the rights skills in that field. Further, the search for a safe and effective vaccine is reliant on the scientific research currently being carried out in our leading universities.
In a different context, for 10 years I was vice-president of the British Board of Film Classification. Some of the more eccentric films that we had to censor had a very happy ending, in that you were very happy when they eventually ended, but there were many excellent films. What became apparent was the increasing influence of special effects and CGI technology; they have helped to keep the British film industry at the forefront of the entertainment world, which is so vital to the British economy.
Artificial intelligence and automation are fast changing the nature of work. One of employers’ biggest complaints, as we all know, is the lack of job applicants with sufficient technical skills, but it would be wrong to think of scientific knowledge as only a modern revelation. One of the gospels was written by Luke, a physician and scientist. Indeed, there are several references to science in the Bible as being important to the progress of man.
I am sure that the Minister will comment on the committee’s claim that public funding has not kept pace with inflation since 2010, which has led universities to subsidise research from other funding streams, such as funding for teaching. I also share the concern expressed in the report that the Government did not include science research in the terms of reference for the review of post-18 education and funding by Philip Augar, published in May 2019. That seems a surprising omission.
The committee made an important recommendation that the Government should ensure that any new post-Brexit immigration laws do not prevent UK universities being able to recruit and retain researchers. The Government responded by arguing that their new fast-track immigration scheme, announced last August, would ensure that “elite scientists and researchers” can work in the UK. However, since then, we have had Covid and air travel restrictions. The support package announced in June is welcome but it will still leave a funding gap—and, of course, part of that package are loans that will have to be repaid.
Some very high-profile and wealthy internet companies, in particular Amazon, Google and Twitter, have made vast profits from the British people. Surely some sort of formula could be found. There could be targeted taxation, whereby such companies can help to fund research in science and technology. After all, those companies would benefit themselves.
Although we are living in an uncertain world, one thing that is certain is that the need for science and technology will only increase. Research is vital to that progress and funding is vital to that process. There is no such thing as a free launch.