The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee Lunch – 2 February 1994

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee Lunch, held at the Savoy Hotel in London on Wednesday 2nd February 1994.


Mr President, Mr Chairman, thank you for your excellent hospitality, and for the invitation to join you today.

I am delighted to be here not least to see so many distinguished people here, not least captains of industry, leaders in science and so many members of both sides of both Houses of Parliament.

It has become something of an institution this Committee. You pay tribute to Gerry Vaughan who retires as Chairman of it very shortly and I believe that was a justified tribute that will be echoed by anyone who’s had any connection with his Committee over very many years and particularly during the last three years in which he’s been a most distinguished Chairman.

Last year Mr President and eminent mathematician, Sir Michael Atiyah, President of the Royal Society was your guest on this occasion. Today we have several Presidents and former Presidents of the learned societies here today, including of course Sir William Barlow, the current President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. It is indeed by any yardstick a most distinguished gathering.

Living, as I do, day after day in No 10, I have many constant reminders of the importance of science and technology in British history. Every day I pass portraits of Humphry Davy, Joseph Priestley, Robert Boyle and Michael Faraday. And there is a particularly fine sculpture of Isaac Newton dominating on of the dining rooms.

And I think it’s right that they should be there. Right, because of their achievements.

Right, because of the justified pride we can take in British science and British engineering.

And right above all perhaps, because of the central importance of science to our national life.

I want to enlarge upon that thought if I may for just a few moments. As the world, as day succeeds day, becomes more competitive, we become more aware that economic prosperity depends on science, on engineering and on technology. We have in this country no natural right to success. Any success we get is success we must earn. Today, countries which 20 even 10 years ago were eager customers of our products, are now our international rivals.

I remain convinced that, despite difficult times, despite the recession we have faced and so many of our overseas markets still face, we must sustain our strong base of excellence in science, in engineering and in technology. The best of science has a crucial role to play in improving our lifestyle as individuals as well as our prosperity as a country. We need good science to help build our future prosperity.

But not only for prosperity. It’s not only jobs and the pocket book that’s affected by science. Science impacts on almost every single aspect of our lives. When someone receives drugs that improve their quality of life, that is science in action. Research scientists who discover the drugs; doctors and technicians who laboured over the clinical trials and engineers who manufacture the product.

Science then is central and it is vital. The truism, perhaps even a trivial thing to say, but yet worth saying I think for this reason. In the past science and engineering have far too often been undervalued. In the future, we need to guard against that. And by ‘we’ I don’t just mean Government – we are one partner in the enterprise of science – I also mean commerce and industry, whose own future depends upon innovation.

Let me explain just a little what I mean when I talk about undervaluing science and engineering. Despite its importance to a trading nation, we’ve far too often been schizophrenic about science. The great scientists, investors, engineers – of course we’ve been perfectly prepared to praise them, often knight them, sometimes give them seats in the House of Lords. Occasionally, they even make a very great deal of money, which is an invariably, a great embarrassment to them. But despite these honours, despite all this, despite the deference that from time to time is paid to them, a traditional bias against science has persisted in this country for too long. Too much of our education system has treated as subordinate to arts and for far too many years principally a subject primarily for boys.

Now that is now changing, social and cultural movements have played their part. For example in making science and engineering more acceptable for girls and as it happens their science results last year were rather better than those for boys. Governments have a role of course. Government can take a lead and it can set a framework. And it’s for that reason that we’ve made science and technology a part of the curriculum right through to the age of 16 – and established new vocational qualifications at all levels, to help improve our skills base.

A beginning has been made but I freely confess there is much still to be done. Now I know there are many eminent scientists here perhaps, locked in the intricacies of their latest examination of some abstruse subject or other. Whatever they’ve been locked in, and however abstruse it is, it is just possible that they will have heard recently a certain clamour about my wish to get back to basics in economic and social policies. It has been, what I think my colleagues in both Houses of Parliament would know, in that rigorous trade of politics, as a vigorous and stimulating debate.

Be that as it may, the fundamental message of that cannot be ignored and slowly, but certainly, attention is focusing where I intended it to focus, namely: on the common sense – basic – building blocks for civilised living.

Using our scientific abilities to best advantage is one such building. And some of that message is aimed very directly at Government itself. We were clearly right to question our role and look afresh at it. And if we are to do the things that matter, and not only do the things that matter, but do them properly, then we must concentrate our finite resources.

Since the very beginnings of science, long term research has usually required a patron, and often one that didn’t interfere too much – a role now which Government much share, along with our universities and our great science charities, particularly perhaps in medicine.

Now as Lord Flowers was generous enough to mention a moment or so ago, some time ago I invited him and a number of his colleagues to 10 Downing Street. It was an instructive discussion. I remember Lord Flowers advocating many things that have subsequently become Government policy. I remember a constructive discussion about whether all of that was entirely right, but a broad conclusion that it was. And I was glad later to be able to give William Waldegrave a Cabinet responsibility for science. The first time, astonishingly, astonishingly, the first time in 30 years that a Cabinet Minister had such a specific remit.

And it was similar thinking, similar thinking that lead me to establish the new Office of Science and Technology, to serve as the focus for broad policy advice on science, engineering and technology right across the spread of Government activity. It is headed by my Chief Scientific Adviser, Bill Stewart who is here today, I am delighted to say and who has ready access to me whenever he needs it and tends to use that ready access, much sometimes to the frustration of my Diary Secretary.

It was, for example, very useful when I was in Japan recently, to have Bill Stewart there with me. With me last Autumn to study the policies followed by the Japanese government and by Japanese industry. I think it was useful for Bill. It was useful for me. And I think it was useful for the country because of the lessons we learned on that occasion.

One of the first tasks that William Waldegrave and Bill Stewart had was to prepare the White Paper that we published last year. It wasn’t snatched out of the air. It wasn’t written in the rarefied atmosphere of Whitehall with Permanent Secretaries sitting down and exercising their immediate thoughts. To get that White Paper together. To seek to get it right involved very careful consultation with the scientific community and right across business and industry as well. It was, and again, astonishingly was, the first important White Paper published on science for 20 years. Now what of it. And what of its importance. That White Paper set out the key themes that must shape the future of science in this country. The emphasis, and I make no apology for this, for I believe it passionately:

– The emphasis first on excellence, on national prosperity and on quality of life;

– the increasingly close interaction between industry, commerce, science, engineering and technology.

They’re not in separate boxes. Unless they interact we will throw away most of the advantages that we can gain from them. And of course also the way in which the private and the public sectors both have a role, they both have a role and they must work together to complement each other in partnership if we are to get the best result, both for this generation and for the future.

That is what we thought were the key themes to shape the White Paper. And with that in our minds as the backcloth against which we operate, the White Paper spelt out a number of key proposals and innovations:

– Research Council with new remits and greater emphasis on wealth creation and quality of life; I emphasise again it is not just about the pocket book, it is about the way in which we live, each and every one of us, that we must harness the aptitude and abilities of science;

– a new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to underpin our manufacturing;

– a new Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to support a powerful emerging industry, and to continue to support the agriculture and food industries that are so important in this country;

– and third, a new Council on Science and Technology. We discussed this long and hard, Bill and William and I, and we decided this should be composed of leading industrialists, academics and others and we decided that because we thought they would give independent advice on the competitive needs of British industry. Members such as Ralph Robbins of Rolls Royce; Richard Sykes of Glaxo, Aaron Klug, Nobel Prize winner – and others, who will be unafraid to give firm advice when it’s needed. And William and Bill and I will listen to that advice and listen to it very carefully.

But if we want science to innovate, and we do, then so must we as Government innovate as well and that is why the Government has committed itself to publishing each year a Forward Look. A Forward Look detailing how taxpayers funds are spent on science and technology right across the public sector. With an emphasis on the future and by the future I don’t mean next week, next month and next year. I mean a much longer term future than that, with an emphasis on the future and not just a look back over our shoulders at the past.

And despite the absolute necessity of restraining public expenditure, we expect spending on the science base itself to rise in real terms next year. And it will remain a high priority in future.

The first of these Forward Looks, this innovative idea that I believe may bring so much certainty to the direction in which we are headed. The first of these Forward Looks will be published in April, and it will provide the opportunity for the Government to spell out its priorities for the future.

Successive Forward Looks will be informed by the Technology Foresight Exercise that Bill Stewart’s leading at the moment. And that’s going to look at every aspect of science, of engineering and technology. It will, must, involve businessmen, scientists and academics. It will examine future trends and where Britain’s special knowledge and expertise may best be used to best advantage.

In today’s complex and inter-related world, no country, however big, however powerful, can compete in every area. But we are determined not to fall into the trap of the ’60s and ’70s of picking winners, based on the belief that the Government knows best and big bureaucracies can achieve everything. Frankly, we don’t; and frankly they can’t.

What we should do as Government, is to listen to industry, listen to scientists and listen to academics. And then when we’ve listened, thought, absorbed and made up our minds, make sure that our decisions go with the grain of what science and industry are planning. In short, we need the best scientific advice that we can get. If we seek solutions to problems without good science, we create mirages, not miracles. And for the future of this country I would much prefer to have miracles than mirages in our interest and in the interest of future generations.

Mr President, I don’t often look back and express qualitative comments on what we’ve done as a Government, but if you’ll forgive me for a moment, I think I will do that. I believe in the past 18 months we have done more to redefine science policy than in the last 20 years. Now the new initiatives must be given time to work. I don’t myself believe in the Maoist theory of continuous revolution. You can’t switch science on and switch science off. We have set a long-term course and now we must hold to that long-term course and make sure that it’s successful.

And this approach spreads out across all Government departments. Let me illustrate that. The Department of Trade and Industry now focuses on specific industrial sectors, promoting a more innovative culture and improving access to sources of science and technology.

The Ministry of Defence is working with defence and civil contractors to help develop dual-use technologies that will be of benefit to both.

In 1991, the Department of Health appointed the first Director of Research and Development to create an R&D programme for the National Health Service, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

And the Department of the Environment knows that sound science is the basis of our environmental policies.

And the Ministry of Agriculture is working on environmentally friendly agriculture.

Department for Education is fostering the growing importance of science in the National Curriculum and in vocational qualifications.

They are samples of what is happening across the range of Government. And I set out those developments to illustrate the importance of science to Government. The common theme is to provide the scientific infrastructure to help this country compete ever more successfully. An infrastructure that encourages excellence, rewards talent and helps industry become more competitive.

Mr President, I do not believe that we need to be modest about British science. We have a strong science base in this country. We have some of the best laboratories in the world. We have research based universities of international excellence. In areas like pharmaceuticals, plant biotechnology, food, agricultural research, it is not unfair to say that we lead the world. We have a British director newly in place at CERN in Geneva – the main international particle physics laboratory in the world. And we continue to work with the best in the world, wherever the best is to be found.

And so often, the best science is to be found here, in Britain. But too often, too often, we have lost out in applying that science. Our ideas have led to other people’s products. Our brains have led to other peoples’ profits.

I am determined that the Government and industry should work together as a partnership. I emphatically do not see them as two separate components in separate alleys going in separate directions. Of course industry must make the commercial decisions on where to invest and what to develop. The Government must listen to industry and must frame its policies to help industry. It is on the back of a successful industry that we will become a more successful, a more prosperous country with higher living standards in every aspect of our lives. And so I believe we must focus on excellence, we must help provide the skills base that industry needs. That, Mr President, is the thinking that lies behind the White Paper. That is the thinking that will determine our policy for the future, and that Mr Chairman, encapsulated in just two sentences, that, Mr Chairman is the message I wish to leave you with today.