David Willetts – 2013 Conservative Party Conference Speech


Below is the text of the speech made by David Willetts at the 2013 Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.

Our economy is on the mend because George Osborne has stuck to his plan, through thick and thin. Yet again Conservatives are sorting out an appalling mess left by Labour. But we are not just trying to get the patient off the sick bed – we want our economy to be stronger and fitter than ever. We have taken tough decisions to save on waste and welfare in order to invest in the future.

That is why we have protected spending on science. Labour’s irresponsible plan to deal with their crisis in public finances was to cut capital spending in half. Step by step we have reversed those cuts. And now we have a long-term plan to increase investment – the most ambitious for decades. Over a billion pounds a year will be invested in new labs and facilities, year after year, to 2020. Conservatives are backing British science and technology.

It is how we are going to thrive in the global race. Sometimes it literally is a race – and Britain is of course the home of Formula One motor racing. The teams monitor each car and driver second by second during a race. Imagine that the NHS could monitor the condition of a patient in intensive care as effectively. McLaren are working with Birmingham Children’s Hospital to do just that. Putting enterprise at the service of sick children.

Another global race is the space race. We do not have massive rockets or a massive budget; instead we have to get our satellites into space cheaply and efficiently. Did you know that we make almost half of the world’s small satellites? Many are from Surrey Satellites, a spin-out from the University of Surrey. We have one of the world’s most entrepreneurial and nimble space industries, growing at almost 10% a year, as fast as the Chinese economy. Now we are going to have a British astronaut in the space station – Major Tim Peake. So it will be ground control to Major Tim.

Everyone’s ambition is to have a fully reusable spacecraft, ending our reliance on rocket launches. It is a British engineer, Alan Bond, who has cracked that challenge. His engine doesn’t carry the oxygen to burn the fuel, instead it takes air from the atmosphere as you fly and cools it down to mix with the fuel. To do that he has developed the world’s most efficient heat exchanger. That really is rocket science. It cools air from 1,000 degrees Centigrade to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. That really is cool. The only other way I know to make things so frosty so quickly is getting Vince Cable and Theresa together to talk about migration.

The global race is not just about speed, it’s about being smart and nimble too. We make the world’s smallest, most affordable computer – called Raspberry Pi. In fact the conference session is being run off a Raspberry Pi.  The millionth has just been produced in South Wales, bringing an old factory back to life.

Who says we don’t make things in Britain any more? We make satellites and computers, cars and diggers, airplane wings and engines. Last year we ran a trade surplus in cars for the first time since Red Robbo decimated our car industry. That is the march of the makers.

And it’s not just things – it’s the smart programmes behind them. We might not make the most powerful computers but we write the smartest software to get a result with fewer calculations. So we have the world’s most energy efficient computers. And the processing system inside almost every mobile phone and tablet is designed by a company started in Cambridge thirty years ago. Now ARM is worth over £13 billion. Tech City in London is Europe’s start-up capital. Over a thousand new companies have been created or moved there since David Cameron backed it. That’s the spirit of enterprise, thriving in Britain again.

Of course we must always leave room for our scientists to pursue their own ideas, like the scientist in Newcastle University wondering how locusts manage to fly in such dense swarms without colliding. So she analysed locust brains to see how they worked. Now she is going to sell her anti-collision software to the car industry.

Scientists here in Manchester used sticky tape to pull thin layers of material off a block of graphite until eventually they discovered graphene, one atom thick and 200 times stronger than steel. It is brilliant science with just a hint of Blue Peter. They got the Nobel prize for that in 2010 and two years ago in this very hall George backed them with £50 million. Now they are building a world-class lab – I was there this morning shovelling cement. I do a lot of that as Science Minister. The world’s researchers are beating a path to Manchester and I can announce today that Manchester will host Europe’s leading science conference – here in this hall – in 2016. We can be proud of having so many of the world’s great universities here in Britain.

We have been leading the world in life sciences ever since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. A quarter of the world’s leading drugs come from Britain. The patent box, part of our life science strategy, is attracting more investment to Britain. We got one billion pounds of commercial investment in biosciences last year. Now David Cameron has set the challenge of sequencing the genomes of 100,000 NHS patients. No other country has set such an ambition. We are putting science at the service of patients.

Our aim is for Britain to be the best place in the world to do science. That is the challenge Brian Cox has set and, Brian, we are up for that. But to achieve that we must invest long term and get the next generation doing science and engineering. That means girls as well as boys.

We are not going to win in the global race if we waste the talents of half the British people. The proportion of engineers who are women is one of the lowest in Europe and we’ve got to raise our game. That is why we support the ambition to double the proportion of engineering degrees taken by women.

Today I can announce two initiatives to help us achieve that. We will extend fee loans to part time students of engineering, technology, and computer science who already have a degree in a different discipline. And we will invest £200 million in new teaching facilities for science and engineering in our universities. Universities will have to match it with private money. So that makes £400 million of investment so that students can be taught on the latest equipment ready for the world of work. That is our commitment to working with universities and business to help win the global race.

Of course we can be proud of our past achievements. But even more important. With solid long-term funding for great British science, we can be confident in our future too.