UK urged to review energy research

March 28, 2003

British investment in energy research and development is "pathetically low", the Commons select committee on science and technology said this week.

The committee, which is due to publish its report on the move towards a non-carbon fuel economy next month, said that it planned to challenge the government's policy of supporting a broad range of energy research.

Labour MP Desmond Turner, who is drawing together the committee's report, told The THES : "British investment in renewable energy is pathetically low by international standards. It worries me very much that government is shifting responsibility on to industry."

In a meeting with the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, last week, the committee confirmed that none of its members believed that the government had "a cat in hell's chance" of meeting its target of a 10 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010 with its current policy.

The committee said the recent energy white paper was trying to be all things to all people. It warned that the lack of focus would dilute research money.

But Sir David is adamant that the government must not "pick winners" in energy research.

He told The THES : "We've selected a broad menu. I think that's absolutely the right policy. If the select committee can't see that, they're wrong."

He also strongly rejected claims by committee member Bob Spink that the recent spending review allocation of £28 million for a joint research council sustainable energy programme was "peanuts".

"Suppose we'd put £150 million in, we'd be funding every research programme that applied," Sir David said. "The net result is you've lost the quality control."

Sir David said government investment in energy research and development had increased substantially over the past five years.

But he added that it would take some time for the UK to catch up with competitors such as Germany, France and the US because of a history of major research cutbacks from the electricity industry following privatisation.

The science and technology committee raised questions last week about whether the UK could meet its energy targets without new nuclear build.

Although the white paper did not call for this, Sir David said that this was inevitable. He added that the document could not suggest the "soft option" of nuclear energy because it would have removed the incentive for a real push towards renewable energy and energy efficiency.

He said: "The whole question of nuclear (energy) will need to be re-evaluated. The timetable for new nuclear build is probably less than five years."

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