Government Policy

Part of Orders of the Day — King's Speech – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th October 1947.

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Photo of Mr Wilfred Vernon Mr Wilfred Vernon , Camberwell Dulwich 12:00 am, 29th October 1947

On this question of cooperation, I want to offer the co-operation of a section of the community which has hardly been mentioned in this Debate—the scientists and technicians. My association—the Association of Scientific Workers—has 17,000 members, and a great many more people share their views, although they are not actually members, and this large membership, in general, feels a sense of frustration in that its energies and abilities are not being used and the potentiality of this reserve of energy and intelligence seems hardly to be recognised. All the emphasis is on harder work, longer hours, and even putting women back into industry. It is all on the quantity of work which is deemed to be necessary to help us through the crisis. But I believe that the real emphasis should be placed on the quality of the work. It was not the number of navvies whom we had building the railway embankments and cuttings that made Britain great in this direction, but the high quality work of engineers like Watt and Stephenson and the rest, who increased the efficiency of the labour force. I believe that our efforts should be directed towards increasing our efficiency and so increasing our labour force without necessarily adding to the toil, labour and distress of hard work.

I am not asking for additional money to be spent on research. That is a long-term programme, and our problems are immediate. I am not asking for gadgets that might be lying around and might usefully be adopted. That is a slow sort of progress. What I am asking for is that scientific methods should be applied wherever they can be applied and wherever the result which can be produced will be most rapid and most immediate. Perhaps I had better give a few examples. In the matter of coal, the efficiency of the coal used in the domestic grate is somewhere between 21 and 23 per cent. A great deal of the coal which is burned reaches an efficiency rate of only 15 per cent., but in industry we sometimes get 30 per cent. But there is plenty of knowledge about the means of using coal and increasing its efficiency which might be applied. Various calculations have been made about methods of conversion, and some of them, I know, require capital expenditure, while other calculations work out at very little capital expenditure indeed. We can raise the efficiency of coal by 10 per cent., thus making 90 tons of coal do what 100 tons did before. We should get 20 million tons a year for nothing. If we get the same output with a reduced quantity of coal, we not only save labour and transport, but we leave coal lying in the ground for future use.

Food is another commodity in which great economies can be made. During the Recess, I went round a farm in my village with a young farmer who had no academic education, but who had taken very seriously the advice of the county agricultural committee. By drying young grass and by ploughing his meadow land and reseeding it, he was able to feed the same quantity of cattle and get a greater quantity of milk and meat on half the area of his farm, and to use the other fields for work. I am not saying that this can be done everywhere, but this knowledge is available for us if we care to use it. What, in fact, do we do with grass? We use the same treatment in regard to it as was used in 6,000 B.C. The grass is allowed to grow up past its nutritional stage, and past the stage where it can be stored through the winter. We know how to store the nutritive qualities of grass, by fermentation or by drying when younger, and so to improve the output from a given area of land. That is one example.

Herrings are another example. The research station in Scotland says that the herrings are in the sea, and that we could get twice the quantity out if we took the trouble. We could preserve them by freezing and by the extraction of the various products, and it is estimated that a food value equal to the whole of the nutrition which we derive from meat, in fat and protein, could be derived from them. What we want is a complete survey from outside of the chemical industry as a whole, for the elimination of waste, and for the introduction of new processes which will be more efficient than the old one.

Our trouble is that we have not people free from administrative duties who can give their whole mind to thinking. Our Government Departments are overworked. The individuals responsible for this kind of work have an enormous number of other things to do, and the really important thinking which needs to be done can only be done by people who can give their whole time to the job. A practical example of this is the operational research in wartime. I am not talking about the great inventions—Fido, Pluto, Radar, and those things—which were simple inventions of themselves; I am referring to the co-operation between eminent scientists and certain high officers in the Forces whereby consultation took place, and the scientists were asked to solve, or make suggestions about, particular operational problems. The results obtained in Bomber Command and Coastal Command are very well known, and were extremely important. That mechanism of national research—scientists being available for consultation on the really fundamental problems of the day—has broken down since that time.

With regard to the chemical industry and the production of iron, the blast furnace of today is the lineal descendant of the mud-oven and the bellows which were used by the first people who made iron in early days. It may be—I do not know—that some other process might be more profitable nowadays. To find out, we need a certain amount of concentrated thinking by the ablest people over a period of time. I learned recently that the chemistry of iron ore was unknown until about six months ago. Again, it may be that large changes in the production of iron may be possible if only we can set people aside, and give them the opportunity to carry out investigations.

So much for physical science. I am not only anxious that science, which is already well established, should be used, but I am also anxious that scientific knowledge should be applied to regions where it has not been applied very extensively before. I refer to the social sciences. The same orderly methods of thought which have been applied to physics for 300 years and to biology for about 100 years will produce important results if applied to the social sciences, as they are called today. Human beings and the way they think are just as much a suitable subject for science as atoms or other living creatures. Human organisations can also be treated in this same orderly fashion with excellent results.

Some work has been done on administration, and, from the accumulation of a vast experience of big organisations, a few simple generalities can be extracted which can be used for testing the efficiency of other organisations which exist. This again is work for which opportunities should be given to the people who can examine these matters with complete detachment. One instance of social science which I noticed a little while ago was obtained by reading the biography of Lord Haldane. In the logo's, coal strikes were prevalent and the country was concentrating much attention on the problem. There were the Sankey Report and the Samuel Report, and, although it was not Lord Haldane's particular province, he writes in his biography what he thinks should be done about the problem.

His reforms in the War Office are well known. Characteristic of those reforms was the training of the junior officers to take care of the welfare of the men. He said that in the coal industry the training of the junior command to make its object in life the welfare of the miners, would be the clue to the solution of the coal problem, whether under nationalisation or private ownership. It is that kind of thinking and approach which would produce excellent results in very many fields of our activities. In these times of great difficulty, when increased production is so essential, our hidden reserve is the intelligence, the scientific training and knowledge of our people. Hard work will carry us a certain way, but it is the quality of work rather than the quantity which needs so much more attention.