Scientific Resources (Utilisation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th May 1950.

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Photo of Mr William Wells Mr William Wells , Walsall 12:00 am, 5th May 1950

I should like to follow the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing) by saying how much I agree with many of the statements he made. I, too, have had the experience of trying not so much to examine candidates for appointment to technical colleges as to decide whether the single candidate presenting himself was really of sufficient quality to do the work required. Sometimes I have come to the conclusion that it is better to leave the thing alone altogether than to do it badly.

I believe that we have gone too far in abolishing the differentiation of salaries between those who are engaged in work of university quality and those engaged on what is really the work of primary teaching. Nobody should under-rate the work of the primary teachers, who are the foundation of the whole system but, human nature being what it is, we must give rewards to those who have higher skill. Very often teachers make many sacrifices to go on and obtain university degrees and the qualifications required for more advanced work. I submit that this is a matter of vital importance and that our attitude towards the raising of salaries for work of this kind is something quite apart from the normal view one should take of salary questions at this time of economic crisis.

That aspect of the problem is only one of many facets of the shortage of technological manpower. I was minded to welcome the pleasantly controversial note introduced into the Debate by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), but I find some trepidation in speaking when graduates of the Imperial College of Science are in front of me. There can be no doubt—I speak with some administrative experience of technical education, and this opinion has been endorsed not only by industrialists and educationists who have conducted a long correspondence in " The Times " and elsewhere on the subject, but in the Seventh Report of the Committee on National Expenditure of this House, where attention was drawn first to a shortage of technological manpower—that in making use of our science, this country lagged behind other countries of the world in certain respects. This is not a suitable occasion for me to try to box the compass and to explore, as the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale was inclined to do, all the differences that exist between the economic systems of the United States and of this country. Nor is today a suitable occasion for ventilating the question of the Profits Tax, which I thought he was getting very near to doing at times.

There is one aspect of this matter on which there is great controversy in the education world. It is one for the Lord President of the Council and the Government as a whole rather than for the Ministry of Education. It is the question whether there should be something in the nature of a technological university in this country, or not. In my ignorance, which is still no doubt abysmal, I approached the matter in the first instance by saying that this was not the time to embark upon ventures of that kind and that there were many technical institutions in this country doing admirable work, but requiring greater encouragement, recognition and co-ordination of their activities. Before we embarked upon new projects of so ambitious a character, I felt we should satisfy ourselves that the possibilities of prc—eeding in those ways were exhausted.

That was my frame of mind. Indeed, as one brought up in a somewhat conservative academic background—I use that adjective in no pejorative sense and with a small " c "—I was a little suspicious of the idea of putting together a great many technologists broadly following the same kind of career and study, and calling them a university. I was inclined to argue: " That is not really a university at all. A university is a place where we find mixed together students of the classics, history, theology, engineering, chemistry and other branches of learning."

One has to ask what validity that argument has in relation to our problem. It has some validity. The question is: In a technological university, is there any need for the argument to arise at all? Cannot one introduce a sufficient diversity into the curriculum to ensure that that condition of university life is satisfied? I believe that in many of the great technological universities abroad that condition is satisfied. In the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, one can and to some extent must study such subjects as history and languages. We come back to the fundamental question: What place would a technological university fill in our educational system that is not filled today?

From such inquiries as I have been able to make the answer to that question is this. It is true that in our ordinary universities we can have both pure and applied science and that in our technical institutions we can carry applied science to a very considerable pitch, but the difficulty is that unless we bring a large number of technologies under the same roof, we cannot get a sufficient diversity of specialisation to produce the results that we require.

One example which I was given a few evenings ago was that in this country it is impossible to select a trained chemical engineer for any appointment. We have to have a chemist and teach him something about engineering or an engineer and teach him something about chemistry, whereas I was told that in the great technological universities abroad, not only in Massachussetts but also in Delft, Charlottenburg, Zurich and elsewhere, we would find a number of professors of this subject, not simply professors of chemical engineering, a subject which did not exist as an academic study in this country at all, but as professors of special branches of chemical engineering.

One must, of course, recognise that there is a certain danger educationally in over-specialisation, but in my belief that danger does not exist very much provided that the general basis of the education of the specialist is sound and sufficiently wide. I believe that, given proper safeguards, those conditions can be satisfied, and if we are falling behind in one particular respect in this country, if among all our competitors we find that there are these technological universities and that we have not got them, it seems at least a formidable case for inquiry to decide whether that is a eat) which ought to he filled and filled forthwith. I know well that inquiries are proceeding on these lines, and I hope very much that my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council will be able to give the House some indication in his concluding remarks of the way in which his mind and the mind of the Government are working and are being applied to this very substantial and important problem.

I have been asked to raise a point which is not very closely allied. It is the question of whether the Government are prepared favourably to consider taking what action is in their power at this time to promote the formation in London of a science centre. I have a letter before me from Professor Sir Robert Robinson in which he describes the function that such a centre would fill as: A nerve-centre facilitating all kinds of liaison, dissemination of information and national and international co-operation. He suggests that such a building should accommodate the D.S.I.R., the Royal Society and the Central Scientific Library. Such a proposal would to some extent fit in with the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Philips Price) made about the importance of co-ordinating our scientific problems, of not working in watertight compartments but of creating a centre where a view can be formed of the general direction in which we are proceeding in these very important matters.

I want to join with other hon. Members who have welcomed the opportunity to have this Debate today. I can only add my shrill treble of support to the more learned and weighty words supporting this Motion which have come from all those who have already addressed the House.