Science

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th July 1961.

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Photo of Mr Aubrey Jones Mr Aubrey Jones , Birmingham, Hall Green 12:00 am, 10th July 1961

I very much welcome the debate, because I think that it deals with one of the most important subjects discussed here for a long time. It is obviously important economically, and it has not a little to do with the economic crisis which we are undergoing.

I also think that the subject of science and technology has become one of the more significant aspects of the cold war. Our ability to give aid to under-developed countries depends in part on science and technology. Indeed, I am not at all sure that the under-developed countries have not come to rate scientific and technological achievement above purely military achievement.

Though I speak as a non-Marxist, I cannot but note that science and technology are used in the Soviet Union for fashioning the Marxist society. They are the instrument for bringing about the plentitude of goods which will make possible the transition from a class to a classless society. Even though I am sceptical of the feasibility of a classless society, the fact that technology is used in this way endows it with tremendous importance.

This is an important subject. What is more, it is an importance which has developed in a short space of time—the last ten years—and it has not been developed by us. It has been imposed on us from outside. I think that it requires on our part a revolution of attitude—a revolution of administrative structure, to use the phrase used by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart)—and, I think, a revolution in the relations between Government and industry. I am not at all sure that I have seen a consciousness of the magnitude of the change with which we are faced.

One asks oneself—it is the obvious question—why is it that in the short,space of 40 years the Soviet Union, emerging from agrarian serfdom, has reached scientific and technological parity with the West, and, indeed—because I think that this is a fact—is achieving a rate of scientific and technological advance which is far faster than ours?

I think that the answer is only indirectly the Communist system. I think that after the political revolution the Communists found themselves with the job of industrialising their country and they set about creating a new race of technicians. In other words, they underwent their educational revolution long before our own.

We are politicians. It may well be that we have paid greater attention to the Soviet political revolution than to what I suggest is the more significant thing, the scientific-managerial revolution. There are few Soviet leaders from Mr. Khrushchev downwards who have not had a scientific and technological training. As a result, scientific achievement is identified with political achievement, and vice versa.

Last summer I was shown round one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen, the new scientific centre being built on the outskirts of Novosibirsk in Western. Siberia; a galaxy of research institutes devoted entirely to research; no teaching; all researching into the related aspects of a single problem, and on a scale which I think is without comparison in any other part of the world. But the point was that this was a pet project of Mr. Khrushchev. Here was the whole support of the Soviet political authority behind the project. I should be hard put to it to name a single scientific or technological project in this country which had behind it the whole support of the political authority.

Take, for example, Jodrell Bank. The one thing which has brought more scientific prestige to this country than anything else in recent years is Jodrell Bank, and we have seen the sad spectacle of its passing round the hat. We have to undergo a great revolution of attitude before the educational revolution reaches Whitehall. But I think that also we have to undergo a revolution in organisation and in Government structure.

The hon. Member for Workington put his finger on the nub of the point, and I do not think that I can express the problem better than to quote two sentences from the issue of the New Scientist for 29th June: It has been one of Lord Hailsham's proudest claims as Minister for Science that Ms staff could be fitted into an omnibus. In other words, the principle which at present governs scientific policy in Britain is that central planning should be kept to a minimum. This, I think, is the issue. Not only have we to treat science and technology more seriously, but it is inevitable that we treat it on something approaching the Soviet terms. It is a truism that one cannot fight a war one cannot survive in a war, without to some extent fighting the war on the terms set by one's opponent. Exactly the same is true in this case. In the struggle for peaceful co-existence, I think that the Soviet has to come some way towards meeting the West in giving greater freedom to the consumer. But, as she does so, it is bound to undermine the planning system. Equally, I think we have to go some way in adopting the planning methods of the Soviet Union in science and technology.

I give two reasons for suggesting that we should have more Government planning in the way of science and technology. The first is if one looks at the history of science, at the advance of science in comparatively developed countries, so far it has been reasonably uniform. We thought that we were ahead in radar in the last war, but the Germans in fact tumbled on radar at exactly the same moment in time. By and large, scientific advance has been uniform in developed countries. There were two reasons for this. The first was that the scale of investment was modest and within the reach of most developed countries, and secondly, the results were published. There was ease of communication between one country and another.

Now, this has totally changed. The Soviet Union invests heavily in certain selected spheres, in cancer research or in space research—whatever it may be—but does not necessarily publish the results. In order to match this we have equally to invest heavily, but we cannot invest heavily all round. We must select a sphere and have a certain planning authority.

The second reason why we must have a planning authority is that most significant scientific and technological advances are now taking place not in single disciplines such as chemistry or physics, for example, but as a result of the marriage of scientific disciplines. Take, for example, automatic machine translation. This project is, on the face of it, a marriage between two different disciplines, philology and mathematics. As in human life, these marriages do not always come about spontaneously. There has to be a certain arrangement. They do not come about spontaneously in science. There has to be some guidance, some arranger from the outside, which means a planning authority.

The Minister for Science as he now is —it does not require me to say so—is clearly no planning authority. He is the titular spokesman, no more, for a number of independent bodies such as the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Medical Research Council and the Agricultural Research Council. He has no effective control over them. I think I am right in saying that his control over them is exercisable only by the power of direction, to which every Minister is most anxious not to resort.

Each one of these independent bodies has direct access to the Treasury. If they want money, they go directly to the Treasury and the answer of the Treasury is uninformed by any scientific advice. This is a relic of a past state of affairs, of the day when Government investment in science was in terms of small sums of money and, therefore, there was no difficulty in saying "Yes" to the requests, except in times of financial crisis.

All this has now changed. I think that we have to have a planning authority and that that authority must have as part of it a scientific intelligence organisation—which does not yet exist with knowledge of scientific development in different parts of the world. It also must have an assessing organisation internal as well as external. In other words, it must be able to assess the worth-whileness of investment, say, in medical research as against space research, or whatever it may be.

I consider that the appointment of a Minister for Science is merely a first first step. It makes sense only if there are subsequent steps, and I hope very much that some indication of the subsequent steps will be given to us in this debate.

I also think we have to have a change in the relationship between Government and industry. I agree entirely with the Statement quoted today, which was made by my noble Friend, I think on Saturday, to the effect that British industry is not sufficiently technically conscious, not scientifically and technologically conscious. Just as our political authority is not as scientifically and technically conscious as is the political authority in the Soviet Union, the same is also true of British industry compared with Soviet industry, though I do not think that this is the only difference.

The difference is not so much that in the Soviet Union industry is non-profit making whereas here it is profit making. I do not think that the motives of the I.C.I. managers are basically any different from the motives of the managers of Gosplan. I think the real difference is one of scale, the scale on which things are thought out in the Soviet Union, which is so infinitely greater than here.

To give one or two examples, there are in the Soviet Union completely experimental factories. There is a completely experimental steel works where the main object is pure experimentation, and production is incidental. The techniques developed are later made available elsewhere. This is scale beyond the furthest limits of anything conceivable in any private company in this country. Then again there is the Soviet Committee for Automation and Mechanisation one of whose functions is to scrutinise the expansion and development plans of various production units and brings to bear on these plans the knowledge acquired from a study of what is taking place in the wide world. In other words, here was knowledge brought to bear on the operations of a relatively small manufacturing unit. This again, is an advantage of scale. We have somehow or other in this country to try to do something on these lines.

Our traditional method of coping with this problem is through research associations, co-operative associations by a number of firms in an industry. I have no wish to disparage the research associations. The difficulty I find is that everything done in this way is good, but the question is, is it good enough? In my view, research associations are nowadays inadequate. I think they are inadequate because they concentrate on the fundamental end of the research gamut rather than the applied end. This is because they are partly divorced from production and, what is more significant, the nearer one approaches the application of scientific results the greater is the temptation for firms to hug their secrets to their bosoms.

There is an inconsistency between commercial secrecy and the openness of science. I therefore do not think research associations are effective. I am depressed to think—this is the impression I have—that the Government's thinking about Britain's industrial and technological problems is in terms of research associations. We had an inquiry into the state of the machine tools industry. What has emerged from that inquiry? Another research association. In so far as the Government are thinking beyond research associations, they are thinking in terms of civil development contracts, aid to a firm with a certain civil development. The Government find themselves in the difficulty that if they give aid to firm A they receive requests from firms B, C and D, so they tend to offer aid to a consortium of firms. That in effect means a research association under another name.

I am sceptical about the value of all this. I wonder whether in trying to face our technological problems we are risking investing small sums of money in diverse ways the total result of which I am afraid will be ineffective. I accept the principle of a civil development contract. In defence the Government placed before industry a technologically challenging requirement and gave finance to meet that requirement. I favour an attempt to translate this into civil terms, but I think it has to be done on scale. One has to think of something larger than contracts of a couple of thousand pounds.

It has also to be done with purpose and strategy, the purpose being to make the firms themselves more research and development minded. Although we have had no description from the Government benches today, I feel our approach to this matter is on too small a scale. I ask myself whether what I feel to be the smallness of the approach is not in fact a reflection of the smallness of the instrument which has been chosen. The instrument chosen by the Government for this technological transformation in British industry is the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The D.S.I.R. thinks automatically in terms of research associations and its budgets have always been small. I think its total budget now is not more than about £10 million. I hope I shall be forgiven for expressing the view—I say it without rancour—that a far better instrument for this purpose would been the old Ministry of Supply, in other words the defence research and development mechanism.

The old Ministry of Supply did not think in terms of research associations but was a customer used to the ruthlessness of selection from a variety of suppliers; the financial starting point was also higher. Its research and development budget was in the region of £200 million. I consider that the opportunity should have been taken with the decline in the defence programme to make use of the expertise of the Ministry of Supply and to extend it into the field of civil development contracts. However, that opportunity has now passed.

A somewhat illogical structure has been created in the Ministry of Aviation, which is subjected to pressures for further disintegration from every side. I only hope that those pressures for further disintegration will be resisted, for I think that further disintegration would be to the technological disadvantage of this country. I also think that some use might still be made of the Ministry of Aviation in the placing of civil development contracts. For the reasons I have given, a contract for components for high speed computers would be better placed by the Ministry of Aviation than by the D.S.I.R.

Be that as it may, even though in my judgment an opportunity has been lost, we have to strengthen the instrument for placing civil development contracts, which is the only means now open to us of trying to raise the technological standards of British industry. The suggestion I make for strengthening the instrument is an amalgamation of the industrial functions of D.S.I.R. with the National Research and Development Corporation.

I do not agree with hon. Members opposite in suggesting that the functions of the national research and Development Corporation should be extended to production. I think the Corporation is driven into production because it is under a statutory obligation to pay its way and it cannot pay its way merely by exacting royalties. I would combine the Corporation with the industrial part of D.S.I.R. and make this the industrial and technological nucleus of the Ministry for Science with a mandate technologically to revivify British industry in general and the technologically sick British industries in particular.

Such a nucleus might well in course of time become the sponsor for industry. The impact of Government upon industry in the past has been through commercial policy and the sponsoring department therefore has been the Board of Trade. I believe that the main impact of Government upon industry in future will be via technology and this may well require a change of sponsor. I think we are moving into a new age where the clichés to which we on both sides of the Committee are accustomed on the question of the relationship between Government and industry are out-moded. The least we can do is to fashion now an instrument adequate to the problem which is before us.