Science

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th February 1964.

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Photo of Mr Richard Crossman Mr Richard Crossman , Coventry East 12:00 am, 24th February 1964

Then it is now in education as it used to be in science.

I doubt whether any Government Report of recent years has had such a tepid reception from the experts as has the Trend Report. I have been looking through the list, from Sir Bernard Lovell, who deeply regretted the disappearance of D.S.I.R, to Charles Carter, who describes it as …in my view, quite the most harmful of the possible divisions of responsibility", to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Aubrey Jones) who, in a very acid comment, said: …to give to a Department whose interests were overwhelmingly academic the responsibility for promoting science in industry, could scarcely bring about a new emphasis on application. Finally, and perhaps the best of all, there is what Mr. Duckworth, Chief of N.R.D.C., has said: The selection of subjects for development should be made on an utterly different basis "— that is, from research: i.e. to make a profit—and, indeed, science plays a relatively small part in the decision. This is not, therefore, a matter for the practising scientists. He also said: The Corporation believes that it was a mistake for the Committee to consider development as a minor part of science or research, and that it must be considered in relation to tie overall needs of industry in the application of scientific research and method. Apart from the Minister, no one has had a warm word for the Trend Report. I have a suspicion that when the Report first came out the Minister hoped for something rather better because he wanted to get the Civil Service to give its comments as quickly as possible. But the more he heard the more doubts he had. We now have Trend modified by the Minister. Since he has now left N.R.D.C. to the Board of Trade, are we now to have two Ministers—he, as Secretary of State for Education, and the President of the Board of Trade—each competing—the Board of Trade with N.R.D.C. and he with his own brand new establishment? Is that what he seriously proposes?

I hold the view that being Secretary of State for Education is a whole-time job. I can understand the view that being Minister of Technology is a whole-time job, but I cannot believe that any sane man can say that one man can be in complete control of education, of research and of the whole application of science to industry.

I must say that the reaction to his proposal from the civil servants concerned has been one of profound indignation. The general secretary of their professional organisation sent a letter to the Prime Minister, part of which was printed in the Press, in which he says: It is my duty, however, to advise you that your decision has caused wide dismay in the professional, scientific and technical Civil Service. He then admirably develops the need for a …Minister of Cabinet rank supported by a major Department of State. He should be unencumbered by other departmental responsibilities, and should, in brief, undertake in respect of civil science the responsibilities which the Minister of Defence now has in respect of defence science. The writer put his case with extreme moderation, and ended with the following thought-provoking words: The decisions which you "— that is, the Prime Minister: announced on the 6th February which abolish the Ministry for Science has contributed to the developing crisis of confidence among scientists and engineers. This is really the heart of the matter. It is crucial that the Government should take decisions which will command the respect of scientists and engineers and restore their confidence in the future of science in this country. That is a letter from the general secretary of the organisation that represents these scientists and technicians, and he should not be laughed aside. The Economist had probably the most derisory comment on the decision that I have ever read.

I have made the effort in the last week to talk to as many scientists, technologists and businessmen as I could. Last week, I was in the company of 12 fairly distinguished scientists and engineers. I asked them, "Does anyone here take seriously the Government's proposals?" There was a short, embarrassed silence, a peal of hearty laughter, and then we passed to serious subjects. Nobody seriously thinks that this is a decision taken on the merits of the case in the interests of the application of science to industry.

Therefore, the impression has inevitably got abroad that we are here faced with a political decision. I have no doubt that it was convenient. After all, the Minister himself—and I at that time thought that there was much to be said for his view—wanted a Ministry of Higher Education and Science. He did not get it, because of the overwhelming case made against him—and, incidentally, made against me—by those who saw the necessity for a really powerful Minister to get the educational problem solved. But, facing that, for him then to insist, a man who faces these educational problems, and insists "I will be Minister for Education and for Science" really does verge on delusion.

Or does he? The Minister is a very sane man, and I have been thinking carefully what rational explanation there was for this derisory and ridiculous decision. I think that I have found it, and I have found it in something he said in April, 1962. He then said: I have always determined that I was going to stick to two fundamental principles. In the first place, I was going to be a Minister for Science and not a Minister of Science, and secondly I was not going to have a Ministry. The reason for that is not that it is not desirable to have one, but that it is not possible. Those are strong words. Does he still think that it is impossible to have a Ministry of Science or Ministry of Technology? He probably does.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman genuinely believes that it is both undesirable and impossible to organise civil research. This is the fatal defect which has marred his whole régime in these seven years. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is obsessed by the fear that if he had a real Ministry at his disposal and had the strength to do anything positive, instead of sitting and lucubrating and making speeches, he might destroy the freedom of thought on which science depends.

I have been looking at the right hon. and learned Gentleman's immensely readable and very clear hook. It makes it crystal clear that it is a major theme of his life that as Minister he must be a patron of the sciences and never a master of the sciences. I agree that that kind of attitude is absolutely justifiable when one is dealing with universities and research institutes. I agree entirely that Ministers should lay down the broad strategy of defence and accept the Haldane principle and as far as possible leave the detailed planning of research to the scientists themselves to organise. I would add, by the way, that this should be under a properly constituted central science hoard—and this is one of the Trend recommendations which I accept —and under an entirely reconstituted U.G.C. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that in these spheres the Minister should be patron rather than master or decider.