Orders of the Day — 300 GeV ACCELERATOR

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1968.

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Photo of Mr Tim Fortescue Mr Tim Fortescue , Liverpool, Garston 12:00 am, 24th July 1968

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. Professor Flowers made a personal statement in which he contradicted the policy of the Government which he had just stated as chief British delegate.

A week later we had the first opportunity in this House to inquire of the Secretary of State for Education and Science why the British Government had decided to withdraw. We had no satisfaction. We had a repetition of exactly the same statement which had been made in Geneva the week before. In passing, I think it would probably have been more courteous and customary if the statment had first been made in this House and afterwards at C.E.R.N. However, it was done the other way round. We will not emphasise that too much now. As I say we had a repetition of the same statement with a light covering gloss by the Minister, in which he said: The Government has decided, in the light of their other commitments, that expenditure involved in this very large project would not be justified. … At home … facilities for nuclear structure work will continue to be developed as part of the programme of the Science Research Council."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1968; Vol. 767, c. 107–8.] That same day, at Business time, we asked for a longer statement and for a debate. We were told "Not this week". It has not been any week until we had this opportunity to raise the matter.

In my brief remarks I want to make two points. First, I want to tell the House that a solution to the problem of resources available for this project was proposed to the Government by the Nuclear Physics Board at a meeting on 8th June which, to us on this side of the House, would seem to have been an ideal solution. As far as we know this has been ignored by the Government, and the Nuclear Physics Board has had no reply. I may be wrong in saying that, and I shall be glad to be informed. Secondly, I want to find out the real reason for the Government's decision to withdraw, apart from the rather specious and inadequate reasons that we have been given so far.

My hon. Friend was rash enough to say that I would explain what a 300 GeV accelerator was, and what it was for. My hon. Friend was very much mistaken in his hope, because I do not entirely understand it, and I venture to say that nobody in this House at this moment, or probably at any other time, understands it either, but I have had it explained to me by some distinguished scientists, and I shall try to tell the House roughly what is involved.

The Nuclear Physics Board said in a statement dated 29th June that through high energy physics we are already glimpsing in nature patterns of order of un- suspected grandeur and modes of behaviour that raise questions of importance for the philosophy of our time. That is somewhat high falutin'. It was brought down to earth for me by the distinguished professor of physics at the University of Liverpool, Professor Cassels, who explained to me in my own home one day not long ago that what was happening was that the nuclear physicists were discovering patterns of behaviour in the molecular structure which seemed to repeat themselves but which, without a large accelerator the physicists, were unable to pre-determine. They were confident that once the accelerators got bigger, and they had access to them, this pre-determination would be possible and that the prospects of extracting power from the atom would then be multiplied a thousand-fold.

The history of this proposed accelerator is set out very clearly in Cmnd. 3503, published in January of this year, and I am sure that everyone in the House is familiar with it. The really significant part of the Command Paper is the support given to this project by each of three distinguished scientific bodies to which it was referred. The right hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker), then Secretary of State, set out the facts of what was proposed very clearly and impartially, and then all the bodies to which he turned for advice endorsed the project.

The Council for Scientific Policy said: The Council for Scientific Policy share the view of the Science Research Council on the scientific value of the 300 GeV project and on its importance for European basic science. The Nuclear Physics Board said: There is an outstanding and pressing scientific case for constructing in Europe a 300 GeV proton accelerator. It is now clear that we are entering fundamentally new domains in our understanding of matter". and so it goes on.

The Working Group of the Council of Scientific Policy under Professor Swann said: We are convinced that this project is of great and fundamental scientific importance and its adoption is essential if the United Kingdom is to continue as part of a viable European high energy nuclear physics programme. There was no doubt in the minds of any of the scientific bodies to which this project was referred. There was a minority report by two distinguished scientists on the Working Group, but I understand that they have since changed their minds in view of the new proposals made by the Nuclear Physics Board. That is the background against which we are working, and against which we want to ask the hon. Lady to justify the Government's decision.

The list of scientists on these three bodies reads like a roll of honour of the scientists of this country. Fellows of the Royal Society drop like water from the list. There seem to be more Fellows than anybody imagined existed. They are the Government's official scientific advisers.

They advised the Government that this project should be proceeded with, and it has not. What happened? Since these distinguished scientists considered this matter we have had the devaluation of the £. Undoubtedly this tragic, or necessary, event—whichever way one looks at it—has affected the Government's view as to the feasibility of our participation in this project, and in particular the economies in Government expenditure which have stemmed from devaluation must have played a big part.

The Nuclear Physics Board has not been unconscious of the effect of devaluation on our scientific programme; on 8th June it proposed to the Government a radical rearrangement of expenditure on fundamental nuclear physics to make room for British participation in the 300 GeV accelerator at no additional cost to the Government than the existing programme of nuclear physics would mean. I have some figures which explain what I am trying to say better than I can. The proposal of the Nuclear Physics Board was as follows: expenditure in this financial year—1968–69— on high energy nuclear physics will amount to some £18·6 million, of which £6·2 million will be on the 28 GeV accelerator at C.E.R.N., £7·3 million on Nimrod at Didcot, £3·6 million on Nina at Daresbury, £800,000 on high energy physics grants to universities and £700,000 on nuclear structure physics grants to universities, adding up to £18·6 million.

The Nuclear Physics Board recommends that the expenditure should be rearranged that by 1973–74, when the expenditure, in its view, should be £19·2 million, only £600,000 different above the amount spent this year. Some of the expenditure on the two small accelerators at Didcot and Daresbury, one of 12 GeV and the other of 7 GeV which combined with the high energy physics grant to universities, which this year added up to £11·7 million, should by 1973–74 be reduced to only £6 million, thus spending on the current activities £5·7 million less in 1973–74 than is being spent in 1968–69. That £5·7 million— or £6 million, rounded up—should be our contribution to the new 300 GeV accelerator at C.E.R.N. in 1973–74.

It admitted that these reductions would be painful and damaging to the development of the nuclear physics effort in this country, but it attached so much importance to our participation in the new 300 GeV accelerator that it was prepared to make this sacrifice. This was a remarkable effort by the Board to try to understand the Government's position and to try to persuade the Government that within our existing scientific resources, without spending any more money on high energy physics in five years' time than is being spent now, to participate in the new project.

What happened? I am told that there has been no reaction by the Government to that proposal. A statement was made at C.E.R.N. on 20th June without any mention of what the Board had proposed, and even now the Board has not been told why its proposals were not practicable or acceptable to the Government. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether these proposals were ever considered seriously, and if they were, and were turned down—why?

My hon. Friend has told the House what alarm and dismay was created in British scientific circles by this decision. There are so many quotations that I cannot hope to give them all. I will give only one, fromNature, the authoritative journal on this subject, on 6th July: In the circumstances the abruptness of the decision two weeks ago must obviously be counted a departure from reason not simply a manifestation of incompetence. That is about as scathing a comment on Government action as I have read in any professional journal. If this is the view of the scientists of this country, it is no wonder, as my hon. Friend has said, that all confidence has been lost in the Government's policy for high energy physics.

Why did the Government suddenly decide to withdraw from this project? We can only guess. My guess is that they believe that too much emphasis has been placed on nuclear physics as opposed to the other scientific disciplines. That cannot be valid, because under the proposal of the Nuclear Physics Board almost the same amount would be spent in 1973–74 as in 1968–69—there would be no change in the proportion of resources being spent.

Can it be that the Government believe that scientific expenditure should be confined to activities which give only a short-term benefit to the country? If that is so, it is a lamentable and alarming theory, and here I quote briefly from a report to the President of the United States of America by his Science Advisory Committee, which in its 1960 report to President Eisenhower said: Nothing could be more unwise than an effort to assign priorities or judge results in basic research on a narrow basis of immediate gain. That sentence ought to be put up in the office of the right hon. Gentleman so that when he looks up every morning he can see it written in letters of gold.

Perhaps the Government believe that they should distrust the advice on scientific subjects of their official officers, who advised unanimously that we should continue to participate on this particular project. The Government have ignored their advisers. Can it be that they now believe that these official bodies, established by the Government to advise them on scientific matters, are no longer to be accepted as authoritative? Or perhaps the Government intend to reduce expenditure on scientific matters rather than let it expand as the basis of our future prosperity.

None of those reasons is credible. The real reason for this molecular myopia has not yet been revealed, but we are attempting, it seems, to eat the seed corn of science, since if we do not participate in this new European development, not only will this particular high energy physics programme wither away in the present generation, but the present dwindling intake of young people into science will be reduced still further, quite apart from the brain drain of the best of our scientists from the country.

It is not too late for the Government to change their mind. Comparatively little expenditure is involved in the next three or four years. From the figures available to me I have calculated that between now and 1974 the expenditure of only £2½ million would be involved in the new project. I urge the Government to begin to restore the belief, which has been almost lost, that they have a coherent policy for science, and that they deserve the co-operation of pure scientists in their plans for the universities and industry, by indicating this evening that they will consider their decision or give a coherent reason for it which we have not yet heard.

In 1933, Lord Rutherford, who has been quoted many times in this debate, said of his work on atomic science: Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine. That was 35 years ago. Today in this House we have heard of two new aluminium smelters to be powered entirely by nuclear power, yet Lord Rutherford himself thought at that time that there was no practical application of what he was doing.

I beg the hon. Lady, the Minister of State to think of what will be happening in this country in the year 2,000, which is about the same distance from now as Lord Rutherford was before us; to think that the work she is killing at C.E.R.N. could well be of as much value to our children as Lord Rutherford's work was for us.