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 Sir David Price Sir David Price , Eastleigh 12:00 am, 24th July 1968

I support the case deployed by my hon. Friends by asking a series of questions.

First, do the Government challenge the scientific merits of the proposed 300 GeV accelerator? As my hon. Friends have said, this has had the support of the Nuclear Physics Board, the Scientific Research Council and the Council for Scientific Policy. It also has the support, I believe, of Sir Solly Zuckerman and his council, although their views are not made public. I remind the hon. Lady of what the Nuclear Physics Board said: For some years now the United Kingdom nuclear physics community has placed the 300 GeV machine firmly at the very forefront of their priorities. This was established in the Flowers Report of 1963 and, more explicitly, in the Wilkinson Report in 1965; we now firmly reiterate this priority and recommend a speedy commitment by the United Kingdom to the project. At each level of advisory council this project has had the support of the scientific advisers to the Government. I therefore ask the hon. Lady whether the Government challenge the scientific case. If they do, they must tell us. They must tell us in detail. We would not expect the hon. Lady to tell us in detail tonight, but I hope that they will publish some form of White Paper setting out in detail why they do not accept the scientific case.

It could be that they accept the case but are frightened of the cost. In the original blue book which we were given earlier this year—we are most grateful to the Department for letting us have it—the Science Research Council said that it was certain that this project could be contained within a general growth rate on the science Votes of 9 per cent. a year. That, I think, was confirmed by the hon. Lady when she spoke in the earlier debate. I can well understand that in present circumstances the Government would find it difficult to commit themselves to that, but I remind the House that two years we had an increase in the science Vote to £11 million in the current year, 7·5 per cent. I understand that for next year the hon. Lady's Department is allocating 7·8 per cent. growth in each case, so 9 per cent. is not an impossible figure.

I still understand the Government's reluctance to commit themselves. Here I come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Fortescue) when he told the House of what have come to be known as the last-ditch proposals. I ask the hon. Lady, why did the Government refuse these proposals of the Nuclear Physics Board and the Science Research Council? Did they take the view that they doubted either the sincerity of the physicists concerned or their ability to deliver the goods?

Do the Government find themselves unable to guarantee even the present level of expenditure on the science Votes, let alone the 9 per cent. which the Science Research Council had proposed in the original blue book? On all the information available to me I think the Government should have accepted the last-ditch proposals which meant that British participation in the 300 GeV accelerator at C.E.R.N. was attainable within the present level of expenditure on physics.

I hope that the hon. Lady realises the scientific consequences of non-participation. Professor Swann said: If we did not enter the project, high energy physics would wither away over the next 15 years with the consequent penalty to the quality of trained manpower reaching into areas wider than that of high energy physics alone. Secondly, once the 300 GeV machine comes into use, our existing machinery at the Rutherford and at Daresbury will cease to be of any real scientific significance. The 300 GeV machine will give increased intensities at the presently available energies by factors of the order of 10,000. That is the sort of thing that we are talking about. Furthermore, access to machines of contemporary power will be denied to British physicists and their students, and Britain will have contracted out of high energy physics.

I remind the Minister of State of the forbidding words of the Nuclear Physics Board: A country not contributing to the most advanced science is outside the main stream of human development with the most serious consequences for its intellectual life and its productive power". There is, too, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) which I should like to repeat. Big science is expensive, and is getting beyond the ability of a country even of our size to carry alone. This lends itself naturally to international cooperation. I ask the Government whether they understand, emotionally as well as intellectually, the importance of basic research as opposed to applied research. Do they understand that applied research can be of high quality and of economic profit only when it is intimately associated with and supported by the relevant basic research?

The advances proposed in this type of project, which is at the heart of basic research programmes, go to the study of the heart of matter and deal with the fourth of the so far discovered field forces: gravity; electro-magnetism; the weak force, which we now know as the nuclear force; and what is being further discovered, the strong force, which is the interaction and behaviour of sub-particles within the nucleus of the atom.

Do the Government realise that this is the basis to modern physics and that high energy physics constitutes the present frontier of our investigation into the general laws which governs the transfer and interaction of energy in all its various forms—as matter, as motion and as radiation? Do the Government understand these things? What is the position of the future of the Advisory Scientific Council if this formidable weight of scientific counsel is ignored by the Government without any responsible reason being given?

On the European side, I ask this question in support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden has said. Is it true that the Government have decided not to support any joint collaborative venture in Europe which does not have an identifiable prospect of commercial pay-off? If so, it means that the Government can never collaborate on any venture in the basic sciences because by very definition, when starting on such projects, no commercial pay-off is identifiable.

The Government have not so far given us a single alternative proposal. To me, this decision represents the devaluation of the future of British physics and the devaluation of British co-operation in European scientific ventures.