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 Mrs Shirley Williams Mrs Shirley Williams , Hitchin 12:00 am, 24th July 1968

We have had a powerfully expressed voice put by hon. Members opposite, and I will endeavour to explain, I hope not at great length, the reasons for the Government's decision.

In the debate on 26th March this year, I said that no one would question the desirability of the project, all other things being equal. I repeat that. That goes, perhaps, some way to answer the first question put by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) when he asked whether the Government accepted the scientific case for the 300 GeV nuclear accelerator. The reasons for the refusal flow directly from the debate which occurred shortly before this one, which was, as hon. Members will recall, concerned largely with the economic situation in which the country finds itself.

I will deal first with the original proposals as advanced by the Council for Scientific Policy and the Science Research Council and then go on, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Fortescue) asked me to do, to the late amended proposals which came forward from the Nuclear Physics Board.

On the first point, it was made clear by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State that the effects of devaluation would have to be taken seriously into account in the Government's decision on the matter. In his preface to Cmnd. 3503, he said: Devaluation has … made it necessary for the Government to look with particular care at all public expenditure, quite apart from the above factors. The Government must, therefore, consider this proposal very searchingly, bearing in mind the advice printed here and the outcome of discussions in C.E.R.N So already at that time, when Cmnd. 3503 was published, a note of warning had been sounded regarding the effects of devaluation. The effects were to raise the British contribution to the estimated total cost of £175 million for the construction of the 300 GeV accelerator to a sum between £39 million and £44 million, depending on whether all the member States of C.E.R.N. agreed to enter into the commitment involved.

It was not merely a question of this sum of money. There was also the question, in part, of the length of the commitment and the fact that it would be a rising commitment. Lying beyond the construction commitment and covering a period of no less than 15 years, there would be a major commitment to the operating costs of the project.

As hon. Members will recall, particularly those who have been dealing with the question of the scientific advice which the Government receive, there were three factors which were laid down in Cmnd. 3503. One concerned, as the hon. Member for Eastleigh said, the growth expected in scientific expenditure. As the hon. Gentleman fairly pointed out, the 9 per cent. a year was for no less than 10 years ahead. Incidentally, if this were projected forward to the end of the century, it would amount to roughly the whole of the gross national product of this country. So we are talking of a fairly massive expansion. The assumption was 9 per cent. a year for 10 years, and the Council on Scientific Policy made clear that this would be roughly the condition on which it would support the 300 GeV accelerator.

The growth rate in the current year 1968–69 is 7½ per cent., that is, falling below the 9 per cent. laid down by the C.S.P. This is one factor. It was also a tight budget from the point of view of including this project for nuclear high-energy physics. The growth factor has thus not been met in the first of the 10 years.

The second point 1 make is that the Report itself indicated that there were, or there might be, certain dangers of escalation in the costs of the project. It is true that the draft C.E.R.N. Convention has safeguards regarding escalation of costs. Nevertheless, the costs of the 28 GeV accelerator, a smaller device, have risen to a considerable extent. I do not want to hark back to the original estimates of what it would cost, which were made as long ago as 1953, because, as the House appreciates, science has a major sophistication factor and it would be quite unfair to look at it in that way. But it is fair to say that the escalation in cost has been considerable for the 28 GeV accelerator over a short period.

For the two small accelerators in this country, there have been estimated escalations of cost in real terms of about 25 per cent. over a period of five to six years. This also was a factor which the Government had to bear in mind. The tendency is for advanced scientific projects of this kind to have a considerable escalation factor, a factor difficult to allow for in the tight budget which had been drawn up.

But there is rather more to it than that. The hon. Member for Eastleigh asked whether the Government accepted the scientific case. Yes, they do accept the scientific case—this is a desirable project—but that is not the whole question. The other part is, what other priorities exist in fundamental research? I wish to make that distinction because we are not now talking about research which has an immediate spin-off.

In Cmnd. 3503, C.S.P. itself said at paragraph 28 on page 19: Firstly, there are many scientific activities of comparable interest which cost a fraction of the above sum to support the same number of active researchers. Secondly, there is the obvious existence of a threshold expenditure in high energy nuclear physics, below which progress in this field can hardly be sustained. Therefore, it is not only a question of the scientific value of this project but the comparable scientific value of a number of other scientific projects in fundamental research. Hon. Members opposite, not least the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) who has often argued the case for greater expenditure on oceanography, molecular biology and radio astronomy—to mention only three major fields, will appreciate that there are other crucial fields for which room must also be made in the gradually expanding scientific budget.

The hon. Member for Garston referred to some of the great possibilities in nuclear structure, but many of these possibilities are not explored through such devices as the proton accelerator but through other scientific projects of a kind that are at present in competition for the amount of expenditure that would be needed to go ahead on the 300 GeV accelerator.

I have two other brief points on this before turning to the later S.R.C. proposals. The first was I think rightly divined by the hon. Member for Eastleigh. There is a quite serious question about the proportion of the scientific budget which should go to high energy nuclear physics. At present about one-fifth of the total science budget goes to this one part of physics. Over 40 per cent. of the Science Research Council budget goes to this one field of physics.

Second, the amount of scientific unanimity on this can be over-stressed to some extent. The debate in another place showed a considerable division of scientific opinion. I could quote a magazine that was very briefly quoted by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk), theNew Scientist. It said as recently as 27th June: But the decision will gratify many researchers in other fields who have groused for too long that too much of the cake was going to those young, brilliant Apollos at CERN. Discontent has been growing even among many physicists, those who might perhaps be called the worker priests. They have felt for some while that if we want to afford far-out extravagances like big proton race-tracks we must first earn the wherewithal through physics of a more immediately lucrative kind. Hon. Members opposite will have seen the recent letter inThe Times from a distinguished professor of physics at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. I have before me a letter from a Fellow of the Royal Society and distinguished professor at the Imperial College of Science and Technology. It says: According toThe Times, certain M.P.s have protested the cut in the proposed 300 GeV accelerator for CERN. I urge you to stand firm and resist. I mention this not to suggest that there has not been a great weight of support for the 300 GeV accelerator, but simply to try to balance what may have seemed a suggestion by hon. Members opposite that scientific opinion was unanimous on the subject. It is not.

I should now like to say a word about the S.R.C. Nuclear Physics Board proposals. Without doubt these were very imaginative. They made a real attempt to meet the difficulties over the science budget, the share for nuclear physics, and the question of escalation. However, two difficulties arise. The first is the practical problems of phasing out national facilities such as those at Rutherford and Dares-bury, particularly as one of these facilities is a relatively recent foundation. Second, it might have been much more practicable to adopt the Board's proposals if Mudford had been a stronger candidate for the sites proposed for the 300 GeV accelerator. But if Mudford had not been chosen, the result of the Board's proposals would have been that there would be no accelerator in this country of comparable energy, indeed, of energy above that of the very smallest level of research accelerator, and we are talking about the period in which at least two of the small accelerators which are still in existence would have been phased out.

So the position was one in which—the hon. Gentleman referred to a brain drain —in effect the whole of high energy nuclear physics research would have had to be based entirely in another country. Without doubt, this presents consider- able difficulties in terms of employment of scientists, availability of accelerators and availability of research projects in this country to attract high energy nuclear physicists.

The final point will affect what the hon. Member for Saffron Walden said. I know of his great interest in matters concerned with Europe, and I hope he will concede that, while my part has not been as distinguished, I have never doubted the need for Britain to become part of the European Economic Community. I am surprised that he has cast so much doubt on the Governmentbona fides in this. I should have thought that in the face of some provocation from at least one member of the Community the Government have persisted in indicating that there is no withdrawal or diminishing of their interest in eventually becoming a member of the European Economic Community. The hon. Member referred particularly to the Prime Minister's speech concerning technological co-operation. I only mention in passing, on the point that he made and that the hon. Member for Eastleigh made as well, that the Prime Minister's speech specifically referred to technological co-operation, and that this project is in a very different field.

Nevertheless, in the field of scientific collaboration there have been not only proposals but specific commitments of very large sums of money in respect of recent developments. No hon. Member opposite has mentioned a major and unique project going ahead under C.E.R.N., the project for Intersecting Storage Rings, which costs £40 million, which will be completed in 1970, to which this country is a full contributor, and which will give the equivalent in energy of a conventional proton accelerator of no less than 1,400 GeV. It is true to say that limitations exist on the intensity of the beam and that this is not as flexible an instrument. Nevertheless it is an instrument in which the United States has shown very great interest, and it has asked for the right to co-operate and send scientists to take part in the project. It is an important project in which this country has been involved from the beginning.

In the last few months Britain has proposed a European research council. We made clear that, in our opinion, such a council would have a major part to play in embarking upon further scientific cooperation in Europe. We are working on new projects in the field of molecular biology under E.M.B.O., the European project, and there is a specific proposal in the technological field for a centre for European technology which was advanced by the Minister of Technology as recently as the end of May. In addition, the national facilities available at Daresbury and Rutherford were proposed for sharing on a European basis as recently as December, 1967, at the C.E.R.N. council meeting.

I mention all these facts not to persuade the hon. Gentleman that the Government's decision can be put to him as one that he would accept—I am sure he will not accept it—but to show that the reasons for the Government decision are closely bound up with Government expenditure. The commitment—the hon. Member for Garston will jump to his feet if I do not make this clear—is a very long-term one to a very large sum of money, and has nothing to do with any desire to withdraw from close cooperation with Europe. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least accept that the list of things that I have given, including one relatively expensive scientific project in the field of high energy nuclear physics, indicates that the Government are concerned to maintain close co-operation with Europe.

Lastly, I have a word about the relationship of the Government to the research councils. I recognise that the research councils have long enjoyed, and properly, the right to give advice and have that advice carried out when made to the Government. But hon. Members will recognise that under the Act which was passed in 1965, and which bore out the provisions of earlier Acts, it was made clear that at all stages major expenditure in these fields was subject to the directives of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and was a matter for the normal supervision of the Treasury which applies to all Government expenditure.

Not only has the research councils' advice been taken seriously but we fully recognise that they must have a degree of independence. We recognise that they have a right to indicate the disposal of scientific resources—a right which we wish to maintain. But we had, with regret, to step in with respect to this proposal because of the degree of commitment which it implied.

Perhaps, in closing, I may echo what was said by the hon. Member for East-leigh in his closing remarks—it was Sir Isaac Newton who said, "If I see far it is because I stand on other men's shoulders". We fully accept that in the end all applied research depends on fundamental research. It would be unwise to regard fundamental research as having to be assessed purely in terms of its immediate spin off.

We regret that certain decisions had to be made in the light of devaluation. We very much hope that there is no question of any fall in expenditure on scientific research. We hope that our decision will not discourage other European States from going ahead with the project if they decide to do so, for it is our view that that would leave the possibility open, should our circumstances later permit, for our joining perhaps at a later stage.