HC Deb 07 June 1957 vol 571 cc1606-24

12.51 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I wish briefly to raise a few points about our scientific information services, and in case I should be thought to be speaking critically I want to say at once that I believe that Britain has a brilliant record for scientific research and a brilliant future. To the Parliamentary Secretary, may I say that while he had an unfortunate initiation into Ministerial responsibility, I am very impressed by the present enthusiasm he shows for his new responsibilities, and am hopeful that we will get some concrete and constructive action in this very important field.

It is because the world in which we live is changing at such a pace that I believe that we have to devote even greater resources not only to scientific research itself, but to the dissemination of the results of that research to industry. We have to see that this information is speedily known, and in a large number of places, because the impact of science today is so widespread and we have to make the information not only widely available but available with the greatest possible speed to ensure that we maintain our superiority in industrial production.

I confine myself to the limited field of the provision of up-to-date current information about scientific research in the form of scientific abstracts, both in the sense of information to research workers in order to improve and aid their research, and in the informative sense to industry itself. I say at once that I appreciate the work that is being done. I know that there are 127 different publications which are providing these services from various sources—from Government Departments, research associations, professional societies, the larger industrial firms, and technical journals. I do not criticise, but welcome these varied sources of information. I am not in favour of streamlining and unifying research itself but, having said that, I believe that there are current difficulties to which I should call the Parliamentary Secretary's attention.

I have mentioned present publications. One important publication has gone— British Abstracts, which went in 1954 when the Bureau of Abstracts was wound up because of financial difficulties. I notice that the grants-in-aid of scientific publications to the Royal Society have fallen over the past two or three years from £27,000 to £8,500. I am informed that, at present, the Journal of the Chemical Society, one of the most highly regarded technical journals in the world, is facing very real difficulties; that the Society has to face a loss of between £10,000 and £15,000 a year on this publication; that in 1958 its cost will be considerably increased, not only to non-fellows but to fellows as well, and that it is anticipated that as many as half of the fellows who at present subscribe will no longer do so.

This would be a disastrous consequence, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will do all that he can to avoid it, but he must recognise that rising costs are prejudicing both the publication and content of these valuable technical journals and the abstracting services themselves.

My first point is to request him to review the whole field, to review the present grants-in-aid and see that these are increased on a sufficiently substantial scale so that, far from discouraging this activity we should further encourage it. My next point is one which arises out of the multifarious character of these abstracting services. As I say, I do not criticise—I think that there is a lot to be said for independence and variety in research—but, arising from this, there is obvious need for some form of collaboration and co-ordination of this work, and I can mention one of two facets of this problem. We need more uniform standardisation of the format in which this work is presented. We need more frequent indexes. While, as I have indicated, I do not mind overlapping, I think that we should avoid duplication where possible.

I cannot speak as an expert, but I am informed that there are several not unimportant gaps in, for example, marine biology—which the Parliamentary Secretary would have appreciated had he still been in his previous job—in engineering technology, ecology, and in geophysics. In all these spheres there are gaps which we should seek to cover. I am not saying that the responsibility for the work should be undertaken by the Government, but it is a responsibility of the Government to ensure that the work is undertaken. I should have thought that to co-ordinate and supplement this work called for some form of Government-sponsored agency.

Moreover, I would say that, apart from co-ordination and collaboration, there is a need for the provision of certain central services—an obvious illustration is translating—and the services might be provided centrally, and also be Government-sponsored. If we look at our competitors, the Parliamentary Secretary will be aware of the steps taken in the Soviet Union— the creation in 1953 of the Institution of Scientific and Technical Information Services, which now already has a staff of several thousand. It is producing 12 journals of abstracts and, what is more important, it has established an express information service, which means that in particular selected fields information is provided with the minimum delay.

Repeatedly, over the last few years, I have raised in the House the allied question of library facilities—a national science lending library and a national science reference library. I am very glad to see that a start is being made with the lending library, but on the question of the reference library we should be beyond vigorous discussion, and have money devoted to these projects and real progress made.

The third point that I put to the Parliamentary Secretary is a broader one, one in which he cannot have direct personal responsibility but one in which the Government can take the initiative. I refer to the need for taking international action in relation to the provision of up-to-date, current scientific information. I realise that in some respects we are entirely dependent on the United States. We are dependent on the United States for chemical abstracts. To give another illustration, medicine, we are dependent on the United States for the two indexes which are provided by the American Medical Association and by an American Government agency.

I am not suggesting that we should compete with those agencies. There is no necessity to do that as the work is being done, and in view of the matters which I am raising I would not press the case for this additional burden. I do not criticise the United States for doing it. We very much appreciate it and we are very much indebted to them for the information upon which we rely. But the mere fact that we are dependent on them for this vital information reveals the need for such information being provided by an international agency.

I have mentioned medicine. Abstracting in that case is, in fact, done by an international agency in Amsterdam, but we should take a real initiative in U.N.E.S.C.O., and, not only for purely scientific but also for political reasons, encourage the provision of this essential information through international agencies.

Perhaps, in a more limited field, we could look again at the possibility of providing within the Commonwealth special services along the lines of the Commonwealth Agriculture Bureau. I know that this has been considered by the Commonwealth, but no further action has been taken. We should keep this matter constantly under review. In broad political terms, we could strengthen the Commonwealth. Especially when we think of the new developing industrial parts of the Commonwealth such as the Dominions of Canada and Australia, it would be useful if we could provide a joint Commonwealth service. Apart from the broad international aspect, I hope that the Government will keep open this discussion with the fellow members of the Commonwealth.

The fourth and final point which I put to the Parliamentary Secretary is rather different from those which I have raised. Apart from the technical side of this matter, we have to do more to ensure that this information is known and appreciated by industry, especially the small firms. I am very much encouraged by the work of A.S.L.I.B., which, during the past three years, has had 450 people attending its courses. During the last six years I believe that the number of inquiries with which it has dealt has risen from 1,000 to 35,000 a year.

All that is very good, but we should not rest content. We should encourage such services and, by publicity, education and other ways, improve the receptive climate within industry to the acceptance and utilisation of scientific research. We should ensure that as soon as possible the results of scientific work are recognised and appreciated within industry. This is a broad question of public relations. It is not only a matter of improving the techniques of the dissemination of scientific knowledge. We have to see that within the board rooms themselves there is a better appreciation of the necessity to take advantage of research when it has reached the point at which it can become effective in industry.

This means not only that the board rooms should be conscious of the need to take the earliest possible advantage of new scientific discoveries, but that within the firms themselves there should be a structure to ensure that early advantage is taken of all scientific information which is relevant to that firm's industrial processes. To give an illustration, in most firms there should be somebody whose job it would be to take advantage of the scientific services I have been discussing. There should be provision within firms for what might be called the storage of scientific information which is relevant, so that that information is used in anticipation of changes and improvements within industry.

I am sure that these are matters of vital concern to British industry. I am equally convinced that the Government can do a great deal to facilitate the use of up-to-date scientific knowledge and further assist the work of organisations such as A.S.L.I.B. Of course, all this will cost money. I do not for a moment denigrate the help at present being given, but I have been anxious to raise this matter because we have to look at it in a different light. We have to realise that the work now being done is invaluable, but Government assistance and the increasing assistance from industry will have to be on a different scale.

I have made inquiries and I am told that at least £300,000 would be needed to tackle a job like this. Although such a sum sounds large, it is small in the context of the need, and it is small in relation to what is being done in other countries with whom we are competing. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will do his utmost to see that we get a new approach. While I appreciate the work which is being done, especially the work which has been done since the war, I realise that we do not want it to depend entirely on Government assistance. It must be supported from within industry itself, because unless industry itself subscribes to this research work we will not get the full results we require.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, with his new responsibilities, will be able to assure us that he will make this an especial responsibility and that he will do his utmost to encourage a far greater response from industry and that the Government themselves will give a considerable lead.

1.8 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I am very glad to have this opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), who has raised a most important topic. It will be generally agreed that the Government of any modern industrial country must often take the lead in certain aspects of scientific policy, because there is nobody else who can do the essential co-ordinating work which is required or ensure that national interests are safeguarded.

It is part of the national duty of a Government to assist scientific endeavours where there are gaps in the services available, or where some other form of external help is required if success is to be obtained. One sometimes gets the impression that the attitude of the Government in this matter is slightly eighteenth century. Recently we found that in the Ministry of Education—for which the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply to this debate is not, of course, responsible—there is only one statistician. There can be no other Department whose activities must depend so much on precise knowledge of figures, such as to forecasting the supply of teachers and courses, and whether we shall have enough qualified students to meet national requirements; and yet the Minister of Education has but one statistician.

In this matter of scientific information there seems to be an obvious need for the Government to act as a co-ordinating authority to see that information is readily available to all and to take steps to fill any of the gaps. It is obvious that scientists must have an opportunity of being able to know without difficulty what is happening in their specialities in other parts of the world.

So we want to work towards the provision of central information of two types; first, the sort of index which will give a brief account of major scientific and technical developments in other countries, together with information as to where original matter on them can be obtained, and, secondly, an index which also gives a brief synopsis of developments in various fields, so that people here may be kept abreast of what is happening abroad. Although I do not wish to denigrate the excellent piecemeal pieces of information which are made available, it seems to me that we fall woefully behind some other countries. We really have no proper co-ordinating machinery of all the information available. There are lots of little bits of information, but there are also many gaps where no information at all is available.

That was the view of the Royal Society's Information Conference in 1948. It drew specific attention to the overlapping in some fields and, on the other hand, the complete lack of information in others. Its first working party drew attention to the need for the comprehensive index about which I have been talking, and, incidentally, the need to have a consolidated comprehensive index about every ten years if the mass of information accumulated was to be manageable.

Many other bodies have sounded warnings and drawn attention to the need for improvements. The Seventh Annual Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, in Cmd. 9260, specifically referred to the fact that many small firms today cannot get the information that is available because no comprehensive service exists, and large firms sometimes tend to keep this information to themselves. The Report also drew attention to the need—to which my hon. Friend has referred—for a proper scientific reference library. That is absolutely essential. The cost of establishing such an institution, considered against the background of our national income and budget, is a trifling sum, but the advantages that it would give to industry and to scientists are overwhelming. I hope that we shall be given some information on that point.

Another body which drew attention to present dangers was the British Commonwealth Scientific Conference, held in Australia in 1952, which passed a resolution, part of which said: The Conference believes that scientific and technical progress requires the improvement of certain abstracting services. It also notes with alarm the rising cost of abstracting and is concerned lest this will force some valuable journals to curtail their services or even suspend publication. The alarm expressed has now been shown to have had positive results, in the fact that several journals have had to suspend their activities, due to high costs. In its leading article on 10th March, 1955, the Manchester Guardian also criticised the existing abstracting services as being often unsatisfactory in relation to the very large number of scientific journals now published. All these bodies and all the specialists who have looked at the matter feel that there is a need for a central authority of some kind, and for the gaps in information to be filled.

I should like to refer to what other countries do. I am told that even in Hungary there is a central library where abstracts are made from more than 2,000 technical journals published in other countries. Certainly in the Soviet Union —whose scientific advance has been very marked, as one can see by examining their expenditure on scientific education, and by the number of graduates now being available—there is a central library, with more than 50 specialists at work and between 2,000 and 3,000 others giving a complete synopsis of scientific developments in practically every other country in the world. I doubt if there is any other country where the abstracting of information about scientific developments is so complete as it now is in the Soviet Union. Even in France they have managed to have an exhaustive extract from world literature on some aspects of science and technology. If this sort of thing can be done in those countries, and if they realise the imperative need for it, I am certain that Britain must follow.

I want very much to support the proposals put forward by my hon. Friend, The first is that there must be some kind of co-ordinating authority, either in the form of a Government Department, or a joint organisation in which private industry, Government scientific Departments and learned societies can organise a central abstracting service. Secondly, there should be set up as soon as possible a scientific reference library in London. It is absolutely incredible that we have not got one. This is the first thing that we want, and the expense, viewed against our national income, is relatively trifling. Lastly, there is the question of grants to the various bodies who perform first-class services to science in general.

My hon. Friend referred to the grants made to the Royal Society and pointed out that whereas a grant of £27,000 was made in 1954, the grant made in 1956 was only £8,500. This is a grant-in-aid of scientific publications by the Royal Society. In point of fact, the grant for 1956 is the lowest in the ten years since the war, and no one can possibly believe that that is because there is no further information which could be published. I find this low figure extremely difficult to understand.

This seems to me to be the minimum effort which must be made if Britain is to maintain the great prestige which she has in the scientific world. I believe that our scientists are second to none; indeed, they can probably lead the world. But they will not lead the world if they have difficulty in knowing what is being done by their colleagues in other countries, and if they are duplicating work which is sometimes unnecessary. Our national survival depends upon the efficiency with which our scientists work as well as upon the actual work that they do. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can promise us some very speedy and generous help in this matter.

1.17 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) for introducing this very important debate. Although the Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Works is to reply, this question is the responsibility of the Lord President of the Council, and I hope that what we are saying in this House will be conveyed to him in no unmistakable way.

The economic facts of life of this country are sufficiently well known not to require my saying any more about them than that 50 million people cannot go on living on this very small island unless they are well in advance of the rest of the world in the application of their technical knowledge to industry. In the second half of the twentieth century we can no longer hope to live upon exports of textiles, coal and things of that kind. Rather, we have to depend upon the building of nuclear power stations abroad, the application of electronics to industry, the development of the new sciences to industry, and the selling of their products abroad in markets where Britain is taking the lead at the moment.

In order to maintain that lead, not only must we have a large number of technicians in industry, but they have to be backed by a large number of scientists who, in turn, are able to get the latest information about discoveries made by other nations. There is a need to inform scientists, in the fields in which they are working, of exactly what is happening elsewhere The only way in which this can be done satisfactorily is by abstracting information from all the scientific papers and journals which are published.

In this respect an example is set by the Russians. I will not go into details, but they have an amazingly efficient and well-managed service. They publish a number of journals. We are able to obtain copies of most of them, but few are being translated and the necessary abstracts taken for the benefit of British scientists. I consider that a great mistake. My hon. Friend indicated that a large number of bodies are doing valuable work, and I will not catalogue them. Industrial as well as scientific societies do this work, but what is required is some co-ordinating machinery, backed by finance, to help to fill in the gaps and to prevent duplication. I do not believe that could be done better than by some Government-sponsored authority. I do not say that it should be a Government Department, but it should be sponsored by the Government, with representation not only from the Department of the Lord President, but from the scientific bodies, and, I hope, from industry.

Such a body should be backed by reasonably sufficient funds from the Government. My hon. Friend thought the amount should be about £300,000 a year. I would not quarrel with that, although I had in mind a Government contribution of £250,000 a year. The rest could easily be raised from industry. In the first few years that amount might prove adequate. This body would be responsible for dealing with the whole question of co-ordinating the abstraction of scientific information. All the present services could be utilised, and where they were failing through lack of physical or financial assistance they could be aided by a body such as I am suggesting.

Although this is a short debate, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will regard it as an important one. It is true that unless we keep abreast, or, indeed, keep ahead, in relation to scientific knowledge and its application to British industry, we shall fail to maintain for the population of this country anything like a good standard of living. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will not regard replying to this debate as a chore. No doubt he has a good brief and plenty of information to give us. I hope that he will reflect on everything that has been said, because this is not a party matter; it concerns the nation as a whole.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will read again the speeches of my hon. Friends; that he will consult the Lord President of the Council and his excellent advisers, and press them to proceed on the lines we suggest. We are not laying down anything which is hard and fast. We are merely making suggestions about the broad principle of a Government-sponsored organisation charged with the responsibility for coordinating the work of abstracting scientific data and backed by at least £250,000 a year for the first five years. Such an organisation would be useful for the scientists who have done such a grand job for Britain and who, given the tools to do the job, in the shape of information, will keep Britain abreast of the rest of the world not only in scientific knowledge but in its application to British industry.

1.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Harmar Nicholls)

As one would expect from a speaker from the Opposition Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) stood back from the details and gave the House a broad picture of what we are discussing and its effect on the economic life of the country.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my noble Friend is concerned about the importance of this matter. As the right hon. Gentleman said, no party differences arise in this connection and there is no difference in the emphasis put upon it by the right hon. Gentleman and by my noble Friend. Although this is a comparatively small debate it will be studied carefully, and great attention paid to the suggestions which have been advanced.

I join with those who have said how helpful it is that the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) should have chosen this subject for debate today. It is right that we should take every opportunity to examine what progress has been made since the receipt of various reports and the conclusions of conferences. One of the things which is pleasant about my new job is that it will keep me in contact with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North. When I formerly answered questions on agriculture he and I were protagonists and it is delightful to me to find that this is another of the many subjects to which the hon. Member applies himself. It proves him to be one of the most industrious Members of this House.

I am sure that both the hon. Member for Sunderland, North and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) will not expect me to give detailed answers to any of the points which they have raised today, but I can assure them that these matters will be carefully examined. I think that the comments made so far may be divided up under several heads. First, that the Government should be more active in co-ordinating the results of research carried out by the main independent bodies.

The hon. Gentleman urged that the Government should take the initiative in ensuring that the presentation of results was standardised, and that in cases where information was inadequate the Government should be responsible for filling in the gaps. Comment was also made on the contributions for publications, and the hon. Gentleman covered a wide field when discussing how far these matters should be internationalised. From previous questions which he has asked, I am aware that in this connection the hon. Gentleman was referring to the use which might be made of U.N.E.S.C.O. and the work done by that organisation.

The hon. Member's final point, one which the right hon. Member for Blyth thought fit to emphasise, was that special attention should be given to ensuring that the needs of smaller firms are taken into account; not only that they are supplied with information, but that they are encouraged to use it.

In passing, I would refer to the question of the Commonwealth contribution. It is as well to remember that there is a standing Commonwealth scientific conference which is continually reviewing possible schemes for co-operation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in this, as in all other matters, we wish to move in step with the Commonwealth and to share information.

Mention has been made of Russia. It is true that the Russians have started a centralised scheme and that in Moscow they have a vast building, with card indexes, electronic computers and the like. I do not wish to belittle that, but we do not know how much good can flow from it. Before we start even to suggest that we should wipe out all we have done up to now and switch over to that kind of thing we must see how it works out, because the Russian brand is brand new. It started from nothing at all in 1952–53.

Mr. Robens

None of us is advocating that we should adopt the Russian method. We are saying that what comes out of the machine is printed in Russian and that, where it is important for use here, it should be translated into English.

Mr. Nicholls

I get that point, but the fact that each speaker has referred to the Russian system could, to anyone reading the OFFICIAL REPORT, bear the inference that there was a suggestion that they had something very special which we had not got. It may be that they have, but they started from nothing. This is a new thing which started in 1952. We have had about forty years' experience, perhaps more, in our own special way. Our way has been quite different. We think that it is best, especially in an activity like this, that the different specialist organisations should provide the scientific information services within their own spheres.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not disagree with that. That is the way we have built up, and great credit has been given by all speakers who recognise what has been achieved. The question has been whether we could do better, and that is very proper, but we have found that leaving it to the different specialist organisations has been a good thing. We think that it is more likely to be more effective and more manageable than one single, central organisation.

Having said that, I would say that it is recognised that certain services need co-ordinating or supplementing from a central point. It is here that the D.S.I.R. policy in industry has devoted a lot of its energy. It has been trying to do just that, and it will continue to do so. For many years the D.S.I.R. has maintained a service to direct inquirers, where necessary, to specialist sources of information or, where such sources do not exist, for answering inquiries direct. To that extent, we have already started along the road which has been advocated by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

I do not think that there is any doubt at all that abstracts are essential to guide scientists to the scientific papers they need to know about. As world output of scientific literature increases, abstracts become even more essential and, as one hon. Member said, even more expensive, too, but the volume which is coming out means that a great many abstracting organisations in this country are facing increasing difficulties because of the extra volume. These difficulties become very serious for the British abstracting organisations, especially in the chemical field.

In 1953, the D.S.I.R. offered a grant of £35,000 to keep the organisation concerned with chemical abstracts in being for twelve months, in the hope that in that period the activity could be placed on a sounder financial basis. It was found that this was not possible, and we are now relying upon the American service. However, it ought to be emphasised—and I think that it will be accepted by hon. Members—that in relying on the American service there is no technical loss at all. The service it gives, and the quality of it, leaves us almost as we were when we had our own.

I should like to make it clear that while, for chemical abstracts, we are relying upon the American service, we have not left the production of abstracts entirely to our American cousins. We are preparing for them abstracts in physics, electrical engineering and radio. The Americans use this British service just as we use theirs. There is no question that we have withdrawn from abstracts completely and left it entirely to the Americans.

This is a very sensible and helpful practice for two nations which talk almost the same language and, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North said, there is no point in duplicating just for the sake of duplicating. While it is true that we have withdrawn from chemical abstracts and rely upon the Americans, we put on the other side the fact that, in the other three activities, they rely upon us.

Mr. Willey

I was trying to make it clear that I was not suggesting that we should duplicate work done by the Americans. I was saying that where it appears that we are dependent upon that work, it would be advisable to try to get it brought under an international agency. I mentioned this for two reasons. One is that, obviously, we have no say about the cost of the work done. The other is that on broad, political grounds it is better to make this available internationally and to have the various countries subscribing to the work. I am fully in accord with the Parliamentary Secretary. I do not think that we should undertake burdensome work when it is being adequately done already by the United States.

Mr. Nicholls

I appreciate the point. It fits in completely with the whole of the hon. Gentleman's argument. I merely thought it right to point out that, while we depend on their chemical abstracting, they depend upon us completely for electrical engineering, radio and physics. It is not a question that we have withdrawn from it; it is an arrangement which is sensible, and, if it is thought fit, later, to extend it over the wider area recommended by the hon. Gentleman, it is, at any rate, a good start.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Americans were filling the gaps for us. I have said that in three cases we are filling the gaps for them. He quoted four actual activities where we ought to look at the position. I can promise him that we will have a look at the point he has made. He mentioned ecology in particular. If he had used that word to me two months ago, I should not have known what he was talking about. As a Philistine, I know now that it is rather a, high-falutin way of saying, "nature study." I know that the purists will not like me putting it in that way, but that, I think, is just what it means.

On the question of publications and grants by the Royal Society, I think there is a lot to be said on the other side as to the improvements which have been made. In 1956–57, £8,500 was granted. That was the figure mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, but what perhaps he did not realise was that in that year, in addition to the £8,500, there was a carryover of £6,000 from the previous year, so that there was a total of £14,500. For 1957–58, the grant is to be increased to £21,000. The hon. Gentleman rather suggested that the grant had gone down, but the opposite is really the position. It has gone up from £14,500 to £21,000. This is a substantial increase, and I hope that it will give some satisfaction to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned the Journal of the Chemical Society. What they said is on the record. All I can say is that if the Journal of the Chemical Society is in trouble, it should make its case to the Royal Society. I do not think that it is for us as politicians to judge the merits of the case. We are laymen in this matter. If it feels that it has a strong case which warrants greater assistance, the Royal Society is the place to which it should go, and I have no doubt that, as always, the Royal Society will view the question impartially and in great detail.

The Royal Society has found it possible to make its own publications financially solvent, and generally it is advocating that other learned societies should take measures to make their publications self-supporting. I do not think that it is unhealthy. It is not a bad thing for people to help themselves and for them to be supplemented only when it can be proved to an impartial body that supplementation is really necessary.

The Royal Society has been joined in this drive by the Nuffield Foundation, which has been making grants of a nonrecurring nature so that societies can produce their publications without a general subsidy, following the investigations I have mentioned. I am sure hon. Members will agree that if it can be achieved in this way it will be a very good thing indeed.

On the international aspect, raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, I note his idea that U.N.E.S.C.O. might help to fill some of the gaps, particularly in the field of abstracts. U.N.E.S.C.O. can only help through existing scientific organisations, and the results have not been very spectacular. It is as well to remember that U.N.E.S.C.O. is co-operating and always intends to co-operate with the International Council of Scientific Unions to assist the learned societies of the world to see that abstract investigation does take place and is as widely spread as possible.

On the question of the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux, it may help if I tell the hon. Gentleman that the date for a delegation to see the D.S.I.R.'s Industrial Grants Committee has been fixed for 19th June. I have no doubt that at that meeting it will go into many of the details that have been raised in the debate.

On the question of small firms, it is widely recognised that there is very great difficulty in ensuring that scientific and technical information is supplied to such firms in a way that they can understand. It is a problem to know how to get down to the language that they can understand and which will encourage them to do what the hon. Gentleman suggested, of having somebody in their organisation who will concentrate upon it.

America has precisely the same difficulty in getting the results of its research to the quarters where the knowledge can be put into practical effect. If one had to compare, I would say that we have so far done it rather better than the Americans. If they can produce any new ideas which we can follow we shall do that, just as they are prepared to learn from our own experience over the years. The small people are not the kind who are helped by the more elaborate system of scientific abstracts; they need something much more simple and direct.

The D.S.I.R. is trying to help them in various ways. First and foremost, the D.S.I.R. research associations are financed partly by industrial organisations and other sources. One of the important functions of these associations is to ensure that their members get in a digestible form—I think that was the hon. Gentleman's phrase—the results which may be relevant of research by the association and others. It is studying closely all the ways and means of stimulating a flow of information of this kind mainly through the existing organisations, and carrying out surveys on most of these subjects, in Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham, and in the South-East.

Perhaps the most important result of the work has been the greatly increased local interest and the local arrangements for providing scientific information to these industries. The D.S.I.R. deserves great credit, because it is getting down to the real beginning of things and I know that is what it will pursue. The hon. Gentleman should realise that we are not as far behind as some people sometimes think. I thought it right to explain that we were working on a system which has been built up over forty years. While we are not going to be hidebound, we do not want to move off that until we have been convinced by practical results that somebody has produced something better that it is worth while to follow.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned Hungary. There is a Central Institute there, but little else. It is all in the shop window and there is nothing on the shelves at the back of it. The fact that Hungary has this Central Institute does not necessarily mean that it is backed up by all the details of which we have heard. We do not want to be despondent about it or, on the other hand, to be complacent. I think that that was the object of the hon. Gentleman in raising this debate. As the scientific activity of the world increases and the volume of our scientific manpower grows, the scientific information services will need to expand. We know that and we accept it, but how and where is a subject that we have always to be examining and that is how this debate will be particularly helpful.

In considering any particular scheme, we have to remember that scientific manpower devoted to the information services cannot be used on the practical work itself. That is what I wanted to say to the hon. Gentleman when he was making the point about other countries. We have to decide whether to apply our very limited scientific manpower to actually doing the job or to using it for disseminating information about work that has already been done. It is a difficult problem that will have to be examined every day and all day so that the available manpower may be properly utilised. The problem is how to obtain the maximum output from our limited scientific manpower, and on that problem we welcome any assistance from hon. Members who are interested in this topic.

The debate has been helpful. I realise that my reply to the points that were put is very sketchy, but the record is there. Interested as are the hon. Gentlemen who have raised this matter, we all realise that we are at the beginning of a very great and wonderful thing and that it behoves all of us not to be too stereotyped in our approach but, at the same time, not to be derogatory in our recognition of what we have done so far.

Mr. Skeffington

Can the hon. Gentleman make any positive remarks about the possibility of a central reference library?

Mr. Nicholls

We pursued this matter at Question Time. I can now tell the hon. Gentleman that the unit has moved into the new accommodation that I have already reported to the House and it is hoping to start a lending library before the end of the year.

The D.S.I.R. takes the new responsibility very seriously indeed and I can assure the House that it will work as quickly as possible. The end of the year should see it operating in its new quarters. We are at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and very useful existence.