HC Deb 28 March 1958 vol 585 cc803-9

3.45 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Prentice (East Ham, North)

I beg to move, That this House, conscious of the fact that this country can only earn its living in the world by maintaining a high level of scientific progress and toy applying its results to industry, expresses its concern that our education system is lagging behind modern needs, as shown by the fact that we have only 57 science and engineering graduates per million of the population, compared with 136 in the United States of America and 280 in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that industry is spending so little on research and development (only 8 per cent, of the annual value of industrial output according to a recent survey), and that so little use is being made of existing research facilities, as instanced by the fact that only about 520 firms are affiliated to the Production and Engineering Research Association, of some 10,000 who could join; and calls for a much greater sense of urgency on the part of the Government, industry and all concerned in the tasks of expanding scientific research and applying the results as widely as possible. I apologise for the length of the Motion, but it is an indication of my pessimism about the hour at which it would be reached. I was determined to get something on paper, even if I had had very little chance of making a speech.

I wish very much that we were beginning this debate at 3.45 p.m. on any other day of the week, and so beginning a major debate which would run on for the full time. My reason for wishing that is not purely egotistical. It is because I believe that in a scientific age the House of Commons should find more time to debate the expansion of science and the need to apply scientific research in industry. The very small amount of time devoted to this subject in recent years is a reflection on the sense of priorities of the House, and I hope that at some other date we may have a full-length debate.

I have not moved the Motion in a defeatist frame of mind. We can all be proud of what has been achieved by British science in the years since the war. One has only to think of jet aircraft, penicillin, Calder Hall and Zeta, and all that that implies, to feel a sense of pride in what has been achieved. Nor need we be apologetic about what has been done by the best firms in British industry to apply the best results of science.

What the best firms now do is very good. On Wednesday of this week, I was privileged, with other hon. Members, to visit one of the firms undertaking research and development work the building of nuclear power stations. I was impressed to see young scientists working on a job of such importance and, with the material at their disposal, getting on with the job.

We should devote attention to the fact that what is being done by the best in British industry is not being done on a sufficiently wide scale. Far too many firms are smug, complacent, and living in the past and among those in the middle, between the best and the worst, there are many who could do more than is being done at the moment. In the Motion I have given two examples of the failure of British industry to apply the results of science on a wide enough scale.

One of my examples, in which I refer to the funds industry is devoting to research and development, is taken from the annual Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. This is the Report of a Committee which advises the Government annually upon scientific policy. I should like to see an annual debate upon this Report. It draws attention to the fact that British industry, through its own resources, is providing only the small amount that I have quoted for research and development. Although it points out that a comparison with other countries is difficult, it says that a similar survey in the United Slates of America would indicate that American industry is devoting to these purposes more than twice our proportion of its industrial output—which, in any case, is many times larger than ours—to research and development. This is a deplorable reflection upon the attitude of mind of British industry.

The other example relates to the Production and Engineering Research Association, which is one of the many associations within industry which is financed partly by industry and partly by grants from the Government. According to the last Report of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research this Association, in the last year or two, has pioneered techniques which have been of great value in the engineering industry—vibration, finished blanking, drilling, and other techniques, and it quotes examples of firms who have saved many thousands of pounds a year by adopting the methods pioneered by the Association's institution at Melton Mowbray. This, again, is an example of what the best companies: are doing.

The B.B.C. programme "Panorama," a few months ago, sent an investigator to Melton Mowbray to see what the Association was doing. A spokesman was asked how many engineering firms were affiliated to the Association, and he was told that there were 520 such firms. The interviewer then asked how many could be affiliated and he was told that 10,000 could be, of whom at least half were what the Association considered potential first-class members—large engineering firms which could derive considerable benefit from what was being done by the Association. During the programme a letter which the Association had received from a firm which had been asked to join was quoted. It said: After nearly thirty years in this field we feel that there are few people who would have the experience and qualities to advise us. We are quite satisfied with our past achievements. That kind of attitude is still far too widespread in British industry, which should be pushing ahead with every possible means, keeping its place in the world, developing new techniques and producing new products to be sold in world markets.

I now pass, briefly, to one or two matters to which the Government should pay attention. First, I want to ask whether Government-financed research is being done upon an adequate scale. It is difficult for a layman to judge some of these matters, not knowing the potential results of any particular branch of research, but one can let the scientists speak for themselves. I wish to quote from the Annual Report of the D.S.I.R., produced in the summer of 1956. It says: During the year there has been brought to our notice from almost every corner of the Department pleas that the resources available for particular purposes are in fact inadequate or likely soon to be inadequate. Our Committees—the Industrial Grants Committee, the Scientific Grants Committee and the Nuclear Physics Committee—have all pleaded for more money for the particular object on which they advise and for priority of claim on Departmental reserves, and most of the Research Boards have in their reports or in meetings with us made similar representations. A year later, in the summer of 1957, a further annual Report from the Department had to express its disappointment again at the financial provisions which were made. It pointed out that: When, in June"— that is, June, 1957— the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in Parliament the details of the decisions reached about economies in Government expenditure, he included a reduction of £150,000 in theDepartment's estimated net expenditure for 1956–57. The Report goes on to say that Although its effect is not to stop the programme of planned expansion and development but only to slow it down, we must deplore it, and we trust that the small amount of lost ground will soon be recovered. Does not that show the wrong attitude of mind on the part of the Government? How can we expect industry to do better unless a lead comes from the centre?

There is one other thing I should like to mention in connection with Government policy. Of the comparatively small total of money now being spent in the country on scientific research and development, 59 per cent, is being spent on research and development for defence purposes. I want to make it quite clear that I am not in any way suggesting that our national defence effort is not important and that it does not require scientific investigation of a high order in this modern age.

I would ask, however, whether the priorities are right, because our solvency as a nation is part of our defence. I would suggest that the priorities on this matter of the allocation not only of funds but of skilled manpower between the defence and the civil research programmes ought to be looked at very carefully at Cabinet level and ought to receive a great deal more attention and be discussed in the House.

I feel that there is a lack of overall strategy in the Government on scientific matters and that in this scientific age there should be a senior Minister who would become, in effect, a Minister of Science. At present, the Lord President of the Council has part-time responsibility for D.S.I.R. and certain other aspects of research. He has other duties, and, speaking as a party politician, the more time he spends going round the country explaining Conservative ideas the better from the point of view of the Labour Party. But from a national point of view he or some other senior Minister ought to have full-time responsibility for scientific policy.

The Advisory Council should, I believe, be strengthened by more representatives from both sides of industry. Its reports ought to have much more attention paid to them, including an annual debate in the House. What is needed is not only a greater priority for science and its use on the part of Government and industry, but an entirely new public opinion on the matter, in which we, as Members of Parliament, could give a lead.

As a trade unionist, I am aware that the Trades Union Congress, in the 1930s, set up its own advisory committee on science and that, since the war, the T.U.C. has passed resolutions calling for greater scientific and engineering research. But I should like to see more attention paid to the matter in trade union branches and to see backward managements bombarded with resolutions from branches, calling upon them to pull up their socks. It might be a good thing if we could reach the stage when a strike was called by workers because the management concerned was not devoting sufficient attention to scientific research.

We need a new attitude of mind on the part of parents when advising their children on careers, and we need to get away from the old out-of-date idea that the man with the rolled umbrella and bowler hat has the most important job in society. It is the man in dungarees, the man whom works at the drawing board and in the laboratory upon whom the future of the country depends. There is need for a climate of opinion in which our priorities are changed and in which scientific matters are given much more attention.

In the few remarks I have been able to make I have abbreviated many points which I should like to have developed. I hope that I have expressed the way I feel about the matter, and I reiterate the hope that time will be found in future for adequate debate in the House on the development of science and its application to industry upon which our national survival depends.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

I beg to second the Motion.

3.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. ErroII)

We have heard a most interesting speech by the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice). Like him, I agree it is a pity that the debate should be so shortly coming to an end because I would, I hope, have been able to make an interesting contribution which, I think, would have answered many of the points he raised.

I could probably have demonstrated that not only are the Government alive to many of the questions he raised, but that they are doing a great deal more than is perhaps generally realised, not only by financial aid, but also by their programme for the development of scientific and technological education and by the very wide supervision of industrial scientific development which is carried out through the instrument of the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research. I—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.