HC Deb 07 February 1962 vol 653 cc573-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. M. Hamilton.]

10.42 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I am glad to have the opportunity of pursuing further the unfortunate decision of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research not to provide funds for Glasgow University to proceed with the installation of its new linear accelerator. The best way in which I can summarise this matter is by quoting from Sir Hector Hetherington's valedictory letter to the graduates of Glasgow University which was published last September. This is what he said: Some four years ago the Natural Philosophy Department realised that the useful life of its synchrotron would end about 1965, and that in any case its Research School had grown to a point at which even the synchrotron could not offer sufficient experimental facilities. With the knowledge of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, they embarked with Messrs. Vickers upon the design of a new linear accelerator which would enable them to undertake work in an area of nuclear physics hitherto little explored anywhere and not at all in Great Britain. Four years' hard work have gone into the design: and all the proper requirements have been satisfied. Now, however, we hear that the Department, having preferred to spend its allocation on a less novel machine for Oxford, cannot until 1965 at the earliest finance this machine in Glasgow. The result is that when Glasgow (and Great Britain) might have been well ahead in this scientific enterprise, half a dozen other countries will have a handsome start, some of them with the aid of the Glasgow work. Before going into the details, I should like to say that I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary for Science, in replying to the debate, will not bring in the fact that recently we have had approved the installation of a nuclear reactor at East Kilbride for the use of Scottish Universities and the Royal College of Science and Technology. We are very glad to get this, and there is no doubt that it will be exceedingly valuable for the purposes of radiation chemistry, medical science and, to some extent, for nuclear engineers. But it has nothing whatever to do with what we are discussing. It is quite a distinct matter and, therefore, I hope that we shall not have it introduced. We are discussing something different, and that is the subject of nuclear physics machines.

As I understand, the present position is this. There are four proton accelerators in this country of the Van de Graaff type. There is one at Manchester, one at Liverpool, one at Harwell and one at Aldermaston—all comparatively small ones of 12 million electron volts. The new one that was awarded to Oxford, when the decision was made to refuse the machine to Glasgow, is a larger Van de Graaff machine, a very useful and valuable machine, but not one that introduced anything very novel. That is why Sir Hector Hetherington said that this machine was less novel than the machine for Glasgow.

In addition to that, we have one electron accelerator, and I understand that this is not a very good one. It is at Harwell and cost something like £500,000. In this sphere Great Britain is exceedingly badly off. The machine proposed to be installed by Glasgow was a 100 million electron volt machine, which was completely novel in many ways, and its purpose was to be able to experiment in an entirely new field of nuclear physics. I think most scientists have agreed, and even D.S.I.R. agreed, that it was a first-class machine. I mention this because it replies to the statement by the Parliamentary Secretary for Science that, in the opinion of his noble Friend's scientific advisers on the Research Council, the Glasgow proposal, though good, was not rated as highly as the proposal which came from Oxford at the same time.

There was nothing very new or novel about the Oxford machine. It was the larger version of the machine already existing. But the machine for Glasgow was novel and new. Since it was proposed by Glasgow University, it has been copied in Canada, Mainz in Germany, and in the United States Bureau of Standards. I understand that other electron accelerators of the same type are under consideration in the United States of America. We could have led in this field, instead of which these other countries now lead.

There are, of course, to be two very much larger machines, one the Nimrod machine, which is also to be at Harwell, and another one, the whereabouts of which we do not know at present. It seems to me to be clear from this that there is an undue concentration of these machines in the South, and I should have thought that the nuclear programme ought to be balanced. The programme in relation to university machines of this type should be balanced in the same way that national institute machines should fit into a balanced programme with the university machines and the international machine at Geneva. As to the availability and use of machines at universities, this seems to be unfair from a national point of view. We in Scotland have had to complain before about what we thought was the unfair distribution of research, but I understand that outside Scotland there is also great concern about this concentration in the South. From a national point of view, it does not seem to have been a good decision.

From what I have said with regard to the scientific value of the Glasgow machine, the decision not to provide funds to proceed with it would appear not to be a good one, because where we should have led we are now going to lag behind. So, in addition to not having been a good decision nationally, it seems to have been a bad decision scientifically.

It is a rather disastrous decision for Glasgow University and its physics department. Glasgow research students preparing their experiments already have to wait a considerable time to obtain use of the Glasgow machine, and the useful life of that machine will and in a year or two. The students will then have to take their experiments down to the National Physics Laboratory at Harwell 400 miles away. Oxford, which is to get a new machine, is about 10 miles from Harwell. Apparently, it was regarded as more inconvenient for research students at Oxford to travel 10 miles to the National Physics Laboratory than it will be for Glasgow students to travel 400 miles to the Laboratory. I cannot understand that.

What is the effect likely to be on Glasgow University? First, it seems to me to be fairly clear that isolated re search departments like that at Glasgow should have their own domestic resources if they are to go on working in nuclear physics, if they are to go on feeding research institutes and industry with top scientists. The men produced in these departments are the top scientists, and whatever the position may be regarding other scientists, we are desperately short of these men.

What is likely to happen at Glasgow? Are students likely to go to Glasgow when they know that they have not got the equipment there and that if they want to carry out experimental and research work they will have to travel periodically to Harwell to the National Physics Laboratory to get it done? It must inevitably mean a decline in the number of students entering the department and also a decline in the quality of the students turned out from Glasgow University, and that is disastrous from the point of view of Glasgow University and from the point of view of the country.

The Minister for Science some time ago expressed his very great concern that universities should extend their research work. How do we square this with what has happened at Glasgow? Here is a first-class team of men who put this country on the map in this field, who produced an idea which led the world, an idea which has since been copied by other countries, an idea which would have enabled research to be carried out in spheres at present not covered. Yet the reward to those men for having undertaken this work at Glasgow University is to have had a considerable amount of frustration ever since the proposal was made and in the end to be told that we cannot proceed with it.

How does the Minister for Science expect to encourage research in universities if this type of treatment is to be meted out to those who show initiative, enterprise, ability, knowledge and all the other qualities that go to make up the scientist? It is not good enough.

I could have said a lot more but I think I have given the facts. I simply say in conclusion that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look at this matter and the whole programme again. It is not good enough to say, as he did in reply to Questions, that he must accept the views of the scientists on these matters. Of course we must pay attention to them, but the Minister has an overall responsibility to ensure that we obtain the best results from what is being done. I must say that this decision has caused very considerable concern among those who are connected with this matter in Scotland. There is a feeling—to put it at its lowest—that this decision was not made on scientific grounds but for quite other reasons.

The Minister for Science has a responsibility to see that money spent on research—money which is provided by the taxpayers—is used to the best advantage of the nation. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, therefore, in view of the criticisms I have made, to look at this matter again and see whether he cannot give to Glasgow University what it thoroughly deserves—the earliest possible permission to carry on with the installation of this machine.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has done a first-class job in bringing this case before the House. I do not want to add very much to what he has said, except that the Parliamentary Secretary must be aware by now of the grave disappointment created in Scotland by the decision not to allow Glasgow University to go ahead with this work. Some months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) and others of my colleagues raised this matter with the Minister for Science. He told us that what he would like to see was a considerable improvement in research in Scotland in this field.

It is not very encouraging to find that this university, which has a first-class record in this regard, should then have had to face a decision of this kind. We are not going to have this research work carried on in Scotland if we are to be denied the right to have the very latest instruments. Not only has the Parliamentary Secretary to answer that question, but he must take the matter a little further and tell us what the Government's policy is on research. Is it to be concentrated in the South, or is the rest of the country to have a share? Scot land will want to know what part the Minister expects us to play.

Our record in Scotland is one that can only be described as first-class—I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will take no exception to that statement. But if we are to go ahead, we have to be equipped no less than the establishments he has been supporting in the South. We shall expect the hon. Gentleman to tell us what part he and his Department expect Scotland to play in this field in the future.

10.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary for Science (Mr. Denzil Freeth)

The decision by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which has the full support of my noble Friend, not to make a grant to Professor Dee in response to his application for a 100 MeV linear accelerator costing approximately £600,000 has been the subject of some public comment. It is, therefore, on balance a good thing that I now have, through the courtesy of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), who asked a question on this subject on 5th December last, the opportunity to put the whole matter in perspective.

I should first like to clear the decks, so to speak, of one or two side issues which have crept into the controversy. As the House will be aware, the D.S.I.R. gives research grants to universities in response to applications made by scientists for specific projects. In the last four years the Department's expenditure in this field has increased some five-fold, and during the current financial year is expected to reach about £2½ million. This is a very steep rate of increase, and certainly disproves the allegation that the Government are not wholeheartedly behind a policy of encouraging scientific research in the universities.

It is sometimes suggested—indeed, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) hinted at it—that the D.S.I.R.'s support for research in universities is heavily weighted in favour of England as against Scotland. I have been fully into these criticisms. During the last two years the proportion of applications for research grants under £100,000, received from both Scottish scientists on the one hand and English and Welsh scientists on the other, which were approved by the D.S.I.R., was virtually the same in each case, the figure being in the region of 80 per cent.

Hon. Members will realise that grants can be made only to those who apply for them. It is no fault of the research councils that all of them have found that the proportion of applications for grants coming from Scottish Universities is low in relation to that from England and Wales. This one regrets, but the remedy does not lie in the hands of the Government.

I mentioned the figure of £100,000 because this is at the present time the dividing line between minor and major grants. It was, of course, for a major grant that Professor Dee applied, and in considering such grants special considerations must also arise in view of their cost and importance, in addition to those which obtain with minor grants of under that figure.

These grants are for major items of research equipment such as it would be impossible to provide for every university in the two kingdoms. It is important, therefore, to ensure that, in view of their high cost and the fact that relatively few of them can be awarded, they should be selected primarily on grounds of scientific quality and should offer the greatest possible scope for the acquisition of fresh scientific knowledge.

At the present time D.S.I.R. is supporting five new major projects. All of them are in the field of nuclear physics, that is, the same field in which Professor Dee's project falls. At the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Oxford three particle accelerators are being built for which the D.S.I.R. is giving total grants of over £1.5 million. In addition, two grants have been given for a bubble chamber and associated equipment far co-operative ventures by seven universities of which Glasgow is one, the grants being administered on their behalf by the Imperial College in London.

The total of these two grants is just under £800,000. Further, the D.S.I.R. has recently announced support for three major projects on which construction will start in the near future. Two of these are in the field of radio-astronomy and total some £750,000. In addition, a low-energy nuclear reactor—to which the hon. Gentleman referred—for both research and teaching, to be shared jointly by the four Scottish universities and the Royal College of Science and Technology at Glasgow, will cost a further £450,000.

In deciding which major projects to support, the D.S.I.R. has to consider, first and foremost, the scientific merits of the project and the likely scientific benefits which will be obtained from it; and, secondly, the balance of its support in those fields of science for which it, by Act of Parliament, under my noble Friend, is financially responsible.

Of course, when other types of scientific projects are under consideration, such as might substantially affect the employment situation in the area where they are placed or might have a direct impact on the industrial situation, other than purely scientific considerations must be taken into account. But for the major research project it is the scientific considerations which are paramount.

Let me relate the history of Professor Dee's application. First, I would make it quite clear that it was an application for a machine for pure scientific research with no direct industrial application. Nor was it an application which could be regarded as teaching equipment in any generally understood sense of the term. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Oh, yes. It was an application formally made to the D.S.I.R.. in early 1960, and during the months that followed it was considered on no less than three occasions by the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee of the Research Grants Committee of the Council. This subcommittee is composed of leading scientists in the discipline of nuclear physics. These eminent persons considered very thoroughly the scientific merits of Professor Dee's proposals, and whether the results which were likely to be forthcoming and the possibility of a new field of knowledge being opened justified the substantial expense which the project would entail.

By the end of 1960 the Nuclear Physics Sub-Committee agreed to recommend to the Research Grants Committee that Professor Dee's project should be supported in principle. But the Research Grants Committee had not only to consider Professor Dee's proposal, and other proposals in the realm of nuclear physics, but also proposals from the other fields of scientific research in the light of the balance of scientific effort in this country, and, of course, in relation to the funds that could be made available by the Department for such investment in the light of the needs for national economy.

The House will recall that a moment or two ago I drew attention to the fact that the D.S.I.R. was already supporting five major projects in the nuclear physics field. With all these facts in mind, the Research Grants Committee recommended early last year that of further grants first priority should go to radio astronomy. During the summer, it agreed to support five major projects, of which three have recently been authorised, two in radio astronomy and one low energy nuclear reactor. The other two have, unfortunately, had to be deferred for the time being. These are the research reactors for the London and Midland Universities.

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)


Mr. Freeth

I have very little time and much to say.

Mr. Lawson


Mr. Freeth

I cannot give way. I am going to finish this section of my speech.

Mr. Lawson

That is not the answer.

Mr. Freeth

If the hon. Member will sit down, he may find the answer in the remaining minutes that I have to speak.

On 5th December, I was assailed by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) for continually repeating, as he put it, the phrase, "My noble Friend must accept the opinion of the experts". That comment was echoed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East tonight. I am, however, quite certain that I was right to emphasise and to repeat such a phrase. Scientific decisions can be taken only by scientists. Neither my noble Friend nor I is qualified to assess the scientific merits of Professor Dee's project. These must be decided by nuclear physicists—and they were. It would be quite wrong for my noble Friend to override his scientific advisers on the scientific priorities of different applications. It would also be contrary to the spirit of the D.S.I.R. Act.

But my noble Friend has, of course, a duty to assure himself that his scientific advisers consider every aspect of the project and give their advice in all good faith. That they have done so in this case he is completely satisfied. The fact, however, remains that the scientists on the Research Grants Committee, although accepting that Professor Dee's project was one worthy of support, did not feel able in the scientific interests of the nation to place Professor Dee's project among the five to which last July they announced support. My noble Friend can find no reason for reversing this decision, and, if it were reversed, it would have to be done on grounds quite other than those which, as Minister for Science, he is entitled to take into account.

On 5th December, it was suggested by the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) that there was a choice between Glasgow University and Oxford University and that the D.S.I.R. chose Oxford rather than Glasgow. This is, of course, as I said then, quite inaccurate. Professor Wilkinson's project for a 20 MeV Tandem Van de Graaff accelerator was considered by 'the D.S.I.R. as a project on its own. Professor Wilkinson's application was received before Professor Dee's application for a grant for a machine of a rather different character, and approval in principle was given to it by the Research Council in January, 1960, whereas Professor Dee's formal application was not made until a month later. At that time it was uncertain whether D.S.I.R.'s planned expenditure would be able to finance the Oxford project and approval was delayed on this account. It was, of course, also essential fully to consider where the equipment was to be sited and what facilities should be granted for other research workers to use so expensive an item of equipment. This was why the grant to Professor Wilkinson was not announced until May, 1961.

To some extent, therefore, consideration of these two projects has run in parallel, but it is important to emphasise that both the Nuclear Physics Sub-committee and the Research Grants Committee of the D.S.I.R. were never in any doubt whatsoever that on scientific merit Professor Wilkinson's project was to be preferred. They differed from Sir Hector Hetherington on that account. They never had any doubts about proceeding with Professor Wilkinson's research project, or any inclinations to reject it at a late stage in order to substitute that put forward by Professor Dee.

The future of the Nuclear Physics School at Glasgow, it has been suggested tonight, has been endangered by Professor Dee's application having been refused. However, I draw attention to the 300-MeV electron synchrotron to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred and which, I am advised, still has a useful life for several years. In addition, Glasgow will share very fully in the facilities which will be afforded by the grants given to the seven universities, which I have already mentioned, for a hydrogen bubble chamber and for film analysis equipment.

Professor Dee has been informed that it is always open to him to resubmit his application, either for this machine or for one similar, in future years, although it is most unlikely that the D.S.I.R. will be in a position to support before the financial year 1964–65, any further major projects other than those already announced but deferred. If he does resubmit his proposal, it will be reconsidered in the light of circumstances then existing, and on its scientific merits, in conjunction with any new proposals put to the Research Council at that date.

In answer to the hon. Member for Leith, I would say that my noble Friend has naturally always pressed scientific bodies to bear in mind Scotland's needs, as do the Government in their policy for the distribution of industry, but major grants for research projects have to be awarded solely on scientific grounds. I am convinced that the decision in this case, disappointing as it must be to Professor Dee, is one that has been taken solely on scientific grounds and on the best possible advice. There is a limited sum available to the D.S.I.R., and it must allocate that sum on sound scientific principles and in the interest of the balance of the nation's scientific effort.

Having looked into this matter very thoroughly, and having had long discussions with my noble Friend, I myself believe that we have reached a decision which, on scientific advice, is right. I also believe that it would be wrong for us to attempt to alter this decision on grounds other than scientific ones. In scientific matters, my noble Friend has to take the advice of his scientific advisers. I think that it would be very wrong of him to attempt to override them——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.