HC Deb 08 July 1966 vol 731 cc927-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. R. W. Brown.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

The subject which I wish to raise—the use of computers in universities—is of interest not only to the universities but to the whole of our national life. If some of my remarks appear to be critical, I hope that they will not be taken as detracting from the sincerity of the in-tensions shown by the Government. I am simply anxious that the great promise of two years or more ago should bear fruit. As with human beings, in the matter of computers universities are the generating point of process which can enrich and fertilise the entire national well-being intellectually and physically. This is being increasingly understood.

It was very well put by the Flowers Working Group in its quite well known Report. In paragraph 25 on page 7 of its introduction it said: Electronic computers are thus not at all the research equipment of a small body of workers in a narrow field of specialisation; they have become essential tools in the work of a in proportion of workers in universities, n research laboratories, and in industry. Equally an understanding of computers and their applications must be given to many undergraduates whose lives and careers will be affected in varying degree as the use of computers in Government, commerce, medicine, industry and research continues to grow. The working party made a point which I am anxious to make, namely, that this is not just a matter of academic interest to universities; it is of fundamental and vital interest to our country.

There is no need for me, in the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science to elaborate on the history of this matter. The working group was set up in 1965 by the Council for Scientific Policy and the University Grants Committee under the chairmanship of Professor Flowers, to whom the country should be indebted for the work which he did. Its term of reference were to investigate the full-scale requirements of universities and research councils in the use of computers. It did its work with great energy and speed. In fact, it reported in July, 1965, which did it great credit.

I know that these things take Governments a long time, but it took the Government five months, I think until December of last year, to accept the Report, and to accept—and this is important to what I have to say—the cost of bringing these proposals into effect. I believe that the total cost is £20 million for the universities, and another £5 million for the research councils.

In terms of accepting financial responsibility this is a great step forward, because until recently the total amount that this country was spending on computers for this purpose was a miserable £500,000 per annum, but I do not think that we should look on the general commitment as being one of great generosity and indulgence. Looked at in perspective, it is so great only because the amount that was spent in the past was so inadequate.

The main proposal of the Flowers Report was that university computer arrangements were to be improved all round, that regional centres were to be established—three, I think, at London, Manchester and Edinburgh—and in this way the whole university effort in computers could he improved enormously.

I think that it is fair to say that by the early changes made in the organisation of science and research by my right hon. Friend's Department and by the Ministry of Technology—and I am glad 10 see my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology here—they showed a proper sense of urgency. This was, of course, during the heady atmosphere of the first hundred days of a Labour Government.

That was the approach then, but, unfortunately—and this is the burden of my complaint this afternoon—the bustle and speed with which the project started seems to have lost a good deal of its momentum, and it seems that things have become very sedate indeed_ There is now no desire to run very fast. There is something of a slow stroll to the promised land of high national productivity and efficiency. The reason for this seems to be a combination of traditional Treasury meanness and the usual departmental hesitation. This has placed a brake on progress, something which should give the country and the Government cause for serious concern.

Perhaps I might give one or two examples to bear out my argument. There has been a regrettable delay in setting up the Computer Board itself. The principle of having a board, as recommended by the Flowers Report, was accepted by the Minister in December of last year, but it is only this week that the establishment of the board has been announced. I am sure that we are all delighted to know that Professor Flowers is to be the chairman. The names of the other members of the board have not been announced, and perhaps we can be given some information about this.

It seems to me that there has been far too great a time lag between the Government accepting the Report and the setting up of the board, because, as those who have read the Report know, the board is the key to the whole exercise. I am not suggesting that this delay in establishing the board has to lead to undue difficulties, because we have had the panel of Professor Sir Willis Jackson. This has been an interim measure, supported by the University Grants Committee. But until the Computer Board is working the important regional decisions which should be taken are being neglected. I shall be glad to have the views of my hon. Friend on that point.

On the question of finance, the Minister made a mistake in accepting from the Treasury that the cost of the Flowers programme should be spread over six and not five years. Probably he had no choice. The Treasury tends to win in these matters. But the urgency with which this matter started out has now largely been dissipated. We must remember that with computers developments are very rapid, and our industry has been making gallant efforts to keep up with the Americans. They have not been entirely successful, because the Americans saw the possibilities of computers many years ago, when we were half asleep, and under their system of Government they gave a great deal of help from public funds to their infant computer industry.

The rate of change in computer development causes much of the difficulty. The second year always passes much more quickly than the first, and in the third and fourth years the acceleration is even greater. At this stage in computer evolution the expenditure of a few extra million of pounds will reap a very rich reward in years to come. Short-term savings here are an absolute folly.

Apart from that, there are, unfortunately, other disquieting signs of excessive financial caution. I understand that only £9 million has been specifically allocated to cover the first three years of the six-year period, starting on 1st April of this year. Also, while the Flowers Working Group envisaged the Computer Board as having an executive authority to make its own financial decisions within the global sums available to it, I understand that this is not likely to be followed in practice; in fact, the Government Department and the Treasury will make; some of the individual decisions. I should like an assurance on that point. It does not seem much good to have a Computer Board to look at the whole national picture and try to co-ordinate effort if the purse strings are to be held by someone else.

This brings me to the question of what is happening in relation to individual projects. The Flowers Report stated that extra costs involved in installing and operating new computers should be met by the U.G.C. by means of "earmarked" grants, but in one or two cases the universities still find themselves having to meet the cost out of their building allocations. I should be glad to have that confirmed, or otherwise. If it is true, it is entirely against the intention of the Flowers Working Group.

My final words will concern the controversial subject of the London Atlas computer, discussed fairly recently in another place. With my proper interest in the City of Bristol—I represent the centre of it—I want to know about the position of that university. I refer again to the Working Group's Report. On Bristol, it said: The working group would like to see a major installation in the university and to see two links established for the benefit of Exeter and the Bristol College of Advanced Technology. To this end an early extension of the Elliott 503 is proposed for 1966 to 1967. My hon. Friend will understand my constituency interest in Bristol University and perhaps could give some information.

The London Atlas computer is an outstanding example of how the spirit of the Flowers recommendations is not being adhered to in practice. London University has been trying for three years, perhaps longer, to get more financial support for the Atlas machine. At present, the support which they have from public funds makes it possible to use the computer for only one-quarter of its time for true research and academic purposes if the thing is done strictly according to the amount of money available.

In fact, more of the machine's time has been used, but this has been done at the university's expense, because it was hoping to get marked help once the Government had made up their mind. I believe that my right hon. Friend's Department has been trying to persuade the Treasury to make funds available so that another quarter of the machine's time could be used for straight academic purposes. But I understand that the negotiations have now broken down. A despairing Answer was given in another place by the Minister of Defence for the Royal Air Force, on 30th June. I hope that that Answer disappointed my hon. Friend as much as it disappointed me.

The net result is that, in the future, the Atlas machine in London University will be used less for research purposes than it was in the last two or three years. The university has been obliged to go round selling time on the machine for commercial purposes. A substantial block has now gone to B.P., which concern helped tremendously in the first place—a rather unusual arrangement—in providing money for a university project. B.P. has now taken up a solid wedge of time, and that means that some of the time that the university was financing at its own expense has had to go. Instead of making progress, research opportunity previously possessed has been lost.

It is extraordinarily senseless and surprising—I say this with some sorrow—that this should happen under a Government which I am proud to support, and who were elected partly on a programme of putting to the forefront science based industry. It is not without use for industry to go into a university to take time from a computer in the short term, but, in the long term, it is very important that the universities should use these machines themselves. This is the research pump priming which the country needs.

I congratulate the Government and the Ministry on the appointment of the Computer Board, but I hope that the Government will not default on the high promise of the Flower's Report by not making enough money available for the Board's work.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

In intervening briefly I should like to delare an academic interest as a member of the Court of London University I thank the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) for raising this matter and I agree generally with what he has said.

We in London University are very concerned that to defray the cost of Atlas by commercial means, which we are doing—I would point this out to the Estimates Committee, which was a little misinformed on some of the matters—there will have to be an actual reduction in the amount of time that it is available for academic purposes.

By October, the computer will be working a seven-day week, and we need, as the hon. Member for Bristol, Central has said, some help if we can get it from the Government. I should like, therefore, to ask whether there is any hope of the Government implementing paragraph 175 of the Report, which specifically requested a release of further time on the London Atlas for academic purposes.

4.21 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Goronwy Roberts)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) has raised an extremely important matter and one would have wished that there was more time to deal with the many important points which he has raised. I am extremely grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) for intervening so briefly and concisely about an extremely important aspect of the question.

It was less than 18 months ago that the Government announced the initiation of the first comprehensive survey ever undertaken of the computer requirements of universities and research councils. This review was undertaken by a distinguished group under the chairmanship of Professor Flowers and reported in reasonably quick time.

On 21st December my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that the Government had given general approval to the Flowers Group programme for new university computers, equipment, buildings and operating costs. The total cost of implementing these proposals for universities for the five years would be £20.5 million at current prices. The reason why the period of five years was stretched over six years was the economic situation and the need to fit the expenditure into the National Plan.

For the first three years expenditure will run at the rate of about £3 million a year which is something like six times as much as the average rate of approved orders over the previous three years. This is, indeed, a substantial step forward, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central was good enough to admit.

One of the most important features of the Flowers programme is that it will provide for an integrated system. One is fascinated by the prospect of computers talking to each other and receiving each other's output for further processing. This is not only a convenience: it is to ensure the most economic use of available funds. There will be the three regional centres in London, Manchester and Edinburgh. These will serve other universities which have their own computers and which will refer their work to the regional centres from time to time. The Edinburgh centre is now being planned.

As to the pace at which all this has been done—of the 28 universities which fit into the Flowers programme, I find that nine have delivery dates for their machines varying from this month to the end of the year. This is not a field in which deliveries are achieved overnight. This is a reasonable, indeed encouraging, rate of progress.

As my right hon. Friend announced last December, it is intended that the work of the Flowers Group should be continued by a Computer Board. We are all extremely pleased, therefore, that Professor Flowers himself has agreed to become the first chairman of this new board. It is hoped to make an announcement about the membership and functions of the board very shortly.

The establishment of a permanent board represents a significant step forward in ensuring that the changing needs of computers for research are met in the most efficient way and that full value for money is obtained from the equipment once it is installed. Pending the setting up of the Computer Board—and this concerns my hon. Friends anxiety lest there should be any delay in proceeding with this vital work—the University Grants Committee made an interim arrangement to have the most urgent cases considered and the orders placed.

Under the chairmanship of Sir Willis Jackson, a small body was established to make arrangements with the various universities for the ordering of particular machines, and this work has proceeded expeditiously. There has been no hold-up in the provision of computers under the Flowers programme pending the setting up of the Computer Board.

As a result of the work of this interim panel, my right hon. Friend announced on 25th May that approval had been given to the upgrading of the KDF 9 computers at the seven universities recommended by the Flowers Group and to configurations and installations for 21 other universities.

These approvals include the computer for the regional centre at Edinburgh, where a joint scheme between the University and the English Electric Company is being planned. The total cost of all these computers is about £4.8 million and the expenditure will be spread over the financial years 1966–67 to 1968–69. Most of these machines have now been ordered.

My hon. Friend referred to the position of the London Atlas, as did the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham. Until the regional centre recommended by the Flowers Report comes into use, there will be some shortfall between stated needs of the colleges and schools of London University and the available capacity, including one-quarter of the Atlas computer, which would justify an interim grant to enable the university to purchase further computer time.

However, I am sorry to say that, while, in principle, we and the University Grants Committee would wish to see additions to the computing power available to London University, it has not so far been possible to provide an additional grant for this purpose in the current year within available resources.

It would not be possible to find money for the London Atlas from the computer programme which my right hon. Friend announced last December since this cover new computers only. But, as I have indicated, the Government recognised the case for making further computer power available to London and if we can find some money for this purpose this year we will give it pretty fair priority.

My hon. Friend also referred to the computer requirements of Bristol University. As he is aware, the Flowers Group included in its recommendations provision for an early extension of the existing Elliot 503 machine at Bristol University and made a tentative estimate of a requirement for a completely new computer system in 1969–70. The computer situation is constantly changing, both as regards the demands of individual institutions and the machines available on the market. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that latter point.

When the University Grants Committees interim panel came to consider Bristol's requirements, it concluded that it would be preferable to aim for replacement of the existing system at a fairly early date. The position has recently been further discussed between representatives of the university and of the University Grants Committee. I understand that it has been agreed that there should be a modest extension to the university's existing machine and that the question of meeting Bristol's expected demand for computer facilities in future years, within the resources likely to be available for university computers, should be considered by the Computer Board as soon as it is set up.

I have no doubt that the new Board will carefully consider the whole sphere and possibly, in particular, the position in London and Bristol.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.