HC Deb 24 July 1968 vol 769 cc808-30

3.16 a.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)

In opening this debate on the failure of the Government to take part in the development of the 300 GeV accelerator under the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, I can promise that I will at least be brief. This is not because the subject is unimportant, quite the contrary. It is a matter of very great importance in many directions.

There are two aspects of vital importance. One is the scientific progress, particularly to do with high energy physics, and I freely admit that I am not qualified to speak on that, not only because I have no scientific training, but because I find it difficult to understand the vast implications of these developments. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Fortescue), if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be able to expatiate on this to a greater extent.

The other aspect, which concerns me, is the political aspect. We are not only concerned with the development of nuclear physics, important though this is; we are also concerned with the relationship between this country and the continent of Europe. It is this which must give rise to the very gravest consideration when one comes to assess the correctness, or otherwise, of the Government's decision not to go ahead with this project.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, or C.E.R.N., is one of the most outstanding examples of international co-operation that the continent of Europe has yet produced. It owes nothing, either to the Treaty of Rome or any of the other treaties, nor to bodies like the Council of Europe, or Western European Union. It is self-sufficient and has been so successful that it has probably a unique achievement to its credit. It has created a "brain drain" in reverse.

I do not just mean that it has kept on this side of the Atlantic scientists who would otherwise have been lost to the United States, but it has attracted scientists from the United States, now working at Geneva on the 28 GeV accelerator. Last September, as a member of the Scientific and Technological Committee of the Council of Europe, I had the privilege, with the right hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) of visiting this project. I regret that there are so few non. Members opposite, but it is understandable at this hour. Had the right hon. Member been here, he would have agreed with me that we were much impressed by the work done, and planned there. It was made plain that the work to be done on the 28 GeV would not be sufficient to keep them going and that they had to move into a new sphere —as the Minister will know, the 300 GeV accelerator, which will be the largest of its type in the world.

It is true, as someone pointed out in a letter toThe Times a fortnight ago, that it would not necessarily remain the largest in the world for any length of time. The Americans are developing a 200 GeV which they could double in capacity if they felt like going ahead with it. Nevertheless, it would be a considerable achievement for European science. Scientifically, it is a matter of considerable importance, but much more it is a matter of practical European international co-operation of a kind which those of us who support the Government's policy of approaching as near as they can to Europe believe should be welcomed. Therefore, it is all the more regrettable that the Government have decided not to go ahead with this project.

It is not too much to say that the Government's decision has caused immense dismay throughout the scientific community in this country. One has only to read, not only journals like theNew Scientist, but the correspondence columns ofThe Times to realise that scientists generally regard this as a body blow— and with some reason. But I am more concerned with the effect it has had out- side this country where it has been regarded, not just as a body blow to European co-operation, but as the denial of all the fair words which the Government have been saying for many months about technological co-operation with Europe.

Only 10 days ago I attended in my capacity as a member of W.E.U. a meeting in Bonn, in company with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South-West (Mr. Tom Boardman) and the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. Robert Edwards), at which we were severely criticised, to which we had no defence because we were attacked by Europeans who said, "You say that you want technological co-operation with Europe. Here is the perfect example of a venture in which Europe has something to give and in which Britain has something to give and you will not touch it".

The attack has taken place not only on the Parliamentary front. I will cite only one newspaper cutting, and I apologise to the House for the fact that it is fromLe Monde of 22nd June and therefore is in French. I understand that I would be out of order if I were to read it as it is. I have made a translation of it. I will not vouch for its accuracy, but I think that it is pretty accurate: The refusal of British participation will not fail to be interpreted as proof of the lack of interest that exists on the other side of the Channel in scientific and technological cooperation. By this fact, it contradicts the offer of Mr. Wilson to create a technological community with the Continental countries to resist still further American competition. Le Monde is not a newspaper which is hostile to this country. On the contrary, it has consistently backed our co-operation with and entry to the Common Market and has consistently opposed the French Government's policy in keeping us out. If this newspaper is led to say things like that, the situation is serious indeed.

One can understand why it said it. One can remember what has been said. I remember very well the speech of the Prime Minister at Strasbourg in January last year—that great speech in which he repeated over and over again the phrase "We mean business". One could get exquisite pleasure from quoting the right hon. Gentleman's old speeches; this has been true for some months. I do not want to indulge in that game to any great extent. But his speech went in considerable detail into the advantages which Europe would gain from technological co-operation with Britain. The right hon. Gentleman said: Let us not be defeatist about Europe's technological contribution compared with that of the United States. … what would the American industrial economy look like today without jet aircraft, directly based on a British invention … the electronic revolution based on the British development of radar; indeed, the entire nuclear superstructure which could never have been created except on the basic research of Rutherford and other British scientists". I do not know what Rutherford's comment would be on that statement in view of the Government's decision not to go ahead in the one field in which Rutherford perhaps more than any other man was a pioneer.

The Prime Minister did not leave it there. He came back to the subject at Strasbourg when he thought that possibly we would get into the Common Market. He was carried away in a moment of enthusiasm to say things which he would not have said otherwise. The Prime Minister returned to the theme at the Lord Mayor's banquet on 13th November last. We all remember what he said about the seven great points of technological co-operation. I quoted what he said about the second, because I do not want to misjudge him in any way: We are ready, too, to embark on urgent multi-lateral discussions with our European partners designed to create a new and dynamic European technology. I do not want to prejudge where such consultations might lead, but we are prepared to go as far and as fast as, indeed perhaps further and faster than, any country in Europe in preparing the technological co-operation and integration that can give a new impetus to a European economic union". "Perhaps further and faster" were the words, and in pursuance of that pledge given by the Prime Minister we have come to a stop.

It is true that Britain is in economic difficulties. It was in economic difficulties when the Prime Minister gave that pledge last November. It was even in economic difficulties when he made his speech at Strasbourg in January of last year. He knew the score. In March of this year, in a debate in the early hours of the morning on the Consolidated Fund Bill—that debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke); it is curious that a matter of this importance can be debated apparently only on the Consolidated Fund Bill and that neither Front Bench is prepared to give time to debate subjects of this kind—the hon. Lady mentioned the figure of £44 million as the British contribution over that period of eight to nine years". This is a large sum of money. Will the hon. Lady say tonight that for that amount of money we are prepared to throw away the whole basis of technological co-operation with Europe, because this is what is involved? I have a feeling that it will be something else— something which was foreshadowed, not only in the hon. Lady's speech on 27th March, but which was even foreshadowed in the Prime Minister's speech at the Guildhall. Before this great phrase about going "further and faster" than anybody else, the Prime Minister had put down his project No. 1 of the seven principles in this way: We are prepared now to embark on bilateral projects"— this is not strictly a bilateral project— with any European partner ready to respond to a technological co-operation in any field where such a partnership can yield worthwhile industrial results, and when I refer to bilateral co-operation, I do not have in mind costly Government-financed ventures, whether in space or elsewhere. If I wanted to logic-chop, I could say that this is not a bilateral venture. It is a multilateral venture and, therefore, was not presumably covered by the Prime Minister's words.

I want to explore a little more closely what the Prime Minister meant. In her speech on 27th March the hon. Lady said this: The difficult question … is precisely what the scientific and perhaps technological returns on any given investment in scientific research are likely to be. It may be that a large investment in nuclear physics will prove to have been well made. But there is some feeling in the scientific community that the share that has gone to nuclear physics over the last ten years is rather high as against the requirements of other sciences."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1968; Vol. 761, c. 1393–6.] If Lord Rutherford had adopted that point of view in the early 1930s, we would never have had any development in nuclear physics. If when he started out on this road he had counted only the possible investment returns, nobody could have told him then and he certainly could not have said whether there would be any return. C.E.R.N. says quite frankly that it does not know whether there will be a return.

Apparently it is now the Government's policy—we should try to get this confirmed by the hon. Lady tonight—that the only multilateral projects on either a European or a wider basis that they are now prepared to invest in are those which have a somewhat dubious commercial advantage—Concorde, in which the Government are prepared to invest an incredible amount, the airbus, although it is doubtful whether that will ever get off the ground, and one or two other projects like that. The Government have abandoned a project in a field in which the Government should be concentrating their thoughts on pure fundamental research, one of the rare fields where Government intervention is not only justified but necessary.

This is the lesson of this sorry affair. I regret it deeply not only from a scientific point of view, but as one who, during the 13 years that I have been a Member of this House, has stood for one thing perhaps more than any other, namely, the integration of this country with the continent of Europe. One reason why I supported the Government when they made their application to join the Community last year was because I thought that they were serious when they said that even if we did not get in we would carry on with technological cooperation. I thought that the Prime Minister's speech at Guildhall last Nove-ember was a serious speech intended to set out a serious programmee. What has happened over this project, as well as over E.L.D.O. and a number of other projects, has proved that, for all the fair words, the deeds do not follow. The result is that all the credibility we had in Europe has been completely lost.

I hope that, even at this late hour, it may be possible for the Government to change their mind. If not, I hope that, when a Conservative Government are returned and we get back to sane policies, it may again be possible to resume the technological and scientific co-operation with Europe which has so wantonly been thrown away.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for opening so briefly. I remind the House that this is the third of 28 debates and it is now half past three. Waiting in the wings are 25 other teams of debaters.

3.31 a.m.

Mr. Tim Fortescue (Liverpool, Garston)

As you have so firmly and eloquently reminded us more than once, Mr. Speaker, one feels almost apologetic for raising a subject of this complexity at this hour of the morning, but my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) and I can say, with some justification, that it is not really our fault. The last debate ran rather longer than anybody expected. Apart from that, we have tried to raise this matter on various occasions previously. We have asked for a statement from the Minister and we have asked questions. We have done everything to bring this matter to the Floor of the House. In the end this was the only way we could raise it, even at this late stage when all decisions seem to have been taken.

I will briefly remind the House of the history of the matter. On 20th June this year the British representative at C.E.R.N. made a statement, which came as a bombshell to the assembled scientists of Europe, that the British Government were not, after all, to participate in the proposed 300 GeV nuclear accelerator. Remarkably enough, the same British representative, Professor Flowers, immediately after making that statement in his capacity as chief British delegate to C.E.R.N., made a personal statement as Professor Flowers in which he condemned—

Mr. Speaker

I hesitate to interrupt, but will the hon. Member please speak up?

Mr. Fortescue

I beg your pardon, Mr. Speaker. Professor Flowers made a personal statement in which he contradicted the policy of the Government which he had just stated as chief British delegate.

A week later we had the first opportunity in this House to inquire of the Secretary of State for Education and Science why the British Government had decided to withdraw. We had no satisfaction. We had a repetition of exactly the same statement which had been made in Geneva the week before. In passing, I think it would probably have been more courteous and customary if the statment had first been made in this House and afterwards at C.E.R.N. However, it was done the other way round. We will not emphasise that too much now. As I say we had a repetition of the same statement with a light covering gloss by the Minister, in which he said: The Government has decided, in the light of their other commitments, that expenditure involved in this very large project would not be justified. … At home … facilities for nuclear structure work will continue to be developed as part of the programme of the Science Research Council."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th June, 1968; Vol. 767, c. 107–8.] That same day, at Business time, we asked for a longer statement and for a debate. We were told "Not this week". It has not been any week until we had this opportunity to raise the matter.

In my brief remarks I want to make two points. First, I want to tell the House that a solution to the problem of resources available for this project was proposed to the Government by the Nuclear Physics Board at a meeting on 8th June which, to us on this side of the House, would seem to have been an ideal solution. As far as we know this has been ignored by the Government, and the Nuclear Physics Board has had no reply. I may be wrong in saying that, and I shall be glad to be informed. Secondly, I want to find out the real reason for the Government's decision to withdraw, apart from the rather specious and inadequate reasons that we have been given so far.

My hon. Friend was rash enough to say that I would explain what a 300 GeV accelerator was, and what it was for. My hon. Friend was very much mistaken in his hope, because I do not entirely understand it, and I venture to say that nobody in this House at this moment, or probably at any other time, understands it either, but I have had it explained to me by some distinguished scientists, and I shall try to tell the House roughly what is involved.

The Nuclear Physics Board said in a statement dated 29th June that through high energy physics we are already glimpsing in nature patterns of order of un- suspected grandeur and modes of behaviour that raise questions of importance for the philosophy of our time. That is somewhat high falutin'. It was brought down to earth for me by the distinguished professor of physics at the University of Liverpool, Professor Cassels, who explained to me in my own home one day not long ago that what was happening was that the nuclear physicists were discovering patterns of behaviour in the molecular structure which seemed to repeat themselves but which, without a large accelerator the physicists, were unable to pre-determine. They were confident that once the accelerators got bigger, and they had access to them, this pre-determination would be possible and that the prospects of extracting power from the atom would then be multiplied a thousand-fold.

The history of this proposed accelerator is set out very clearly in Cmnd. 3503, published in January of this year, and I am sure that everyone in the House is familiar with it. The really significant part of the Command Paper is the support given to this project by each of three distinguished scientific bodies to which it was referred. The right hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker), then Secretary of State, set out the facts of what was proposed very clearly and impartially, and then all the bodies to which he turned for advice endorsed the project.

The Council for Scientific Policy said: The Council for Scientific Policy share the view of the Science Research Council on the scientific value of the 300 GeV project and on its importance for European basic science. The Nuclear Physics Board said: There is an outstanding and pressing scientific case for constructing in Europe a 300 GeV proton accelerator. It is now clear that we are entering fundamentally new domains in our understanding of matter". and so it goes on.

The Working Group of the Council of Scientific Policy under Professor Swann said: We are convinced that this project is of great and fundamental scientific importance and its adoption is essential if the United Kingdom is to continue as part of a viable European high energy nuclear physics programme. There was no doubt in the minds of any of the scientific bodies to which this project was referred. There was a minority report by two distinguished scientists on the Working Group, but I understand that they have since changed their minds in view of the new proposals made by the Nuclear Physics Board. That is the background against which we are working, and against which we want to ask the hon. Lady to justify the Government's decision.

The list of scientists on these three bodies reads like a roll of honour of the scientists of this country. Fellows of the Royal Society drop like water from the list. There seem to be more Fellows than anybody imagined existed. They are the Government's official scientific advisers.

They advised the Government that this project should be proceeded with, and it has not. What happened? Since these distinguished scientists considered this matter we have had the devaluation of the £. Undoubtedly this tragic, or necessary, event—whichever way one looks at it—has affected the Government's view as to the feasibility of our participation in this project, and in particular the economies in Government expenditure which have stemmed from devaluation must have played a big part.

The Nuclear Physics Board has not been unconscious of the effect of devaluation on our scientific programme; on 8th June it proposed to the Government a radical rearrangement of expenditure on fundamental nuclear physics to make room for British participation in the 300 GeV accelerator at no additional cost to the Government than the existing programme of nuclear physics would mean. I have some figures which explain what I am trying to say better than I can. The proposal of the Nuclear Physics Board was as follows: expenditure in this financial year—1968–69— on high energy nuclear physics will amount to some £18.6 million, of which £6.2 million will be on the 28 GeV accelerator at C.E.R.N., £7.3 million on Nimrod at Didcot, £3.6 million on Nina at Daresbury, £800,000 on high energy physics grants to universities and £700,000 on nuclear structure physics grants to universities, adding up to £18.6 million.

The Nuclear Physics Board recommends that the expenditure should be rearranged that by 1973–74, when the expenditure, in its view, should be £19.2 million, only £600,000 different above the amount spent this year. Some of the expenditure on the two small accelerators at Didcot and Daresbury, one of 12 GeV and the other of 7 GeV which combined with the high energy physics grant to universities, which this year added up to £11.7 million, should by 1973–74 be reduced to only £6 million, thus spending on the current activities £5.7 million less in 1973–74 than is being spent in 1968–69. That £5.7 million— or £6 million, rounded up—should be our contribution to the new 300 GeV accelerator at C.E.R.N. in 1973–74.

It admitted that these reductions would be painful and damaging to the development of the nuclear physics effort in this country, but it attached so much importance to our participation in the new 300 GeV accelerator that it was prepared to make this sacrifice. This was a remarkable effort by the Board to try to understand the Government's position and to try to persuade the Government that within our existing scientific resources, without spending any more money on high energy physics in five years' time than is being spent now, to participate in the new project.

What happened? I am told that there has been no reaction by the Government to that proposal. A statement was made at C.E.R.N. on 20th June without any mention of what the Board had proposed, and even now the Board has not been told why its proposals were not practicable or acceptable to the Government. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether these proposals were ever considered seriously, and if they were, and were turned down—why?

My hon. Friend has told the House what alarm and dismay was created in British scientific circles by this decision. There are so many quotations that I cannot hope to give them all. I will give only one, fromNature, the authoritative journal on this subject, on 6th July: In the circumstances the abruptness of the decision two weeks ago must obviously be counted a departure from reason not simply a manifestation of incompetence. That is about as scathing a comment on Government action as I have read in any professional journal. If this is the view of the scientists of this country, it is no wonder, as my hon. Friend has said, that all confidence has been lost in the Government's policy for high energy physics.

Why did the Government suddenly decide to withdraw from this project? We can only guess. My guess is that they believe that too much emphasis has been placed on nuclear physics as opposed to the other scientific disciplines. That cannot be valid, because under the proposal of the Nuclear Physics Board almost the same amount would be spent in 1973–74 as in 1968–69—there would be no change in the proportion of resources being spent.

Can it be that the Government believe that scientific expenditure should be confined to activities which give only a short-term benefit to the country? If that is so, it is a lamentable and alarming theory, and here I quote briefly from a report to the President of the United States of America by his Science Advisory Committee, which in its 1960 report to President Eisenhower said: Nothing could be more unwise than an effort to assign priorities or judge results in basic research on a narrow basis of immediate gain. That sentence ought to be put up in the office of the right hon. Gentleman so that when he looks up every morning he can see it written in letters of gold.

Perhaps the Government believe that they should distrust the advice on scientific subjects of their official officers, who advised unanimously that we should continue to participate on this particular project. The Government have ignored their advisers. Can it be that they now believe that these official bodies, established by the Government to advise them on scientific matters, are no longer to be accepted as authoritative? Or perhaps the Government intend to reduce expenditure on scientific matters rather than let it expand as the basis of our future prosperity.

None of those reasons is credible. The real reason for this molecular myopia has not yet been revealed, but we are attempting, it seems, to eat the seed corn of science, since if we do not participate in this new European development, not only will this particular high energy physics programme wither away in the present generation, but the present dwindling intake of young people into science will be reduced still further, quite apart from the brain drain of the best of our scientists from the country.

It is not too late for the Government to change their mind. Comparatively little expenditure is involved in the next three or four years. From the figures available to me I have calculated that between now and 1974 the expenditure of only £2½ million would be involved in the new project. I urge the Government to begin to restore the belief, which has been almost lost, that they have a coherent policy for science, and that they deserve the co-operation of pure scientists in their plans for the universities and industry, by indicating this evening that they will consider their decision or give a coherent reason for it which we have not yet heard.

In 1933, Lord Rutherford, who has been quoted many times in this debate, said of his work on atomic science: Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine. That was 35 years ago. Today in this House we have heard of two new aluminium smelters to be powered entirely by nuclear power, yet Lord Rutherford himself thought at that time that there was no practical application of what he was doing.

I beg the hon. Lady, the Minister of State to think of what will be happening in this country in the year 2,000, which is about the same distance from now as Lord Rutherford was before us; to think that the work she is killing at C.E.R.N. could well be of as much value to our children as Lord Rutherford's work was for us.

3.50 a.m.

Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)

I support the case deployed by my hon. Friends by asking a series of questions.

First, do the Government challenge the scientific merits of the proposed 300 GeV accelerator? As my hon. Friends have said, this has had the support of the Nuclear Physics Board, the Scientific Research Council and the Council for Scientific Policy. It also has the support, I believe, of Sir Solly Zuckerman and his council, although their views are not made public. I remind the hon. Lady of what the Nuclear Physics Board said: For some years now the United Kingdom nuclear physics community has placed the 300 GeV machine firmly at the very forefront of their priorities. This was established in the Flowers Report of 1963 and, more explicitly, in the Wilkinson Report in 1965; we now firmly reiterate this priority and recommend a speedy commitment by the United Kingdom to the project. At each level of advisory council this project has had the support of the scientific advisers to the Government. I therefore ask the hon. Lady whether the Government challenge the scientific case. If they do, they must tell us. They must tell us in detail. We would not expect the hon. Lady to tell us in detail tonight, but I hope that they will publish some form of White Paper setting out in detail why they do not accept the scientific case.

It could be that they accept the case but are frightened of the cost. In the original blue book which we were given earlier this year—we are most grateful to the Department for letting us have it—the Science Research Council said that it was certain that this project could be contained within a general growth rate on the science Votes of 9 per cent. a year. That, I think, was confirmed by the hon. Lady when she spoke in the earlier debate. I can well understand that in present circumstances the Government would find it difficult to commit themselves to that, but I remind the House that two years we had an increase in the science Vote to £11 million in the current year, 7.5 per cent. I understand that for next year the hon. Lady's Department is allocating 7.8 per cent. growth in each case, so 9 per cent. is not an impossible figure.

I still understand the Government's reluctance to commit themselves. Here I come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Fortescue) when he told the House of what have come to be known as the last-ditch proposals. I ask the hon. Lady, why did the Government refuse these proposals of the Nuclear Physics Board and the Science Research Council? Did they take the view that they doubted either the sincerity of the physicists concerned or their ability to deliver the goods?

Do the Government find themselves unable to guarantee even the present level of expenditure on the science Votes, let alone the 9 per cent. which the Science Research Council had proposed in the original blue book? On all the information available to me I think the Government should have accepted the last-ditch proposals which meant that British participation in the 300 GeV accelerator at C.E.R.N. was attainable within the present level of expenditure on physics.

I hope that the hon. Lady realises the scientific consequences of non-participation. Professor Swann said: If we did not enter the project, high energy physics would wither away over the next 15 years with the consequent penalty to the quality of trained manpower reaching into areas wider than that of high energy physics alone. Secondly, once the 300 GeV machine comes into use, our existing machinery at the Rutherford and at Daresbury will cease to be of any real scientific significance. The 300 GeV machine will give increased intensities at the presently available energies by factors of the order of 10,000. That is the sort of thing that we are talking about. Furthermore, access to machines of contemporary power will be denied to British physicists and their students, and Britain will have contracted out of high energy physics.

I remind the Minister of State of the forbidding words of the Nuclear Physics Board: A country not contributing to the most advanced science is outside the main stream of human development with the most serious consequences for its intellectual life and its productive power". There is, too, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) which I should like to repeat. Big science is expensive, and is getting beyond the ability of a country even of our size to carry alone. This lends itself naturally to international cooperation. I ask the Government whether they understand, emotionally as well as intellectually, the importance of basic research as opposed to applied research. Do they understand that applied research can be of high quality and of economic profit only when it is intimately associated with and supported by the relevant basic research?

The advances proposed in this type of project, which is at the heart of basic research programmes, go to the study of the heart of matter and deal with the fourth of the so far discovered field forces: gravity; electro-magnetism; the weak force, which we now know as the nuclear force; and what is being further discovered, the strong force, which is the interaction and behaviour of sub-particles within the nucleus of the atom.

Do the Government realise that this is the basis to modern physics and that high energy physics constitutes the present frontier of our investigation into the general laws which governs the transfer and interaction of energy in all its various forms—as matter, as motion and as radiation? Do the Government understand these things? What is the position of the future of the Advisory Scientific Council if this formidable weight of scientific counsel is ignored by the Government without any responsible reason being given?

On the European side, I ask this question in support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden has said. Is it true that the Government have decided not to support any joint collaborative venture in Europe which does not have an identifiable prospect of commercial pay-off? If so, it means that the Government can never collaborate on any venture in the basic sciences because by very definition, when starting on such projects, no commercial pay-off is identifiable.

The Government have not so far given us a single alternative proposal. To me, this decision represents the devaluation of the future of British physics and the devaluation of British co-operation in European scientific ventures.

3.58 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mrs. Shirley Williams)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Fortescue

The hon. Lady told us why the Government disregarded the advice of the Nuclear Physics Board in the proposal, but the reasons which she gave for that judgment were entirely scientific. She said it was because if we did as the Board suggested there would be no facilities in this country for scientists to study. But that is a scientific matter—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have a second speech as an intervention.

Mrs. Williams

It raised the question whether it would be feasible to pass all the resources across to a single centre. We had to bear in mind that it might be impossible to close the British facilities in a way which would make the resources available.

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