HC Deb 26 March 1968 vol 761 cc1377-97

2.45 a.m.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

At 2.45 in the morning it is only right that one should try to accelerate business. The subject I shall raise is acceleration, not acceleration in a misapplied manner as is apparently occurring in Scotland, but acceleration of nuclear energy. It is sad that this matter has to come up at this late hour. I want to refer to Cmd. Paper 3503, which is the Proposed 300 GeV Accelerator, and this Report is probably one of the most distinguished ever laid before Parliament. I think the Secretary of State for Education and Science would certainly agree. I am grateful that the hon. Lady the Minister of State, is here to reply to this debate.

If I had to sum up what I have to say tonight, I could do it in two words— "Matter matters." We are dealing with the smallest known particles of matter. We are at the very far fringes of knowledge. We are probing into the future. We are now confronted with a situation in which an exercise in which we have been proud to participate through C.E.R.N. is in danger of being severely interrupted unless a far more powerful accelerator than C.E.R.N. yet possesses, or any nation possesses, is provided, and it will take a number of years to build it. Therefore a decision has to be taken.

Seldom have we been better equipped with knowledge of the most expert kind we could possibly wish for than in the evidence in this Report. Their Lordships have already had a very important debate on this matter on 28th February this year in which what I might describe as the Olympians uttered. A number of them suggested that this is not the sort of expenditure we should contemplate at a time like this, yet others still believe that the search for the knowledge of structure of matter is essential and that we should go on probing as we have done. After all, man has been at this game since the fifth century B.C. and the acceleration of it has been increasing as knowledge in this field has been accelerating quite extraordinarily fast.

We have already discovered a third natural force, in addition to gravity and electro-magnetism, in the shape of nuclear force. We may be on the brink of finding yet a fourth. Who knows? They certainly do not. I was interested to see in the fifth paragraph of the Report reference to the work of Lavoisier, Faraday and Rutherford in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and: The discovereies of these workers led nonetheless to the development of major industries around 50 years later. There is a delightful story about Faraday in about 1800. He was visited by a Minister of the Crown and asked what he was up to. He replied, "I do not know, but I strongly suspect that your successors will levy a tax on it before long".

We may well find that the knowledge which we are using today, especially in microbiology and so forth, already owes something to knowledge acquired at C.E.R.N. We must be very careful before we say, or encourage the contributing nations of C.E.R.N. to say, "Let us pause". The Soviet Union will continue this work. So will the United States. The case is made unassailably in the Report that we cannot expect to keep in the field as we ought in the United Kingdom by relying on what the Americans or the Soviet Union are doing. This is undisputed.

But it is clear from the Report also that, while the distinguished scientists reporting to us believe that the exercise ought to go on, they believe that it ought to go on only if we can persuade enough countries to co-operate in it and if there are certain important safeguards. One of the most important safeguards, which everyone wants, is that, if the exercise is to continue, other disciplines must not suffer. There is an important minority Report submitted by Professor Sir Ewart Jones and a colleague. I had the opportunity at Oxford a week or so ago to have a conversation with him on the matter. Sir Ewart Jones is a distinguished chemist, and I can well understand chemists and other scientists feeling that nuclear physics is already getting more than its fair share of public expenditure. At more than 40 per cent. today, it is a very big share.

There are two ways of solving that problem. One would be to reduce the amount devoted to nuclear physics. But there is another way. If there is—as there must be—a limit to Government expenditure, let us switch some of the expenditure on the technology front to the basic science front, thus keeping the share of nuclear physics at roughly the same figure as today but making it a smaller proportion of a larger total.

My purpose in raising this matter tonight is to beg the Government, before they come to a final decision, seriously to reconsider whether, important though the application of technology in industry is, they are already in danger of starving some of the basic research which is essential to our long-term future. In much that we do today we are living on the future indebtedness of our children and grandchildren. I have no doubt that we shall not see the full benefit of the work which I am now discussing, but it will be of the greatest importance to them.

This is man's old thirst for knowledge—Who? Why? When? and Where?— the important questions which the children first ask. These questions will continue to be asked. We may be, as I have said, on the brink of discovering yet a fourth natural force in the world. Ought we now to stop? I believe not. But at least, before we or C.E.R.N. were to decide not to proceed with this project, all the contributing members of C.E.R.N. ought to ask themselves whether they ought to stop. Can we stop? If we in Europe stop, what will be our position if the United States and the Soviet Union carry on? Can we catch up again and get the advantages that we might get?

So much for the general, international scene. There is only one other question I want to raise, namely, where should the new accelerator be if it is decided to proceed with it? The United Kingdom has put forward a site in Norfolk which I know well. I have had the advantage of seeing the proposals put forward by the Government to C.E.R.N. and I am grateful to the Secretary of State's predecessor for the opportunity of doing so. The proposals were revised as late as December 1966. I have seen that a great deal of trouble has been taken to answer the questions that C.E.R.N. asked.

The case is made in the Report for saying that if one becomes the host country for an exercise of this sort it militates to one's advantage economically. On the other hand, there is the special report from the economists in this document in which the economists do not quite agree. But then I have always thought that if all the economists were put together end to end they would never come to a conclusion. I have always felt that as fast as one economist says "this" another says "that". But the scientific advice and the experience of C.E.R.N. shows that the host country gets some advantage.

I want to refer back to a Question I put to the Ministry of Technology on 11th April, 1967, when we were concerned about the number of orders which British firms have obtained from C.E.R.N. It is rather shocking to know that only 4.5 per cent. of C.E.R.N.'s contracts have been placed with British firms, whereas the British contribution to C.E.R.N. is 23 per cent. I strongly suspect that this is a case of reluctance on the part of British firms, which one notices wherever one goes, to do what they call a "one-off" exercise. There is always the suspicion that it will be an expensive exercise for which they will not be fully recouped. It being a Government contract or a quasi-Government contract it may be rescinded in the middle, and they feel that it is not worth a candle.

If the decision of C.E.R.N. is to go ahead with this—and I hope that it will he—-I hope that we have a fair chance of becoming the host country. It will be to our economic advantage and I believe that we will be able to revise the figures which I have quoted and see British firms taking a bigger interest in this matter.

I will end as I started: matter matters very much. Our knowledge of the structure and behaviour of the smallest particles and the enormous need for increased energy through this accelerator to penetrate into these minutest particles is a desirable thing in itself regardless of its immediate economic return. The economic return cannot be foreseen at this stage, but I am sure that Britain, which has shone in this field over the centuries, ought to be playing a part.

Naturally we cannot afford to do it alone. Therefore I hope that Her Majesty's Government will put all the pressure they can on C.E.R.N. to come to an early decision to go ahead, and I hope that it will be sited in the United Kingdom.

3 a.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I am sorry to have to disagree with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke), because generally speaking we think very much alike on scientific subjects. But I at least heartily endorse his statement that we have the advice of the Council for Scientific Policy in a very complete and detailed form, such as we have never had on a major decision affecting the future of science policy in this country.

I only wish that the same willingness to publish could be extended to other parts of Government. I see that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology is present. There is a marked contrast between the White Paper, which gives us all the facts on which to base the decision on the 300 GeV accelerator, and the total re- fusal of the Ministry of Technology to publish any of the data on which the decision to reduce expenditure on Culham was based. The hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) is to speak on that later, and I should have liked very much also to be able to take part in that debate.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely largely on the financial aspects of the proposal, which he did not refer to in great detail. It is worth looking at some of the figures for the expenditure by C.E.R.N., now and in contemplation, on the 28 GeV accelerator already in operation and see how they compare with the estimates made some time ago. In the table of figures on page 13 of the White Paper, we find the cost increased from 174.9 million Swiss francs in 1967 progressively to 226.4 million Swiss francs in 1970, represent-in £21.8 million at the present exchange rate. Those figures do not include the so-called intersecting storage rings which I now understand it is agreed by the parties to C.E.R.N. will come into operation some time during the early 1970s.

The Council for Scientific Policy has some very interesting things to say in commenting on those figures. It points out that … the capital expenditure of the laboratory continued after the machine came into operation, in December, 1959 (partly because of improvements found possible after the initial operation and partly because this item includes capital items of experimental equipments) at a level comparable with that reached during the construction phase. Secondly, the operation and personnel costs continued to rise thereafter. When the machine was first proposed in 1955 the total running cost was estimated at £720,000 a year, whereas the actual figure is about 30 times as large. The increase can he accounted for partly by the experimental equipment added on after the construction of the accelerator had been completed, such as the bubble chambers which had not even been thought of in 1953. Even now, I understand that the European Committee for Future Accelerators is asking for a 200-ton liquid hydrogen chamber which would come into operation in about 1977, the cost of which can be judged from the experience of a pilot model one-tenth the size, which costs £8 million. Then there are the intersecting storage rings I have mentioned on which expenditure is expected to rise to about 80 million Swiss francs annually. I understand that the United Kingdom has already agreed to allow this to go ahead.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Is the hon. Gentleman sure that in giving these figures he is comparing like with like?

Mr. Lubbock

No, I am not entirely comparing like with like. What I imagine that the hon. Gentleman means is that when the project was first put forward in 1953 a machine as large as 28 GeV was not envisaged. It was not as closely defined as that. An increase in costs to about 30 times the original figure is still worthy of mention because we do not know the final design of the 300 GeV project and that it will not be altered in such a way as to make it vastly more expensive. Therefore, this historical experience is relevant and should be considered most carefully when we are looking at the estimated cost of the 300 GeV machine.

Paragraph 15 of the Council's Report says: It is quite possible that new major experimental tools will be invented during the construction period of the 300 GeV machine and for this and other reasons we consider that escalation in the costs of experiments with this machine is the most serious factor. We see that cost estimates show that the British share would be about £37 million, even before the accelerator begins to operate in 1977, and without taking into account the effects of devaluation, and before making any allowance for the type of additional equipment which might be found desirable later.

The Secretary of State, in his introduction to Cmd. 3503, says that the cost in sterling would not rise by the whole amount of devaluation since our share would be reassessed in due course, presumably in accordance with the Gross National Product of the member nations of C.E.R.N. I would like the Minister of State to say what estimate she has made, now that devaluation has been with us for some months of the final total which will replace the £37 million figure as our share of the production costs before the accelerator comes into operation.

The other factor which could make a big difference to the British share is the attitude of other nations like West Germany which has been lukewarm towards the project and may decide not to participate at all. I understand that the West Germans had suggested postponing a decision until it is possible to assess more fully the opportunities provided by the recent agreement between C.E.R.N. and the Soviet Union about collaboration on the 70 GeV Serpukhov machine. If Germany dropped out, our share of the project would have to be increased accordingly, and it would be much more than the 25 per cent. indicated in the Report.

It is perfectly true, as the Council for Scientific Policy says, that the accelerator is not like a new aircraft project, where errors in forward estimating are sometimes 100 per cent. Our experience on Nina and Nimrod, built in this country, shows that escalation—to use a word I do not like, but which is used all through the Report—is something of the order of 25 per cent. in real terms; but there is no room at all for an increase, let alone for an additional facility, such as the intersecting storage rings, for which provision is already made in the 300 GeV Accelerator project, for acquiring additional land over and above what is required for the accelerator itself.

The Member for the Isle of Ely said that he was concerned that this project should not have an effect on the rest of the science budget. If the S.R.C. Vote is allowed to grow by 9 per cent. per annum up to 1973–74, and 8 per cent. thereafter, the project can just be accommodated within the estimates made. The question must arise as to whether these rates of growth can be accommodated almost indefinitely, bearing in mind that the competing claims on science Vote expenditure will have to be accommodated, and the certainty that the figures mean an ever-increasing share of national resources going to the S.R.C. in general and to nuclear physics in particular. If one takes it to the extreme, if Gross National Product grows by 3 per cent. and the S.R.C. Vote by 9 per cent., by the end of the century the whole nation would have to be engaged on research and development, and half the population would have to be nuclear physicists. Obviously, there must be some adjustment in the figures before we get to that stage. If there is any increase in the estimates for the 300 GeV accelerator the position is even worse.

The Council points out that if there were only a 20 per cent. rise in costs it would put up our share by £1.2 million a year, an amount comparable with the whole of the budget devoted by the Council to chemistry at the moment. No wonder the Council only recommends going ahead with certain qualifications. It wants an assurance that the science votes as a whole will go up by 9 per cent. a year for the next ten years. If this did happen, it would bring the amount up to no less than £2,270 million in 1977–78, if my arithmetic is correct.

I doubt whether this kind of undertaking could be expected from any Secretary of State. How can we say that the growth in our national produce and in the amount we are prepared to devote to science over the next ten years will be sufficient to justify guaranteeing the Council an increase in its annual budget of 9 per cent. a year? It is a growth rate that many workers would dearly like to ask their employers for, but it is not one which it is reasonable to expect the Secretary of State to guarantee. He could not guarantee a figure of this magnitude.

Then, the Council wants limitation of the construction and operation costs of the machines and ancillary equipment by prior international agreement. Whatever may be put in writing beforehand, experience shows that once one reaches the point of no return beyond which one has already spent so much money that it is too late to back out it will be the decision to go ahead, even though if one had seen expenditure of this magnitude coming in the first place one would not have made the decision.

As the noble lord, Lord Mitchison, said in another place, it is like the story of the man who knew enough Italian to tell the gondolier to sing but not enough to tell him to stop. It is interesting to note that in the debate in another place nine of the noble Lords taking part, including such eminent scientists as Lord Jackson, Lord Bowden, Lord Ritchie-Calder and Lord Kings Norton, were against the 300 GeV accelerator, that foul or five expressed no opinion at all, the Bishop of Leicester and Lord Caldecote were in favour. The weight of opinion in another place was not in favour of proceeding with the project.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

The hon. Gentleman will also accept that Lord Wynne-Jones made it clear that they were arguing on the wrong point.

Mr. Speaker

When referring to right hon. and hon. Members in another place we can refer only to Ministers making statements of Government policy.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, I always understood that what one must not do was to quote.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman reads his Erskine May—and he is a Chairman—he will see that what Mr. Speaker has said is correct.

Mr. Lubbock

I think I have said enough to show that, judging by the debate in another place, it is clear that the scientific community as a whole may not approve the advice given by the Council for Scientific Policy and that many scientists in other disciplines are desparately anxious about the effect that the 300 GeV accelerator might have on their own budgets. In its second Report, the Council says of science policy: In this sense the rest of science is at a disadvantage, in that it does not yet need facilities on this scale and no way has been found to plan so far ahead on programmes composed of smaller projects. There is the difficulty that we can see fairly clearly how much it would cost us to go ahead with the accelerator but cannot tell how much will be required by all the other disciplines as far ahead as 1981, to which the figures in the Report extend. Nevertheless, the Council foresees a rapid growth in other sectors, notably oceanography, many aspects of biology and the synthesising of complex organic substances. Is it not paradoxical therefore, for the Council to accept a significant increase in the proportion of resources going to nuclear physics during the early years of rapid growth in construction costs of the 300 GeV machine?

The next proviso made by the Council is that the commitment upon operations and equipment costs should be deferred until construction costs are clearly defined. This is an impossibility. According to Nature of 23rd March, the United Kingdom delegates at the 37th meeting of the Council of C.E.R.N. held the week before last: … expressed itself completely satisfied with the answers given on design, cost, management and collaboration and said that there was no reason why these issues should be reopened. The same article then went on to say that countries would have to commit themselves to the project before they knew where it was to be built. Yet C.E.R.N. has advised that the costs could vary by 5 per cent. or more, due to variations in the civil engineering costs, according to the site selected.

This brings me to the question of whether the accelerator should be located in the United Kingdom, if it is to be built. If the site offered at Mundford in the United Kingdom is chosen it would be a mixed blessing. Although our balance of payments would be improved, we would be responsible as host nation for the site and infrastructure costs, including houses, roads, hospitals, schools and 300 megawatts of electrical power and so on, to repeat the words of the Report. None of these costs are included in the figures that I have quoted, and it is not clear how they would be financed if we succeeded in our bid to have the accelerator on United Kingdom soil. Bearing this in mind, it is difficult to see how that particular condition of the Council could be fulfilled.

Its last condition was that any increase in costs during construction should be met by corresponding economies in the nuclear physics budget as a whole, by cutting out something else. This condition indicates a lack of confidence by the Council in the estimates put forward, which is probably only too well founded. Secondly, it would be easy enough for the Secretary of State or the Nuclear Physics Board to agree with the best of intentions that they would allow these cuts, so as to keep the nuclear physics budget within an agreed percentage of the total S.R.C. Votes, and then, when the time comes, to find that there are perfectly good reasons for maintaining the whole of the nuclear physics sector in the style to which it has become accustomed.

When we examine the advantages of this project—and the hon. Gentleman has had little to say on this except that we could not afford to remain out of an advancing area of knowledge with such exciting implications—we find that the arguments in favour of it are extremely flimsy. The Report spoke of the: … extreme scientific interest and importance of the results and the influence on other branches of physics. When one looks at this in practical detail one finds that a very small number of Ph.D. graduates who have been engaged on the 28 GeV accelerator ever go into industry. It is something like three or four a year. We find that the benefit from the experience of the 500 professional staff who work at C.E.R.N. never comes back to the industry again. Only six a year on average go from C.E.R.N. to the whole of European industry. The hon. Member said there had been practically no work for British industry in the construction of ancillary equipment of the GeV accelerator.

As the Report says: Unfortunately, British industries have been remarkably unsuccessful in securing C.E.R.N. contracts. Thus, in 1966, only £0.23 million worth of contracts were secured, although the C.E.R.N. contribution was £3.16 million. The proportion has been falling in recent years. Then there are the intangibles and general political benefits of participating in a European project. These ought to be calculated to appeal to me as a convinced European, if I felt that there would be any political fall-out from going ahead with them. I cannot really say that I do. I do not believe that our entry into Europe or the warmth with which we are received by the Germans, French or Italians is conditional upon our approval of this idea. It is not pretended in the Report that any direct commercial pay-off will be obtained for a long time, indeed if at all. It is remotely possible that the machine will confirm the existence of the hypothetical particles known as quarks, which would interact with one another through forces immensely stronger than those which hold the nucleus of an atom together, and enable us to tap a super-nuclear power at some time in the distant future. But if there is going to be some such development, it is at least a generation away, if it can be accomplished at all.

Lastly, I come to some alternatives. The first is to opt out altogether from this field. I know the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will accuse me of sacrilege when I say this, but I doubt whether the living standards of anybody in this country who is alive today would suffer one iota if we made that decision. Secondly, we could pursue the idea of a world machine as the next stage beyond the 70 GeV machine at Serpukhov and the 200 GeV machine at Weston, Illinois. According to the Nuclear Physics Board of the S.R.C., it was only after international discussions had made it clear that proposals for a possible world machine of 1,000 GeV were premature that the Americans decided to go ahead with their very large national project. Professor Swann's group itself said that if we ever decide to build a larger machine than the 300 GeV, it would have to be done on a much wider base than collaboration within Europe alone. The question is: Why not do it now?

The third possibility is to spend much smaller sums of money on a programme aimed at cheaper accelerators. In a footnote to the Working Group's report, the idea of less orthodox designs based on superconducting magnets is dismissed because the magnet development programme "would involve undue delays". Yet such a programme could have very attractive commercial applications in electricity generation, whereas the technology of conventional accelerators yields practically no commercial fall-out whatsoever.

The fourth suggestion is that we should wait till there has been time to evaluate the potential of collective ion accelerators, which, according to a symposium at Berkeley University in February, hold out the prospect of achieving very high energies at a much lower cost.

Finally, why not wait till we can benefit from the experience of the United States and the Soviet Union of building and operating very large accelerators, benefiting from this experience in the sense that we could construct our own more cheaply? This is what I think the Germans would like Europe to do.

I hope the Government will consider all these points carefully before arriving at a final decision, and that they will not commit the nation at this stage to a huge and uncontrollable project of this nature. If we are going to earn our living in the world, this colossal white elephant can no more be afforded than such status symbols as the TSR 2 which we have recently cut back. When everybody in Britain is having to tighten his belt, now is the time for the Government to set an example.

Mr. Speaker

I would remind the House that we are in the midst of the sixth of 25 debates which will take place during the night, most of which will not be heard by hon. Members now present. Reasonably brief speeches will help.

3.24 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I was very surprised to hear the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) dismiss the project that we are discussing as a colossal white elephant. I suppose it depends how one looks at this, but surely particle physics is one of the central disciplines of the next 10 or 20 years, and, although the hon. Member made an intelligent and well-argued speech in which he stated his point of view, I do not think he can dismiss this as a colossal white elephant.

I wish to take up the hon. Member for Orpington briefly on one or two points. Does he have any evidence—or can the Minister produce any evidence—that the West Germans are thinking of dropping out? I do not think that there is any evidence of this. Again, these projection figures seem to be a little dubious. One could make this sort of statement about any advanced technology.

I find the hon. Member's speech astonishing for one who has frequently spoken to the House about the need to keep aircraft teams on this side of the Atlantic, and the need to keep in being the B.A.C. design team at Walton. One of the issues is the whole future of European science. If we were to opt out—or if we were to postpone, and wait and dilly-dally on this—surely the scientists in this field would truly brain-drain across the Atlantic. To discuss this matter without bringing in the question of the brain drain is rather unrealistic.

I am conscious of your request that we should be extremely short in our speeches, Mr. Speaker, and I will therefore confine myself to an examination of the crucial issue of the Minority Report of Sir Ronald Nyholm and Mr. E. R. H. Jones. They start by saying: We recognise that a good case on purely scientific grounds has been made for proceeding with this project. In a sense this takes care of many of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Orpington. They then go on to say that they are acutely aware that there are other scientific fields which, cultivated and nurtured as nuclear physics has been in recent years, would yield still richer harvests. This assumes that comparison is to be made within the scientific budget and the S.R.C. budget. I do not see why we should bring this kind of comparison into the argument. We can compare all sorts of other matters. Why not compare it with some segment of defence expenditure. I am not going into that argument this evening, but it is just as legitimate to compare a segment of defence expenditure with the cost of the project in terms of policy, or to compare it with possible expenditure on molecular biology or any other favourite field.

Mr. E. R. H. Jones and Sir Ronald Nyholm say that: for the next ten years the Scientific Research Council expenditure on a single branch of physics will continue to consume more than 40 per cent. of the funds which seem likely to be available. Are we quite certain that we are arguing in terms of a fixed area? If we are to go ahead with this, does it necessarily exclude other fields in which the Council is interested—or is this a rather misleading innuendo? I am not saying that it is done on purpose, but is this a misleading innuendo by the authors of the Minority Report? This is a crucial question.

They ask: Can we expect them calmly to accept a slowing down of their activities whilst we go ahead with a huge project which will directly benefit only two or three hundred academic physicists? Surely the advantages of fundamental research of this kind are not limited to the interests of two or three hundred academic physicists? I have been to C.E.R.N. I have spent three days there. Although this in no sense makes me an expert, surely I am entitled to say that innuendos to the fact that it benefits only a small, highly-élite number of nuclear physicists are a little wide of the mark.

I would not end my speech without thanking the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) for raising this important subject, and for praising the Government as he did for the way in which they have at least given us the facts. Whatever else may be said, I think this kind of document is perhaps a model for any future highly technical decision of this kind. I would in particular draw attention to paragraph 8 of the document, which states: Rarely can a project of this kind have been so thoroughly and expertly examined. For this reason and the intrinsic interest of the subject we readily agree with the Scientific Council that the studies should be published. I think that that is all extremely praiseworthy.

Finally, I think that, yes, we should discuss the possibilities of a worked machine. When I was in Russia it certainly seemed that the Russians who were working on this kind of project were extremely interested in any realistic proposition which the West would put forward. To dismiss this kind of project—in terms of finance as being rather friendless and of benefit to only a small number of esoteric physicists seems to me to be wide of the mark. As my hon. Friend knows, I have written to both the Secretary of State for Education and Science and also to the Chancellor on this, and I hope the Government will give it sympathetic consideration.

3.32 a.m.

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

May I also thank the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) for raising this subject, and for the kind words he expressed about the publication of the Report of the C.S.P. and the S.R.C. I am sure my right hon. Friend will take note of the praise of Members of this House, and I trust that we shall continue to give the fullest information we can in a field in which informed debate is crucial.

I shall endeavour to answer the questions raised and also to deal with the present situation with regard to the 300 GeV accelerator project. I think the first point to make is that the estimated cost of the project following devaluation is now set at £175 million for the cost of construction, with recurrent cost estimated at £30 million per annum. So the estimated cost at present of Britain's contribution would be something like £44 million over the period of eight to nine years which the construction period is expected to take.

Having said that, I think one must then qualify it by saying that C.E.R.N. contributions are based on estimates of gross national product. An estimate of Britain's gross national product as affected by devaluation, in general a reduction of one-sixth, will only be taken into account in the post-1967 period in about four or five years' time. So, with the best will in the world, I cannot be very helpful to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) there. However, I would make the point that the effect of devaluation on the gross national product would be balanced out to some extent by any improvement in G.N.P. following devaluation. So it is fair to say that one could perhaps estimate 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. still at the end of the period of construction about which we are speaking.

As the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely said, this would be, as it stands, the largest single project of its kind in the world. There is room, of course, for the American project to grow from the 200 GeV, the present estimated design and energy, to a 400 GeV, which would be its full capacity as at present designed. But, on the immediate basis of that and the Russian project which has been completed, there is no doubt that the European project would be the largest single one by the time at which construction had been completed. Apart from the costs, there will be a fairly heavy manpower requirement of approximately 2,500 in the first instance, rising to a steady level of about 4,000, as far as we know.

No one would question the desirability of the project, all other things being equal, since, as the hon. Member for Isle of Ely said and as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) repeated, there are possibilities in nuclear physics of a kind that one can only begin to see over the distant horizons and which may well produce eventually a source of energy, the level of which we cannot begin to imagine.

Having said that, in a few moments I will deal with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Orpington in respect of the development of other sciences, the competition that this project will be to other sciences, and the effect on the science budgets of trying to take in this project. However, before that, I want briefly to sum up the present state of the negotiations.

On the original timetable, December was to be the Council meeting at which all those countries who wished to participate and who were members of C.E.R.N. would declare their positions. But, as the hon. Member for Isle of Ely will know, by the December meeting only Austria, Belgium and France, of whom France only has a substantial share of the C.E.R.N. budget, had committed themselves to participation. The other countries had not and, in particular, both West Germany and Britain had reserved their positions.

Several matters came up at this point. As the hon. Member for Orpington pointed out, there were suggestions for a further examination of the design of the project. There were suggestions that the sites should be more closely looked into and, if possible, alternative costs of those sites should be estimated. Although it has not been done in detail, the competition is extremely severe and, although the British project is in the running, it is true to say that there are at least seven other sites, and it would be impossible for me to say that there was a strong chance of the British site being chosen. I wish it were otherwise, 'but it is only fair to say that it is very much in the balance and that our site is only one of a number being considered by C.E.R.N.

There is then the question of escalation of costs, to which both the Council for Scientific Policy and the Science Research Council paid a good deal of attention in their advice to the Secretary of State. As the hon. Member for Orpington said, in the case of the Council for Scientific Policy, an attempt was made to link any acceptance of the project to what can only be described as very stringent conditions in respect of possible escalation. The Council recognised that possible escalation in a project of this kind which is moving into the advanced areas of science was almost incalculable and might mean that the ultimate costs of both construction and running were very much higher than the present estimates available to us. Nevertheless, as hon. Members have pointed out, the Council finally advised, on balance rather than indisputably, in favour of this country going ahead with its share of the project. It did so on the basis of the maintenance of a 9 per cent. average rate of increase for 10 years in the science budget.

The nearest that I can get in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian is that, in 1967–68, the increase in the science budget was 11 per cent. In 1968–69, following various economies, it was 7½ per cent. In 1969–70, which is the latest year for which allocations have so far been made, the estimated figure is 7.8 per cent.

Although it is possible that there may be at least a levelling out or even an improvement in the budget, at the moment the 9 per cent. rate is not being maintained, and it is difficult to commit oneself clearly to saying that it will be able to be maintained for 10 years, as a rate of increase in scientific expenditure in absolute terms. It is impossible to say exactly what the figure will be for the S.R.C., for the straightforward reason that the Council for Scientific Policy has not yet indicated its allocations. Within the provisional allocations for 1969–70, which is the last year for which allocations have been made, whereas the overall increase in the science budget is 7.8 per cent., the specific increase in the science budget for the Science Research Council, under which nuclear physics comes, is only 5.6 per cent., so it is well below the 9 per cent. to which the C.S.P. referred. Within this total in the present year nuclear physics amounts to 43 per cent. So the note of reservation of the minority report by the two chemists to the S.R.Cs. recommendations is not far off the mark in suggesting that something of the order of 40 per cent. would be likely to be required for one branch of nuclear physics over the period of ten years about which we are concerned.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Does the hon. Lady realise, in saying that, that the minority report was drawn up on the assumption that the S.R.C. vote was not likely to be increased in the foreseeable future?

Mrs. Williams

I fully accept that. I think that all that we can talk about is the present year and the next year for which allocations have been made. These are the only figures which are absolutely firm and definite. It is within the scope of those figures that I am speaking. I do not think that 40 per cent. is far off the mark on a projection of present figures. That is as far as I wish to go on that point.

Reference has been made to competing areas of science. Unquestionably the 300 GeV project would maintain and possibly increase the European, and more specifically the British, position in high energy nuclear physics. This cannot be denied. But there is a considerable British lead at least in Europe—and some would say internationally—in other spheres of science. Molecular biology is one which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). There are others, such as plasma physics, where it may be said that the British position is very strong.

The difficult question—difficult for the Council to advise upon and difficult for my right hon. Friend to decide—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.

Two other points were raised. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for the Isle of Ely fairly said that the present commercial returns from C.E.R.N. have not been great, and he gave some figures. I should like to mention other figures. In 1966 our contribution to C.E.R.N. came to £3.16 million and our total contracts from C.E.R.N. came to £230,000. This is not the fault entirely of C.E.R.N. It is the case that perhaps because it is in Geneva there is a certain remoteness about industry taking up such contracts.

Mr. Dalyell

Surely the hon. Lady is presenting an argument for European science, as such, having a system of swings and roundabouts, whereby the British may lose on one project and gain on another out of proportion to input. For example, we could have a package deal gaining on the Dragon project at Winfrith what we lose at Geneva.

Mrs. Williams

That would be a fair proposition. But, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) pointed out about six months ago, by and large Britain has not had as large a share of European contracts in the scientific sphere as her contribution would suggest she would have. This is not all the fault of industry but it shows that there is a good deal that British industry might learn about the rate of growth in these areas of scientific endeavour.

Finally, as the hon. Member for Orpington pointed out, there are major questions about whether technological breakthroughs are involved in the 300 GeV project. As matters stand the breakthroughs look as though they will be scientific rather than technological. It has been said, I think by the West Germans, that it is worth considering the possibility of whether there might be more advanced technology if one were to consider, for example, the American and Russian projects in slightly more detail. In other words, some people might think that there was some case for a little delay on this.

There has been a question of whether there might be some exchange of research projects between the Serpukhov accelerator, and later the Weston one, and the project for Intersecting Storage Rings in C.E.R.N. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that this has been put forward specifically. It has our support, and we would like to see forms of co-operation of this kind.

I think that my concluding words to the House must be that no decision has yet been made. There are still a number of outstanding matters to be considered carefully, notably some of the queries which have been raised by other member countries of C.E.R.N. We hope that a decision will be made before long, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind the comments made by hon. Members during this very interesting debate.