HL Deb 24 May 1909 vol 1 cc1122-33

rose to call attention to the work of the Agricultural Research Association and to ask the President of the Board of Agriculture if he would reconsider his refusal to continue the grant which had been given for many years. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like, in the first place, to tell your Lordships briefly the origin and objects of this association. It was originally established as the Aberdeenshire Agricultural Association in 1875, but in the course of a very few years it undertook other duties and became known under its present name. The subscribers to the association number under a hundred, chiefly in the northern counties, amongst whom are the Lord-Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, the Earl of Aberdeen, and the noble Marquess who leads this side of the House, but who, I am sorry to see, is not in his place to-day. But by far the greater number of those interested in this association are farmers. There are some 200 associates who take the keenest and liveliest interest in the proceedings and in the results obtained. The total subscriptions come to somewhere about £145 annually, and to this has been added a grant from the Board of Agriculture, which began in 1891 and up to 1893 was £150 a year and after that was reduced to £100, but in 1900 it was discontinued altogether. I will, however, allude to that again, as the then Minister reconsidered the matter and renewed the grant, which has been continued since that date until 1906.

I know that the noble Earl who is going to reply to me is deeply interested in all farming operations and is keen for the interests of farmers, and I can assure him that it is for their sake that I am calling attention to this matter to-day. I can imagine that one of the arguments which the noble Earl will use, in reply, is that in the course of the last two or three years colleges have been founded for the purpose of experimenting in agriculture, and that these agricultural colleges now carry out this work. But I can assure your Lordships that these colleges, at all events the college in Aberdeen, do not in any way go into research work. The colleges are purely educational and do no research work but only experimental work. They do not in any way attempt to undertake the duties of this association. The objects of this association are— To obtain reliable and useful information on agricultural subjects by means of scientific investigation and practical experiments and to disseminate information; and to advance and aid in such way as may be deemed expedient the knowledge and the application of agricultural science. This will show your Lordships that the objects of the association are entirely different from those of the agricultural colleges.

I will in a moment point out some of the chief results which have been accomplished by Mr. Jamieson, the director of research and chief experimenter of the association. I do not know him personally, but I believe that in scientific research work he is quite a genius. Mr. Arthur Balfour, speaking the other day at Glasgow, described two kinds of geniuses in the course of his speech, and he was speaking on this very subject of research. One kind he described as follows— Then there was the rarer class of those who seemed born for research, to whom the penetration into the secrets of nature or into the secrets of history was an absorbing and overmastering passion from which they would not be diverted except by the absolute necessity of earning their daily bread. To those men it was all important—not for the sake of the men but for the sake of the community—that they should have a chance of devoting their rare talents to that great work for which God undoubtedly intended them. That, I believe, is a very accurate description of Mr. Jamieson in regard to his genius for this particular kind of work.

Now let me call your Lordships' attention to some of the principal results which have been obtained by this association. One of the leading results was this, "that insoluble mineral phosphate is utilised by plants, and, if sufficiently ground, increases the produce equally as well as soluble phosphate, which is double the price." About 1,000,000 tons of insoluble phosphatic manures are now used in the United Kingdom yearly, of which 50,000 tons are used in the north of Scotland, where there has been a saving of £50,000 annually. Therefore, in respect of the 1,000,000 tons of these manures now used in the United Kingdom yearly there is a saving to farmers of £1,000,000 annually. I think your Lordships will agree that that is a most important result to have secured.

Another result secured—and it was this that led to the grant being dropped in the year 1900—was the discovery that natural (or self) cross-fertilisation takes place in the gramineœ family, which includes the cereals and the grasses. The reason for withdrawing the grant in 1900 was a mistaken report of the Board's expert. What the association claimed in the last-mentioned discovery was that two kinds of oats sown together crossed, and that the crossed seed could next year be sown and yield larger produce. The expert thought the association alluded to the well-known practice of mixing wheat with oats and grass in order to provide green food for cattle, which is a very different thing; and when this was pointed out Mr. Hanbury, who was then the Minister, reconsidered his decision and continued the grant. Another result well known to your Lordships was the "primary cause of finger and toe in turnips and the means for its prevention."

Now I come to the last and latest work to which I am going to allude, and that is the discovery that nitrogen of air is directly absorbed and fixed by plants—largely by many plants, in smaller degree by other plants such as cereals and grasses. This is a subject of the greatest importance, and already a tremendous storm of opposition and inquiry has been raised. But from all I hear there are in this country an increasing number coming round to the views of the association in regard to this point. There is an old proverb to the effect that a prophet is not without honour save in his own country, and I have in my hand a great number of appreciations and criticisms from different parts of the world of the work done by this association. There is an appreciation from America. In France the work of the association has been appreciated to such an extent that there was published in the Annales de la Science A gronomique, under the auspices of the Minister of Agriculture, two of the reports of the association in extenso. The work of the association has been recognised also by Professor Grandeau, Director of Experimental Stations in France; by Professor Franck, of Berlin; and by Professor Roerdan, of Denmark; while in Holland the pamphlets have been translated in the Flemish language, and in Brazil the Government Department of Agriculture have issued publications on the subject. And last, but not least, there is the confirmation of two scientists, professors in Government experimental stations in Hungary, who have tested the investigations of the association and who say— Our researches—we mention it in every place of our essay—are based on your pioneer explorations and our results justify your theory. I will not trouble your Lordships further on this point, but I think that what I have said shows the great appreciation in which the work that has been done by this association is regarded in all parts of the globe.

I confess that I do not know why this grant was refused, but I understand that the only reason given was that the Board did not approve of our investigations. I understand that an interview was had with Earl Carrington, who, I think, recalled that expression and said that the grant would only be given "if the results accorded with the opinion of the expert." The grant is not now given, and, therefore, I presume the results do not accord with the opinion of the expert. I do not know who the expert is or on what he bases his opinion. I have not the slightest doubt that he may be an excellent expert in educational and in experimental agricultural matters, but I am told that he is not recognised as an authority on agricultural research. It is quite clear that the Board have advanced money for many years to aid in this research, and I do not understand how they can now argue that this aid is dependent on the results harmonising with the opinion of the expert when the results can only be obtained after the outlay has been made. The sum is only a small one and the work that has been accomplished is very important. I would, therefore, ask the noble Earl to reconsider his decision. The noble Earl the other day appealed to your Lordships to give him "his little Bill." I would earnestly ask him to give me my little grant.


My Lords, as I have been president of this association since it was started thirty-three years ago, I desire to support my noble friend in the action he has taken and to make an appeal to the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture that in this matter he should reconsider his decision. I say unhesitatingly that I regard the noble Earl's action as a most retrograde step. This association is, I believe I am right in saying, the only research association in the British Isles which devotes itself solely to original investigation, and it appears to be held by the Board of Agriculture that because one of its experiments is disputed therefore it is to be condemned. I do not intend to go through the list of the good work that the association has done, but there is hardly anyone connected with agriculture who does not know the great results obtained by this body.

The business, of course, of a research association is not always to go on hard and fast facts. It pursues its investigations, it publishes results, it invites criticism, and it is by that means that the truth is arrived at. The grants given for agriculture in this country are given to colleges and educational establishments, but where would these institutions be if it had not been for the research of the past? It is through the original investigation that has been conducted that you are able to arrive at the truth and at facts which you can afterwards teach to the rising generation of agriculturists. But here you have the disgracefully small grant of £100 a year to this association stopped because one of the experts of the Board of Agriculture disagrees with the chemist who is directing these research experiments. That was the explanation given, and it has not been withdrawn.

Compare what has been done in this country with what is being done on the Continent. Every other country in Europe is studded with State-aided institutions. In France, Germany, Denmark, and every other country the institutions are supported out of the funds of the State—not only institutions for research and original investigations, but also qualified officials for checking the results that are obtained by these institutions. Then these are tabulated and transmitted to the educational establishments for their benefit. I presume that the policy of the President of the Board of Agriculture is not to stifle all research work in this country. But the Universities have not time for research work. I would call attention to the extraordinary interest that is being taken on the Continent in the latest discovery of this association—namely, the utilisation of nitrogen by plants from the air. Mr. Jamieson was the first person to demonstrate how much nitrogen plants have the power of absorbing from the air. This discovery led to a storm of criticism and comment; but what has been the result of the investigations of one of the greatest institutions in Hungary? The professor at the Royal Hungarian High School of Forestry and also the professor at the Royal Hungarian Central Experimental Station of Forestry wrote— Our researches—we mention it in every place of our essay—are based on your pioneer explorations; our results justify your theory. That is a Report from the Government Department in Hungary addressed to our association confirming and acknowledging the great results attained. I sincerely hope that the noble Earl the President of the Board of Agriculture, who, we know, has the interests of agriculture at heart, will not seek to stifle our work by withholding such a small grant as £100.


My Lords, I regret it, but I am afraid I am unable to meet the wishes of the two noble Lords who have so eloquently pleaded the cause of the institution in which they take so great an interest. I have been a great nuisance to my colleagues in the Government in advocating the cause of agriculture and in asking for money, and I am bound to say that they have been very generous. I have been more successful than I had any reason to anticipate; but, having obtained promises of money, it behoves, me to be extremely careful how that money is spent. I should be blamed, and rightly so, if any expenditure of public money was made to an institution which it was afterwards rather difficult to justify.

The institution referred to is the Agricultural Research Association. The noble Lord has described its inception and the grants that were made to it up to last year, when the grant was discontinued. Looking at the financial statement for the year ended December 31, 1908, I find that, although only one-half of the "direction"—I speak under correction, but I suppose "direction" is Gaelic for "salary"—although only-one-half of the salary, namely, £100, was paid, yet there is a deficit of £260. That, of course, is to me as an agriculturist a matter of great regret, and all the more so as the noble Lord told us that the farmers are deeply interested in this agricultural research work. The noble Lord also stated that the association was entirely different in its aims from the agricultural colleges because the latter did not undertake research work. I am unable to follow the noble Lord there. The agricultural colleges do undertake research, and with very beneficial results.

That this association did very good work in days gone by I entirely admit, and it was supported and received a grant in consequence; but at the present moment I am afraid I am unable to recommend the continuance of the grant for the reason which I shall state to your Lordships. I do not know what his official title is, but the chemist of this association, as has been said, has theories. I had an interview on July 4, 1907, with Mr. Jamieson, who has been rightly described as a genius. He was kind enough to spend an hour and a half with me, and he explained at very considerable length the absorption of nitrogen by the hairs of plants. Though a number of qualitative tests show that albumen is present in the hairs of certain plants, there is no proof whatever that the nitrogen comes from the air outside. On the contrary, it comes in the ordinary way through the root of the plant.

The noble Lord who called attention to this matter to-day said that an increasing number of people were coming round to the view of this association, and he quoted the report of two Hungarians confirming and acknowledging what had been done. I have here the Report of these Hungarians. It is perfectly true that in their Report these two scientific gentlemen say— Our investigations and studies support, for the most part, the opinions of Mr. Jamieson in according to these hairs of specialised form a physiological significance of great importance. They add— We are persuaded that Jamieson's theory will prevail, for evidently it is these hairs and club-hairs that produce the albumen of plants, and it is these organs that enable the plants to profit from the immense quantity of nitrogen in the air. It is perfectly true that they believe in it themselves, but they submit no proof whatever that this theory is correct.

Naturally I had to take the opinion of people who know a great deal more about these scientific matters than I do myself. Mr. Baillie Balfour, Professor of Botany at Edinburgh, said, in a lecture on March 16 two years ago, that— Not a semblance of proof of the fixation of nitrogen was advanced by Mr. Jamieson. He went on to say— Mr. Jamieson's discovery was not a discovery at all. What is the opinion of Professor Middleton, who was professor of Agriculture at Cambridge and whose valuable services I have been fortunate enough to secure at the Board of Agriculture? He advised that— Mr. Jamieson's work was of an unsatisfactory character. Then I come to the opinion of Mr. A. D. Hall, Professor of Botany at Rothamsted. Mr. Hall on March 31, 1906, said— The speculations of Mr. Jamieson on the subject of the fixation of nitrogen are not accepted by any scientific man with whom I am acquainted; and Mr. Trail, Professor of Botany at Aberdeen, on February 27, 1907, after a most careful and unbiased examination of the evidence, declared that— Mr. Jamieson has failed to prove his case, and he has so completely misunderstood the structures examined by him as to make impossible a true interpretation of their functions. The action of the Board, or rather my action, for I take the whole blame of it if there is any blame, has been described by Mr. Jamieson in a speech delivered to his supporters as "ridiculous." But I will ask the noble Lord one question. In the face of the decided opinions of these learned and scientific gentlemen, would he himself have increased the grant? I quite acknowledge the good work that has been done in the past, and I go further and say that should Mr. Jamieson be fortunate enough to make any fresh discoveries or be able to produce any further evidence as to the value of his agricultural work, it will, of course, be most carefully considered; but on the evidence at present available I do honestly think, in the interests of my Department, that it is impossible to sanction a grant from the public funds at my disposal. I very much regret that I am, therefore, unable to meet the wishes of the noble Lord.


My Lords, I confess that most of us have listened to the noble Earl's answer with feelings of considerable surprise. Here is an institution engaged upon very interesting agricultural research work—a subject in which in this country we are vitally interested. The association apparently enjoys a reputation not confined to the United Kingdom but world wide, and testimonials to their good work have been received from many European countries and some from America. In the face of a position of that kind we find that the Government have suddenly deprived this association of its grant. The noble Earl took to himself great credit in his efforts in the direction of economy. What economy has he effected by the withdrawal of this grant? He has saved the taxpayers of this country the stupendous sum of £100 a year! And the noble Earl effects an economy of £100 at a time when one of his colleagues, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is taking untold sums for a development grant to make experiments of this kind. Could anything be more amazing than that an association which apparently does first-rate work should be deprived of this paltry sum by a Government who believe in a development grant?

Let us look for a moment at the noble Earl's reasons. It appears that his reasons turn entirely upon the qualifications of the particular scientific gentleman who advises this association. He is admitted to be a genius. The noble Earl himself says he is a genius. That is something in these days of mediocrity. Well, what has he done wrong that the association should be deprived of this £100? Apparently all his theories have not been proved. Are we never to give money for investigation to associations unless they can immediately prove all their theories? That is verdict first and trial afterwards. I confess I never heard a reason so ill-founded as that for depriving an association of a grant. But there is this one great subject of dispute—a question that I am afraid I am not qualified to deal with—as to the fixation of nitrogen. That is not the only theory of the association. The other great discoveries made by the association are admitted. Yet because in one particular case the theory has not been proved their work in every other direction is, so far as the Government are concerned, to be put an end to. Lastly, the case of the association does not and cannot rest on the reputation of one gentleman. The noble Earl seems to me to have failed lamentably to prove anything against the association itself, and in these days when agricultural science is so important I would respectfully ask the Government—this economical Government—to be considerate and see whether they cannot find it in their heart to provide this £100.


I should like to ask whether it is not the fact that the expert opinions quoted by the noble Earl were given some four years ago, and that during the last three years, while the theory has been in course of being perfected, not one single word has been said by any of these experts against it?


My Lords, this seems to me to be purely Departmental interference with scientific investigations, which I should have thought the noble Earl would have been the last person to have encouraged. The Board of Agriculture is surely, under his rule, interested in developing investigations into every branch of science connected with agriculture, and agriculturists had reason to hope that, whatever might be the economic opinion of the new development grant which was to absorb the old Sinking Fund, at any rate some of it might be devoted to purposes that would assist the cultivators of the land. But the noble Earl at this juncture, when his pockets are going to be filled with the stream from the old Sinking Fund even refuses money to an existing institution which has been in receipt of a Government grant even under the old system when those grants were less liberally given. I hope the noble Earl will reconsider the position and see whether he cannot give this paltry sum out of the large funds at his disposal.


What I could do if I had more money is a different question. I have only a certain amount at the present time, and that ought to be expended to the best possible public advantage. There are other societies and colleges that have a prior claim as doing more practical work.


I would like to ask whether this is the sort of purpose to which the money to be derived from the old Sinking Fund might be devoted?


This is not the only society engaged in research work. All the agricultural colleges are pursuing exactly the same work, and, in my humble opinion, doing it a peat deal better.


That was not the question I asked. Is the noble Earl in a position to say if work of this kind will come within the purposes of the development grant? If so, he might be in a position in another year to comply with the request of my noble friend for a grant for this particular institution.


We will answer the noble Viscount's question when we have got the new fund.


My Lords, I cannot refrain from expressing my disappointment at the answer I have received from the noble Earl. No notice was given that the grant was to be withdrawn, and the result of its withdrawal has been to land the association heavily in debt. As this debt will have to be met, the future work of the association will be seriously crippled. I earnestly hope the noble Earl will, out of kindness of heart, reconsider his decision in this matter.

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