HL Deb 18 January 1940 vol 115 cc373-88

LORD STRABOLGI rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether there is a central organisation or clearing house for the examination and test of discoveries, new inventions and improvements of material, which may be of use for the successful prosecution of the present war; what method of co-ordination between the scientific departments of the three fighting Services and of the Ministry of Supply exists; and what are the means of liaison between His Majesty's Government and the Government of the French Republic for the mutual exchange of scientific knowledge of importance to their joint war efforts; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not think the Motion that I have on the Paper need detain your Lordships for a long time. It is really exploratory, and I do not bring it forward in any hostile or critical spirit against His Majesty's Government. For all I know there may be perfect co-ordination of effort existing between the various bodies of scientists engaged directly or indirectly in helping to win the war. Indeed, since I put this Motion on the Paper but not, of course, as a result of it, I see that the Minister of Supply has appointed a body under the title of the Advisory Council on Scientific Research and Technical Development, and that one of its tasks will be to see that the tremendous amount of research into military problems is kept up to date. One newspaper, the Daily Herald—and therefore I can say reliably—states that another will be to see that the right men are not wasted on the wrong jobs. I hope the Prime Minister noted that term of reference. The Council will also suggest new ideas for scientific warfare.

All this sounds admirable. I was still further encouraged when I read that my noble friend Lord Cadman was to be Chairman, for he has been the leader for a long time of the team of scientists who have done great service for the country in petroleum research. Among the members, I see, are Dr. Appleton, Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, whose name carries weight in any learned society, Professor Bragg, Professor Cockcroft, Dr. Guy, chief mechanical engineer, of Metropolitan Vickers, Professor Hill, Secretary of the Royal Society, Sir Frank Smith, Director of Research of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and Sir Henry Tizard, Rector of the Imperial College of Science. As your Lordships will be aware, that is about the strongest team of scientists which could be gathered together in this country and probably any other country. I would be very glad if my noble and gallant friend the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, Lord Chatfield, who I understand is to reply, will say whether this Science Cabinet, if I may so describe it, is going to deal only with the Army through the Ministry of Supply, or whether it will also help in solving the scientific problems of the Air Ministry and the Admiralty. I ask that because the Admiralty, since the last war, I believe really through the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Chatfield, himself, has had its own scientific department, and I understand that the Air Ministry also has a scientific department. What I venture to ask is whether these three bodies are in close and continual liaison with similar bodies, including Mr. Burgin's Committee, to which I have referred.

The next question I venture to ask, of which I have given Notice on the Paper, is, what is the form of liaison with our French Allies for the mutual exchange of scientific and technical information concerning new weapons of war of importance to their joint war efforts? In the war of 1914–18 a secret Joint Anglo-French Inventions Committee was set up under the Presidency of M. Painlevé, and the late Sir Henry Norman was the Deputy President. It did very good work. This idea was mooted in 1915, but the Committee was not actually set up till 1916, when we had been at war nearly two years. The Admiralty adhered to this body in 1917, and when the United States of America intervened in the World War American scientists joined it. If it is proper for me to ask, has a similar joint committee been set up for this war? I have a particular interest in this matter because I have reason to know that the explosives department of the French Army is very efficient indeed. I believe to-day that the French explosives are more stable and also more powerful than those of any army, and I am sure the French would be glad to give us information which might be of value to our own fighting Services. In the last war we exchanged our most jealously guarded naval secrets with the American Navy. I had a little to do with that myself. The Americans on their part told us everything they could. For example, one branch of naval invention in which we were ahead of the whole world was our range-keeping clock, and that and all the secrets of our fire control devices and apparatus were made over to the Americans as soon as they intervened in the war. That was, of course, the right spirit in which any war should be waged where you have allies, and I have no doubt that that is the desire of His Majesty's Government at the present time. I dare say we have a very close liaison with the French, and I am quite sure from what we all know of the French scientific world that we shall not lose on the exchange.

In this war, so far as I know, there have been two new weapons. I do not refer to the light armour which the German shock troops are prepared to use, because that is not a new weapon at all. The Americans tried it out in the last war in the land fighting. But there are apparently two new weapons in the sea warfare. One is the magnetic mine. I believe from what has been said that an antidote has been discovered for that, and I am very glad to hear that is so. But taking the magnetic mine as an example, I am going to make a suggestion which I hope will be sympathetically received by Lord Chatfield. As soon as we learned of the appearance of that weapon I suggest that what we ought to have done was to have published the details to the whole world so that the scientists and inventors of the world might combine their brains in order to discover the counter weapon. We should have given no information away to the Germans. I presume the Nazis would also have supplied those secrets to any potential ally. But if you have scientists all over the world working on a new problem they will between them find the best solution for dealing with it, and it may be, if this were done now, that an even better antidote than the Admiralty has would be forthcoming. The other weapon which apparently the Germans have is a more powerful explosive than was used in the last war. I do not know how new it is, but it is new to me. I have no information about this. I can only judge by the rather more rapid sinking of merchant ships attacked by torpedoes and mines as compared with what happened in the last war. You hear of quite large merchant ships breaking in two and sinking in a matter of a few seconds almost. I saw a few ships torpedoed in the last war, as did other noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Chatfield, and then there was always a fair interval before the ship actually went down. It would seem that the Germans have rather more powerful explosives now. I dare say that we have too—I do not want to probe into that—but there again we need the help of chemists in our own and other countries to look into this problem and possibly help us to provide the most powerful explosives.

These are the only two weapons of any importance that are new in this war, as far as I know, but they show that we must be able to mobilise all the most valuable scientific brains to provide counter measures. We must not leave it only to the eminent scientists who man the special department of the Admiralty. I have the greatest admiration and respect for scientific men, but they are rather inclined to work in their own watertight compartments. They are not easy people to drive in a team. They are sometimes rather jealous of each other. They quarrel violently. I am sure it is not the case now, but in past years I can imagine there was great rivalry in the scientific departments of the War Office and the Admiralty. I dare say in the time of the noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, anything of that sort was smoothed over, but that used to happen in the past.


There was not such a department at the Admiralty until recently.


The noble Earl was not in the House when I referred to the Department in the Admiralty and said it was set up when the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Chatfield, was First Sea Lord. If we can mobolise the scientists in the way I suggest—I dare say the Government are fully alive to this and are doing it—I believe they can help us a great deal in winning the war. Scientists all over the world, except in Germany, must be on our side for the most obvious reasons. The scientific mind with its love of truth is utterly opposed to the whole philosophy of Nazism with its make-believe and lies. I am sure there are scientists all over the world who are not only willing but anxious to help us in the great cause in which we are engaged. My question is directed to eliciting information as to whether we are mobilising them and what are the means of bringing them together.

My last observation is this. It is true we have a most admirable body, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which comes under the responsibility of the Lord President of the Council, the noble Earl opposite. All of your Lordships who are familiar with its work will bear me out when I say that it has done invaluable work for the commerce and industry of this country over a long period of years. Quite recently we had an example of that in its work connected with producer-gas-driven vehicles. That is very fine in peace-time. Have we a corresponding body for war-time to co-ordinate scientific information and the researches of the Services. It may be that it exists—I am sure the noble and gallant Lord will have an encouraging reply to make to my question—but this matter is so important that I thought it well to give him an opportunity of explaining what is being done.

I hope that in his reply the noble and gallant Lord will also explain again what an inventor should do when he has an idea that he thinks may be valuable in the conduct of the war. I understand that there is a clearing house in the Ministry of Supply, but I know of several cases of most valuable inventions in the last war which were not considered seriously for a long time and which, when they were taken up, proved to be of great value, especially to the naval Service. We may have some budding Edison or Faraday who has a marvellous idea which, if it could only be brought to the right quarter, might be of great service to the country in its present struggle and therefore to the whole of humanity. He may not be in this country; he may be in the Argentine, or in Norway or anywhere else. What is the clearing house for inventions? I see the noble Lord, Lord Askwith, opposite. He helps inventors through the Institute of Patentees of which he is President. Has he any liaison with the Government? If there is any particular invention that would appear valuable, who examines it and decides on its merits? With these remarks I beg to move.

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord opposite who has introduced this Motion which I think is a very opportune one, if I may say so, and one in which your Lordships will be very greatly interested. In fact, I do not suppose there is any subject which the lay mind thinks about in war so much as whether our scientific knowledge is really being utilised and organised to the best advantage to defeat the enemy. I have always held in my mind very clearly the immense importance of scientific research for the Services ever since the time which the noble Lord has mentioned, when I was Controller of the Navy and scientific research was one of the departments that came under my administration. I think I may venture to refer to a statement which I made when speaking to a large audience, two or three years ago, at the Cutlers' Feast. I said: If ever we lose the British Empire it will not be due to the lack of fighting capacity of its citizens but rather to some lack of harnessing science and research to the weapons of war. That harnessing of science to the weapons of war, as your Lordships all know, gained a tremendous impetus by the war of 1914–18, so perhaps before I answer the three questions which the noble Lord has put, it will not be ill-advised if I just mention to your Lordships something about the scientific situation then.

Let us cast our minds back to the situation as it was in 1914 and try to compare it with the situation that we have to-day. I think it is true to say that before the last war scientific research, as we at present think of it in the Services, had not begun really to be applied. We had a number of very important research establishments both in the Admiralty and in the War Office, but they were more the kind of department which deals with the application of science which had already been very largely adapted to other purposes. The very march of science in the last twenty-five years has itself had an immense effect on the possibilities of the use of science to the weapons of war. Therefore the existing establishments that we have to-day were in the main either created after the end of the last war or to some extent developed during its later years. There was a Board of Invention and Research, of course you will remember, which was set up in 1915 under Lord Fisher. That was mainly to get inventions centralised under some reasonable machine which could deal with them, sort them out and see what was worth while pursuing. But the great Research Departments—and they are great departments—of the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Supply (which was, of course, in the War Office), the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Agricultural Research Council and so on, were nearly all post-war developments. The scientific research, as I have said, that we had before was entirely different in extent from the truly magnificent organisations of the present day, including as they do, either in a working or in an advisory capacity, many of the leading scientists of this country.

The noble Lord who moved the Motion has mentioned the newly set up Scientific Advisory Council to the Ministry of Supply, of which the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, has kindly consented to be the Chairman, and I join with him in his tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cadman, not only for what he has done but also for the many ways in which he is offering to place his services and experience in the hands of the Government at the present time. The noble Lord appeared to be impressed, and was rightly impressed, by the names of the most distinguished scientists on the Advisory Council of the Ministry of Supply. But I can assure your Lordships that those names are by no means unique in the list of advisory bodies to the State. On the Advisory Council of the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research alone we have the most distinguished scientists, including Professor Bragg, Sir James Jeans and a number of other distinguished scientists whom I need not mention. Then we have, of course, the Aeronautical Research Committee of the Air Ministry, another very important organisation, whose Chairman is Sir Henry Tizard—Professor Tizard, as he is usually known. On the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Aeronautical Research Committee of the Air Ministry, the Directors of Scientific Research of the three Services are represented or attend themselves in some capacity, as assessors or as necessary.

Then there is the Civil Defence Research Committee, I remind you, whose Chairman is Dr. Appleton, who is also the Secretary of the Advisory Council of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The Civil Defence Research Committee was set up not so long ago by the Ministry of Home Security to advise on the formation and execution of the programmes of research and experiment under the Air Raid Precautions Department. Then we have the Research and Experiments Branch of the Air Raid Precautions Department, under Dr. Stradling, which is concerned chiefly with research on structural work, the penetration of bombs and splinters into soils and building materials, the effects of blast and earth waves, as well as the more familiar problems of the size and siting of shelters. The branch also advises and arranges research in such problems as anti-gas, incendiary bombs, steel helmets for civil defence, the rot-proofing of sand-bags, and so on. All the experimental work for these researches is carried on by the appropriate outside organisation. We have also the Camouflage Panel of the Ministry of Home Security, under General Swinton. Each of these makes the fullest use of co-operation with the other interested Departments.

Then, of course, we have that to which I have already referred—namely, the reserve of scientific information which is provided by the bodies which come under the control of the Lord President of the Council: the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research with its Advisory Council, the Medical Research Council under Professor Mellanby, and the Agricultural Research Council under Professor Butler. All this information and the associated scientific experience are freely available to all Departments of State. Altogether there are no less than eight research laboratories under the Department of Industrial arid Scientific Research alone, the best-known of which, of course, is the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. Generally I think it is perfectly correct to say that the scientific talent of this country is fully mobilised to the best and fullest advantage, and it runs, of course, into a very large number of scientists, to be numbered almost in thousands rather than in hundreds, many of the highest status—and indeed a great number of them members of the Royal Society—as of course are most, if not all, of the Directors of Scientific Research of the Service Departments. So the striking advances in all fields of scientific work and endeavour have been fully reflected in the armed Services of the Crown.

The introduction of the civilian Directors of Scientific Research into the three Services, which is leading me up to one of the questions asked by the noble Lord, was started in 1920 by the selecting of Dr. Frank Smith for the Admiralty. That step—I remember well the discussions that took place on whether it was necessary in those days to have a Director of Scientific Research—has led to similar steps in the other Service Departments. Then we have the creation of the advisory councils of outside scientists which I have mentioned, and the consultation with all the particular laboratories engaged both on industrial and power research. All these testify to the undoubted fact that the Defence Departments are not only fully alive to the vital importance of this side of the war but are also well equipped to deal with it.

If I may now turn to the three questions of the noble Lord, his first question is whether there is a central organisation or clearing house for the examination and test of discoveries, new inventions and so on. There is actually no central organisation or clearing house to deal with this particular aspect of inventions, which of course is only a very small part of scientific work; indeed, there is no central organisation or clearing house for inventions between the three Departments. Each Service Department and also the Air Raid Precautions Department of the Ministry of Home Security has its own organisation for dealing with, considering, and passing on to the appropriate Department, any invention that comes to it and which is a matter outside its own province. I can assure your Lordships that this has been found in practice to be more satisfactory than the establishment of a single organisation, since it permits immediate consideration by experts aware of the particular needs of the problem and the technical limitations imposed by the operation of each Service and enables them immediately to pass on to the proper Department any invention which has inadvertently come to the wrong quarter.

That is not to say that there is no organisation which can examine inventions likely to be of use to more than one of the Service Departments; on the contrary, there are joint committees dealing with many subjects, such as, for example, wireless telegraphy ordnance, machine guns, aeronautics and so on. The important requirement is to get the invention into the hands of the appropriate expert as quickly as possible, and this is ensured by the existing organisation. It is quite true that the idea of having a central body to sift inventions was considered not long ago and was not lightly dismissed; but His Majesty's Government, having considered it with the greatest care, came to the conclusion that on balance a central body would hamper rather than hasten dealing with the matters in question. There is no difficulty in the way of anyone sending an invention to the appropriate Government Department. I may say that I have twenty-four inventions every week sent to me in my own office. They are not all what may be described as high class. I have no doubt that other members of the Government have a similar postbag. If any noble Lord hears of a case where there has been undue delay in dealing with an invention, I shall be very grateful if he will tell me. I do not think that there is any delay. The inventions which come to us are dealt with very rapidly, although of course in war-time, with the immense press of work, there may always be delay in matters of that kind when they come to be dealt with by the appropriate scientific department.

I now come to the second question put by the noble Lord, as to the method of co-ordination between the scientific departments of the three fighting Services and of the Ministry of Supply; as to what co-ordination exists. Each year the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Supply and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research draw up programmes of the research and development work to be carried out during the following year. That was started in 1926, when I was Controller and working with Dr. Smith. You will find, as the noble Lord has mentioned, that there is nothing more difficult than to get the scientist to deliver up the goods. He is very keen; he will work not only from Monday to Friday but also on Saturday and Sunday. He is an enthusiast. If you go to these great research establishments, as I have often done, you will find the scientists either working together in a large room or working in isolation in some small cabin where perhaps they have been for a time in an attempt to resolve some new problem. They may have been working there for six months or longer. You cannot fail to be tremendously impressed by the wonderful enthusiasm which makes their work not really work to them at all, but something which is their life. I found, however, that when one reviewed at any time all the scientific problems which were being investigated by the scientists in the Research Department that came under the Admiralty, some of the work had been going on almost for years without any productive result; the scientist only hoped that he would be left alone. It was always in one more month that he was going to produce the magic solution of which he had been dreaming for so long; or, if he had got it, there was always some little improvement which occurred to him, and he shuddered at the idea of having to release his child before it had really come to be, in his view, of age.

We found, therefore, that if we added up the salaries of the scientists who had been occupied, perhaps for two years, in developing some particular application or weapon or whatever it may have been, they amounted to a very considerable sum, and perhaps nothing at all had been produced and nothing at all might ever be produced; and so we started having a review every year of the scientific research programme which was to be carried out. As you know, there are two kinds of work. There is the work which is initiated by the scientist when he takes some new form of scientific development and sees how he can apply it to some particular problem, and on the other side there are the needs of the fighting Services, who want certain things produced and improvements made, who say "Can you possibly lighten this?", "Can you possibly make a motor which will do so-and-so?", "Can we possibly use some particular wavelength or wireless system which will help us in our work?" We found that by reviewing these problems every year we obtained an enormous advance and an enormous improvement in the scientific research work as a whole, and we could stop work which had been going on too long and in regard to which we felt that finality would never be achieved. Actually we were working on television at the Admiralty when I was there. We hoped that we should be able to televise shot falling over the enemy from the bridge of the ship. After it had been worked on for some years, I found that a television set had been produced which was about the size of the table in front of me now. It would do what was wanted, but it would not go into an aeroplane. We thought it better, therefore, to turn it over to commercial work and allow it to be developed industrially; and that, of course, has been a much greater success and has saved the State a great deal of money.

I hope your Lordships will forgive that digression, which is not altogether lacking in interest. The principle to which I have referred is now applied to all the Research Departments of the Services. Each Service programme is circulated to the other Services, and there is a consultation at the beginning of the year between the four Departments and the Directors of Scientific Research, under the Chairmanship of Dr. Appleton, when the problems are discussed mutually and undesirable overlapping is avoided. I think the scientific work of the three Service Departments is in many respects so closely related that daily consultations are a feature of the work of the Directors of Research and of their subordinate officers. Scientists, of course, may be working geographically in watertight compartments, but scientists are not altogether like, we will say, soldiers and sailors, who may get away alone and never think of each other. Scientists always move together. They have a common parentage of training, they move in the same clubs very largely, and they meet together from day to day. So your Lordships must not imagine, just because a scientist is working in the Admiralty Research Laboratory at Teddington, or in the Aeronautical Laboratory at Farnborough, that those scientists are divorced from one another. They are not. They are part of a common profession in close touch. And although the criticisms that the noble Lord mentioned may be to some extent true, as they are of course true of all of us, nevertheless I do not think that those factors that he mentions really overbalance the contacts, which are so important, and which I am sure are very close.

Apart from those contacts, there are numerous inter-Service scientific and technical committees, covering practically every aspect of Service work, on which the departmental officers meet. One result of this close collaboration has beer the centring of scientific investigations for more than one Service in establishments which are administered by one of the Directors, though your Lordships will of course understand that I cannot possibly deal with examples of the very secret work which is being carried out in this way, such as were mentioned by the noble Lord opposite. It is being carried out even at this moment in this very way, but there is nothing which has happened in the war so far, no surprise—no partial surprise shall I say?—which may have come, which in my opinion, and which, I may say, in the opinion of His Majesty's Government, is not being fully resolved with the greatest rapidity by the methods that we have at the present time. If it were not so it would be high time to make sure that we got better methods. But I am satisfied in my own mind that our methods are good, that we have complete collaboration and that when there is a problem which arises in the war which may affect the air or the sea, shall we say? these two State Departments, their Directors and scientific researchers get together, and there is a combination of work between the two which I think would surprise noble Lords if they went into it.

I will deal next with the noble Lord's third question—namely, What are the means of liaison between His Majesty's Government and the Government of the French Republic? A mutual exchange of scientific knowledge over a wide field was concerted and already in progress between the two Governments before the outbreak of the war. Your Lordships will be interested to learn that we have had, on both sides of the Channel, members of the scientific organisations of the two countries working in British and French scientific establishments. We have, I may say, a complete exchange of scientific information. It was not carried out through any formal machinery, which would not be in conformity with the general conception of the organisation of science in the Services. Rather than set up formal machinery we have arranged for direct liaison between the experts on both sides on all scientific matters of high importance.

As I say, our aim has been to pool our efforts; but nevertheless the extension of this present liaison with the French Government is under active consideration, and I can assure the noble Lord that it is a matter which is personally engaging my attention at the present time. We have not reached finality. The main thing we had to do before the war, and the moment war started, was not so much to perfect a machine, but to get into the very closest contact with each other, so that there was nothing that we knew, or the French knew, which both countries did not know. We have pooled our resources to the great benefit of both. At the present time I am engaged in personal discussions with a member of the French Government on this very matter of how we can improve the liaison between the two and make sure that there is no loss of time or waste of effort or overlapping, but I regret I am not able at the moment to give any definite information as to what our final arrangements will be. I can assure your Lordships, however, that the matter is one which His Majesty's Government are treating as of the very greatest importance.

In conclusion may I mention one point? It may interest the House to know—it is outside the question under discussion but we do not often talk on these matters here—what steps are being taken to reward inventors and, in general, to safeguard their position when the Government make use of their brains. This is a matter which I have looked into briefly, but officially, and it is under consideration, and I think I may say that it is very likely that we shall adopt the same machinery as was shown to be satisfactory in the last war: I mean the creation of a Commission of Awards to Inventors. The existence of such a Commission would, I believe, constitute a very necessary safeguard of the interests of what I may call the "small inventor," while at the same time securing uniformity of treatment for the more important class of invention, the use of which involves the inventor in very heavy financial commitments. That is all I have to say on the Motion of the noble Lord. I think I have answered his three questions as well as I can, but I hope your Lordships will feel—what I believe to be true—that the organisation of science between the Services for war at the present time is very high. I would not say that it could not be bettered, but it is adequate for our purposes so far as we can see them at the moment.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure I am speaking for all your Lordships in thanking the noble and gallant Lord for the very full and interesting reply which he has given. Speaking for myself and my noble friends, I know the reply was altogether satisfactory. I would particularly like to congratulate the Government on the close working arrangement with our French Allies. I hope that will be made known widely because it is desirable, I am certain, that the public should know it. I did not make any complaint at all of delays in dealing with inventions. I also have a certain number of inventions brought to me, and I pass them on—in fact I think I passed one on to the noble and gallant Lord himself—and the matter has always been very promptly dealt with. There is no complaint of that sort at all. I have no other comments to make on the speech of the noble and gallant Lord, which I intend to read very carefully in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Might I make this statement with regard to the scientists who get down to a certain line of research and there is apparently no finality? I know what the noble and gallant Lord's difficulties are. There is a certain type of scientist who is always looking for what he calls pure science, which is something of intense interest, but of no practical use whatever. That sort of person is extremely valuable if we know how to use him. You must hide from him the fact that there may be some use for the discoveries he makes, and I think if that can be done these men will sometimes hit on a revolutionary discovery which will be of immense importance. I again thank the noble and gallant Lord and ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.