HL Deb 04 February 1965 vol 262 cc1253-8

3.34 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. There are to be three Statements, I understand, and for the convenience of the House I have arranged that my noble friend will give me the tip when the time has arrived, and in the circumstances I will at that time sit down. I gather that this suggestion suits the Members of the Opposition Front Bench: they seem very pleased about it.

The Bill that I am presenting to the House is a somewhat technical measure, but I am the less diffident in moving the Second Reading on account of the strengthening of the House in recent years by the addition of a number of noble Lords with wide experience and knowledge of scientific affairs. The purpose of the Bill is one which I think will commend itself to the House. Its main provisions result largely from the recommendations of a distinguished Committee of Inquiry under Sir Burke Trend. One of the members of that Committee was the noble Lord, Lord Todd, to whom this House is deeply indebted for his contributions to deflates on scientific and technological matters, and particularly for his speech on the Motion on Scientific and Technological Development in December last.

The Trend Committee proposed a major reorganisation of the arrangements for Government support of civil science, and their plan was to a great extent accepted by the previous Government. The present Government have endorsed a great part of this plan, with the exception of the proposals as they affect industrial research, on which the Government have decided to create a structure, the Ministry of Technology, which they think more suited to deal with the present problems facing the country in this sphere than would have been the independent authority favoured by the previous Government.

The need for a reorganisation is unquestioned. The present arrangements have grown up, more or less haphazardly, over a number of years, and only with great difficulty can they be made to function effectively in modern conditions. It would be impossible to carry through, with such creaking and inadequate machinery, the modernisation of British industry and the revitalising of the economy through science and technology, which is the first need of the present day. Nor would it be effective, from the point of view of science itself, to continue the present outmoded arrangements for supporting scientific research, particularly as regards the provision of major facilities, costing vast sums of money, which are becoming more and more necessary for many branches of science.

On the scientific side, the Bill first of all recognises the continued appropriateness of the fundamental idea which has run through Government support for scientific research over the last forty years or more. This is the idea of the independent Research Council, with members of distinction in the appropriate branches of science, which is free to decide its own scientific programme within the limits of the funds that can be made available to it by the Government. This kind of organisation permits the priorities of science to be given their full value, and prevents them from being distorted by the changing needs of politics and day-to-day executive responsibilities.

In addition to the Agricultural Research Council and the Medical Research Council, both of which have fulfilled their functions with great distinction over many years, two new ones are being brought into existence, the Science Research Council—which will be concerned generally with support for university research—and the Natural Environment Research Council, which will be concerned with research in the earth sciences and ecology. These four Research Councils will be under the aegis of the Secretary of State for Education and Science, and he will allocate resources to them on the advice of his new Council for Scientific Policy under the chairmanship of Sir Harrie Massey, which is to have its first meeting to-morrow.

The reorganisation will entail the disappearance of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which has since 1919 borne, with notable success, the main burden of support for special research projects at universities and in industrial research. The time has come when the continued expansion of research on both the scientific and the industrial fronts must be given separate vehicles unless it is to be gravely hampered, and most of the activities of the D.S.I.R. will be divided between the Science Research Council and the Ministry of Technology, about which I will say a few words in a moment.

The Science Research Council will take over the present responsibilities of the D.S.I.R. for giving research grants to universities and post-graduate training awards. Grants for the support of applied as well as pure science in universities are to be the responsibility of the Science Research Council, although the Ministry of Technology will undoubtedly want, on occasion, to meet its own particular needs with university work, which it would normally do by placing contracts.

The Council will also be responsible for certain facilities which provide services for university scientists. It will take over the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science, the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the Royal Observatory at Edinburgh, the D.S.I.R. Radio Research Station and the responsibility for supervising the scientific Space Research programme. It will also, in consultation with the Department of Education and Science and the Foreign Office, have primary responsibility for the conduct of United Kingdom participation in international research bodies, such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and the European Space Research Organisation. The chairmanship of this new Council, unlike that of the Agricultural and Medical Research Councils, will be held by a distinguished scientist as a full-time post, and, as has already been announced, the first Chairman will be Sir Harry Melville, at present Secretary of the D.S.I.R. The names of the other members of the Council are being announced later to-day.

The Natural Environment Research Council is being formed to bring together a group of related sciences, some of which suffer from very inadequate arrangements and division of responsibility at present. It will be responsible for the earth sciences—that is, geology, seismology, geo-magnetism, physical oceanography and other disciplines—and the ecological sciences: those concerned with living beings and their environment both on land and in the water, and including freshwater and marine biology, nature conservation and other sciences. The new Council will take over responsibility for the Nature Conservancy, the Geological Survey and the National Institute of Oceanography. It will also assume financial and policy responsibility for the research now carried out by the Meteorological Office in seismology and geo-magnetism and will co-ordinate research in meteorology generally with that carried out by the Meteorological Office. The Council will work through subordinate committees responsible for each of the main activities concerned, and based, where appropriate, on the body now responsible for the field in question. There will be consultation with the Minister of Land and Natural Resources, the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and other interested Ministers, on appointments to the Council and, where appropriate, on arrangements for its work.

I am happy to announce that Sir Graham Sutton, the Director-General of the Meteorological Office, has accepted the invitation of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to be Chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council. Sir Graham Sutton, through his wide experience of the earth sciences, is exceptionally fitted to guide the setting up of the new Council, and we are fortunate that he will preside over it in its opening phase. The major part of Sir Graham Sutton's time will continue to be devoted to his responsibilities as Director-General of the Meteorological Office. A Secretary of the new Research Council will be appointed who will be a scientist with the appropriate qualifications. It will fall to the Secretary to organise the staff and make the necessary administrative arrangements. In order to allow time for this to be done, and for necessary consultation with the existing authorities, my right honourable friend has decided that the Natural Environment Research Council will not be formally constituted until June. The Science Research Council, for which the nucleus of a staff already exists in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, will be formed on 1st April.

Meanwhile, the activities of the component organisations of N.E.R.C. will continue without interruptions. The National Oceanographic Council and the Nature Conservancy will continue in being, and the Fisheries Advisory Committee of the Development Commission will continue with its present work. On the dissolution of the D.S.I.R. the responsibility for making research grants to universities and post-graduate training awards, in the N.E.R.C.'s field of interest, will be taken over temporarily by the Science Research Council, which will have the benefit of the advice of the present D.S.I.R. committees concerned with this field; while the responsibility for the Geological Survey and Museum will be taken over temporarily by the Department of Education and Science. From the beginning of the new financial year, however, all these activities will be financed, until N.E.R.C. comes into existence, directly by the Secretary of State, who will be advised by the respective authorities now responsible in each of the fields concerned. Appropriate provision will be made in Estimates for this purpose.

The Bill provides also for the setting up, if it is found to be desirable, of additional Research Councils in the future. Although the Research Councils are traditionally established by Charter under the Royal Prerogative—a matter which is of considerable importance to scientific opinion, as emphasising the scientific independence of these bodies—Parliament must of course be given proper opportunity to examine the general purpose of bodies for which public money is to be provided (as public funds are to be provided to the Research Councils, through the Secretary of State, under the provisions of this Bill).

My Lords, this appears to be an appropriate moment for me to break off in order that the Statements may be made.