Dr Sally Horrocks, Senior Academic Consultant for An Oral History of British Science, writes:
From World War Two through to the late 1960s there was a persistent belief among many politicians and policy makers that Britain was suffering from a shortage of what was termed ‘scientific manpower’. This belief had very real policy consequences, something that I have written about before, mainly using documents from The National Archives and the CBI Predecessor Archive at Warwick University’s Modern Records Centre. Such material tends to tell the story from the perspective of the policy makers and administrators, and informs us about the motivations for policy decisions and their evolution. As my contribution to the Kent Scientific Governance conference I decided to make my first foray into using the interviews collected by the Oral History of British Science to see what they could tell us about how the ‘administered'- those people whose lives and careers were directly affected by the policies and procedures whose evolution I had previously studied- felt about all this.
Using OHBS interviews enabled me to ask questions about the problem of scientific manpower that I could not have contemplated previously, with each individual interview providing a window into the range of experiences and variety of impacts of policy, as well as how these changed over time. Wartime graduates such as Geoff Tootill recalled how the decisions of officials of the Central (Scientific and Technical) Register, which allocated new graduates to appropriate wartime employment took his subsequent career in a direction he would never have envisaged before the war. He and others also spoke eloquently about their commitment to the war effort and pride in the contributions they made.
Geoff Tootill, C1379/02 Track 1 (01:28:31 - 01:29:53)
The experiences of those who graduated immediately after the war were more equivocal, while the advent of National Service in 1949 forced many to make choices about the nature and timing of their service. John Glen spoke about being asked to spend his National Service in the Metallurgy Division at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell rather than ‘square bashing’, an opportunity he jumped at.
John Glen, C1379/26 Track 3 (11:34 - 12:46)
This was despite the requirements of secrecy that came with working at Harwell and difficulties this meant for his continuing interest in the physics of ice, which he had studied for his PhD.
John Glen, C1379/26 Track 3 (16:45 - 17:49)
Stephen Moorbath also worked at Harwell, in his case during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He was able to benefit from efforts to increase the supply of scientists by securing a scholarship to study at university, something that had previously been unaffordable for him. Once at Oxford he changed from chemistry to geology, the foundation of his subsequent career in geochemistry.
As yet we have fewer interviewees who graduated after the end of National Service (the last graduates were called up in 1959) but the very absence of mention of these issues in their interviews is perhaps itself indicative of the changed situation.
Interviewees also suggest that the direction of scientific manpower had personal and well as career consequences, bringing scientists into contact with future marriage partners and life-long friends as well as mentors and colleagues. All of their recollections help us to understand the personal consequences that arose from these policies and suggest how they might be used by other historians to start asking questions that cannot be answered elsewhere in the archives.