Tom Lean, project interviewer for Made in Britain, writes:
Once upon a time the British government maintained an extensive network of research establishments, which carried out advanced research into everything from radar and the atom bomb to mechanical engineering and house building materials. After changes in the 1980s, the establishments were run down and much research farmed out to universities and private companies. But many of our interviewees passed through posts in government laboratories over the years and I've got really interested in the stories of former scientific civil servants and the window they offer into a closed world now vanished.
Sally Horrocks (the Senior Academic Advisor for the project) and myself attended the splendid Governance in Science conference at the University of Kent earlier this month. For myself, this was a great opportunity to use some of the project material to try and build up a portrait of the scientific civil servant in context. I've been particularly interested in how the unique conditions of government service, such as secrecy, direct duty to the state, and the intricacies of civil service system shape scientific careers.
There can be, as we might expect, an element of duty to government scientific service. For example Sir Alan Cottrell, a metallurgist at the Atomic Energy Establishment Harwell in the 1950s and government Chief Scientific Advisor in the 1970s, reflected how being directed to work as a scientist on military research in the 1940s left him wanting his work to contribute something to the nation:
Despite what we might expect about scientists working to the direction of the state under secretive conditions, interviewees often remark on the generous degrees of freedom they worked under. For example former Royal Aircraft Establishment materials scientist Roger Moreton, one of the team that pioneered carbon fibre in the the 1960s recalled on several occasions in his interview the considerable freedoms to scientists working at Farnborough:
*n.b. clips from two different parts of the interview.
However, for all the freedoms that interviewees explicitly talk about they also implicitly acknowledge their position as components in a wider system of government science. They describe careers in which they were directed into certain posts where their skills were needed, of moral compromises over their work, the intricacies of career hierarchies and civil service rank structures, and the tricks needed to progress within them. The impression we are left with is of individuals who were free to pursue their scientific interests, but at the same time caught within a government machine that imposed structures on them directed their freedoms to achieve wider goals. Two different perspectives on the scientific civil servant, but mutually compatible and both of them true.
Why not check out some of An Oral History of British Science's recordings with former government scientists?
- Sir Alan Cottrell - Atomic Energy Agency, Chief Scientific Advisor.
- Geoff Tootill - Telecommunications Research Establishment, Royal Aircraft Establishment, European Space Research Organisation, National Physical Laboratory.
- Desmond King-Hele - Royal Aircraft Establishment.