Research in the United Kingdom
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 4 Mar 1965, p. 244-251
Rothschild, Lord, Speaker
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Item Type
The speaker's personal background and some reminiscences. The ten years as Chairman of the British Agricultural Research Council. A visit to Shell's Laboratories and how that changed his life. Comparing three different sorts of scientific activity in the United Kingdom: in a top University, in civil Government research, and research in big industry. Some differences. Basic and applied research; the interchange between them. The enormous range of subjects on which research and development are carried out at Shell. The main problem for the research administrator. What the speaker might do on retirement.
Date of Original
4 Mar 1965
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Full Text
MARCH 4, 1965
Research in the United Kingdom
CHAIRMAN, The President, Lt. Col. Robert H. Hilborn


Our guest of honour and speaker today is the worthy descendant of a family of upright men, devoted to duty, using their talents and their means for the benefit of their fellow human beings.

Baron Nathaniel Rothschild, 3rd Lord Rothschild is the first of his title to forsake finance altogether. His career is one of such accomplishment and variety, one hardly knows where to begin. Louis Pasteur said: 'In the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind." Lord Rothschild was educated at Harvard and Trinity Cambridge where he was a Fellow from 1935 to 1939, and an Honorary Fellow since 1961. His degrees include doctorates in Philosophy and Science.

During World War II he was one of Britain's most successful and audacious bomb removal experts. The award of the George Medal is eloquent testimony to his bravery and skill. I am told that he was also a "Boffin." For those of you who know Boffin only as "Noddy" or the "Golden Dustman" from Dickens' "Our Mutual Friend" let me hasten to explain that in Britain during the war a "Boffin" was, and I quote, "A bird bursting with weird and sometimes inopportune ideas, but possessed of staggering inventiveness, analytical powers, and persistence. Its ideas, like its eggs, were conical and unbreakable. When you pushed the unwanted ones away they just rolled back." Sir Robert Watson-Watt has stated that the bill of the boffin had two separate functions. One was to probe into other person's business and the other was to puncture the more highly coloured and ornate eggs of the "Lesser Back Room Birds" which were quite inappropriate to the military scene. Seriously, the boffin was a particular type of scientist who could understand the viewpoint of the services, who worked with them, and who frequently shared their dangers. For his part, Lord Rothschild, in addition to the George Medal, was mentioned in despatches and awarded both the American Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

A Labour peer, a jazz pianist of professional standard, he is one of Britain's most eminent scientists. He served as Chairman of the Agricultural Research Council for 10 years, was a director of B.O.A.C. for two years and a member of the B.B.C. Advisory Council for four.

From his publications which include "Fertilization," "A Classification of Living Animals" etc., one realizes that as a biologist he has gathered pioneer insights into what Morton in his book on "The Rothschilds" refers to as "the sex life of bedbugs, the love technique of the spider and procreation among leeches," but that he is above all an eminent biochemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Jacques Barzun, Provost of Columbia and a staunch defender of "The House of Intellect" speaks of research being-"at once compulsory and honorific. Compulsory

because research finds out what man's bewildered eye or crusty experience cannot discern by inspection, and honorific because it requires someone to break the lock step of routine, stand off, look, and ask questions."

We have such a someone with us today, and it is my high honour to present and our great privilege to receive the Chairman of Shell Research, The Honourable Lord Rothschild, who will address us on "Research in the United Kingdom."


Most people associate the name Rothschild with banking, in spite of the London Telephone Directory containing Rothschilds who are Dental Surgeons, Physicians, Accountants, Umbrella Makers, Clothiers, and one who just calls himself Trade. In my branch of the banking family my father went each day to the City of London, but he somehow found time to be a scientist as well-quite impossible today-with the result that my sisters and I grew up in an atmosphere of undiluted natural history. My earliest recollection, when I was about four years old, was being sent out into the garden by my father to try and catch a very rare butterfly, a gynandromorph orange tip, that is one which is half male and half female and which, therefore, only has the orange tip on one wing. -I remember being punished, a few years later, for going into the long grass without my rubbers on, to catch another rare butterfly. The punishment was terribly severe; I had to give the butterfly to my elder sister. She gave it back to me, beautifully mounted, as a twenty-first birthday present.

My parents were severe, though politically Liberal and, looking back, I do not remember much of what one might expect in a Rothschild house from reading the accounts of my family which have recently been published. I remember having spinach for tea because I would not eat it at lunch; but I also remember that my sister and I were coached by a cricket professional, who told us, rather wistfully, that when he bowled to the great Rangitsinghi in the nets at Cambridge, a gold watch was placed on each of the three stumps, though he never got one, for obvious reasons.

Having been brought up with butterflies, birds, bees and insects, it was inevitable that I should have a scientific bent, in spite of being forced to do classics until the age of sixteen; and it came as rather a shock, at the age of twenty-one, to learn that my parents, while realizing that I was a scientist, were most anxious for me at least to try the life of a banker in the City of London. This I did, but the moment was unfortunate. In 1930 there was a world recession and the City seemed moribund and boring; so after six or so months, I returned to Cambridge University to be a science don and, until about six years ago, I lived there in a relaxed and, perhaps, somewhat unworldly atmosphere.

During that time, however, I spent ten years as Chairman of the British Agricultural Research Council, a small Government Department concerned, as its name implies, with the administration of agricultural research in the United Kingdom. I knew nothing about agriculture and still don't; but it is not the function of a research administrator to be a specialist in the subjects for whose administration he is responsible.

After ten years, I realized I thought I knew all the answers in agricultural research; and, of course, when one gets into that frame of mind, one must go at once, which

I did. But then, when returning whole-time to my laboratory and experimental work, I began to feel uneasy. Would I be able just to carry on with experiments, lecturing and the supervision of students? At this time, by a coincidence, a :Managing Director of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies made a suggestion to me. Would I like to visit some of Shell's Laboratories in various parts of the world and let him know my reactions to them? Why not, I thought? And from that day my life underwent a slow but immutable revolution. I visited some of the Laboratories and commented on them. Might I, the Managing Director then asked, like to take a part-time interest in some of them? Again I said yes, to counteract my fears about being exclusively a "pure" scientist at Cambridge. From being a don at a University, I gradually became a Shell employee, working about 60 hours per week and wishing there was more time in the day and night.

In comparing three different sorts of scientific activity in the United Kingdom-in a top University, in civil Government research, and research in big Industry, one is struck by a number of differences which are more evident in the United Kingdom than in the United States of America, Holland or Germany-I cannot speak for Canada, having little knowledge of conditions here. The differences which have struck me most are as follows.

First, the decision-making machinery in industry is far quicker and more positive than at Cambridge University or in Government. There is no automatic reaction to set up a committee to study and report on a proposal requiring a decision. Such consultations as are necessary are assumed to have been made before a proposal is put forward.

Secondly, there is a sense of urgency, if not tension, which is absent in Cambridge University and in Government research though I must qualify this statement by saying that Government research is not as leisurely as University research and may develop a greater sense of urgency in England from now onwards. Recently, I was a member of a rather important Committee at Cambridge University, to determine the future organization of a particular scientific discipline. Members of the Committee were reminded that their recommendations were not so much concerned with the next five years as with the next fifty or even hundred years. To me, this created a feeling of leisurely unreality which was in painful, but in some ways pleasurable, contrast with my day to day life in Shell. I don't believe I am wrong in feeling that however pleasant this leisurely ambiance may be-with College life, combination rooms, and the port still going round after dinner (or a glass of claret if you prefer it) -this way of life is over and that the sooner our Universities realize it, the better they will be able to cope with the many intractable problems we have today in England.

Thirdly, I have been surprised at the lack of contact between research in industry and in Universities. There is a sharp difference between England, and Holland, Germany and America in this respect. Industrial research is rather looked down on in England, at any rate by the old Universities, and several of my former University and Government colleagues made me feel quite uncomfortable by their attitude when they knew I had become involved in industrial research, in spite of collaboration which has existed in some areas for many years. Somehow I was made to feel it was a second-class activity, in spite of such people as Edison, Irving Langmuir or the English mathematician who used the pseudonym "Student." We have several extremely good scientists in Shell in England and, a year or so ago, I made overtures to some Universities about possible collaboration. There would be nothing surprising about this in Americain fact, I.B.M. and Syracuse University give joint courses and award joint Masters Degrees. My overtures were unsuccessful-politely rejected. The cross-fertilization of University and industrial research is essential in the modern world and beneficial to both parties. I am not even sure that any ivory tower seats of learning are still desirable.

There are few Universities in the United Kingdom which know much about big industrial research. When I mention at Cambridge that no less than 20% of the $70 million Shell spends a year on research and development is concerned with basic research, I notice incredulity on all sides. If I go on and say that Shell employs topologists, who used to be thought of as purveyors of an abstruse branch of pure mathematics, a weary look comes over my listeners' faces as if they were being strung along by a Miinchhausen or by someone who has partaken too liberally of University hospitality.

Far too much is made of the difference between basic and applied research. There is, of course, a difference: basic research is directed towards the acquisition of new know ledge; applied research has, as its name suggests, an applied objective, which may be medical, agricultural, industrial, or military. But the two types of science interchange so frequently in time as to make the distinction of secondary importance; it is important to realize this, if only to obviate the idea that an applied research worker is a second-class citizen in comparison with his pure colleagues.

One is, naturally, fortunate to work in Shell because of the enormous range of subjects on which research and development are carried out. The main problem for the research administrator is to avoid being over-stimulated by one particular subject and I am sure I have failed in this respect. I am, for example, more interested in generating electricity by fuel cells and in using bacteria as engineers to produce protein from petroleum than in new sewing machine oils or in the transport of solids along pipelines, though the latter is exciting, both from a practical and a mathematical point of view.

The unknown and the tantalizing stimulate me most. Will fuel cells be used in the next ten years on a large scale for the generation of electricity? Will insecticides completely specific to particular insect pests be developed? Will you go on using a motor mower on your lawn or will you spray it with a harmless growth regulant twice a year? Finding the answers to these questions does not imply the expenditure of vast sums of money; it requires the creation of environments in which good scientists, of whom there are not too many, can work happily and successfully. Huge teams with gold-plated equipment will not provide answers any more than the monkeys on the typewriters produce a sonnet by Shakespeare.

We retire early in Shell; and I have begun to wonder what I should do when that time comes. I have an idea, which might be called a scientific one, and which I believe, with the assistance of some of my colleagues, may be both compatible with my age and appropriate to a life of leisure. Many of you will have seen experts on wine swirling their glasses, sniffing and pronouncing that it is not sufficiently chambré, it is round, perhaps even square, too sharp, light, passé, and so on. What do these expressions mean in the language of science? One of my Shell colleagues, Dr. Popjak, has developed, under my influence, a method, using the technique of gas liquid chromatography, of translating these remarks into scientific language, that is to say recording them on a piece of paper something like the chart the nurse keeps of one's temperature. My French cousins are in the fortunate position of owning two famous vineyards in France, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. It occurred to me that when I retire, I could occupy my time both usefully and to my own advantage by retreating to my cousins' Chateaus with my gas liquid chromatography apparatus. I shall have to do a great deal of claret-tasting myself, but no doubt there will be an hour or so left each day to translate my palatable information into the language of science, whether it be pure, applied, or neither, just the outcome of an ex-scientist's curiosity.


Thanks of this meeting were expressed by Mr. Donald H. Jupp, a Past President of the Empire Club.

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Research in the United Kingdom

The speaker's personal background and some reminiscences. The ten years as Chairman of the British Agricultural Research Council. A visit to Shell's Laboratories and how that changed his life. Comparing three different sorts of scientific activity in the United Kingdom: in a top University, in civil Government research, and research in big industry. Some differences. Basic and applied research; the interchange between them. The enormous range of subjects on which research and development are carried out at Shell. The main problem for the research administrator. What the speaker might do on retirement.