Myths of decline

CP Snow, Correlli Barnett and other polemicists of British decline are wrong-Britain has not had an anti-scientific, anti-technological culture. David Edgerton argues that far from acting as a lobby for science, their theories have damaged it
August 19, 1996

The first thing we know about science and technology in general is that it is growing at an ever accelerating pace. But the first thing we know about British science and technology is that it is declining. We have known this for over 100 years. It is surprising that any of it is left at all.

This "declinism" has painted a composite picture which shows British science and technology as weak in comparison to most comparable countries; which shows British higher education dominated by the arts, and latterly by the social sciences; which shows British government and big companies dominated by arts graduates; which shows British businesses to be very reluctant to invest in research and development (R&D), and so on, ad nauseam. This picture is more than something we merely know: it is part of the very fabric of British intellectual life. It is a fact beyond dispute that Britain is an anti-scientific, anti-technological and anti-industrial culture.

These beliefs, which are, incidentally, almost completely erroneous, are the stock in trade of a strong tradition of technocratic commentary on the nature of Britain. It has argued for more investment in science and technology by claiming that British science is in decline, and by attributing this decline to the fact that Britain is dominated by an anti-technological culture. Late Victorian scientists made this complaint; so did HG Wells before, during and after the great war. But it was in the years after the second world war that the complaints became strongest, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

CP Snow's essay on the "two cultures" is exemplary. Snow's argument was that Britain was not producing enough scientists and engineers; its national economy was not growing fast enough. "Why aren't we coping with the scientific revolution?" asked Snow. "Why are other countries doing better?" Snow's response was a social and cultural history setting out to explain why British science did not penetrate the nation's "corridors of power" (his phrase). He found that scientists did not read "books," by which he meant novels, poetry, plays and history. There was a cultural gulf between them and "literary intellectuals." Scientists, he argued, tended to be on the political left, and many came from poor families. "Literary intellectuals" were, by implication, more right wing, and richer; crucially, they formed the core of the national elite. Snow's picture was risible in its crudity: all his scientists were academic physicists; there were no chemists, much less industrial chemists, or teachers of mathematics (nor did he include doctors and engineers). On the other side of the divide, British novelists were recruited to stand for the whole of the "traditional culture"-there were no classicists, philosophers, economists, or historians, not to mention lawyers or clergymen. FR Leavis rightly labelled Snow an "ignoramus."

Snow's distorted view of Britain appears to have an emotional appeal; it has certainly attracted plenty of followers. In the 1970s, Donald Coleman portrayed the boards of British companies as being full of Oxbridge arts graduates; labouring away far beneath them were the scientists and technologists from provincial universities. In the 1980s, the American Martin Wiener, in his book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, claimed to find that British elite culture was dominated by a literary yearning for the rural, which led to the denigration of industry, science and technology. In three extre-mely influential books published between 1972 and 1995, Correlli Barnett pictured the British elite as essentially literary, as well as soft-hearted and unrealistic about the world. Snow, Wiener, and Barnett are only some of the best known exponents of a view which has become conventional wisdom among sophisticated commentators. Their views are equally popular on the left and on the right. (Barnett appealed to the Thatcherites even though he is an interventionist and economic nationalist.)

But what is remarkable about these writers is that they have not written histories of science and technology in Britain, but polemics against what is seen as the dominant, anti-scientific and anti-technological culture. They produce cultural histories-usually rather poor ones-of anti-technology.

Worse still, these accounts tend to be economically illiterate. They assume that Britain's relative decline was caused by British failures (especially in science and technology). But the bulk of Britain's decline is due to the fact that the rest of the world has become increasingly like Britain; only a small part is due to Britain failing to be as good as other countries. The concept of relative decline is a useful one. If used properly, it is a way of saying that in the past Britain carried a much larger economic weight in the world. So it did, and this past relative success needs explaining. Declinist historians, however, argue that when Britain was at its most successful, it was really failing, and that these failures led to the subsequent decline.

Declinist historians simply assume that more scientific and technical education, and more investment in R&D, are the main causes of economic growth. But they fail to draw the conclusion that given its very great strength in the past, the British economy must at some point have supported a great deal of science, technology and innovation.

Techno-declinism is, intellectually speaking, a mess. It produces explanations which, if taken literally, suggest that British science and technology collapsed around 1870. Oddly, most attention has been given to the years before 1914, when Britain was the most industrialised and richest country in Europe and dominated world trade. The international comparisons declinist historians provide are grossly misleading. They usually seek to explain things which were not the case, with explanations that don't work.

britain has been one of the scientific great powers of the 20th century. Since 1901 it has obtained about the same number of Nobel prizes as Germany, and about half the number of the US; all other countries are way behind. Britain's comparative performance has, on some measures, improved during the 20th century, with a definite relative decline setting in only since the 1960s. To take an index given undue weight, the UK launched the first serious atomic bomb project in the world, although in the event, it became only the third nuclear power. By any reasonable standard the UK was, and to some extent is, a force to be reckoned with in world science. The British case should be treated as one of a small handful of scientific great powers of the 20th century; we should ask the same questions of British science as we do of American science, and indeed of Soviet and German science. There is no typical case from which the others are deviations. Britain does not represent a special case of resistance to science, or of the failure to turn scientific advantage into economic growth.

In the late Victorian and Edwardian years, British higher education in science and technology expanded rapidly, displacing the classics. By 1929, 55 per cent of university students were studying science, technology or medicine. By 1968, the figure was 65 per cent. While in 1929 scientists and technologists alone made up 30 per cent of the student body, the figure rose to more than half in 1967. The British higher education system was also much more geared towards science and technology than that of other European countries. In the mid-1950s, some 44 per cent of British graduates were scientists and technologists; in Germany the figure was 34 per cent; in France 29 per cent; and in Italy 26 per cent. These impressive figures have been ignored by commentators who insist that Britain, as opposed to the continent, produced more scientists than engineers. So it did, but the number of scientists and engineers actually graduating was, even in the 1950s and 1960s, high by continental standards. Indeed, Britain had more scientists and engineers per capita than any other major capitalist country during the 1950s and 1960s. (All figures in this essay are from my Science, Technology and the British Industrial Decline 1870-1970.)

Barnett has made much of the difference between British and German technical education before 1914. He compares Oxbridge and the civic universities with the German technical universities. But this comparison is misleading because it ignores the traditional German universities. Traditional universities in Britain embraced science and technology far more readily than their German counterparts. Cambridge had the largest school of engineering in Britain until the 1940s. (Those who link the classics to British decline should recall that German universities were citadels of the classics before 1945.)

Another important element in the declinist account is that British scientists and engineers have failed to take up high positions in industry and government. But nearly 20 per cent of the leaders of steel firms in the first half of the century had technical qualifications, about half of which were acquired in Oxford or Cambridge. In the early 1950s, about 20 per cent of members of boards of directors of engineering firms were scientists or technologists, and only about 10 per cent were accountants. The evidence that in other countries scientists and engineers were better represented at this level is weak or non-existent.

At the level of senior civil servants, it appears that in the early 1970s the British were much more likely to have had a scientific, mathematical or technical education (26 per cent) than those of Italy (10 per cent) or Germany (14 per cent). These figures relate to the two highest administrative grades, the equivalent of British permanent and deputy secretaries.

The British state has been a key supporter of science and technology. Until the late 1960s, the defence sector dominated state expenditure. In the interwar years, the air ministry spent much more than any other British organisation on R&D-more, for example, than the largest private funder, ICI. In fact, British defence policy has been peculiarly reliant on high technology: on the Dreadnoughts before 1914; the bomber aircraft from the 1930s; and nuclear weapons since the 1950s. Britain has indeed punched above its weight in defence, but thanks to its technology, as much as the skill of its army. In the 1950s, 15 per cent of the defence budget went on R&D.

if we look at invention, the declinist picture is that Britain gave way to Germany as the key inventing country by 1914, and that this trend has continued ever since. But Britain patented more products per capita in the US, than did Germany before the great war. In the interwar years the two countries were about level; Britain was ahead again after the second world war, and remained so into the late 1950s.

If we look at R&D which, before the 1940s, accounted for only a small proportion of inventions, Britain was certainly behind Germany in the famous case of dyestuffs. But so was every other country, including the US. In the interwar years, British industry was well behind American industry in spending on R&D, but the US was already a much richer country. The comparison with Germany reveals a different picture. Many have implied that German industry was ahead of that of Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, but there is no evidence for this.

In the postwar years, the conventional view is that Britain was falling steadily behind the US and the USSR and that, until the 1970s, Germany and Japan were hardly in the picture at all. But more recently, science policy experts have looked back at the 1950s and 1960s, and implied that British industry was spending less than Japanese or German industry. They have done this with the help of a crude statistical trick, arguing that although British industry spent a lot on R&D, much of this money came from government to fund defence projects and prestige civil projects such as Concorde. Strip out this spending, the argument goes, and we discover that Japanese and German firms spent more on basic civil R&D hence the Japanese and German economies grew faster. This sleight of hand has convinced most commentators.

In fact, until the late 1960s, British industry spent more on basic civil R&D than did German or Japanese firms. In the mid-1960s, British firms spent (with their own money) 15 per cent of what American firms did on R&D German firms spent 14 per cent; and French and Japanese firms 10 per cent. In proportion to the output of manufacturing industry, Britain was ahead of Germany and Japan into the early 1970s. In the mid-1960s, remarkably, British industry was spending roughly the same proportion of its output on R&D as US industry.

One reason that analysts cannot bring them-selves to believe this, is that they assume that the more a country spends on R&D, the faster its economy will grow. This is not the case, and has been known not to be so since the 1960s. Many factors determine the comparative rates of growth of economies; the contribution of R&D is far from being the main one. This was well known to ministers and civil servants in the 1964-70 Labour government's ministry of technology which was, according to Tony Benn, the "first techno-economic ministry in the world." His ministry, at least from 1967, did not believe that Britain was lacking in civil R&D spending by industry.

as the richest country in Europe until the 1960s, Britain spent the most on invention, innovation and R&D. Its higher education was peculiarly committed to science and technology, and its businesses and government had a very high representation of scientists and engineers.

One should not, perhaps, exaggerate contrasts between Britain and other countries. The point is that Britain was not radically different from the main European economies in its attitude to science and technology; such differences as there were suggest British advantages. Nor should we overestimate Britain's place in world technology-this has been the American century. But what is certain is that Britain has been neither particularly anti-science nor anti-industrial.

And yet we have come to believe the opposite. This is partly because Britain's inevitable relative decline has been interpreted as a failure, and this failure has been attributed to shortcomings in science and technology. Such declinism often sounds like the last refuge of great power delusion-the belief that if its research laboratories had been better funded, Britannia would still rule the waves.

Scientists and engineers have advanced these views. Nevertheless, the most articulate spokesmen of declinism, such as Wiener or Barnett, have had backgrounds in the arts. Indeed, of the ten contributors to Suicide of a Nation?, a classic declinist commentary from 1963 (edited by Arthur Koestler), only one was an engineer. Its pages are dominated by Oxbridge arts graduates driven, perhaps, by techno-guilt. So powerful is techno-declinism that believing its arguments is taken as a measure of good citizenship. To challenge it is to be complacent, indifferent to the fate of the nation.

But techno-declinism, far from being an effective lobby for science, is damaging it. Its overwhelming message is that British scientists and engineers are underpaid, have low status, and won't go far in British society. Perhaps many of the most intelligent six-formers have believed them and chosen other careers. Worse still-and I know this from personal experience-many students of engineering really do expect to be looked down on for the rest of their working lives.

One cannot hope to develop decent policies for science and technology, for the universities, or for industry on the basis of lurid historical fantasies. Declinism leads to absurdities such as the DTI running the research budget, even for the social sciences; or the belief that if you get tough with academic scientists and tell them what to do, industrial performance will improve. It also holds out a false promise: if Britain invests a great deal more in R&D, it will regain its former place in the world.

Policy for science and technology should be based on an accurate reading of the historical record, not on a misunderstanding of what happened 30, 90 or even 150 years ago. What hope is there for the public understanding of science when elite understanding is so deficient?