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SZ/CSA - [Chief Scientific Adviser's papers]

Reference code
Level of description
[Chief Scientific Adviser's papers]
Quantity & Format
199 files Mixed
United Kingdom. Chief Scientific Adviser
Zuckerman, Solly,
Administrative/Biographical history
In the early summer of 1959, while in the United Sates as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology, SZ received a letter from the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Sir Richard Powell, asking if he would accept the post of Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry. The present incumbent, Sir Frederick Brundrett, was due to retire at the end of the year.

The choice of SZ was not surprising. Since 1942, when he and his friend Desmond Bernal were recruited by Lord Louis Mountbatten to Combined Operations Headquarters, he had been associated with matters military. In the post-war period he had directed research into the biological effects of blast from nuclear explosions (see Series SZ/BUF), and the design of body armour and the wound ballistics of small arms ammunition, and the detection of land-mines (see series SZ/MOW/1-3). Since 1946 he had been deputy chairman of the ACSP (see Series SZ/ACSP). He was also a member of a number of other advisory bodies. In 1958-1959 he chaired a special group set up by the Air Ministry, the Strategic Scientific Policy Committee, the chief task of which was to consider the future of the British nuclear deterrent (see Series AMSSP). He was, by 1959, a familiar figure in Whitehall with a proven track record.

While SZ was, according to his own account, agonising over whether or not to accept the post, the former Lord Louis Mountbatten, now Earl Mountbatten of Burma and Chief of the Naval Staff, was preparing to take up the role of Chief of the Defence Staff. Unlike SZ he was not afflicted by indecision and made it clear that he wanted to have SZ at his side, and presumably on his side, at the MoD.

SZ lived through interesting times at the MoD. The Ministry of the early 1960s was a mare’s nest of territorial infighting between the Services and project cancellations. The political background was fraught. SZ’s first minister, Duncan Sandys, was firmly aligned with a strategy based on missiles rather than manned aircraft, and deeply disliked in some quarters. The next, Harold Watkinson, struggled to keep the TSR-2 aircraft project alive; his reward was inclusion among those friends whom the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, laid down to save his own (political) life. The third, and the last of the Conservative Ministers of Defence whom SZ served, was Peter Thorneycroft, whose cross was the Skybolt missile.

In 1964 in came a Labour government. SZ’s empire was expanded with his appointment to the dual role of CSA to the MoD and to HM Government as a whole, and head of the scientific civil service. He had achieved a status comparable with the two colossi among scientific advisers, Lord Cherwell and Sir Henry Tizard. The Labour government also brought Dennis Healey to the MoD. He and SZ did not hit it off. The 1965 Defence Review marked the parting of the ways and thereafter SZ operated full-time from the Cabinet Office.

At the Cabinet Office defence, and more especially disarmament, remained major concerns for SZ. He was also now in a more favourable position to promote his own ideas on the organisation of government research. The ACSP went and a Central Advisory Council for Science and Technology (CACST) with broader terms of reference was eventually established, which SZ chaired. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was abolished and the research council system overhauled.

A long-time concern of SZ’s had been the maintenance of a regular supply of well-qualified scientists, engineers and technicians. Elaborate plans were made for higher technological education, strongly influenced by North American models. The Special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research (SISTERS) were a case in point; SZ wanted Britain to have its own MITs.

Between 1964 and his official retirement in 1971 SZ was the government’s scientific trouble-shooter. His role in dealing with the environmental crisis resulting from the grounding of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon in March 1967 is reminiscent of his activities in World War II. Two years later he was urging draconian measures to prevent an outbreak of rabies. He led an enquiry into the organisation of scientific services in NHS hospitals.

The papers in the series described in this guide reflect the variety of issues with which a scientific adviser has to deal; some, like the proliferation of nuclear weapons, of literally earth-shattering dimensions, some simply bizarre. A chief scientific adviser, especially a high-profile one, is a soft target for those given to writing letters characterised by heavy underlining and the use of multi-coloured inks. They also reflect the extraordinary range and complexity of SZ’s multi-national personal network – politicians from both right and left, experts on every subject under the sun, thinkers and doers.

Two strands in particular run through these papers: the quest for an abatement, if not an abolition, of the nuclear arms race; and the U.S./U.K. ‘special relationship'. SZ epitomized the latter and he achieved some small success with the former in the shape of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty of 1963.
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
The series SZ/CSA is made up of files created in SZ’s offices at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Cabinet Office, and the Department of Anatomy, Birmingham University. During their active lives documents and files were regularly moving between all three. This gives the series a distinctly disconnected character. In many cases the contents inter-weave with other series in the Zuckerman Archive.

Files SZ/CSA/1-SZ/CSA/45 were created at the MoD. Files SZ/CSA/46-SZ/CSA/119 are a parallel sequence created in SZ’s Birmingham University office. Files SZ/CSA/120-SZ/CSA/192 were created in the Cabinet Office as ultra-personal files, i.e. they were not given ‘official’ prefixes. Files SZ/CSA/193-SZ/CSA/198 are semi-official files that SZ was allowed to take away on his retirement.
Scope and content
Contains the papers accrued by SZ during his tenure as CSA at the Ministry of Defence (1960-1964) and as CSA to the government as a whole (1964-1971).
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