Flowers Report

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Chapter I: Scope of the Survey

28. One of the first subjects to which the Council for Scientific Policy turned its attention after being set up in January, 1965, was the provision of computers for research in Universities and research establishments financed from Government funds. The increasingly important role of computing in all scientific research, the need for increased capacity and co-ordination of computing facilities if the United Kingdom were to maintains its position in international science, and the considerable expenditure of Government money likely to be incurred in providing adequate computer facilities made this subject of vital importance. The Council considered that an appreciation of current and future needs and facilities for computers for research should be undertaken.

29. The need for informed examination of all proposals for the provision of computing facilities at Universities and other institutes of higher education had already been recognised by the establishment in March, 1964, of an Advisory Panel under the Chairmanship of Sir Willis Jackson, with the following terms of reference:

To consider and advise in the light of available resources the University Grants Committee and the Education Departments (as may be appropriate) on proposals which are referred to them for the provision of computing facilities and related matters in institutions of higher education.

The remaining members of the Panel were Dr. J. Howlett (Atlas Computing Laboratory, Science Research Council), Dr. E. T. Goodwin (National Physical Laboratory), and Professor G. Black (United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and the Manchester College of Science and Technology) together with official assessors. By the beginning of 1965 the experience of this Panel had led it to form the view that the magnitude of some of the proposals for computing facilities was such as to require some degree of overall co-ordination and that a synoptic review of computer needs for research in the universities should be undertaken as a matter of some urgency.

30. The third initiative in this field derived from the Prime Minister's statement on 26th November, 1964 that the Ministry of Technology would be the sponsor Department for the computer industry and that it would also examine what changes might be made in the arrangements for procurement financed by public funds in order to promote technological advance. Sir Willis Jackson's panel had expressed the need for an assurance on the scale of its operations over a reasonably long period, and the idea that there should be a new distribution of computers to the universities and Colleges of Advanced Technology during the next five years as part of the Ministry of Technology's programme to impart new impetus to computing and computers in the United Kingdom was formulated and elaborated by discussions between the Ministry of Technology, the Department of Education and Science and the Treasury.

31. From these origins two major proposals emerged. The Secretary of State for Education and Science requested the Council of Scientific Policy and the University Grants Committee jointly to review requirements for computers for research. Secondly, the Minister of Technology announced a five-year programme of Government finance for computers for research at the Universities and research establishments financed from Government funds. The proposals for the joint review, which were approved by the Council for Scientific Policy and the University Grants Committee, gave the following terms of reference:

To assess the probable computer needs during the next five years of users in Universities and civil research establishments receiving support from Government funds.

Sir Willis Jackson and Professor Flowers were invited to assist in carrying out the appraisal.

32. The decision to undertake this joint review was announced in the House of Commons on 1st March, 1965 by the Minister of Technology in the course of a statement about the computer industry. It was there envisaged that the review would lead to a new five-year programme of procurement which should greatly reinforce the capabilities of the Universities and Research Councils. It was proposed to start the programme at a rate of £2m. a year.

33. In presenting the proposals for a joint review to the Council for Scientific Policy and the University Grants Committee it had been envisaged that the review should entail both study of current needs and a longer term appraisal. Further details for the first stage of the review were discussed at a meeting held at Imperial College on 18th February, between Sir Willis Jackson and Professor Flowers. It was agreed that the review should be made by a group under Professor Flowers comprising the following members:

It was further agreed that Sir Willis Jackson's Panel would be kept informed of the progress of the enquiry, and that the findings and recommendations of the group under Professor Flowers would be considered in conjunction with the Panel. There has therefore been joint discussion and agreement upon the form of presentation of the Report to the sponsoring bodies.

34. Large programmes of research are carried on outside Universities and computer requirements arising from these could not be ignored in any national policy. The Research Councils are involved both through their grants to universities and through work in their own establishments. There are requirements in Technical Colleges and hospitals. Departmental research establishments and research programmes are also involved, as well as the Public Corporations and nationalised industries. In addition it was appreciated that some consideration might in due course be given to the requirements of such bodies as independent research organisations and professional institutions. It was apparent that a comprehensive review of all these requirements would take a considerable time and it was decided, for the present Report, to concentrate on the needs of the Universities and Research Councils, taking some account also of those of Technical Colleges and Scottish Central Institutions. It was decided that the review should concentrate on general facilities for digital computing and should exclude consideration of analogue computers. It also became apparent in the course of the enquiry that requirements for on-line attachment of computers to experimental apparatus were not amenable to assessment and forecast as were more centralised facilities, arising as they did in most cases from particular research projects. Accordingly they are dealt with in this Report only in general terms (see paragraphs 240-242).

35. Evidence on existing facilities and future requirements was obtained in the first instance through the Department of Education and Science from the University Grants Committee and the Research Councils. In particular, we had complete access to all U.G.C. correspondence regarding University applications. Following this, visits were paid by members of the group to selected users and further informal contacts were made, inasmuch as time allowed, to amplify and confirm the needs as expressed in formal proposals or applications. Special attention was given to those whose needs seemed most urgent. The group met ten times, mostly in Manchester at fortnightly intervals, though two all-day sessions were held in London for discussion with representatives from London University and its constituent colleges, and with representatives from Research Councils. In addition discussions lasting two full days were held with representatives of the computer industry, which were organised through the Ministry of Technology. As a result of these meetings and visits further written information was provided to us. Relevant evidence on the situation in Technical Colleges and Scottish Central Institutions was also received as part of the general picture but is not dealt with in detail in the Report except to draw attention to the nature of the problem. In summary, we did not attempt to assess the needs of bodies lying outside the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Education and Science for whom ultimately the review was undertaken.