Adam Hunter – 1978 Speech on Computer Macrosystems

Below is the text of the speech made by Adam Hunter, the then Labour MP for Dunfermline, in the House of Commons on 1 August 1978.

The House will agree that we have waited a very long time for this Adjournment debate. It has been a long, long night. However, I am glad indeed to be able to raise this subject even at this hour. This matter is of great relevance to the public. However, I am always surprised to find that so few people in Government and outside it are interested in the subject of computer macrosystems.

The Minister must think it strange that an hon. Member with my industrial background should want to debate computer macrosystems. I do not blame him for that. His Department will know, however, that I have dared to venture into this area of information retrieval services over a period of years. I have asked Questions and have corresponded with the Secretary of State for Education and Science and officials of the British Library. But it has not been possible to elicit what success research and development in computerised information services for science and technology have achieved or what the costs would be if the British Library automated information service materialised.

I have no particular interest in this subject. The debate stems from a constituency interest. The Scientific Documentation Centre is in my constituency. The research director of that centre has been battling for years to prove that manually operated retrieval services are more efficient and less costly than computerised systems.

The centre has been established for 15 years. In its first 10 years it set up five major information retrieval projects. First, it set up the largest British information base of its kind, containing 1,500,000 coded references. These cover most of the subjects of spectrometry, analytical chemistry, computers and related subjects, information retrieval librarianship and about 40 narrower subjects. Secondly, this information base can be used for retrospective searches, which have the same cost effectiveness ​ advantage as the SDC’s current awareness services.

Thirdly, this information base can supply complete bibliographies covering whole subject sections with the same cost effectiveness advantage as the SDC’s current awareness services. Fourthly, the SDC has collected the largest generally available collection of spectra and spectral data. A complete range of spectra services operate from this spectra data base. Fifthly, the SDC’s current awareness and SDI services give higher recall than their computerised equivalents at lower unit costs. They supply more users than any of the Government-subsidised SDI services.

The long-term aim of the SDC is to become established as a major supplier of scientific information. To do that, it is necessary for it to transform part of its information base to the indexing of publications. That requires money and is one reason for the debate.

Being funded by taxpayers’ money through the allocation of grants from the British Library research and development department would not be desired by the SDC if it were not for the fact that the British Library research and development department’s grants go to organisations to assist them with research and development of computer information retrieval services. If other systems are to receive financial support, why should not the SDC receive support? Why is there this unfair competition? Why should not the SDC get support for research in order to compare costs of the different methods of handling information?

The office of scientific and technical information, a Government Department, spent large sums of public money on certain computerised information projects, especially those produced by the United Kingdom Chemical Information Service. Dr. Davison, the research director of the SDC, has constantly criticised this information service. From evidence, it seems that the SDC was able to compete successfully with the United Kingdom Chemical Information Service as long ago as 1974. The OSTI has now disappeared. I understand that its staff was transferred to the research and development department of the British Library.

Policies do not appear to have changed. Several reports have been published. One, ​ the Oxford evaluation, did not comment favourably on the work that UKCIS contributed over a period of time. It showed up the ineffectiveness of the work relative to other services. The SDC’s experience with the British Library research and development department has been no different from what it was with OSTI. The nature of complaints voiced by the SDC remain the same.

Over many years, several Secretaries of State for the Department of Education and Science have been involved. The present Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State when I asked a Question in the House about this matter. A considerable number of issues give me reason for concern about how the present position has arisen.

For example, the Oxford evaluation showed the advantages of systems based on people as against computers. It cost the Department over £40,000, and probably more. It has never been published because the Department would not insist on misleading statements supporting the removal of the computer systems. The Oxford and Birmingham reports, which were paid for from departmental funds, hide the advantages of manual systems and show the Department’s pro-computer policy to be ill based.

A recent report blithely claims economic viability within three to five years for a computer on-line network which the British Library has supported. The same type of claim was, no doubt, made frequently of the Swansea centre when it was opened. A recent report, supporting computerised veterinary information services, concludes that all information is recorded already and will be available through the network. The report also admits on the same page that no system is able to provide all the material that the scientists want and which is known to exist.

High expenditure on computer systems from the Department of Education and Science by OSTI and by the British Library research and development department over a decade has been accompanied by a refusal of funds for competing systems based on people. This is despite substantial independent evidence that systems operated by people are much more efficient in retrieving the information required.

Are the Department and the British Library research and development department in a position to deny that 61 per cent. of the money awarded by the funding Department was, in one five-year period alone, awarded to organisations associated with participants on the committee at the head of that funding Department? If not, it means that 61 per cent. of funds was awarded to people with an organisational, financial interest. I am sure the Minister will agree that in most situations this would nut be allowed.

The Department awarded 61 per cent. of its funds to organisations associated with a tiny select body of information scientists on its principal committee, but there was no representation from the one organisation in the United Kingdom which has specialised in this work for 15 years —far longer than any of these computer systems have existed. Indeed, ideas initiated in grant applications from this body, seem, after rejection by the Department, to have been supported later in organisations associated with members of the controlling committee of the funding Department. If such a state of affairs exists, can we be surprised that my constituent condemns the grant allocation system?

I have written many letters to officials engaged in the funding Department asking questions in an effort to establish whether the refereeing committees awarding these grants were truly independent, but I have received no satisfactory answer. This can be compared with a situation in a local authority where a secret committee of unnamed people was allowed to allocate the authority’s tenders. That comparable state of affairs would not be tenable in any local authority. Why should it be acceptable in a funding Department using taxpayers’ money?

Is the Minister of State able to comment on a report coming from a recent official meeting of British users of online systems at which one of the main speakers supporting the British Government-funded on-line system made an extraordinary statement about objectionable pressures being put on staff to use on-line computer systems when otherwise they would not have used them? At the same meeting, one of the operators of a Government-supported American-based on-line computer system was astonishingly ​ critical of the quality of the data bases available by computer.

It has been drawn to my notice that evidence is available regarding a degree of censorship by the British Library or its officials of a report highly critical of a senior official who made allegedly untrue, misleading and damaging statements in this controversy. The suggestion of such a thing happening should be enough for my hon. Friend the Minister of State to emphasise the seriousness of censorship to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, especially when it is levelled at an organisation such as the British Library which controls the nation’s storehouse of scientific and technical knowledge.

The time is too short and the complexity of the subject so great that I am unable to treat it in as detailed a fashion as I should like. I trust that, from what I have said, the Minister of State can recommend to the Secretary of State that a public inquiry is essential to throw proper light on these matters, to ensure that any faults in the past are removed and to ensure that future policy on support for computer systems and research and development for them is properly in the public interest.

It is accepted today that employment and social values are of high importance. To continue a policy which uses substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money to build computer systems to put people out of work and which do the job more expensively and less effectively than the people they replace is completely against common sense.

No doubt, many who read my part in this debate will call it Ludditism. It certainly is not. The debate is necessary simply to show that not all computerised systems are effective or cheap to run. Computer systems will tend to be successful and economic in situations where the data or information which they hold is used frequently. They will tend to be unsuccessful and too expensive for situations where data or information is used infrequently. They will tend to be successful in dealing with material in respect of which the unit manipulated is short, and unsuccessful and very expensive when dealing with material in respect of which the unit manipulated is long.

I have asked questions also about telecommunication on-line costs in order to gather information about on-line systems, particularly abroad, and the answer which I received from the Minister of State, Civil Service Department, was not very good. Not only has my constituent been complaining about the cost of telecommunication on-line systems, but other people are now writing or telephoning to me from the London area to say how wrong my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was to reply as he did. It seems, therefore, that even in America computer systems are very costly, and I understand that the cost of searching for data or information from any of the great American computer centres is extremely high.

I conclude with something which someone has already said to me—”Employ jobless graduates, not mindless computers.”