Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to the Chemical Society and the Royal Institute of Chemistry (honorary fellowship)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: 30 Russell Square, London
Source: Thatcher Archive: transcript
Editorial comments: MT arrived at 1735 and left at 2000.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1696
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Education, Science & technology

Mr. Chairman, I was very happy indeed to accept the invitation of The Chemical Society and of The Royal Institute of Chemistry to become an Honorary Fellow. I note that they are being joined together tonight, I hope for longer than that—after all whom chemistry has joined together, let no Prime Minister put asunder (laughter). You also set very high standards, Mr. Chairman, for a chemist to be in No. 10 Downing Street. I must tell you that one of the first things you find in politics is that it is not nearly as logical as chemistry. You will therefore understand that chemistry is very much easier than politics so I don't necessarily recommend that a large number of other people should follow in my footsteps if they are devoted both to the art and science of logic.

I was really very thrilled to be asked to become an Honorary Fellow of both of these distinguished societies, particularly so as my tutor at Oxford, Dorothy Hodgkin, is also an Honorary Fellow and to be alongside her, I think, is a very, very great honour indeed. I doubt very much when she taught me that she thought she was teaching a future Honorary Fellow, let alone did she think that I would attain that honour by such a circuitous route. Nevertheless, life is full of surprises and I am very happy to receive the double honour. Of course, both societies have a very long history of service to our country, the Chemical Society in its educational activities, in its numerous publications, in its academic standards; and the Royal Institute in its careful stewardship of standards and the status of the professional chemist. I do emphasise today that we live in a world where those whose object is to keep high standards are very sorely needed indeed. It is absolutely vital that we have societies of that kind to keep the highest of professional standards in the work in which we serve. [end p1]

I know that you write me open letters, indeed I am very glad that all letters are not quite so long! I just want you to know that naturally I do read them all and consider them extremely carefully. Science plays such an enormous part in our national life and has really made a unique, and by far the greatest, contribution to the standard of living we now enjoy. Obviously, one must therefore listen to the voices of scientists and pay great attention to what they say.

I remember very well when I was at school and considering what career I should take up. It so happened that like so many others it was largely influenced by the fact that I had an extremely good chemistry teacher who naturally did all the right things in teaching: invoked a sense of curiosity, a sense of excitement, a sense of adventure. I can remember very vividly two things that were instilled into me—if that is the right word to apply to teaching, I'm afraid teachers would be horrified at anything being instilled into people, but I am perpetually grateful that some things were—first, that men and women must always strive to find out and discover the unknown and that when that left life then a great deal of the zest would have left life as well. So long as there were things unknown, one must somehow strive to find out. There was an excitement, a very, very deep instinct in man that you must always try to know what was unknowable and that as you did so you found, not that you knew more, but that your ignorance was the greater because so much more was revealed still to be researched into. That was one thing which I remember vividly. The other thing was that there was a period of tremendous excitement for applications—you know, plastics were going to be the thing of the future. This shows you just how far back I go! There were some new things called ‘thermo-setting’ plastics although really I think we had just about come to thermo-plastics as well. So really this was going to be the life of the future. We knew practically nothing about synthetic fabrics; we knew nothing about the enormous amount of stuff in the kitchen which housewives now take for granted.

We had these two things: the instinct for the basic science and also the tremendous prospect that opened up before us in [end p2] applications, in really serving our fellow men and women and raising the standards of agriculture, farming, husbandry, and in bringing all sorts of new machinery and processes which we thought and hoped would serve mankind.

In the library at Chequers just the other week, I picked up a book which is called, ‘The Living Philosophies of Distinguished Men and Women’. I always thought they were very brave to write their living philosophies. I happened to come across one by Sir James Jeans, written in the late 1920s, because the book was published in the early 30s. One of the things that he pointed out to my intense fascination was that we really get the heat from the sun through the actual destruction of chemical matter, the actual destruction of the atom. I don't think he had actually got around to thermo-nuclear fusion then. Then came a little sentence that if only we could manage to harness the destruction of the atom for the use of man, then really all our technological problems would have been solved and we should come into a life of ease. Well, we did manage to do it but it didn't, in fact, happen that way—yet another of the surprises of chemistry and, of course, the tremendous power that was needed first to smash it and then to harness the power that was released. But that was not really a very long time ago and it shows you just how difficult it is to forecast what will be the results of science in the future.

When I went to the Ministry of Education of Science, I must say I was so very glad that I had had, not merely a science degree, but practice in industry, in pure research, so that one, in fact, did have a scientific background. At that time so many people were saying, “What is science for?” . Well, people like me, with my background, said that quite apart from what it is for there is this always reaching out into the unknown—it is a part of life. But of course one looks to see what is science for. We can't tell what it is for. What I learned from those early years which I took with me into the Ministry of Education and Science, and then to No. 10 Downing Street, is that you must keep your basic research going. As a matter of fact I don't think we would have won the last war unless we had kept our basic research going. We didn't know—even through the miserably poor [end p3] 30s—we didn't know where it would lead, but we still allocated enough resources to allow the freedom of the intellect to flourish which, in fact, gave us the requisite chemistry and physics which were necessary to apply to keep freedom alive in the last war. Now, we never know where the basic research may lead. We never know whether basic research in one thing might come out in a new drug for medicine, or a new seed for agriculture. We certainly don't know where the research we are doing now on the structure of proteins will lead. We only know that we have got to do it, and we only know that we must continue to allocate a certain number of resources to it. After all, if our very much poorer ancestors could do that for us, then we too must continue to do it for future generations.

It is particularly interesting to me tonight that I come here and you really have just the two sides which I have been taught all my life, the academic and the educational and the intellect—that flash of insight which everyone needs for research, which you can't do without, it must flourish. But also you need to keep up the standards in the application and the professional ethics of the person who practises in such a distinguished profession as a chemist.

Now, I do think that as a country we make a tremendous contribution to basic and applied research. I remember again, in my Ministerial years, reading a paper that we British were absolutely superb at research that didn't cost very much money. Of course we were because it was that that did require the inspiration and the insight. But, of course, we do have to join with other nations on the really big fundamental research, like bombarding protons with protons. In my day it was enough if you bombarded atoms with electrons—these days you bombard protons with protons and we might be bombarding something else with something else for all I know now. You do require a great deal of power to do it; you do require a great deal of money. I am very glad that we too, have made a tremendous contribution in the international organisation of chemistry. Now, that might be physics but you will understand that as a chemist, I call all science chemistry! Everything in the end [end p4] gets down to chemistry. It doesn't matter, you can go down to the deep nucleus or into the deep sky, in the end it is all about chemistry. So, I think we are fortunate in that way that we can claim some reflected glory from all the ?s …   . ? discovery.

But in chemistry in particular we do hold outstanding positions in basic science, in fields such as catalysis, in protein crystallography which, of course, I learned very much from Dorothy Hodgkin. In my day with her we were working on a molecule called gramicidin S. We thought it was the simplest nuclear protein but it turned out to be one of the most complicated and the structure took 30 years to get out. She did it, I didn't! And, of course, we are foremost in exciting new areas, such as the advanced techniques in genetics, and also things like solid state physics where there is a very substantial British presence, such as that of Professor Brian Josephson who, while still a student, predicted an effect which has already found a wide range of applications in electrical engineering and computing. So we are still right up in the forefront and I think we must still stay there. Professor Josephson received a Nobel Prize at the age of 33, and again, it is of very great interest to me that proportionately, for its population, this country has, I think, the highest number of Nobel Prizes of any country in the world. That speaks remarkably well for this particular combination that we have of intellectual freedom, personal initiative, personal responsibility, a combination which it is, as you know, my duty, and I hope my destiny, to try to preserve, or should I say conserve, for Britain.

So I hope you will know that I am wholly committed to British science by inclination and instinct, by having had just a little experience of both, its basic, fundamental research and its applications, and by observing its tremendous benefits to our people. I am very happy to be here tonight to repeat that dedication to the things which you serve and to wish you well in this great thermo-nuclear fusion which you are going to undertake.

Thank you.