The Royal Society and the ‘brain drain’: natural scientists meet social science

Brian Balmer, Matthew Godwin, Jane Gregory


Although concerns about the loss of British scientists to the USA and elsewhere grew slowly throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the Royal Society's 1963 report on the emigration of scientists sparked a very public debate about the ‘brain drain’. This paper concentrates on the Society's key role in creating focus and impetus for the debate through the report and questionnaire survey that informed it. In this engagement with social science research, the tension between the Society's political neutrality, as a representative of science, and political intervention, as an advocate for science, manifested itself in the planning, execution and reporting of its study on scientific migration.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Royal Society's relationship with central government was often problematic. Science was a high-profile political issue during this period, bound up in complex ways with issues of modernity, economic strength, and national status. The Society sat awkwardly within this landscape, a conservative organization often defensive of its autonomy and critical of government involvement in science, and yet equally concerned to try to win increased government support and funding. The Society's 1963 report on the emigration of scientists—which sparked the so-called ‘brain drain’ debate during the 1960s—should therefore be understood in this context, with the Society's concerns and priorities being shaped by its desire to raise awareness of the emigration issue, but coupled with a sense of political caution.1 This awkwardness can be seen in the standoffish way in which the senior officers of the Society were dismissive of the government's main advisory body on civil science, the Advisory Council on Science Policy (ACSP). Although comprising Royal Society Fellows (and indeed also chaired by successive FFRS), the ACSP was viewed unfavourably by the Society, undoubtedly because it formed, in effect, a rival body for the ear of government.

There have been several important contributions to our understanding of the relationship between science and the state in 1960s Britain, although with little focus on professional bodies such as the Royal Society.2 Elsewhere we have provided a broad overview of the ‘brain drain’ debate of the 1960s.,3 This article concentrates more narrowly on the important role of the Society in creating focus and impetus for the debate. In particular, we show how the Society conducted the survey of university departments that formed the basis of its report Emigration of scientists from the United Kingdom. We argue that the tension between its political neutrality, as the representative of science, and political intervention, as an advocate for science, manifested itself in the planning, execution and reporting on the Society's study of the problem of scientific emigration.

A subsidiary argument relates to the relatively unusual situation of natural scientists conducting a survey—that is, doing social-scientific research. Although debates about the neutrality and role of social science are normally regarded as the preserve of the academic seminar room, similar debates had also played out in postwar Britain among academics and civil servants, and were rarely conducted in the abstract. Deliberation about the amount and mode of government funding for social science in the UK was instead intimately bound up with discussions about whether good social science was synonymous with social science useful for planning.4 This, in turn, had opened a flood-gate for the discussion of foundational issues in social science, such as whether its methods should ape the natural sciences, what counted as social science, and whether social science would mature from political bias to true neutrality. These issues were resolved through what Donovan terms ‘everyday epistemology’, where ‘theories of knowledge are not confined to a transcendental philosophical realm, but are grounded in routine scientific and social scientific practice’.,5 Donovan employs the term to illuminate how postwar social science in the UK has been governed through the everyday epistemologies of non-social scientists, whose assumptions about the role and purpose of social science became surrogates for philosophical debate in the formulation of research policy for the social sciences. Here we extend Donovan's notion of everyday epistemology, to argue that the practical resolution of foundational issues in the emigration study was simultaneously a practical resolution of the institutional tensions apparent in the scientific and political roles of the Royal Society.

Migration and the development of postwar science

Concern about the effects of emigrating scientists first surfaced within Whitehall during 1952 in the context of postwar planning for a dramatic expansion of the science base. The locus of this activity was the ACSP, which had come into being in 1947 charged with the future direction of government civil science policy. The early monitoring of migration at the ACSP was piecemeal and based largely on anecdote, although a couple of limited surveys of university chemistry and physics departments were undertaken during the mid 1950s. These had been initiated by chemist Alexander (later Lord) Todd FRS, who became chair of the ACSP in 1952 and who was a prominent figure in science policy during the Tory administration (he stepped down from the ACSP in 1964 after Labour's election victory, because he disagreed with Labour policy). The results of Todd's early surveys were ambiguous, but by 1958 the general sense of concern was such that a recruitment panel known as the Hoff Boards (after its chairman Harry Hoff) was assembled to travel to North America (by far the leading destination for émigré scientists) to recruit back British scientists.

By 1959 science was a highly politicized issue. This was an election year in which science had played a small but prominent role, with the Conservative Party under Harold Macmillan pledging to create a new Minister specifically for science. This was largely a response to the Labour Party's increasing criticism of government science policy. After winning the election in October 1959, the Conservative administration appointed Lord Hailsham (FRS 1973) as Minister for Science. This was attacked by the Labour Party for being an empty gesture, because Hailsham had already held responsibility for science before the election in his capacity as Lord President of the Council. On assuming the new position, Hailsham pledged to adopt (or maintain) an essentially laissez-faire attitude to science, believing that scientists were best left to their own devices.

However, by the late 1950s the Treasury was beginning to press for increased control over government science spending and a better means of setting priorities. By 1962 the government had announced a review of the organization of civil science (the Trend Report) as the civil science policy machinery was becoming increasingly difficult to operate. In particular, the ACSP came in for growing criticism as being a toothless body with only an advisory remit. The ACSP had itself acknowledged its own shortcomings in its 1961 annual report. As a result, science and the management of science were significant and high-profile areas of policy.6 Specifically, the emigration of scientists had started to attract public attention, with at least 20 letters and articles published on the subject in national newspapers after 1955.,7

Planning the emigration study

It was in the context of these developments that the Council of the Royal Society considered and accepted a proposal to gather information on the emigration of scientists when it met on 11 January 1962.8 Although the sequence of events is largely coincidental, a move to study the brain drain at this juncture clearly had political implications. To what extent the Royal Society Council intended this is difficult to determine because of the lack of any direct documentary evidence and the somewhat measured nature of the relevant Royal Society Council minutes. Similarly we have not found evidence of any meetings taking place between the Society and the government, either officially or unofficially. This might seem odd given the implications for science policy. One could speculate that at an individual level some discussion may have taken place, but on the whole it seems that the Society compiled the report quietly and independently of Whitehall consultation. Undoubtedly it must have been known that a report on the emigration of scientists at this time was guaranteed to draw attention. Our knowledge of wider Royal Society–government relations at this time does offer some possible insight, although again this is an area in which documentary evidence is limited and is largely only available from government records. What we do know is that in the build-up to the study the Society had had several awkward confrontations with the government. In the mid 1950s, the Treasury (the Society's sponsoring Department) had signalled its intention to channel any increased funding for science through the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, rather than the Society, threatening the latter's role as a funding agency for science.,9 Then in early 1962 the Society held a meeting with the Treasury to report that there was ‘at present a malaise among scientists in this country’, apparently because of a perceived breakdown in communications with the government. Sir Howard (later Lord) Florey, President of the Royal Society, complained that the Society was being called on less often to offer its advice. Florey indicated that he had ‘felt somewhat affronted when he was recently told by the Lord President that the latter must, for reasons of protocol, look for professional advice primarily to the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy’. The Society also complained that the ACSP ‘is not in fact a very effective body’, and furthermore that ‘a large part of its ineffectiveness is due to the fact that many of its members give no more time to the papers coming forward for discussion than they can give in reading them in the train on the way up to a meeting.’ These were clearly harsh words from the senior officer of the Society, and they indicate the political problems facing it at the time of the Emigration Report.,10

In the light of this relationship with Whitehall, it is interesting that the Royal Society chose Sir Gordon Sutherland FRS, who straddled the worlds of science and government, as chairman for its study of emigration. Sutherland was Director of the National Physical Laboratory, and so was a government employee. He had taken up the post on returning from a professorial position at Ann Arbor in the USA in 1956, a university position he had held since 1949.11 He was therefore a former émigré himself, although he had always planned to return once a suitable vacancy arose. So Sutherland's appointment can be seen as a shrewd move by the Society, given the tense political atmosphere.

Of the seven-man ad hoc committee selected to conduct the study, only one was not a Fellow of the Royal Society. Professor David Glass (FRS 1971), a demographer at the London School of Economics (LSE), had been invited to provide his expertise in social statistics to the group of natural scientists.12 Glass was a leading proponent of the then widely held view among government and social researchers that social science could and should be directly applicable to government planning.,13 He was also in correspondence with another Fellow, the biologist Peter (later Sir Peter) Medawar at Oxford, attempting to raise the status of demography with support from the Society. There had been talk of the Society's seeking charitable funds to establish a university chair in demography. Glass had argued differently, that demography was less in need of recognition than other social sciences and consequently that the Society should support social sciences, sociology in particular, in broader ways such as through symposia.,14 Medawar, who also conveyed his views to Florey, had responded that symposia and other meetings could be seen as additional to a chair. However, he added, ‘I just don't see the R.S. supporting Criminology or Social Psychology, etc. Demography is to be thought of as the thin end of the wedge’.,15

Glass's demography was therefore thought to be just sufficiently rigorous, quantitative and scientific to be of use to the Royal Society. Glass had already scouted out a study done at Harwell, the main site of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, on the migration of UK physicists and also a proposed study by the government's Social Survey on scientists’ career choices, which would cover graduates with first-class or second-class honours degrees in pure science and engineering over the previous five years. It might, Glass suggested, be possible to meet the requirements of the Society by adding questions to this survey to cover scientists with higher degrees. This option, both he and Florey recognized, would trade off expediency—saving the Society time and effort in gathering data—with credibility, or as Glass phrased it: ‘… an inquiry launched under the auspices of the Royal Society would probably carry greater weight with individual scientists than a questionnaire sent out by a Government Department’.16

The ad hoc committee members discussed this possibility further at their first meeting on 27 February 1962. Little was resolved there, although after the meeting both Sutherland and Glass contacted the head of the Social Survey, who confirmed his willingness to cooperate, and at no extra cost.17

Several other choices faced the committee. They initially decided to cover five subjects: physics, chemistry, biochemistry, electrical engineering and aeronautical engineering. On the question of whom to survey, ‘what was needed was information about first class researchers’,18 defined as those with PhDs or, in fields such as engineering where PhDs were less common, those with experience equivalent to a PhD. The committee also planned to gather separate information from first degree holders, although this was later dropped as it was thought too demanding for universities to supply. One more decision was taken at the meeting: to limit the study to a count of émigrés and not to probe—at least in this study—into the reasons why scientists had gone abroad.

Although Glass was present at the first meeting, on receiving the minutes he raised objections to the decision to gather only quantitative data. Writing to Florey shortly afterwards, he described this objective of the study as ‘limited’ and added: A mere count of numbers would not in itself be very revealing …. The question is not simply whether scientists are going abroad in search of better opportunities—one of the normal causes of emigration—but whether also they are leaving Britain because of unnecessarily restricted opportunities, blockages and frustrations.19

Glass continued in this letter to urge both the involvement of the government's Social Survey and for the survey to gather information on reasons for leaving the country. Florey, who had elsewhere, in connection with Glass's proposals for sociology and the Royal Society, described him as ‘possibly a rather unpractical type of person’, was not swayed.20 Certainly, Glass's suggestions for the survey were not implemented. Although the scope of the study broadened considerably over the next few months from the initial five disciplines, and to cover all countries, not just the USA and Canada, in other respects the aims remained tightly focused on head-counting, and the study remained firmly under the auspices of the Society.,21

Counting émigré scientists

On 1 June 1962 a circular was sent to all Fellows of the Society and all university Vice-Chancellors alerting them to the survey, and on 4 June the questionnaire asking about emigration of scientists was sent out to 563 individuals designated as heads of department in 425 science and engineering departments around Britain. Encouraging their participation, the covering letter informed respondents of the possible predicament with emigration but equally acknowledged the lack of information with which to gauge the situation: Grave concern has been expressed in many quarters at the continual loss of British scientists and engineers through emigration, especially to the United States of America. Unfortunately no one knows the exact extent of this loss, how permanent it is, nor whether it is still increasing. The correspondence in The Times over the past few months indicates clearly the divergence of opinion on the estimates of numbers emigrating, and the need for reliable figures is evident.22

The attached questionnaire was fairly straightforward, requesting three lists from each head of department: the total PhDs awarded by year over the past 10 years, together with a list of those who had emigrated; PhDs on Fellowships abroad since 1957; and university staff who had emigrated since 1952.23 Even this limited information was not immediately to hand within some departments. One letter to Sutherland, from Frederick Brewer of the Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory at Oxford, asked for a stay of execution of the 30 June deadline, and complained of the work involved in compiling the statistics. Brewer, recognizing the lobbying role that the survey could play, added: If you persuade the Government to give us a little more money we might of course engage staff to handle such queries, and we might even be able to prevent the flow of scientists away from our starving universities.24

The overall response to the questionnaire was gratifying: replies were received from 96% of the 563 people contacted. Although this response rate was clearly excellent, the committee quickly recognized limitations to the data. In a detailed report on the questionnaire returns up to 20 September, Sutherland pointed out that although there was a distinct and upward trend of PhDs emigrating to the USA, this would have been exaggerated because the figures for earlier years were bound to be incomplete. To complicate matters further, 41 out of 425 departments did not supply numbers on the total PhDs awarded in the previous decade. With fellowships, Sutherland noted that ‘it is not easy for departmental heads to provide full and accurate records of their graduates who go abroad on fellowships and short-term appointments’.25 Indeed, of the 1023 PhDs in the survey who had taken fellowships abroad since 1957, 139 had definitely not returned; however, no location had been provided for 357 itinerant scientists.

It is likely that, beyond the survey, other scientists fed information to the ad hoc committee. For example, John Kendrew FRS, deputy chairman of the Cambridge Laboratory of Molecular Biology, had conducted his own survey, which indicated that more than half of the British scientists in the USA had no intention of returning.26 Kendrew passed his data directly to the committee. Sutherland also made an attempt to compare the Royal Society figures with other data sources including the records of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Hoff Boards, and a list of 71 prominent scientists who had emigrated to the USA issued by the Institute of Physics and the Physical Society. In all cases there were discrepancies, with several names appearing on one source but not the other. The ACSP annual report of 1956–57 had recorded figures for postgraduate physicists and chemists leaving for the USA from 1950 to 1956 but, unlike the Society, had not specified a doctorate as the threshold qualification for inclusion in their figures. By November 1962, the ad hoc committee had obtained data from the University Grants Committee (UGC) on the total number of PhDs awarded and compared their emigration figures with the Society figures. They concluded that emigration stood at 13% if calculated with UGC figures, and 19% if calculated with the Society figures.,27

Apart from numbers, data on the quality of the emigrants were impressionistic. In his interim report, Sutherland supplied a list of 21 FFRS who had recently emigrated, also pointing out that the PhD emigrants belonged to the top 13% of British graduates, and added that ‘several heads of departments have remarked in letters accompanying their returns that we seem to be losing an unduly high proportion of the best people’.28 In short, then, the ad hoc committee of the Royal Society quickly recognized that both their quantitative and qualitative data were not watertight.

The report on the emigration of scientists from the UK

During the next few months, the ad hoc committee took several decisions about the format for their public report on the survey. Each change was relatively minor but amounted to a ‘framing’ of the report. The dominant frame of the report was less about a full and complete social scientific study, and far more about provoking a wider discussion.

In November 1962 the ad hoc committee agreed that the report needed to include a statement about the quality of emigrants. They agreed to make explicit in the final report that the enquiry had been restricted to PhDs, ‘scientists of very high quality’ whose loss ‘left serious gaps behind them’.29 And on similar lines they also agreed to mention the permanent positions held by outstanding scientists, including Fellows of the Royal Society, in the United States and the serious difficulties which had been caused by their emigration, as this would counter the argument which had been put forward that only those of mediocre quality emigrated.30

Although these comments were judgements about the scientists that went beyond a simple head count, it is also clear that the committee considered it beyond their remit to make recommendations about the situation. Indeed, normative statements would weaken the status of the report as an apparently neutral set of social scientific observations endorsed by natural scientists. For example, although there had been reports that job advertisements to recruit scientists back to the UK only appeared in the USA when the deadlines were looming or had passed, the committee resisted issuing advice on the matter: It was decided that no mention should be made in the Report of the committee's views on possible improvements in the circulation of information about posts in the United Kingdom to people abroad as this would only weaken the Report which should only establish the facts on emigration.31

This concern for stating just the facts was less apparent at the level of the Royal Society Council, which asked Sutherland to consider including a mention in the report that scientific migration had an economic cost to the UK, and that it also effectively subsidized US science.32

The ad hoc committee and other officers of the Society made further exclusions from the report. Detailed statements that revealed the discrepancies between the ACSP and Royal Society figures were removed, and the committee agreed to introduce a bland statement that the figures were ‘not strictly comparable’. In the published report this became a bolder statement, both on the ACSP data and on a more recent National Science Foundation report, that ‘none of these sources of information suggests that the emigration of scientists from the United Kingdom is any less than our own survey demonstrates’. The reach of the enquiry was further self-limited by the committee, whose members decided it was ‘not worthwhile’ to pursue a further study into reasons why emigration took place, although Sutherland agreed to collate information from the letters he had received along with the questionnaire returns.

One glaring weakness in the report was that there was no way of balancing emigration against immigration of scientists. At the time that the report was released, Florey was trying to secure some figures on immigration. Tony Sargeaunt, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Home Office, had produced some rough figures for scientists immigrating from beyond the Commonwealth. These were of little use because it proved impossible to say how many had stayed permanently; in addition, the figures referred to those with a first degree, thus rendering them incompatible with the Royal Society data.33

Therefore, once the various considerations had been addressed, the substance of the report showed that, after a study of a 10-year period from May 1952, the annual emigrations of recent PhDs was at least 140 a year (or 12% of total output). Of these, 60 went to the USA, 20 to Canada, 35 to other Commonwealth countries and 25 to other countries. The number of permanent emigrants with a recent PhD had increased by a factor of about three in the decade 1952–61. If one were to include those going temporarily, the annual number of recent PhDs going to the USA was at least 260, or more than 22% of the total output. The annual permanent emigration of university staff was about 60 a year, or 1% of the total staff in the subjects investigated (these numbers had purportedly increased threefold). Of these, 25 went to the USA, 25 to Canada and 10 to other countries. The total permanent emigration of PhDs and university staff to the USA was therefore estimated to be at least 83 a year. On the quality of staff leaving, the Royal Society noted that in the previous five years the UK had lost nine Royal Society Fellows.34

The penultimate paragraph of the introduction was entitled ‘Cost to the United Kingdom’. In line with the earlier request from Royal Society Council to include this section, the paragraph noted the loss of ‘potential benefit to the country’ from emigration and the ‘considerable sums’ spent in educating emigrant scientists, although it also acknowledged that no reliable figure existed for what this sum amounted to. It also bemoaned the economic loss, the loss of leadership, and the loss of creative contributions to science and technology for the country.

From emigration to ‘brain drain’

The immediate impact of the Royal Society report was considerable, prompting debates in the House of Lords and in the press. In the Lords debate directly after the report's publication, the Minister for Science, Lord Hailsham, evoked the Americans' ‘parasitising’ of British brains. In the press the report was also seized upon, with the Evening Standard coining the phrase ‘brain drain’ (although it is often attributed to Hailsham).

There is evidence that government was not the only audience intended for the report. Soon after publication, Royal Society officers set up a media-monitoring exercise to gauge any wider attention that the emigration report had attracted. Their undated report on this exercise contains no details of how it was carried out, but it records that they had found press coverage in all national daily newspapers and the major weeklies, with minimum figures of coverage in 16 daily papers, 4 weekly papers and 10 periodicals.35 The wider scientific community had taken note of the report, signalled by the mention of a leading article in Nature published on 30 March. The report also mentioned immediate radio and television coverage, including an interview with Sutherland, in the days after the release of the report.36 A final indicator that the report had reached a wider audience was that by the end of August it had sold 542 copies, including orders from overseas. In the longer term, coverage of the emigration issue shot up, with The Times, for example, publishing 65 articles in the year after the report, in contrast with just five in the preceding year.37

In the immediate aftermath of the report, Hailsham requested that the ACSP consider its findings and, additionally, advise on measures to stem the flow of scientists. His letter to Todd, the chairman of the ACSP, suggested a cautious line on the severity of the situation: My own view is that in modern conditions nothing but good can come from a free interchange of scientists … between all civilized countries. But clearly a net emigration of scientists (except perhaps in discharge of our duty towards less developed nations) gives rise to problems of policy which Government would do well to consider seriously.38

Sutherland and his committee were duly invited to attend the next meeting of the ACSP at the beginning of April. Keen not to be too closely associated with the ACSP, the internal response within the Royal Society was that ‘there was no point in the R.S. submitting to being summoned to the ACSP at frequent intervals, but there is no harm in Sutherland going along’.39

‘Emigration of scientists’ was almost the only substantial item on the meeting agenda, and Sutherland later described a wide-ranging debate, in which the committee members seemed very concerned, but during which no final conclusions were drawn.40 Few conclusions, but certainly a number of themes, were drawn out of this initial discussion that would become important signals of the divergence between the Royal Society and the ACSP. The accuracy of the Society's figures was discussed—in particular whether any figures for immigration could be obtained to balance the Society's emigration figures. A second theme, which developed over successive ACSP meetings, was their remit to consider scientific manpower beyond the universities. Indeed, over the next few ACSP meetings, the Society's concentration on elite university science came to be seen as a definite shortcoming.

Todd's written reply to Hailsham went through several revisions, and the final version was circulated to ACSP members at the end of May. The seven-page report finished with a summary of possible government action to stem emigration, including a review of university salaries, the speeding-up of decisions on research grant applications, increases in budgets and numbers of technical personnel, and the award of a small cache of postdoctoral fellowships intended to be offered before the departure of outstanding scientists and taken up on their return from a spell abroad. Todd made clear that these recommendations applied narrowly to universities, and added: The Royal Society report is, of course, essentially concerned with emigration from Universities: moreover it is only in this sphere, and in government departments, that direct government action would appear to be feasible. But the emigration problem is much wider than this.41

Todd continued by noting that there should be some concentration on ‘those sectors which are most likely to contribute to our economic progress e.g. metallurgy, solid-state physics, electronics, chemistry and applied biology’.42 Other fields, such as high-energy nuclear physics and space research, he added, were expensive, and the UK would never be competitive with the USA. The report finished by underlining this shift of emphasis away from universities and towards more general efforts that would improve the economy. In this respect, Todd argued: Universities must produce trained people of the highest quality to work in and with industry. Current statistics are disturbing in that they indicate that the number of technologists, and especially engineers, that we are producing is low relative to pure scientists.43

Todd allowed Sutherland to show his report to the Royal Society ad hoc committee and to Florey in strict confidence. Sutherland considered that this might prompt a second ad hoc committee report, which would remain internal to the Society. Florey was more dismissive, writing to the chairman: I suppose Todd's document will do no harm but I do not think it will do much good. He seems to be trying to say that all this has been thought out before. All the things he is recommending have, of course, been said many times before, I suppose it can do no harm to say them again.44

Florey, in the same letter, was equally dismissive of a request from the ACSP to compile figures on the immigration of scientists from the Commonwealth. Todd had asked Sutherland to carry out the study for political reasons—that is, to avoid the appearance of engineered complacency. Todd confessed that ‘if I make a move to get this done in Whitehall, suspicions are likely to be aroused that the information is being done to justify inaction, however unfounded this suspicion is’.45 Florey's opinion was that such a large-scale study would be better delegated to a government body, with the Society possibly providing advice.,46

Although the Society rejected the ACSP's request for continued research, the ad hoc committee did return to Glass's suggestion of ascertaining scientists’ reasons for emigrating. Data from 42 letters received by Sutherland in the course of the survey were collated; additional data, both quantitative and qualitative, were obtained from a 1962 survey in four US universities by Walter Gratzer, a biophysicist at King's College, London, and finally information was collated from 32 letters in The Times and the Guardian. All these data indicated that higher salaries, better equipment, higher status and better promotion prospects, together with a ‘more expansive and progressive atmosphere in the US’, were the chief reasons for emigrating. The final, rather fuzzy, category was exemplified by a statement from the Gratzer survey by an émigré scientist with 20 years’ experience, who first pointed out the wider research horizons and higher standard of living in the USA and then added, ‘I would suggest that come-home advertisements (eg in the Scientific American) showing a typical British scene consisting of a bus-stop and a row of semi-detached houses, are liable to provoke revulsion rather than nostalgia’.47

One further issue in the aftermath of the report's publication was the reliability of the statistics in it. Sutherland, we have seen, had almost immediately pointed out that the earlier figures of PhD emigrants might be less reliable. This was underlined when Frank Yates FRS, head of statistics at Rothamsted Experimental Station for agricultural research, contacted Sutherland to question whether the number of PhD emigrants would have been underestimated in the earlier years covered by the study, because the questionnaire had asked only for information on scientists who had obtained their PhD in 1952 or later, ignoring those who might have obtained a PhD earlier but emigrated in those early years covered by the survey. In a note to the ad hoc committee, Sutherland conceded that the Royal Society's report would have exaggerated the increase over 10 years, but added that the trends shown on their graphs would not be seriously in error.

Towards the end of the year, the Royal Society retreated from further action on the ‘brain drain’. The report had done its job and set a wider discussion in motion, and it seems that is the full extent to which the Society wanted to be involved with the issue. This is demonstrated by its reluctance to do any systematic follow-up studies on immigration or any more than Sutherland's collation on scientists’ motives for emigrating. Council agreed in November to push the government for better figures on emigration and immigration, and to assist with, but not undertake, an assessment of the quality of emigrants. But it added, ‘Only if no action is taken within six months by H. M. Government should the ad hoc Committee be asked to reconsider the question of any further enquiry to be taken by the Royal Society’.48

To meet this contingency, the ad hoc committee was not dissolved, but it had already held what turned out to be its last formal meeting on 26 September. A short time afterwards, R. V. Jones FRS of the University of Aberdeen sent a copy of a document entitled ‘Problems facing university physics departments’ to the Royal Society. The tellingly short response was a polite ‘thank you’ followed by the single declaration that: ‘Enough heat now seems to have been generated for all political parties to be interested in science’.49 And a few months later, Florey provided a similarly brusque response to a far longer letter by Oxford mathematician J. M. Hammersley (FRS 1976) on what was now firmly entitled the ‘brain drain’. Hammersley, also known for his forthright views on mathematics education, had prompted his vice-chancellor to write a letter to The Times on the horrors of the brain drain and was adamant that Florey should do likewise, insisting: It seems to me important that the enemy should receive a number of heavy calibre shells simultaneously; and I venture to suggest that you as President of the Royal Society, might also be willing to send a letter to the Times.50

Bemoaning Conservative inaction on the one hand, Hammersley also attacked Labour's proposed expansion of undergraduate places for prioritizing teaching above research. Research, he argued, had incontestable economic benefits and insisted that The public must understand that adequate finance for university research is a national investment … and this is to be distinguished clearly from charitable payments by the taxpayer for Tom, Dick and Harry to acquire an indifferent veneer of undergraduate culture at expanding Redbrick.51

Florey, adopting a similar tone to that used on Jones, simply thanked Hammersley for his letter and accompanying notes, adding: ‘I am not a great believer in letters to the Times and think there are other ways of influencing Government policy’.52


The Royal Society's report on the emigration of scientists proved to be an influential document. It was shortly after the report's publication that the phrase ‘brain drain’ was coined in an article in the popular press discussing the Society's findings. Indeed, considerable coverage ensued in the national press on the issue because of the report. Once the issue had been highlighted in such a public way, the government was forced to respond and to be seen to be responding.

The report was undoubtedly a rather selective document. It dealt with the concerns of the Royal Society specifically; that is, the issue of the emigration in university science. It did cover academic engineering, but not the emigration issue in industry or in other sectors. It was therefore an elite report for an elite organization. This said, Sutherland was spurred by his experiences in compiling the report to call for the establishment of a Royal Society of Technologists. He hoped this would raise the profile of technology and technologists, but his efforts in this regard were of limited success. He established a committee under the Royal Society, but this simply decided to appoint one or two extra FFRS in technological fields.

Once the brain drain had been established as a policy issue in the wake of the Royal Society's report, it remained in the press throughout the 1960s. The report served its purpose and provided a focus and stimulus for a wider debate on the plight of science. Yet the report's framing of the issue in terms narrowly focused on academia was soon, as we have seen, broadened within Whitehall to include industry. When the new Labour administration assumed power in 1964, it pledged to tackle the brain drain, and in 1967 it published a government report on the subject.53 By the early 1970s the initial concern over the brain drain had abated, although the Society returned to study further instances of brain drain in the 1980s.

In creating the report, the committee had to face several issues familiar to social scientists. Who should be counted? What about quality as well as quantity? How sound were the statistics, and how should they be interpreted when considering such matters as permanent or temporary migration? All of these issues would resonate throughout later debates on scientific emigration.54 The ad hoc committee, in a very practical way, also came to grips with some fundamental issues within social science: its role and its apparent objectivity. Should the report simply observe and describe; or should it intervene and recommend? In the flow of decision-making the scope and reach of the report was self-limited by the committee as it addressed this issue. Besides bare figures, comments were included to highlight the plight of science; conversely, policy recommendations were avoided so as to make the report read as a neutral description of the situation. Other paths were not pursued, such as a further study of motives or immigration figures, which might pull the Society into expanding on the report, rather than simply making a plea for science. Yet these decisions were as much about the role of social science, as observation or intervention, as they were about the role of the Royal Society, as an apolitical commentator or advocate for science. As such, problems such as the neutrality of social science, and whether and how it should inform planning, were resolved not on the grand canvas of abstract philosophical debate by social scientists but rather in the ‘everyday epistemology’ of mundane decision-making processes by a committee composed predominantly of natural scientists.


The research for this paper was supported by ESRC grant RES-000-22-1375. We are grateful for helpful and constructive comments from two anonymous referees.


  • 1 On the reluctance of the Royal Society to involve itself in politics earlier in the twentieth century, see A. Hull, ‘War of words: the public science of the British scientific community and the origins of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1914–16’, Br. J. Hist. Sci. 32, 461–481 (1999).

  • 2 See, in particular, J. Agar, ‘What happened in the sixties?’, Br. J. Hist. Sci. 41, 567–600 (2008); D. Edgerton, ‘The “white heat” revisited: British government and technology in the 1960s’, Twentieth Cent. Br. Hist. 7, 53–82 (1996); D. Horner, ‘The road to Scarborough: Wilson, Labour and the scientific revolution’, in The Wilson Governments, 1964–1970 (eds R. Coopey, S. Fielding and N. Tiratsoo), pp. 48–71 (Pinter, London, 1993). On the Royal Society's relationship with the government just prior to the ‘brain drain’ debate, see J. Hughes, ‘A new Jerusalem for post-war science: the rise and demise of the South Bank “Science Centre” 1944–1960’, paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Society for History of Science, Manchester, 28 June to 1 July 2007.

  • 3 M. Godwin, J. Gregory and B. Balmer, ‘The anatomy of the brain drain debate, 1950–1970s: witness seminar’, Contemp. Br. Hist. (in the press).

  • 4 D. King, ‘Creating a funding regime for social research: the Heyworth Committee on Social Studies and the Founding of the Social Science Research Council’, Minerva 35, 1–26 (1997).

  • 5 C. Donovan, ‘The governance of social science and everyday epistemology’, Publ. Admin. 83(3), 597–615 (2005).

  • 6 M. Godwin, The Skylark Rocket, British space science and the European Space Research Organisation 1957–1972 (Beauchesne, Paris, 2007), at pp. 160–161 and 189.

  • 7 The spring 1963 edition of Minerva published a selection of 20 letters and articles on the emigration of scientists, collected from national newspapers between May 1955 and October 1962. See also J. Gregory, ‘Inventing the ‘Brain Drain’: science, policy and the popular press’, paper presented at the University of Manchester, Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine, 27 November 2007.

  • 8 Royal Society Archives. Minutes of meeting of the Council of the Royal Society, 11 January 1962.

  • 9 J. Agar, Science and spectacle: the work of Jodrell Bank in post-war British culture (Harwood, Amsterdam, 1998), at p. 89.

  • 10 The National Archives/T 218/590, from unknown Treasury official to Burke Trend. 12 April 1962, cited in Godwin, op. cit. (note 6), p. 189. The meeting had involved a Treasury official, Florey (then President of the Royal Society) and Sir William Penney (formerly Treasurer of the Royal Society). It should also be noted that in the run-up to the Trend Report, the Treasury had been adamant that the Royal Society should have its managerial role in relation to the British space science programme revoked. Until that point the Royal Society had enjoyed considerable executive power in organizing British space science in the universities (and the money associated with it) as well as liaising with the British military over access for scientists to rockets. The Treasury (with the knowledge and support of the Office of the Minister for Science) was determined that this arrangement would end (and it did). For details see Godwin, op. cit. (note 6), p. 172. The Royal Society had also irritated the Foreign Office in calling for increased funding for their overseas activities, including sending British scientists overseas. A Foreign Office official, Patrick Reilly, remarked that the Royal Society had drawn up a ‘formidable list of practical points affecting the Society's foreign relations and in some cases involving considerable additional expense.’ The terse way in which this is referred to in official documents implies that the Royal Society was not in good favour. See Godwin, op. cit., p. 101, note 63. The reluctance of many Royal Society Fellows to support closer ties with the government through relocating a new science centre of the London South Bank is discussed in Hughes, op. cit. (note 2).

  • 11 The full membership of the committee was Sir Gordon Sutherland, Professor Derek Barton (organic chemist and professor at Imperial College), Sir Charles Dodds (medical scientist and biochemist, Courtauld Chair of Biochemistry at the University of London), Professor David Glass (social statistician and professor at the LSE), Dr Roy Markham (biochemist at the Virus Research Institute, Cambridge), Dr Edgar W. R. Steacie (Canadian chemist, and Chairman of the Canadian National Research Council) and Professor Frederic C. Williams (electrical engineer, computer scientist and professor at University of Manchester).

  • 12 Glass's election to the Fellowship was a rare occurrence for a social scientist.

  • 13 King, op. cit. (note 4).

  • 14 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.3. Letter from Peter Medawar to Howard Florey, 29 November 1961.

  • 15 Royal Society Archives, op. cit. (note 14).

  • 16 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.1. Letter from David Glass to Howard Florey, 15 November 1961.

  • 17 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.5. Letter from David Glass to Howard Florey, 16 March 1962.

  • 18 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8. Ad Hoc Committee on the Emigration of Scientists. Minutes of First Meeting, 27 February 1962.

  • 19 Royal Society Archives, op. cit. (note 17).

  • 20 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.4. Letter from Howard Florey to Peter Medawar, 2 December 1961.

  • 21 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.31. Ad Hoc Committee on the Emigration of Scientists. Minutes of Second Meeting, 18 April 1962. The survey eventually covered anatomy, bacteriology, microbiology, biochemistry, biophysics, botany, chemistry, engineering (general, aeronautical, chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical and marine), genetics, geology and geophysics, mathematics, metallurgy, pharmacology, physics, physiology and zoology.

  • 22 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.23. To all Heads of Science Departments in the UK. Emigration of British Scientists, 4 June 1962.

  • 23 To avoid counting twice, people also on the lists of emigrating staff were removed from the lists of PhDs emigrating.

  • 24 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.27. Letter from F. M. Brewer to G. Sutherland, 8 June 1962.

  • 25 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.32. Committee on the Emigration of Scientists from Great Britain. Survey by the Chairman of the Information Collected from British Universities, June 1962. (Draft, n.d.)

  • 26 S. de Chadarevian, Designs for life: molecular biology after World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2002), at pp. 305–306.

  • 27 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.35. Ad Hoc Committee on the Emigration of British Scientists. Minutes of 3rd Meeting, 6 November 1962. The chairman noted that at this point 36 departments had not supplied details of their total PhDs, while the UGC figures, unlike the Royal Society data, included PhDs awarded to foreigners and Commonwealth citizens.

  • 28 Royal Society Archives, op. cit. (note 25).

  • 29 Royal Society Archives, op. cit. (note 27).

  • 30 Royal Society Archives, op. cit. (note 29).

  • 31 Royal Society Archives, op. cit. (note 29).

  • 32 Royal Society Archives. Minutes of meeting of the Council of the Royal Society, 13 December 1962.

  • 33 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.45. Letter from H.A. (Tony) Sargeaunt, Chief Scientific Adviser, Home Office, to Howard Florey, 19 February 1963; 98HF 151.8.47. Letter from Sargeaunt to Florey, 20 February 1963.

  • 34 Royal Society, The emigration of scientists (Royal Society, London, 1963), at pp. 5–6.

  • 35 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8. Ad Hoc Committee on the Emigration of British Scientists. Comment on the Report (n.d., 1963).

  • 36 Coverage on 21 February 1963: (Radio) BBC Home Service; BBC News; ‘From Today's Papers’, Sir Gordon Sutherland interviewed; BBC Light Programme; Newsreel; Topic; (TV) BBC News; BBC Town and Around; ITV Dateline; ITV News; Regional ITV (North) Scene; BBC-TV (Midland) News. Later television coverage: 23 February, BBC That Was the Week That Was; 25 February, BBC Panorama; 30 February, BBC-TV Science in the Shadows (1 hour).

  • 37 Gregory, op. cit. (note 7). For a detailed case study of the interaction between scientists, media and government on this issue see J. Gregory, Fred Hoyle's Universe (Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 38 The National Archive, CAB 132/167. Copy of a letter dated 18 March 1963 from the Minister of Science to Lord Todd.

  • 39 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.54. From (no name) to David Martin, 13 March 1963.

  • 40 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.65. Note by the Chairman on the Reaction of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy to the Emigration Report, 16 April 1963; The National Archives CAB 132/167 ACSP, Minutes of Meeting on 3 April 1963.

  • 41 The National Archives, CAB 132/167. SP(63)14(Final) ACSP. Emigration of Scientists. Note by the Secretaries and attached report, 30 May 1963.

  • 42 The National Archives, op. cit. (note 40).

  • 43 The National Archives, op. cit. (note 40).

  • 44 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.56. Florey to Sutherland, 5 June 1963.

  • 45 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.66. Copy of a letter from Lord Todd to Sir Gordon Sutherland, 14 May 1963.

  • 46 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.56. Florey to Sutherland, 5 June 1963.

  • 47 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.68. Survey of British Scientists in US Universities.

  • 48 Royal Society Archives. Minutes of a meeting of the Royal Society Council, 7 November 1963.

  • 49 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.59. Letter from Royal Society to R. V. Jones, 2 October 1963.

  • 50 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.72. Letter marked ‘Personal and Urgent’ from Hammersley to Florey, 18 February 1964.

  • 51 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.73. Brain Drain, University Finance, etc. J. M. Hammersley

  • 52 Royal Society Archives, 98HF 151.8.74. Letter from Florey to Hammersley, 21 February 1964.

  • 53 Committee on Manpower Resources for Science and Technology, The Brain Drain: Report of the Working Group on Migration (HMSO, London, 1967).

  • 54 B. Godin, Measurement and statistics in science and technology: 1920 to the present (Routledge, London, 2005), at pp. 239–261.

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