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Primer: The Tizard Committee November 12, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in British Science-Society Critiques.
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Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click to go to the Official Portraits of the Imperial College Rectors)

Henry Tizard as Rector of Imperial College (click for the Official Portraits of Imperial College Rectors)

The Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence (CSSAD, a.k.a. the “Tizard Committee”) was instituted by the British Air Ministry in late 1934 to consider new technologies that the Royal Air Force might use to defend its territory against attack by bombers.  The committee was initially comprised of its chair, scientist and longstanding government research administrator and Imperial College rector Sir Henry Tizard, the Air Ministry’s Director of Scientific Research Harry Wimperis, academic experimental physicist Patrick Blackett, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist A. V. Hill (who had been the head of a World War I research group responsible for improving anti-aircraft gunnery), and Wimperis’ assistant A. P. Rowe, who served as secretary.  Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann was added soon thereafter on the insistence of his close friend Winston Churchill, who was at that time a backbench Conservative MP.

The formation of this committee was not unusual, as government R&D work was frequently informed by standing and ad hoc advisory bodies.  Henry Tizard was already chair of the high-level Aeronautical Research Committee, of which Blackett was also a member.  Lindemann’s addition was engineered by Churchill as a part of his vocal campaign to guard against the recent rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.  He viewed it as his (and the committee’s) responsibility to goad the Air Ministry into a newly aggressive research effort, and was disappointed that the committee was an Air Ministry body, rather than one backed by higher government authority.

Before the CSSAD even held its first meeting, Wimperis consulted National Physical Laboratory radio engineer Robert Watson Watt about the oft-rumored possibility that electromagnetic radiation could be focused into a ray that could disable enemy aircraft or their pilots (a “death ray”).  After consulting with his staff, Watson Watt denied the possibility, but instead reported the possibility in circulation that electromagnetic radiation could be used to detect approaching aircraft far more efficiently than existing sound locating technologies.  This suggestion was rapidly accepted by the committee, the technology was code-named RDF (later to be known as radar), and a new Air Ministry RDF technological research facility was established at Bawdsey (but subsequently moved repeatedly before settling at Malvern under the directorship of Rowe), and primitive RDF was integrated into Royal Air Force tactics at its facility at Biggin Hill south of London.

Meanwhile, Lindemann—who could be abrasive—pressed his own agenda on the committee, advocating that certain pet projects also receive research attention as a part of a more vigorous research effort, and sometimes going outside the Air Ministry to report on (and complain about) committee affairs to Churchill.  The other members of the committee resented his actions, objected to the projects he pushed against the recommendations of Air Ministry researchers, and feared that his interference would set back the vital RDF research program.  After a turbulent year, Blackett and Hill resigned their posts on the committee in the summer of 1936, prompting its dissolution.  In short order, it was reconstituted with Blackett and Hill back on, but replacing Lindemann with academic radio physicist E. V. Appleton.

In 1937, the CSSAD was joined by a parallel committee (also headed by Tizard) dedicated to “Air Offence”, and the two were then joined into an “Air Warfare” committee.  However, after the beginning of hostilities in 1939 the survey function of the committee diminished in importance, and Tizard turned increasingly to the development of existing technologies.  RDF research was already well-established within the military’s R&D establishments, making committee oversight less necessary.  In late 1939 Tizard attained a post as scientific adviser to the RAF’s Chief of Air Staff, which he resigned following the ascent of Winston Churchill to the Prime Minister’s office and the rise of Lindemann’s influence in Air Ministry affairs in the spring of 1940.  His committee was dissolved at roughly the same time.  Tizard then left on a mission to North America to trade research advances.  When he returned later in 1940, he was named an adviser to the new Ministry of Aircraft Production.

Tizard’s CSSAD has obtained a degree of fame for its instigation of radar research as well as the opening of a series of bitter disputes between Tizard and Lindemann, which were the subject of a lecture series and book, both called “Science and Government” by the science-trained novelist C. P. Snow in 1960-61 (very shortly after his famous “Two Cultures” lecture and book).  Tizard’s inclusiveness—his insistence on marshaling the knowledge of a scientific community to inform decisions, and on bringing scientific and non-scientific experts together (as at Biggin Hill) to solve practical problems—was portrayed in contrast to Lindemann’s aristocratic isolation and assumption of the validity of his own hunches.

Thus Tizard’s victories over Lindemann came to be seen symbolically as part of what the writer Ronald Clark called the “Rise of the Boffins” in his 1962 book by that name: that is, the assignment of a proper place for scientific expertise in government.  Lindemann’s own major contributions to expert policymaking, his creation and management of statistical and economic research groups in the Admiralty, for the Cabinet, and for Churchill himself, were downplayed in favor of maintaining Lindemann’s usefulness as an icon of how not to integrate scientific expertise into government decision making.

In 1965 Clark also penned a biography of Tizard, called Tizard.  The best account of the work of the CSSAD to date is David Zimmerman’s 2001 book Britain’s Shield: Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe.  Zimmerman also wrote the 1996 book Top Secret Exchange: The Tizard Mission and the Scientific War, about Tizard’s post-CSSAD visit to North America.  The whole idea that these encounters have much of use to say about the actual history of the relationship between “science” and “government” has been taken apart in David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970.


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