Text of Speech

Excerpts from President Conant's address on "British Universities and the War" follow:

In the British universities today, it seems to be recognized that this war is a technical war in which the physicists and engineers in particular are at a high premium. This premise colors all the discussions of academic problems. It is argued by classicists and scientists alike that the universities must be kept running to train as rapidly as possible the young scientists who are so desperately needed to assist the fighting forces.

This does not mean that the British have lost sight of the importance of preparing for the period after the war or of the primary burden which rests with the great universities to keep alive the eternal values. Quite the contrary.

Discussions on both these subjects are frequent, and there is a strong realization of the duty of the universities so to manage in the emergency that their real purpose will not be destroyed.

What the present trend of thought does mean is that the academic world has come to the conclusion that the war must first be won and that this consideration is paramount to the continuation of free institutions under which alone universities can fulfill their first aim.

Thanks to the "Reserved Occupations" and the central register, the scientists of Great Brtain are now to a surprising degree mobilized for national service. Physicists, engineers, chemists as well as doctors are at work where they are most needed.


If men in these professions had been allowed to volunteer at the start, or had been drafted, the shortage today would be very serious indeed. One wonders whether we in the United States will be far-sighted enough to profit by the example. The question touches both our national defense and the continuation in time of dire emergency of our centers of advanced teaching and research.

It is now clearly evident that the British Government was far-sighted in developing the idea of "reserved occupations" before the war. The first schedule of these occupations of January, 1939, listed a thousand or more categories of employment which were then regarded as essential to the defense of the country. These included a dozen or so categories involving university-trained men.

Each category was assigned an age-limit. Men above this age were "reserved;" that is, these men were only permitted to volunteer for restricted classifications of war services. Some categories has no age limit; for example, doctors were reserved; physicists were reserved above the age of 25; university and secondary school teachers above the same age, and chemists above 21.

The result of this original plan was in effect an over-reservation in many occupations. Frequent modifications in the schedule since then have been made.

The schedule is about to undergo still another revision. In many occupations the age limit is being raised, since experience now shows that, on balance, the needs of the fighting services are more important for the national effort than the particular occupations in question.

For example, the age for school teachers and university professors is being raised from the original of 25 to 35. On the other hand, the age limit on physicists who have proved of the utmost importance to "war work," has been lowered from 25 to 21.

Certain industrial occupations have been removed from the list, and the principle has been now adopted that every man reserved is not merely available for essential work, but is in fact, engaged upon it.

It should be emphasized, however, that if this last principle had been adopted at the outset, no reservoir of men for new essential work--either scientific or Industrial, the result of wartime experience--could have been created.

Now in conclusion may I say a word or two on a somewhat different but closely related subject. I assume you asked me to speak today because as a traveler recently returned from Great Britain I could give you may firsthand impression of a country at war. Up to this point I have confined my remarks to a purely factual account of the British universities and some aspects of the operations of their system of drafting an army.

But to stop here and not any something about the morale of the British people on the one hand or the fundamental issues underlying this struggle on the other would be to fail to fulfill my obligations to you this afternoon.