In the early summer of 1959, while in the United Sates as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology, Solly Zuckerman received a letter from the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Sir Richard Powell, asking if he would accept the post of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the Ministry. The present incumbent, Sir Frederick Brundrett, was due to retire at the end of the year.The choice of Zuckerman was not surprising. Since 1942, when he and his friend Desmond Bernal were recruited by Lord Louis Mountbatten to Combined Operations Headquarters, he had been associated with matters military. In the post-war period he had directed research into the biological effects of blast from nuclear explosions ( to which Series SZ/BUF refers), and the design of body armour and the wound ballistics of small arms ammunition, and the detection of land-mines (dealt with in Series SZ/MOW/1-3).
Since 1946 he had been deputy chairman of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy (ACSP, the subject of Series SZ/ACSP). He was also a member of a number of other advisory bodies. In 1958-1959 he chaired a special group set up by the Air Ministry, the Strategic Scientific Policy Committee, the chief task of which was to consider the future of the British nuclear deterrent (to which Series AMSSP refers). He was, by 1959, a familiar figure in Whitehall with a proven track record.
While Zuckerman was, according to his own account, agonising over whether or not to accept the post, the former Lord Louis Mountbatten, now Earl Mountbatten of Burma and Chief of the Naval Staff, was preparing to take up the role of Chief of the Defence Staff. Unlike Zuckerman he was not afflicted by indecision and made it clear that he wanted to have Zuckerman at his side, and presumably on his side, at the MoD.
Solly Zuckerman lived through interesting times at the MoD. The Ministry of the early 1960s was a mare's nest of territorial infighting between the Services and project cancellations. The political background was fraught. Zuckerman's first minister, Duncan Sandys, was firmly aligned with a strategy based on missiles rather than manned aircraft, and deeply disliked in some quarters. The next, Harold Watkinson, struggled to keep the TSR-2 aircraft project alive; his reward was inclusion among those friends whom the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, laid down to save his own (political) life. The third, and the last of the Conservative Ministers of Defence whom Zuckerman served, was Peter Thorneycroft, whose cross was the Skybolt missile.
In 1964 in came a Labour government. Zuckerman's empire was expanded with his appointment to the dual role of CSA to the MoD and to HM Government as a whole, and head of the scientific civil service. He had achieved a status comparable with the two colossi among scientific advisers, Lord Cherwell and Sir Henry Tizard. The Labour government also brought Dennis Healey to the MoD. He and Zuckerman did not hit it off. The 1965 Defence Review marked the parting of the ways and thereafter Zuckerman operated full-time from the Cabinet Office.
At the Cabinet Office defence, and more especially disarmament, remained major concerns for Zuckerman. He was also now in a more favourable position to promote his own ideas on the organisation of government research. The ACSP went and a Central Advisory Council for Science and Technology (CACST) with broader terms of reference was eventually established, which Zuckerman chaired. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was abolished and the research council system overhauled. A long-time concern of Zuckerman's had been the maintenance of a regular supply of well-qualified scientists, engineers and technicians. Elaborate plans were made for higher technological education, strongly influenced by North American models. The Special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research (SISTERS) were a case in point; Zuckerman wanted Britain to have its own MITs.
Between 1964 and his official retirement in 1971 Solly Zuckerman was the government's scientific trouble-shooter. His role in dealing with the environmental crisis resulting from the grounding of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon in March 1967 is reminiscent of his activities in World War II. Two years later he was urging draconian measures to prevent an outbreak of rabies (the subject of Series SZ/CIR). He led an enquiry into the organisation of scientific services in NHS hospitals (dealt with in Series SZ/CHST).