A broad stream that passed the door of all

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

The Australasian Manufacturer ‘unblushingly’ confessed to be ‘a paper with a mission’, perhaps ‘the greatest mission of modern times’. Established in 1916, the fiercely nationalist journal sought to advance the ‘special interests of manufacturers’, believing that ‘industry in its widest and deepest sense is the foundation of civilisation’. Australia had the necessary ‘resources’, ‘people’ and ‘brains’; what was needed to ensure its greatness was better organisation, promotion, cooperation, and ‘the application of scientific discovery and scientific methods’. 1 The Australasian Manufacturer promoted the glories of ‘efficiency’ and the benefits to be gained from a scientific approach to industrial management. But it also championed a broader appreciation of science, a respect for intellectual development, and a much expanded role for science in education. ‘The great aim must be, not a dry-as-dust knowledge of science or sciences’, the journal proclaimed, ‘but the creation of the scientific habit and the scientific spirit’. 2

However, if science was to gain rightful appreciation, its practitioners needed to avoid an excess of ‘scientific snobbery’. Too often scientists affected an air of indifference towards the practical outcomes of their work, the Australasian Manufacturer noted, making it seem that science was ‘so lofty a pursuit that the man of science should live among the stars and not soil his fingers with the common earth of everyday life’. Of course, research might not always be directed towards immediate, useful ends, but scientists had to maintain some ‘contact with human needs’. Even ‘great theorists’, the journal argued, ‘had practical applications before them like a distant light’. 3

Nor did the increasing dominance of scientific method over the ‘rule of thumb’ mean that ‘the despised and supplanted practical man should die quietly without any fuss’. ‘The alleged separation between practice and technics’, the journal maintained, ‘is by no means so valid as the critics would have us suppose’. The practical man and the technician approached problems from different directions, but they were ‘complementary, not opposed’. 4 In the same way, science and invention were ‘intimately connected’, though ‘the scientist need not be an inventor, and the inventor need not be a scientist’. 5 Australia’s industrial development depended not just on a greater role for science, but on increased cooperation and respect between the scientist, the inventor, the practical man and the technician. Though each was guided by a different creed, they were embarked upon the same noble quest. The knowledge and experience of each should combine to speed the march of progress. 6

The Australasian Manufacturer’s blueprint for intellectual reconciliation, reflected its vision for industrial peace. Just as theory and practice could be brought into alignment, so the destructive antagonism of labour and capital could be banished by a new spirit of cooperation. 7 With the First World War still raging, peace, on all fronts, was essential.

The planned Institute of Science and Industry was welcomed by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1916 as a sign that old prejudices were beginning to yield. ‘Here in the past a certain amount of mutual suspicion has existed between the pure scientist and the practical man’, it observed. Neither was ‘free from blame’. The scientist had been apt to believe that it was ‘rather beneath his dignity to apply his wisdom to the base purposes of trade’, while the practical man ‘distrusted the product of the university’, holding steadfast to the ‘rule of thumb’ in spite of advances in science. 8 If the Institute was to succeed, the newspaper concluded, ‘barriers of apathy and prejudice’ would have to be broken down. The Argus agreed, suggesting that the Institute needed to cultivate a mix of both ‘laboratory skill and business ability’. The ‘scientist and the business man’, it argued, ‘should pull together, understand each other, and have patience with each other’s point of view’. 9

But how did one blend experience and theory? Daniel McAlpine, a pioneering plant pathologist, had laboured for many years at the boundary of science and agriculture. 10 While McAlpine applauded any attempt to apply research to the needs of the nation, he was uncomfortable with the idea that the Institute should aim ‘to get the man on the land or the manufacturer to follow the teachings of science’. The value of science could not be taken for granted. Instead of being set upon a pedestal for worshipful praise, science had to demonstrate its utility in local conditions. ‘There is too much of a tendency to treat the man on the land as if he were a know-nothing, and the scientific man or university don as if he were a know-all’, McAlpine remarked. ‘The man on the land has usually a fund of local knowledge and experience’, he added, and only by ‘the blending and harmonious adaptation’ of scientific and local knowledge could progress be assured. 11 Impressive titles or university degrees did not always provide an accurate measure of expertise. McAlpine’s own lack of formal university qualifications had been questioned the previous year at a royal commission into fruit, vegetables and jam. 12

The appropriate balance between theory and practice was a topic that provoked much long-winded expostulation as parliament fell upon the Institute’s Bill. The rather snide characterisation of scientists as ‘mere theorists’, or ‘learned academicians’, did little to further the cause of reconciliation. However, the insistence upon a role for practical knowledge reflects not simply ignorance or mistrust, but a common feeling that there were other ways of knowing that might yet play a part in the nation’s progress. James Mathews, the Labor member for Melbourne Ports, sought a place for the ordinary worker in the Institute’s operations. Those who laboured daily in the fields or the factories gained a ‘special knowledge not possessed by others’. While some praised the businessman as the font of practical wisdom, Matthews argued that there was ‘no calling where the man on top understands the details of manufacture so well as those who do the actual work’. 13 If science was to bring improvements to industry, surely it could not ignore experience hard won on the factory floor.

Arthur Rodgers, the member for Wannon, had been a strong supporter of Groom’s plans for a Bureau of Agriculture, but he was concerned by the lack of practical advice in framing the Institute’s program. ‘For scientific research, I am in favour of the most liberal endowments’, he insisted, but were scientists to be found only in laboratories or universities? ‘As one who is closely associated with primary industries’, Rodgers proclaimed, ‘I say that in the fields we have some of the best scientists of to-day’. Interrupted while describing research already taking place within the sugar industry, Rodgers responded, ‘Does the honorable member assume that there can be no scientific discovery except under Act of Parliament?’ 14 Where was knowledge created? How were discoveries made?

Even those who strongly favoured the government’s proposal, were unsure how to characterise the nature of science itself. Alexander Hay, from New England, thought the word ‘science’ tended ‘to terrify a great many people’ and preferred to use the term ‘better methods’. 15 Senator Senior, on the other hand, argued that the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ science was misleading. ‘Science is really the accumulation of facts’, he explained, ‘and not the deduction of theories from facts’. Once the facts were known, ‘the conclusions are just as certain as the conclusions of a syllogism’. Thus, he concluded, there was ‘no difference in pure and applied science in the application of those facts’. 16 No doubt his fellow senators were grateful for his words of clarification.

Were important scientific discoveries made in the laboratory or the workshop? Did they burst upon the world in a flash of inspiration, or were they, as one member argued, ‘the gradual accumulation of minor discoveries, and the steady building up of small improvements’? Did government coordination encourage or inhibit the development of knowledge? Senator Bakhap wondered whether the Institute’s director might ‘exercise a paralysing influence on the genius of investigators’. ‘There is no royal road in science’, he added. 17 The Age similarly questioned the need for an elaborate bureaucratic structure when it was individual genius that contributed most to scientific advance. The government’s scheme was backwards, it argued, establishing ‘the institute before discovering the genius’. 18 Others wondered whether there was any real need for new discoveries, when there was so much scientific knowledge that had yet to be applied to the benefit of industry.

Recalling his meeting with Billy Hughes in 1915, WA Osborne noted that the Prime Minister himself seemed to believe ‘that science had already in hand an immense store of knowledge ready for instant application’. 19 ‘Knowledge’, Hughes declared in January 1916, ‘was a broad stream which passed the door of all, but few people cared to dip their pannikins in it’. As scientists, businessmen and bureaucrats gathered to draw up plans for the Institute, Hughes expressed his hope that the scheme they devised would ‘provide reticulating channels for this stream’ of knowledge, carrying it where it was needed. 20 But were scientists merely ditch-diggers in a program of intellectual irrigation? When Hughes met with the Advisory Council in July 1917, he urged them to focus on a limited set of problems that promised early results. ‘You have to make good with some of these’, he warned, and he was unimpressed when Orme Masson suggested it would be ‘misleading’ to give the impression that such problems would be solved within six months, ‘or even the next year’. 21 For Masson, science was concerned with research, for Hughes it was about results.

Scientists promoting the value of research maintained a precarious balance. On the one hand they extolled the revolutionary character of the pursuit of fundamental truth. Pure research brought more than mere improvement or efficiency, it offered whole new ways of thinking, new realms for exploitation and conquest. But on the other hand, they could present no schedule, no timetable for innovation, no guarantee. ‘Though pure science pays sooner or later’, Edgeworth David admitted, ‘it does not necessarily pay at the time’. 22 FM Gellatly urged that the Institute’s success should be judged not upon individual cases, ‘but in the mass’. ‘When a scientific investigation is entered upon no one can say at the beginning what the result will be’, he explained, ‘or whether there will be any valuable result at all’. On average, however, there was no doubt that science would ‘pay handsomely’. 23

In 1959, Mark Oliphant likened support for science to ‘support for a Mount Everest expedition’ or ‘skilful operations on the Stock Exchange’. ‘By and large science advances’, he explained, ‘but we can never be sure which projects will be the winners’. Nonetheless, he urged, ‘we must not be afraid, under any circumstances, of faith in our scientific projects’. 24 In the absence of immediate results or guaranteed outcomes, the public was urged to maintain their faith in the ultimate beneficence of science. Instead of succumbing to the practical man’s insistence on the here and now, they were asked to cultivate patience and trust. The utility of science could not be measured on any one farm or factory floor. No snapshot could capture its promise. It was not for the individual to pronounce success or failure, the judgement had to rest with history.

While the Australasian Manufacturer looked forward to the integration of theory and practice, scientists were becoming increasingly more confident of their own special knowledge and abilities. Brailsford Robertson, professor of physiology at the University of Adelaide, dismissed the idea that innovation could spring from the mind of the untrained worker. ‘The time has passed’, he declared, ‘when fundamentally important industrial discoveries can be made by the lazy boy of the factory who ties two parts of a machine together with a piece of string’. ‘That day is past’, he insisted, ‘it is Early Victorian, and it is extinct’. 25 Progress waited upon the ‘prepared mind’, the mind honed by long years of research training. Experience in the First World War seemed to confirm the benefits of a scientific background. Commenting on management ability within the munitions industry, Norman Wilsmore, the University of Western Australia’s chemistry professor, claimed that university-trained chemists had ‘stood head and shoulders above all others’. 26 The rigorous methods of research, the unswerving dedication to truth, such characteristics as these empowered the scientist to lead society, not just to serve it.

The Australasian Manufacturer called upon a new spirit of cooperation to resolve the conflict of capital and labour. But inequalities of wealth and power could not be smoothed over so easily. Likewise, the scientist and the practical man were separated by more than just prejudice. Whose knowledge measured up on the scales of authority? Who would win control of the future? The boundaries of participation were made and remade in the jostling of theory and practice.

The passage of the Institute of Science and Industry Bill was a mere hiccup in the development of Australian science, maybe worth a few paragraphs in a history of CSIR/O. It provides a useful example of the anti-intellectual flavour of Australian democracy, or perhaps of the slimy depths of political opportunism. But beyond the battle lines and name-calling lies an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of knowledge itself, to ponder a means of promoting understanding that is not founded in the presumption of ignorance. In the apparent irrelevance of the Institute’s critics, we might see our own sense of impotence before the accumulative power of expertise. In their doubts we might find room to question the authority of science without being labelled its enemy. In their ‘ignorance’ we might recognise our own unease at some of the advances made in the name of progress.



Notes:

  1. ‘The story of ourselves’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 2, no. 79, 6 October 1917, p. 16. See also: ‘What we are and what we stand for’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 1, no. 27, 30 September 1916, p. 4.
  2. ‘More about science in our schools’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 1, no. 35, 25 November 1916, p. 10.
  3. ‘Scientific snobbery’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 2, no. 54, 14 April 1917, p. 13.
  4. ‘The practical man’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 3, no. 153, 8 March 1919, p. 20.
  5. ‘The importance of invention’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 1, no. 49, 10 March 1917, p. 7.
  6. For more on the relationship between the practical man and the scientist in this period see Roy MacLeod, ‘The ‘Practical man’: Myth and Methaphor in Anglo-Australian Science’, Australian Cultural History, no. 8, 1989, pp. 24-49.
  7. ‘The “Australasian Manufacturer” has striven to preach the gospel of cooperation between Capital and Labour’, see ‘The story of ourselves’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 2, no. 79, 6 October 1917, p. 16.
  8. SMH, 8 January 1916, p. 16.
  9. Argus, 22 January 1916, p. 16.
  10. Neville H White, ‘McAlpine, Daniel (1849-1932)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian dictionary of biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 193-4.
  11. D McAlpine, ‘Science and industry – Prime Minister’s scheme’, Argus, 29 January 1916, p. 6.
  12. White, ‘McAlpine, Daniel (1849-1932)’.
  13. CPD, vol. 89, 13 August 1919, p. 11558-9.
  14. CPD, vol. 89, 20 August 1919, pp. 11747-8.
  15. CPD, vol. 92, 21 July 1920, p. 2895.
  16. CPD, vol. 86, 3 October 1913, p. 6590.
  17. CPD, vol. 86, 10 October 1918, p. 6778.
  18. Age, 17 January 1916, p. 8.
  19. Quoted in Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO, p.29.
  20. Argus, 6 January 1916, p.8.
  21. ‘Meeting of Commonwealth Advisory Council of Science and Industry, 9 July 1917’, NAA: AA1964/52/1, Item 6.
  22. David, ‘The aims and ideals of Australasian science’, p. 30.
  23. Francis Mephan Gellatly, ‘Cost of the Institute’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 5, September 1919, pp. 258-260.
  24. ‘Foundation’s fifth anniversary’, The Nucleus, vol. 5, no. 1, 1959, p. 10.
  25. T Brailsford Robertson, ‘Scientific and industrial research in the United States, Canada, and Austalia’, Science and Industry, vol. 2, no. 3, March 1920, pp. 146.
  26. NTM Wilsmore, ‘The present position of chemistry and chemists’, Report of the 15th meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science,  Melbourne, 1921, p. 38.

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