A great beginning

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Prime Minister Robert Menzies pushed the big black button and stirred the reactor into life. ‘This is a very historic occasion for Australia’, Menzies proclaimed at the official opening of the Lucas Heights Research Establishment in April 1958, ‘because we are opening an establishment that is related to something so new in the world’. 1 Lucas Heights was a prominent stop on Menzies’ tour of development opportunities, selling the ‘Australia Unlimited’ message to public, business and investors. 2 The reactor and associated research facilities would enable the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) to keep ‘abreast of scientific research and scientific discovery’, and to train rising generations of scientists in the needs and opportunities of the Atomic Age. Their inauguration marked ‘an epoch in history’, Menzies proudly noted, providing the nation with ‘a great beginning’. 3

Yet another beginning, yet another button pushed. The switch is flicked, the lever is pulled and the engine of national progress is fuelled with another shot of science. Perhaps we will remember the twentieth century as the ‘push button age’, not merely for our intoxicating obsession with gadgets, but for our fervent belief that science provided an easy cure for the nation’s besetting ills. Once we had the settings right, we just had to push the button, and away we would go.

‘We all now generally admit’, commented John Quick in 1901, ‘that every industry which hopes to succeed must be equipped with the results of the latest scientific investigations and discoveries’. 4 His assessment was rarely questioned across the next hundred years, even as arguments raged over the best means of facilitating delivery. Science’s contribution to the cause of national progress seems so obvious, so fundamental, and yet our efforts to channel the flow have so often ended in disappointment.

The AAEC was expected to provide the knowledge and experience necessary for the development of atomic power in Australia. But even as Menzies’ fleshy digit was heading for the button, the economic benefits were beginning to look hazy. Australia’s fossil fuel reserves were larger than previously imagined, and atomic energy seemed prohibitively expensive in comparison. In any case, the US ‘Atoms for peace’ program had freed up access to reactor technology. Why bother going through the costly business of designing and building your own reactors when you could buy them off the shelf from Westinghouse? The AAEC limped on, seeking its mission elsewhere. 5

ANZAAS, too, found itself left behind. After years of faithful service it was deserted by the scientific community in favour of more specialised gatherings. 6 The Australian Academy of Science was duly established and continues to pronounce from a lofty height on behalf of an ageing elite. But it has failed to capture the attention of policy makers, who instead have looked for enlightenment to their own byzantine network of advisers and committees. 7 At the ANU, Oliphant’s ‘atom smasher’ failed to power up. 8 The Institute of Anatomy is remembered by generations of schoolchildren as the home of Phar Lap’s heart. Mount Stromlo has proved a worthy home to the nation’s astronomical ambitions. But even as this chapter was being written, bushfires roared across the mountaintop, devastating what the Prime Minister described as a ‘national icon’. Amongst the buildings lost was the first, ‘temporary’ observatory, built to test the site in 1911. 9

But this is not intended as a catalogue of failure and loss. We have seen how progress recasts history as a simple journey onwards, each step another victory of new over old. We lose a sense of connection, familiarity, we miss the subtleties of change, the ironies of existence, and instead we gain a misplaced confidence in our ability to know better, to do better, to be better. And so, like Ernest Scott at the ANZAAS jubilee, we can chart stages in the development of Australian science, observing in recent times the rise of a ‘more enlightened spirit’. 10 We can, like Mark Oliphant at the ‘Science in Australia’ seminar, reflect on the hardships of scientific pioneers, struggling in a land that had yet to nurture a ‘research outlook’. 11 Or we might, like Geoffrey Serle, find in the growth of scientific institutions evidence of the nation’s cultural ‘coming-of-age’. 12 Such stories bear us onward to a moment of fulfillment or challenge, a moment in which to celebrate our achievements, or to ponder our responsibilities.

We can imagine a tale of the nation’s scientific effort in which Groom’s travails are a prelude to the successful operations of CSIR/O. Perhaps in myxomatosis we can find the zenith of his ambitions. But should we note that CSIR’s transformation into CSIRO came after a torrent of criticism and abuse, questioning the organisation’s willingness to keep safe the nation’s secrets? 13 Should we also add that the attacks were led by Artie Fadden, leader of the Country Party, and heir to Groom’s long-held seat in the Darling Downs? Littleton Groom had ‘set an objective for Australians’, remarked Fadden upon his entry into parliament, ‘that they should accept their civic responsibilities and always aim at rendering service to their fellow countrymen’. 14 Was Groom’s example embedded both in the CSIR and in the minds of those bent upon its humiliation? The path of progress becomes less clear.

It is in the asides of history, the parallels, the connections, and the coincidences, that we can find the space to ponder alternatives. Instead of taking for granted the push-button power of science, we can explore the different ways in which the connection between science and nation is imagined and built. In Hughes’ bravado, in Groom’s life mission, in the struggle for Stromlo, in the rhetoric of AAAS, in the dream of a national university, and in Oliphant’s elitism, we find intermingled ideals of improvement, enlightenment, expertise and inspiration. Values change and priorities shift, the connection between science and nation is always contested, always changing. There is no button.

Neither is science merely waiting to be turned on the problems of state. It has to be made. Not in laboratories, but communities. Not in test tubes, but in brains. The vignettes herein show how the meaning of science and its contribution to progress is to be found in the relationship between the individual and society. Groom imagined that national progress would come by arming the citizenry with knowledge, while Oliphant looked to intellectual leaders to forge Australia’s future. Edgeworth David sought advancement in the individual’s quest for truth, while the AASW believed in setting plans based on the people’s hopes and needs. For Billy Hughes the business of ‘Australia Unlimited’ was in easing the burden on farmer or worker, while Menzies paraded unlimited opportunities for business investment and expansion. Science could provide an expression of unity, a sense of national aspiration or achievement to unite the people in a vigorous, constructive, federal democracy. Or it could threaten revolution, both for good and for ill, demanding special handling by an elite corps of planners, priests and prophets.

It will not be long before the bugles sound and Anzac brains once more are set upon their march into the future. Once again, we will rediscover the critical role of science in the nation’s health and wealth, in its destiny. New plans will emerge, new funding models, new targets, new partnerships—yet another ‘great beginning’. But just as we have learnt to question the relevance of the Anzac ideal to issues of identity and belonging, so we might ponder the meanings implicit in the latest parade of Anzac brains. To Groom it was probably obvious, but now it seems obscured by layers of expertise and indifference—in the connections we build between science and nation is reflected an image of the people we want to be.

‘That voice that bridged the years is silent in death’, Billy Hughes sadly observed, ‘that figure, so familiar, quiet, unassuming, full of human kindness… has joined the shades’. In November 1936, Hughes farewelled Littleton Groom, ‘My friend, the friend of all of us, has gone, and we shall see him no more!’. Hughes mourned ‘an upright and honourable man’, who put principle before party and ‘stood boldly for the rights and privileges of the great masses of the people’. 15 The last link to the nation-building dreams of Barton and Deakin had been broken, Hughes was left alone to remember how it had all begun. However, the final word in parliament’s tribute came not from Hughes, but from a relative newcomer. ‘He struck one who came recently into this Parliament as an old-fashioned man’, remarked Robert Menzies, ‘even his speech had about it something of the old-fashioned flavour of an earlier parliamentary time’. And yet, Menzies added, this ‘old-fashioned Christian gentleman’ maintained ‘a most modern interest in every problem’. 16


  1. SMH, 19 April 1958, p. 1; ‘Prime Minister starts Lucas Heights Reactor’, Atomic Energy, vol. 1, no. 3, June 1958, pp. 4-5. See also ‘Australia’s first reactor’, Commonwealth Today, no. 60, pp. 18-19.
  2. Marian Simms, A Liberal nation: the Liberal Party and Australian politics, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982, p. 58.
  3. ‘Prime Minister starts Lucas Heights Reactor’, p. 5.
  4. CPD, vol. 2, 28 June 1901, p. 1830.
  5. Alice Cawte, Atomic Australia: 1944-1990, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1992, ch. 6; Ann Mozley Moyal, ‘The Australian Atomic Energy Commission: a case study in Australian science and government’, Search, vol. 6, no. 9, September 1975, pp. 365-384.
  6. RW Home, ‘Australian science and its public’, Australian Cultural History, no. 7, 1988, pp. 86-103.
  7. Ron Johnston, and Jean Buckley, ‘The shaping of contemporary scientific institutions’, in RW Home (ed.), Australian science in the making, Cambrige University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 374-398; Ann Mozley Moyal, ‘The Australian Academy of Science: the anatomy of a scientific elite. Part I (History and sociology)’, Search, vol. 11, no. 7, 1980, pp. 231-8; and Part II (Relations with government), Search, vol. 11, no. 8, 1980, pp. 281-8.
  8. Cockburn and Ellyard, Oliphant, ch. 17; Foster and Varghese, The making of the Australian National University, pp. 254-9.
  9. ‘Transcript of the Prime Minister, the Hon John Howard MP, Doorstop interview, Mount Stromlo, Canberra’, 21 January 2003, on PM’s website at <http://www.pm.gov.au/news/interviews/2003/interview2079.htm>.
  10. Scott, ‘The history of Australian science’, pp. 14-16.
  11. Olpihant (ed.), Science in Australia, p. viii
  12. Geoffrey Serle, From deserts the prophets come: the creative spirit in Australia 1788-1972, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1973., pp. 149-50.
  13. See Chapter 7.
  14. CPD, 17 June 1937, vol. 153, p. 35.
  15. CPD, 10 November 1936, vol. 152, pp. 1624-6.
  16. CPD, 10 November 1936, vol. 152, pp. 1629.

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