A plaything for unpractical academicians

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Littleton Groom’s introduction of the Institute of Science and Industry Bill displayed a ‘supercilious authority’ the Age adjudged in August 1919. The acting Attorney-General, it continued, ‘seemed to regard questions about the probable cost of the gigantic official scheme as an intrusion upon ministerial privilege’. 1 For Groom, the Institute represented the fulfillment of a long-held dream, but to the Age it was merely another of Billy Hughes’ expensive follies. Conceived in haste, without adequate consultation or a proper consideration of cost, the scheme was stamped with Hughes’ arrogance and conceit. It was a triumph for the ‘official mind’ rather than for science, an unnecessary bureaucratic edifice, designed not to encourage discovery and invention, but to reward government cronies with ‘fat billets’. 2 What was needed, the Age concluded, was ‘a fresh beginning, characterised by direct simplicity and common sense’. 3

Hughes was not the only target of the newspaper’s vitriol. Implicated too in this ‘midsummer fantasy’ were ‘University professors’ and ‘theorists’ who had seized upon Hughes’ enthusiasm to advance their own ambitions. Consumed by visions of ‘palatial laboratories and high salaries’, they had devised a scheme that offered little but ‘the germs of innumerable lectures and recondite discussions’, with ‘great opportunities for the instruction of the proverbial grandmother in the art of sucking the historic egg’. 4 ‘Practical men’, the Age reported, were doubtful that the Institute would ‘be anything but a waste of money and a plaything for unpractical academicians’ 5 How could the public have confidence in such an undertaking when the ‘best salaries’ were apparently reserved for ‘remarkably brilliant University men, who can hardly have seen the inside of a factory’? 6 Leading debate on the bill in the upper house, Senator Russell urged his colleagues ‘not to regard it as a fanciful experiment to give a few professors a job’. But his plea was lost upon the Age, duly reporting his comments under the sub-heading ‘JOBS FOR PROFESSORS’. 7

The Institute was too expensive, it infringed upon the activities of the states, and it was to be run by self-interested scientists incapable of understanding the practical needs of industry. From 1916 to 1920, the Age continued its attack, losing no opportunity to ridicule the activities of the nascent organisation. Reviewing the Advisory Council’s work in 1918, the newspaper noted that ‘every little committee has its account of harmless pottering in laboratories’, but the nation was yet to made ‘a penny’s worth of profit out of the whole business’. After two years of investigation, the Council’s ‘main discovery’ was that ‘it had not had enough money to spend upon itself’. 8

The Age’s editorial assault was bolstered by a series of satirical articles purporting to describe a tour of the grand ‘marble palace’ that housed the National Laboratory. In the articles, a reporter is guided in the mysterious ways of science by ‘the Professor’, who spends much time ‘looking anxiously over the rims of his round spectacles’, talking slowly to the befuddled layman. In a laboratory dedicated to blowfly research, the Professor proudly explains how they have approached the problem ‘with perfectly empty—I should say with perfectly open—minds’. As none of the scientists are ‘hampered by any previous knowledge of blow-flies’, they have charted a rather novel course, aiming not to kill the pest, but to turn its energy ‘to commercial account’. ‘You know that science has harnessed lightning’, the Professor boldly exclaims, ‘Well, sir, science is now going to harness the blow-fly’. Of course, the investigations were likely to be expensive and prolonged, and might entail some improvements in the basic design of the blowfly itself, but the project offered a fine example of the laboratory’s ‘severely practical’ approach to issues of national progress. An insect-powered future for Australia! 9

Other newspapers declared their support for the Institute, though they too stressed the importance of a practical orientation. 10 When the Institute’s bill was finally presented, it suffered rough handling in both houses of parliament before being withdrawn in 1919. It was reintroduced in a modified form almost a year later, and, after further struggle, was finally passed. 11 Critics from both sides of politics followed the Age’s lead. ‘It is being said outside that the Institute is to consist merely of University professors and other theorists’, claimed Frank Tudor, leader of the Labor opposition. Tudor objected to the creation of a ‘huge spending machine’ that had thus far shown ‘no evidence of practical work’. ‘If this Institute has unlimited money to spend’, he warned, ‘there will be research in every direction’. 12 Tudor had been a member of Hughes’ cabinet when the Advisory Council was formed in 1916, however, the split over conscription had left them on opposite sides of the house. 13 The tension of recent political realignments undoubtedly complicated the bill’s passage, as did Hughes’ divisive style, but there was more than party politics fuelling the distrust.

The question of what constitutes an appropriate mix of theory and practice, of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research, is one that continues to provoke controversy. Most would agree that some sort of balance is required between the immediate needs of industry and nation, and the long term cultural benefits instilled by the pursuit of knowledge. And yet, the terms ‘academic’ and ‘theorist’ have hardly shed their pejorative nuance. Seemingly obscure research topics still provide a source of amusement for commentators on the trail of waste or inefficiency. As governments look to the private sector to top up dwindling research budgets, pure research seems increasingly marginalised. Funding flows towards targets and priorities rather than curiosity or imagination. More than a century later, many researchers would rally behind HC Russell’s defiant proclamation at the very first AAAS congress in 1888. ‘This Association’, he announced, ‘stands as a protest against the shortsighted and utilitarian policy of those who would cultivate only what they characteristically call the bread and butter sciences’. 14

But the enemies of science are not always easy to identify. In 1906, Littleton Groom introduced legislation to exercise the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers in the field of meteorology. The Constitution had linked meteorology with astronomy, however, Groom’s bill proposed government action only in regard to the former. Meteorology dealt ‘with practical questions affecting everyday life’, he explained, it was of immediate value to the developing nation. 15 Once again, it seemed, ‘bread and butter science’ was to be blessed with the favour of policy makers. But in fact, Groom was following a course of action recommended by the Board of Visitors to the Victorian state observatory. There were obvious gains to be made by coordinating meteorological work, that did not seem to apply to astronomy. 16 While debate on the bill rehearsed familiar distinctions between the ‘abstract speculations’ of astronomers and the practical skill of meteorologists, such stereotypes masked complex questions of policy and priority. 17

In their account of CSIR’s origins, Currie and Graham ponder the ‘true meaning’ of ‘the contempt for the scientist and respect for the practical man’ expressed so vigorously across party lines. 18 It was a contempt that fed upon the imagined virtues of a frontier people, a people used to doing, not thinking. It was a contempt that expressed a suspicion of intellectual achievement, a distrust of overgrown poppies. Historians and cultural commentators remind us frequently of Australia’s anti-intellectual bias. The history of science itself is often portrayed as a long struggle against utilitarian prejudice. However, as we gather our forces to rejoin the fray, we might reflect that in our self-righteous determination lurks an image of progress that is equally monolithic. It is knowledge itself that promises to counter society’s ‘shortsighted and utilitarian’ impulses: a broader understanding, a deeper appreciation, an expansion of the nation’s intellectual horizons. Progress is to be found in the march of enlightenment, in the conquest of ignorance itself.


  1. Age, 8 August 1919, p. 6.
  2. Age, 17 January 1916, p. 8.
  3. Age, 8 August 1919, p. 6.
  4. Age, 30 March 1920, p. 6
  5. Age, 19 January 1916, p. 11.
  6. Age, 27 September 1918, p. 6.
  7. CPD, 27 September 1918, vol. 86, p. 6460; Age, 28 September 1918, p. 13.
  8. Age, 30 September 1918, p. 6.
  9. ‘Little chats with scientists – No. I, the blowfly’, Age, 15 October 1918, p. 6; see also, ‘Little chats with scientists – No. II, machine made’, 18 October 1918, p. 8.
  10. For example: Argus, 22 January 1916; SMH, 8 January 1916, p. 16.
  11. Sir George Currie, and John Graham, The origins of CSIRO: Science and the Commonwealth Government 1901-1926, CSIRO, Melbourne, 1966, pp. 85-104.
  12. CPD, 13 August 1919, vol. 89, pp. 11536-42.
  13. Janet McCalman, ‘Tudor, Francis Gwynne (1866-1922)’, in John Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1990, pp. 281-2.
  14. Quoted in Roy MacLeod, ‘From imperial to national science’, in Roy MacLeod (ed.), The commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p. 41.
  15. CPD, vol. 32, 1 August 1906, p. 2139.
  16. For more on efforts to coordinate meteorology in Australia see R W Home, and K T Livingston, ‘Science and technology in the story of Australian federation: The case of meteorology, 1876-1908’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 10, no. 2, 1994, pp. 109-127.
  17. CPD, vol. 32, 1 August 1906, p. 2150.
  18. Currie and Graham, The origins of CSIRO, p. 86.

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