Means must be taken to control what men shall know

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In March 1947, David Rivett delivered an address entitled ‘Science and responsibility’ at the annual commencement ceremony of the Canberra University College. Rivett, the much-respected chairman of CSIR, pursued a number of his favourite themes, rhapsodising upon spirit of scientific inquiry, and urging governments not to focus too narrowly on the application of science to industry. The importance of fostering fundamental research in science was always one of Rivett’s most passionate credos, a cause inherited from his friend and mentor, Orme Masson. But in the postwar world, the utilitarian bias of government and society was not the most dangerous threat to the health of science. There was a ‘cloud’, Rivett warned, ‘that has been present in a minor degree for a long time but has grown more starkly in recent times’. It was a cloud that threatened to overshadow ‘that free-trade in scientific knowledge of all kinds, which has been the glory of these last three hundred years’. 1 It was a cloud of secrecy and mistrust.

Science’s increasing integration with the machinery of war had led inevitably to the imposition of secrecy. As it proved its worth on the battlefield, science became too valuable, too dangerous, to be freely exchanged between countries, or even between colleagues. Scientists had accepted such restrictions, expecting their freedom to be restored at conflict’s end. But what had happened? Instead of recognising that the freedom to communicate was essential for the healthy development of science, the nations of the world had come to believe that their continued security depended on the maintenance of secrecy. This was a perilous route, Rivett argued, for ‘secrecy and integrity in science cannot flourish together’. ‘They who preach secrecy for security are false guides’, he added, for ‘that way lies war’. 2

Brian Fitzpatrick wrote to congratulate Rivett on his speech. ‘I was strongly seized by its opportuneness’, he remarked, ‘and the importance which attaches to such expressions on your part at this time’. 3 Only weeks before the commencement ceremony, the Opposition had launched an attack in parliament on the security of the Woomera rocket range. JP Abbott drew upon the evidence of spy trials in Canada to suggest that Australian science was in the grip of an organised network of communist infiltration. He pointed in particular to the communist associations of Donald Mountjoy, who had been recently appointed to the CSIR executive, ‘a position where he was capable of doing the greatest possible harm’. 4 Abbott also named a number of supposed communists involved with the Australian Association of Scientific Workers, which was itself mounting a vigorous defence of scientific freedom. 5 Amidst the escalating barrage of innuendo and suspicion, Rivett sought a return to simple truths. ‘As a matter of fact’, he wrote in reply to Fitzpatrick, ‘it all seemed to me so completely obvious and commonplace that I have been astonished at the interest which such tame remarks appear to have aroused’. 6

Abbott seized upon Rivett’s speech as further evidence of CSIR’s lax appreciation of the threat to national security. ‘Having regard to the fact that Sir David is alleged to have expressed the view that there should be no secrecy among scientists in military research work’, he asked Prime Minister Chifley, would the government ‘take steps…to ensure that only those officers of the Council be employed on rocket research who dissociate themselves from Sir David’s view?’ 7 Rivett penned his own reply to the Country Party member, pointing out in a rather genial fashion that his argument had been seriously misrepresented. He did not resile, however, from the looming battle. ‘You may not agree with the view that the old freedom is essential if science is to flourish’, Rivett remarked, ‘in that case we shall differ and insofar as you endeavour to enslave CSIR I shall be obliged to fight you and people holding this reactionary view with all the vigour I possess’. 8

Public hostilities resumed on 30 September the following year, when the Opposition used the estimates debate to portray CSIR as a ‘weak link’ in the free world’s defence. The acting leader, EJ Harrison, set the tone of proceedings by noting that Rivett’s opinions on secrecy in science were supported by known communists. 9 Abbott re-entered the fray, quoting extensively from a copy of ‘Science and responsibility’ that Rivett had kindly sent him. In ‘a period almost of war’, Abbott argued, this speech ‘was a most dangerous one’. Through his careless dismissal of secrecy, Rivett had ‘preached, wickedly and wrongly, the most dangerous doctrines to our young scientists’, transforming them into potential spies. 10 Such an attitude, Archie Cameron added, was ‘as near to treachery as one can get’. 11 Rivett’s well-publicised beliefs were paraded as evidence of the urgent need ‘to drive fifth columnists and Communists’ from the CSIR. 12 A week later, the faulty wiring in the physics laboratory at the University of Melbourne brought yet another round of spot the bogey.

Rivett was defended by Dedman and Chifley, who expressed his disappointment that ‘statements of the nature of those made to-day could be made in this Parliament in a debate of this kind’. ‘I am convinced’, Chifley added, ‘that no one is more loyal to Australia, or is more conscious of his country’s interests, than is Sir David’. 13 Rivett himself was flooded with messages of support from scientific colleagues around the country. 14 ‘One fumes and boils’, wrote a CSIR scientist, ‘to think that the one person of the calibre necessary to epitomise the true spirit of science should be subjected to such treatment’. 15 In a letter to Dedman, Rivett himself remarked that ‘despite great temptation’ he would not comment publicly on recent proceedings. 16 However, in January the following year he restated his beliefs more strongly than ever in an article entitled ‘Science, secrecy and security’. ‘We enter the new year’, he wrote, ‘after a rather discreditable political incident at Canberra’ in which ‘a little group of Parliamentarians saw fit…to use the CSIR as an avenue for pursuit of rather party political ends’. He was unsure whether ‘these half-dozen people were ignorant, or stupid, or merely ill-informed’, but they had ‘blundered badly’ and their performance should bring reflection upon ‘the subject of morals in public life’. 17

Rivett’s battle, however, was already lost. While the Opposition’s attempt to smear him was unjustified, there was growing concern in Australia and overseas about CSIR’s security credentials. Only a week before the attack in parliament, Dedman had informed the CSIR executive that American suspicions of Australian security had resulted in the country being ‘completely cut off from the flow of military information’. To reassure its nervous allies and break the information embargo, the Australian government had to be seen to be taking ‘positive steps…to enforce full security measures’. 18 Although there was no evidence that CSIR had let any secrets slip, plans were already under way to bring the organisation under closer government control. 19 CSIR’s secretary, George Cook, wrote to JE Cummins, on 28 September, complaining that ‘even now we have not been given a complete picture of what we are up against’. ‘Apparently something is wrong with the release of information between the US and the British Commonwealth’, he explained, ‘I am afraid that in so far as Australia is concerned it looks as if CSIR is going to have to play a role which…looks very much like that of an innocent scapegoat’. 20

To prove itself worthy of US trust, the Chifley government moved quickly to transfer CSIR’s Division of Aeronautics to the Department of Supply, even as more fundamental reforms were being investigated. The possibility that CSIR might be brought under full departmental control was narrowly avoided, but in March 1949 legislation was introduced that changed the role of the executive and brought the organisation within the purview of the Public Service Board. 21 New employees would be security screened and required to take an oath of allegiance. 22 CSIR was transformed into CSIRO, though as Ian Wark, head of the Division of Industrial Chemistry, pithily explained, ‘CSIRO=CSIR+0’. 23 Rivett, however, could not reconcile himself to the changes and did not seek appointment to the new executive. He had been planning to retire for some time, but the eventual circumstances left him disappointed, fearful for the future of science.

In October 1948, Dedman told Rivett that while he understood the motives behind his address at the Canberra University College, he ‘doubted its expediency’. 24 Abbott accused the scientist of ‘living in a world of unreality’, while Rivett’s hard-line defence of scientific freedom has been portrayed by historians as ‘extreme and idealistic’. 25 He was incapable, it seems, of bending to the complex political demands of Cold War Australia. And yet Rivett had helped steer his beloved organisation through all manner of political storms. When he was appointed to the executive of CSIR in 1926, suspicion lingered as to the value of science. The new organisation had to build trust and confidence after the alleged failures of its predecessor the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. It had to demonstrate that science could offer timely support to the process of national development. Rivett always sought a place for pure research, but recognised the need for results. In a sometimes testy partnership with George Julius, chairman of CSIR until 1945, Rivett worked to balance the expectations of public and government against the needs of a healthy scientific culture. 26 Like his father-in-law Alfred Deakin, Rivett exemplified the ‘practical idealist’. 27

The struggle continued for twenty years, through cycles of disappointment and opportunity. Just as CSIR seemed to be proving its worth, the Depression forced a savage cut in funding. It was a challenge even to keep the organisation alive. In the mid-1930s, the government’s plans for manufacturing brought new responsibilities and powers. But the changes brought pressure upon Rivett’s ideals, as he fought to ensure that CSIR would be more than the mere ‘handmaiden of industry’. 28 Within the confines of changing political moods, Rivett sought to find space where his scientists could engage in the pursuit of fundamental questions. But the war brought a halt to even these modest efforts, and CSIR turned all its energies upon the needs of the national crisis. 29

After twenty years of struggle and compromise, Rivett might have been excused for hoping that the end of the war would bring something better. CSIR was bigger and busier than ever before, and the value of science to the modern world seemed impossible to deny. But he knew that nothing could be taken for granted. Delivering the Macrossan Memorial Lectures in 1943, Rivett argued that ‘one of the most pathetic results of the growth of National Socialism in Germany has been the deliberate, systematic prostitution…of the whole spirit of Science’. 30 Was Australia so different? Might not this country succumb to similar pressures and temptations? Rivett remained optimistic, but warned, ‘our whole attitude as a people towards the freedom of the inquirer, whatever be his line of work, is a matter of vital significance’. 31

Rivett was looking towards a peaceful retirement, but the state of the world threatened to thwart him. In a long letter to a conference on atomic power organised by the Australian Association of Scientific Workers in 1946, he sought to describe what he deemed to be the ‘outstanding problem’ facing ‘people deeply concerned with scientific progress’. There was a fight gathering, he observed, between ‘the spirit of science on the one side and the practice of power politics on the other’. ‘Almost for the first time in history’, he continued, the ‘protagonists of power politics’ had realised some of the ‘immense possibilities’ of science, and were ‘making every effort to get into their hands, under their direct orders and control, both workers and the results of their scientific work’. For the moment, it seemed, Australia might be spared the excesses of other countries, but there was a responsibility, Rivett insisted, to ‘think hard and clearly about these matters’. 32

Twelve months later, when Rivett delivered his ‘Science and responsibility’ speech, the influence of power politics was beginning to be felt. His words were not those of a naïve idealist, gesturing towards some vision of scientific utopia. They were the words of a man who, after twenty years’ struggling to reconcile the demands of science and nation, saw his gains being lost amidst growing hysteria. They were the words of a proud son, whose father died of a stroke in 1934, seconds after delivering a ‘rousing address in defence of freedom of speech’ before a large crowd in the Sydney Domain. 33 They were the words of a scientist, nearing retirement, who had given up his own research career to create opportunities for others, only to find those opportunities trampled in a misguided quest for security. What was to be his legacy? In 1951, he reflected that the loss of ‘international freedom, intercourse and goodwill’ was felt more acutely by the ‘older generation’, ‘forced to recognise that a new generation is growing up in science which has not known the freedom accorded to its predecessors and, maybe, does not miss it’. This loss could not be borne quietly. ‘If we are to maintain…the honour, the dignity and the worth to humanity of man’s intense and wholly admirable desire to understand Nature’, Rivett concluded, ‘we must realise as never before what a fight lies ahead of every one of us; a moral fight and a most difficult one’. 34

It was a question of control. ‘In the name of national security’, the Australian Journal of Science observed, ‘a nation’s governing group decides that means must be taken to control and direct the man of science and those who have access to his deadly secrets’. But that is only the beginning, for then ‘means must be taken to control what men shall know, who shall know it, who shall control those who know, and how they shall be controlled’. 35 The desire to control knowledge and ideas ends in the need to control people. The Chifley government sought to prove itself worthy of the atomic secret by creating legislation that introduced new controls upon the lives and activities of its citizens. First there was the Approved Defence Projects Protection Act, then the restructuring of CSIR. Finally, in 1949, at the urging of US and UK authorities, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was established to monitor internal threats to the nation’s security. 36 The incoming Menzies government improved on Labor’s modest efforts, as security was defined ever more strongly as the problem of protecting the nation from its own people. ‘Secrecy’, Rivett argued, ‘can be assured only with the aid of its unpleasant watchdog, suspicion’. Instead of seeking security through ‘achievement’, the world was succumbing to suspicion, anxiety, and ‘witch-hunts’. In Australia, Rivett added pointedly, ‘we play our accustomed role of mimic, led by a few shallow “realists” in politics’. 37

David Rivett was not the only scientist to suffer as Australia followed its powerful friends into the oppressive embrace of secrecy. Tom Kaiser, a young student studying on a CSIR scholarship, was vilified after attending a demonstration in London in 1949. His political activities and his involvement in ‘secret’ research projects convinced ASIO and the press that he was a potential spy. The new CSIRO executive, keen to demonstrate its commitment to security, dismissed him—though no-one was really sure on what grounds. 38 Eric Burhop, another left-leaning physicist, was trustworthy enough to be employed on the Manhattan Project, but not to take up a position at the University of Adelaide at war’s end. 39 But whereas Burhop and Kaiser went on to distinguished careers in Britain, Rivett’s battle with secrecy dominated the end of his working life. His achievement in building CSIR, his ‘genius for getting things done’, these were overshadowed by political opportunism and the dangerous myth of the atomic secret.

For all Rivett’s misgivings, CSIRO flourished under its new act. For a period in the 1950s and 60s the organisation finally came close to Rivett’s vision, balancing problem solving for industry with a vigorous program of fundamental research. 40 But it is Rivett’s replacement, Ian Clunies Ross, the urbane man of affairs, who is most celebrated for his achievement in wedding science to national progress. Rivett’s legacy remains troubling for an organisation that in recent decades has been forced to demonstrate its ever closer links with industry. ‘What we need to develop amongst ourselves’, he argued in 1943, ‘is the faith that knowledge is worth seeking and worth getting even though any immediate connection between it and industrial profit is completely invisible’. 41 Such a faith seems more endangered than ever.

In ‘Science and responsibility’, Rivett noted, in passing, that the honest pursuit of knowledge demanded the acceptance of uncertainty. And yet the term ‘agnostic’ was often heard as a reproach. 42 He might have added that while society values truth, those who speak in its name are often criticised as ‘idealists’. Joel Kovel has argued that the role of the concerned intellectual in modern society is to be found in ‘speaking truth to power’. 43 Control is most clearly manifest in physical violence or intimidation. But perhaps it is most effective in making simple truths seem foolish or dangerous, in making people scared to speak, lest they seem naïve, or unrealistic.


  1. David Rivett, ‘Science and responsibility’, Melbourne University Magazine, 1947, pp. 9-12.
  2. ibid., p. 11
  3. Letter from Fitzpatrick to Rivett, 1 May 1947, Fitzpatrick papers, NLA: MS4965, series 1. Fitzpatrick also asked Rivett to become a vice-president of Australian Council for Civil Liberties, letter from Fitzpatrick to Rivett, 23 June 1947, Fitzpatrick papers, NLA: MS4965, series 1.
  4. Age, 8 March 1947, p. 16.
  5. Jean Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena: a social-intellectual history of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers’, M.Phil, Griffith University, 1983, pp. 210-15; Jean Buckley-Moran, ‘Australian scientists and the Cold War’, in Brian Martin, C.M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (eds), Intellectual suppression: Australian case histories, analysis and responses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1986, pp. 11-23.
  6. Rivett to Fitzpatrick, 2 May 1947, Fitzpatrick papers, NLA: MS4965, series 1.
  7. Copy of Abbott’s question without notice on ‘Guided missiles’, 26 March 1947, in NAA: A9778, M13/20/1/15; Herald, 26 March 1947, p. 5.
  8. Letter from Rivett to JP Abbott, 31 March 1947, NAA: A9778, M13/20/1/15.
  9. CPD, vol. 198, 30 September 1948, pp. 1028-30.
  10. CPD, vol. 198, 30 September 1948, pp. 1041-2.
  11. CPD, vol. 198, 30 September 1948, p. 1045.
  12. CPD, vol. 198, 30 September 1948, p. 1043.
  13. CPD, vol. 198, 30 September 1948, p. 1083.
  14. Rohan Rivett, David Rivett: fighter for Australian science, R D Rivett, Melbourne, 1972, pp. 12-14.
  15. Quoted in Rivett, David Rivett , p. 12.
  16. Letter from Rivett to Dedman, 4 October 1948, Dedman papers, NLA: MS987, series 6.
  17. David Rivett, ‘Science, secrecy and security’, Herald, 20 January 1949, p. 4.
  18. FWG White, ‘Notes on interview with the Minister in Canberra, Thursday, 23rd September, 1948’, 24 September 1948, NAA: A9778, M13/20/1/7. For more on the security embargo see: Frank Cain, ‘An aspect of postwar Australian relations with the United Kingdom and the United States: Missiles, spies and disharmony’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 23, no. 92, April 1989, pp. 186-202; Wayne Reynolds, Australia’s bid for the atomic bomb, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000, ch. 5.
  19. Frederick White, ‘CSIR to CSIRO – The events of 1948-1949’, Public Administration, vol. 34, no. 4, December 1975, pp. 282-3; C B Schedvin, Shaping science and industry: a history of Australia’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 1926-49, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987, pp. 338-9.
  20. Letter from GA Cook to JE Cummins, headed ‘CSIR and secret work’, 28 September 1948, NAA: A9778, M13/20/1/7.
  21. White, ‘CSIR to CSIRO’; Tim Rowse, Nugget Coombs: a reforming life, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 166-72.
  22. White, ‘CSIR to CSIRO’, pp. 290-91; Schedvin, Shaping science and industry, p. 346.
  23. Quoted in Rivett, David Rivett, p. 210.
  24. ‘Notes of talk with Minister at Parliament House, Canberra, at 2pm on Monday, 11 October, 1948’, NAA: A9778, M13/20/1/18.
  25. CPD, vol. 198, 30 September 1948, p. 1042; Morton, Fire across the desert, p. 112.
  26. Schedvin, Shaping science and industry.
  27. For Deakin’s ‘practical idealism’ see Walter Murdoch, Alfred Deakin – A sketch, Bookman, Melbourne, 1999, p. 90-2; Roy Macleod discusses ‘practical idealism’ in Australian science in Roy MacLeod, ‘Science, Progressivism and Practical Idealism: Reflections on Efficient Imperialism and Federal Science in Australia 1895-1915’, Scientia Canadensis, vol. 13, no. 1, 1994, pp. 7-26.
  28. David Rivett, The application of science to industry, the John Murtagh Macrossan Memorial Lectures for 1943, University of Queensland, Brisbane, 1944, pp. 33-4.
  29. Home, ‘Science on service’.
  30. David Rivett, The application of science to industry, p. 44.
  31. ibid., p. 45.
  32. David Rivett, ‘Note for the AASW and FSTW Conference on Atomic Power, April 12-14, 1946’, Bulletin of the Australian Assoication of Scientific Workers, no. 67, April-May 1946.
  33. Rohan Rivett, David Rivett, pp. 157-8. Albert Rivett was a Congregationalist minister and anti-war activist. See also CB Schedvin, ‘Rivett, Albert (1855-1934) and Rivett, Albert Cherbury David (1855-1961)’, in Geoffrey Serle (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 398-401.
  34. David Rivett, ‘Science in Australia’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 14, no. 2, 21 October 1951, pp. 33-4.
  35. ‘Science and security’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 11, no. 5, 21 April 1949, p. 146.
  36. Frank Cain, The Australian Security Intelligence Organization : an unofficial history, Spectrum Publications, Richmond, Vic., 1994, p. 30ff; David McKnight, Australia’s spies and their secrets, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994, pp. 6-48.
  37. David Rivett, ‘Science, secrecy and security’.
  38. Phillip Deery, ‘Scientific freedom and postwar politics: Australia, 1945-55’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 13, no. 1, June 2000, pp. 1-18; Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena’, pp. 239-42.
  39. RW Home, ‘Eric Henry Stoneley Burhop (1911-1980)’, in John Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 301-2; Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena’, pp. 243-4.
  40. Schedvin, Shaping scienceand industry, p. 361.
  41. David Rivett, The application of science to industry, pp. 33-4.
  42. David Rivett, ‘Science and responsibility’, p. 9.
  43. Joel Kovel, ‘Speaking truth to power’, Meanjin, vol. 50, no. 4, Summer 1991, pp. 447-62.

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