To speak with authority for science as a whole

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The year 1951 marked the jubilee of Federation. It was also the year that the Australian National University conferred its first degree. Eighty-four year old Robert Garran, veteran of the Federation campaign, was awarded an honorary LLD. 1 He became the first graduate of the institution for which he had so long hoped and argued.

As a further contribution to the jubilee celebrations, the ANU organised two high profile seminars, bringing together eminent thinkers from Australia and overseas. One seminar examined the practice of federalism itself, while the other was intended to ‘review the growth, organisation, achievements and status of scientists in Australia’, and to develop ‘an overall pattern of future scientific policy’. 2 It was, Vice-Chancellor DB Copland suggested, ‘entirely appropriate’ that the ANU should host such a scientific stocktake. ‘As a national University sponsored by the Commonwealth’, he explained, ‘its objective must be not only to pursue its own studies and researches, but to provide facilities for the discussion of common problems among all scientists, and to promote the maximum degree of co-ordination of scientific endeavour’. 3

The ‘Science in Australia’ seminar was organised by Mark Oliphant, Director of the university’s Research School of Physical Sciences. Oliphant had left Australia in 1927 as a promising research student, returning more than twenty years later as a world-class scientist and conquering hero. He flourished in the fabled realms of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, journeying with Ernest Rutherford into the mysterious heart of the atom. During the war, Oliphant played a significant role in the development of the allies’ most secret and powerful weapons, radar and the atomic bomb. In the years that followed, he became a frequent contributor to public debate, a passionate opponent of the use of the atomic bomb, an adviser to government, a leader of the scientific community, and perhaps the country’s best known scientist. 4

Oliphant introduced the seminar’s published proceedings by reaffirming the value of science to a country beset with ‘problems in agriculture and land utilisation’. 5 The benefits of applied science seemed obvious, manifest in the many achievements of CSIR and its successor, CSIRO. But if Australia was to overcome its inherent difficulties, to progress at a rate commensurate with the advanced nations of the world, it had to move beyond a narrowly utilitarian framework and develop a ‘research outlook’. 6 Oliphant surveyed a fragmented and discordant community, where financially starved university scientists looked with envy upon the resources available to their colleagues in CSIRO. A new funding model was essential, as was a renewed attempt ‘to weld the scattered scientific effort in Australia into a corporate whole, with a common purpose and spirit’. 7

Questions of organisation and influence continued to bedevil the nation’s scientists as they pondered once again their role in Australian society. Their desire for unity, for a single voice in the forum of national affairs, had been expressed through such bodies as AAAS/ANZAAS and the ANRC, but still they found it difficult to make themselves heard. The outbreak of war in 1939 offered science another chance to seize a prominent role in the consolidation of national strength and self-reliance. Entering the conflict as an eager supporting player, science stole the show with its dramatic finale over Hiroshima, and burst upon the postwar world with renewed confidence and authority. 8 But in a world struck with the horror of the bomb, descending into ideological division and fear, science’s very success brought new dangers, new failures.

At the 1939 ANZAAS meeting, discussions on the social relations of science had been inconclusive, disappointing. But scientists keen to turn their skills and knowledge to the remaking of society quickly regrouped, and within a few months had founded a new organisation. 9 The Australian Association of Scientific Workers (AASW) aimed ‘to secure the wider application of science and the scientific method for the welfare of society, and to promote the interests of science’. 10 It would ‘unite the interests of all progressively minded scientists’, ensuring that science was ‘more fully and effectively recognized in government, in industry and in education’. 11 The AASW brought a sense of activism and energy to the pompous truisms of ANZAAS orators. The oft-recited ideals of science were given a political edge, sharpened against a socialist critique that influenced many young scientists in the 1930s.

Even before it had been formally constituted, the AASW hosted public discussions on ‘the contribution of the scientific worker to defence’ and the ‘nature of science teaching’. 12 Education, it was argued, should instill an appreciation of the scientific method and a desire for accurate information in the activities of daily life. These were important lessons both for scientists and citizens. The organisation of scientific effort was another well-worn theme given added urgency and relevance. With the onset of war, the AASW launched a vigorous campaign, urging the government to mobilise the country’s scientific resources. Meanwhile specialist sub-committees gave frustrated scientists the opportunity to lend their skills to the nation’s pressing needs. 13

But amidst the chaos and destruction of war, it was the hope of an emerging ‘new order’ that entranced the idealists of the AASW. Properly planned and controlled, the processes of postwar reconstruction could recreate Australia along scientific lines. Science would work to the benefit of all, its influence reflected in a more intelligent, more prosperous, more just society. Conferences on ‘the planning of science’ were organised in several states, as the AASW sought to find a place within the government’s planning machinery. 14 However, the scientists’ unswerving conviction seemed to unnerve even the intellectual vanguard in the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction. An internal minute to the Director, HC Coombs, canvassed various jobs that might safely be allotted to the AASW, warning of their ‘eagerness to make political judgements’. ‘It should be made clear’, the note continued, ‘that the argument cannot be accepted that the scientific worker by his peculiar training is alone capable of making rational political judgements’. 15

The political certainties of the AASW, its passion for planning and hopes for the democratic control of science, alienated many within the scientific community, and aroused the suspicions of some outside. The atomic bomb revealed all too clearly the value of science to the modern state, but it raised new doubts about loyalty and trust. In a world whose very existence seemed to depend upon close control of the ‘atomic secret’, those who argued for the freedom of scientific exchange appeared foolish at best, perhaps even dangerous. Reports of ‘atomic spies’ fuelled Cold War hysteria, as conservative politicians looked for communists behind every laboratory bench. 16 The AASW was an easy target for allegations of communist control, and membership began to dwindle as scientists ducked for cover against the hail of anti-communist invective and innuendo. In 1948, the decision was made to dissolve the organisation. 17

Noticeably absent from the proceedings of the ‘Science in Australia’ seminar was any mention of the AASW. It was an experiment best forgotten. Instead, the seminar charted a course away from the excesses of ‘planning’. Speakers unfavourably contrasted Australia’s faith in ‘the ability of boards and committees to decide the direction of scientific advance’ with the American policy ‘of backing the man with ideas and proved achievement’. 18 Burdened with a permanent, ageing staff, government laboratories risked becoming sterile. Universities, on the other hand, promoted greater autonomy and creativity, their research efforts stimulated by a ‘continual flow of fertile young brains’. 19 Unsurprisingly perhaps, the ideal research environment looked a lot like the ANU.

Greater autonomy, however, need not entail isolation. Oliphant noted that scientists were ‘developing a growing awareness of the social problems’ engendered by their work. 20 But rather than planning to remake society, he suggested that scientists could best serve their country by providing a source of impartial advice and expertise. There was a pact to be made between science and the nation. ‘The man of science must be prepared to place his knowledge at the disposal of his Government’, Oliphant maintained, but the Government must be willing to encourage the scientist by providing ‘an atmosphere… where scientific work can flourish’. 21

The seminar concluded with a discussion of ‘scientific policy’ in which Oliphant revealed his plans for ‘revivifying’ the ‘spirit of science’ in Australia. What was needed was a symbol of unity and coherence, a new organisation that represented the pinnacle of scientific achievement—a national academy of science. With membership confined to the nation’s most eminent scientists, such a body would be able ‘to speak with authority for science as a whole’. It would have the ‘necessary prestige’ to gain a hearing in the halls of political power, to influence public debate. 22 Whereas the AASW imagined that all scientific workers might have a say in the framing the nation’s research agenda, Oliphant proposed governance by a self-elected elite. Unity would come not through participation, but through leadership.

The ‘Science in Australia’ seminar was closed to the media. It was an unfortunate decision, argued the Sydney Morning Herald, at a time when the public felt ‘overwhelmed by science’. Increased specialisation coupled with the unremitting flood of discovery and invention had opened a ‘great gulf’ between ‘the scientist and the ordinary citizen’. 23 What was needed was more communication, not less. Forty years earlier, the newspaper had urged a similar course upon scientists attending the AAAS congress. 24 Forty years earlier, Orme Masson had addressed the congress, pondering the best means of cultivating the ‘scientific spirit’, urging that work on ‘practical problems’ should not overshadow the ‘search for truth’, and arguing for greater encouragement of research within the universities. 25 In the pursuit of progress, science found itself returning endlessly to the problems of its past.


  1. Parker, ‘Garran, Sir Robert Randolph (1867-1957)’, p. 624.
  2. Canberra Times, 24 July 1951, p. 4.
  3. DB Copland, ‘Foreword’, in MLE Oliphant (ed.), Science in Australia, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1952, p. i.
  4. For Oliphant’s biographical details see Stewart Cockburn, and David Ellyard, Oliphant: the life and times of Sir Mark Oliphant, Axiom Books, Adelaide, 1981.
  5. ‘Introduction’, in MLE Oliphant (ed.), Science in Australia, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1952, p. v. The introduction is unsigned, but seems almost certainly to have been written by Oliphant.
  6. ibid., p. viii.
  7. ibid., p. vii-viii.
  8. The effect of the war upon the development of Australian science is discussed in RW Home, ‘Science on service, 1939-1945’, in RW Home (ed.), Australian science in the making, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 220-51.
  9. Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena’, ch. 2.
  10. ‘Science and society’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 2, no. 2, August 1939, p. 15.
  11. ‘Australian Association of Scientific Workers, New South Wales Branch’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 2, no. 3, December 1939, p. 95.
  12. ‘Science and defence – Australian Association of Scientific Workers’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 2, no. 2, October 1939, pp. 40-43; ‘Australian Association of Scientific Workers, the nature of science teaching in schools’, Australian Journal of Science, vol. 2, no. 3, December 1939, pp. 90-1.
  13. Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena’, ch. 3.
  14. ibid., pp. 148-68.
  15. ‘The association of scientific workers’, minute by WH Lockwood for HC Coombs (Director, PWR), 13 March 1943, NAA: A9816, 43/1052.
  16. 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; Phillip Deery, ‘Scientific freedom and postwar politics: Australia, 1945-55’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 13, no. 1, June 2000, pp. 1-18.
  17. Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena’, pp. 227-30.
  18. Oliphant (ed.), Science in Australia, p. ix, 165.
  19. ibid., p. ix.
  20. ibid., p. xv.
  21. ibid., pp. xxiv-xxv.
  22. ibid., pp. 163-7; Frank Fenner (ed.), The Australian Academy of Science: the first forty years, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, 1995, pp. 9-10.
  23. SMH, 28 July 1951, p. 2.
  24. SMH, 9 January 1911, p. 8.
  25. Masson, ‘Presidential address’, p. 5.

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