Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/May 1905/Organization in Scientific Research

By Professor WM. E. RITTER,


PROGRESS in science leads to ever greater, more multifarious minutiae of knowledge, and at the same time to ever clearer revelation of the close and vital interdependence among the different sciences. This characteristic of progress tends inevitably, for the individual investigator, toward an unyielding paradox. On the one hand, he is confronted by an ever increasing mass of detail, which necessitates ever narrower specialization, while, on the other hand, he is required to fit himself ever more thoroughly in an increasing number of sciences. See how it is faring with the zoologist, for example, since his case happens to be one of painful concreteness to the present writer. To enter this field by any of its numerous gateways with fair prospects of being able to achieve much, one needs to be armed to the teeth with weapons obtained in several other fields. In the first place, he ought to be a physiologist among physiologists, with all that implies of physics and chemistry. It is not enough that he be a zoologist with 'pretty fair training in physiology.' In the second place, he ought to handle the mathematician's weapons just as the mathematician himself handles them. Further, he can hardly get on without being geologist, oceanographer, meteorologist, one or another, depending on what aspect of zoology may be his chief interest. For the strict individualist in research it looks as though some of the sciences are in a way to progress themselves to a standstill before long. What is to be done about it?

It is becoming more and more obvious that in some of the sciences continued progress, particularly in certain directions, calls for the helping hand of workmen whose training and interests are not primarily in the science directly concerned, but in neighboring sciences. It is no longer possible for an investigator engaged upon some of the problems of science, however broad and thorough be his training in sciences other than his own, to use the tools borrowed from other fields with real effectiveness in his own field. It is a question not merely of preliminary training, but as well of point of view, to be reached only by continuous and long continued living in a particular realm of knowledge until a certain habit of mind peculiar to that realm has been acquired. This is the sort of help that every science, probably, certainly most sciences, must have from its neighbors. There are aspects of certain biological problems, for instance, that admit of no other than mathematical treatment; and this treatment ought to be, indeed to be thoroughly sound must be, at the hand not of a botanist or zoologist with some incidental mathematical training, but of a mathematician. The astrophysicist is really a physicist using his tools in astronomy. The biochemist is primarily a chemist applying his cunning in the domain of living things. The paleontologist, whatever else he may be, must be a zoologist, and so on. So important is this matter that at the risk of seeming verbosity, I venture to illustrate it yet further.

Take anthropology, and to make the case more concrete, consider the question of the native peoples of western North America, for in a remote, amateurish sort of way I have an interest in some phases of this question. The broadest, fullest knowledge possible about these tribes is, of course, the ultimate aim. The investigations must then comprehend their somatology, their language, their psychology, their culture and their archeology, which runs into paleontology and so into geology. Now who but one soaked in linguistics is really competent to handle the language end of the problem? But where, think you, is the man thus prepared who is equally soaked in comparative anatomy and thus made equally fit for the somatological end of the problem? He simply does not exist, nor can he.

Or again, take the field of marine biology, about which I speak with some of the confidence that experience is capable of begetting. And first let the distinction be sharply made, as it surely must be, between marine biology and general biology advanced by researches on marine organisms. The former has for its aim, in the large, the getting of as comprehensive an understanding as possible of the life of the sea. It, of course, presents itself under a great variety of secondary, tertiary, etc., questions; but the sum total of the phenomena of marine plants and animals will never be lost sight of as its real aim. The latter makes use of animals and plants that live in the sea in general biological researches. That these organisms happen to be marine is an incident merely. The investigator turns away from his sea organisms without hesitation when others, from whatever source, come to hand that suit his purpose better. Further, the user of marine organisms in such general investigations is quite indifferent to every thing concerning them that does not bear upon his particular problem. He puts aside the marine animal after it has served his purpose without having even noticed, perhaps, the major part of its traits and qualities, and questions about it.

Now marine biology as here comprehended must have the correlated efforts of highly trained investigators in several widely separated fields of science. In the first place, there must be, of course, for the biological investigations proper, a considerable number of specialists in botany and zoology. Then, in addition, there must be at least the physicist or physical chemist for the physico-chemical study of the water; the geologist for bottom and shore topography and bottom deposits; and the hydrographer must be called in for currents, tides, up-welling water and meteorological conditions.

It is obvious, then, that increased coordination of effort would be distinctly advantageous in many fields of science; and that in some, at least, it is a sine qua non to considerable progress in the future. How is this to be brought about? How are these diversities of talent and training to be brought together and held together to the end that they may accomplish that which in no other way can be accomplished? Cooperation among individual workers, entered into on their own initiative and held together by their own cohesiveness, has done something, and probably in future will do more. In some districts of nature, and in some sorts of problems, this may fill the bill. To other districts and other kinds of problems, however, among which are undoubtedly some of the largest and potentially richest, I believe this kind of coordination can not extend in great effectiveness.

Organization around single large problems, or groups of closely related problems, with the two binding elements of talent for organizing and directing, and money for sustaining, I believe to be the direction in which we must look in the future more than we have been looking hitherto.

Something of the value and possibilities of organization in research are usefully illustrated by certain of the science departments of our national government. Particularly to be mentioned is the Geological Survey; and some of the divisions of the Department of Agriculture are likewise notable. But astronomy is giving us object lessons most to the point in this matter. The astronomical observatory with its permanent staff of investigators, each of whose work has a definite bearing upon a common purpose of the observatory, all under the coordinating hand of the director, shows us in principle how much of the scientific work of time to come must be done. It would appear that these splendid instrumentalities of research are getting right at the kernel of the question of means; and it seems as though other sciences ought to be profiting more than they are by the example.

It is likely to be replied that the observatories are made possible solely by the great sums of money given them, and that astronomy is doing no more in the way of equipping herself and organizing her forces than other sciences would do were they equally fortunate in getting money. True, astronomy is, or thus far has been, the favored sister in the family of sciences with those who have riches and a disposition to use them for the promotion of knowledge; and it is said sometimes that she is thus favored because she is more beautiful, more winsome, than her sisters. Well, possibly this is true; it may be or it may not be. We need not stop to discuss relative merits in this particular, since it is quite aside from the question. If other sciences must do what astronomy is doing in order to get on, and if money in more abundance is essential for this, then more money must be secured by those needing it. If astronomy, by reason of greater winsomeness, is able to get it more easily, that is her good fortune. So far as the essential matter is concerned, it can be only a question of overcoming greater difficulties by greater effort. But the real things are merit and need. When these both are, first, strongly felt, and, second, strongly presented, they are pretty sure to have a relaxing effect upon purse strings somewhere sooner or later, particularly in our country where wealth is so abundant and the general spirit of giving for the promotion of learning so much abroad.

Some of the practical bearings that a wider application of the principle of organization in research would have may now be briefly noticed.

In the first place, as touching the status of research in the universities, there can be no doubt that were research a primary rather than an incidental matter with the scientific departments of the universities, the principle could be applied, without specially greater expenditure of money, to an extent quite impossible under the present order. Supposing, for example, the department of botany of University X were to be organized and equipped primarily with reference to a comprehensive botanical survey of the particularly interesting botanical region in which it may happen to be located; how vastly greater would be its efficiency in forwarding botanical science than if its composition were determined by some other consideration, say the needs of instruction, and the botanical survey were to take its chance. Or again, suppose the department of geology of University Y, situated in a region especially favorable for investigations in dynamic geology, were to be organized primarily with reference to such investigation. A department thus constituted would promote this aspect of geology with a degree of certainty and efficiency quite out of question under prevailing conditions. A point of importance should here be noted relative to what the organizing of a university department on such lines as indicated could mean. Such a department of geology, for example, need not consist merely of the geologists that would constitute the ordinary teaching department of geology, but it would contain for the special needs of the investigations, and hence selected and compensated with reference to this end, persons belonging primarily to other fields of science, and hence presumably to other university departments; and there would be no reason why these should not be members of other universities at the same time. For example, the department of geology would have need for, let us say, a chemist, and a paleontologist, and these might be employed for the special service, while they could still belong primarily to their respective departments, either of the same or of another university.

The inquiry what effect such a system widely in vogue would have on the individuality of workers in science is quite to the point. Some, I fancy, would be apprehensive lest it should prove harmful to this quality, of right so highly prized among men of science. I am persuaded, however, that a little reflection will show that while individuality might now and then suffer, it would be the gainer in far larger measure. On the whole, instead of being a heavy hand on independent, individual effort, it would furnish opportunity and incentive to it. For observe, it would be a system not of forcing investigators into work, for which they should have neither taste nor fitness, but rather of selecting them for tasks for which they would have both, and then of giving them facilities and opportunities for following their bent that they could not generally secure through their individual, unaided efforts.

How familiar a thing it is to all university men of science to see a young man receive his doctor's degree as the reward of some research carried to results with real zeal and talent; but then, under stress of the necessity of earning a livelihood, carried off into some position that affords little or none of either time, facility or incentive for further prosecution of his central interest in science.

There can be no doubt that science, in this country particularly, has been and is a heavy loser from diversion and misapplication of its forces, through the regimen under which research has to be prosecuted. This loss is partly direct and absolute, and partly indirect, through the detached and fragmentary character of what is done under the prevalent highly individualistic order. Of course, it would be idle to contend that this order is wholly bad, or that all that is bad about it could be corrected by such a system. That, however, coordination and concentration through organization would be of even more advantage in several sciences where now practically nothing of the sort exists, there can be no doubt. Such a system largely in operation would undoubtedly work radical change in the means and methods of research in numerous directions, but these need not be discussed here. One further matter only do I mention. That is the question of the effect it would have on instruction in science in the universities and colleges. It is easy to see how to some extent instruction might suffer. It is still easier to see how, on the other hand, it would be a very great gainer; and there can be hardly a question that the gain would far outweigh the loss.