Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/August 1875/The Endowment of Scientific Research II


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THE public endowment of science presents itself as a desirable supplement to the various means of maintenance considered in the previous part of this article. Those departments of science, in particular, which require costly instruments, which can only be pursued with the aid of trained assistants, or which, in other ways, involve greater expense than a man of ordinary means can afford, seem to require and deserve assistance from the national purse. On abstract principles, this use of the nation's wealth is strongly to be recommended. The subject is altogether worthy; the expenses would not be great, compared with others which are readily borne for purposes far less worthy; and this manner of supporting science commends itself to the respectful consideration of a nation accustomed, in spite of repeated disappointments, to regard state control as a surer resource than private efforts. I think every zealous student of science, to whom the subject might be submitted, would be apt, at a first view, to decide unhesitatingly that the endowment of science could not but be fruitful in good results.

So soon, however, as details are considered, and especially when candidates for the nation's money come forward and tell us precisely what they want, the matter assumes a different aspect.

So far as the source whence money could be provided for the endowment of science is concerned, there is little difficulty. The additional taxation required to meet all probable expenses would be so light as scarcely to be appreciable. But in truth a fund already exists out of which the cost of the endowment of science might be defrayed either wholly or in great part—the sums bequeathed in old times to the universities. Nor would this application of university property involve a departure from the purpose for which those sums were originally bequeathed. On the contrary, we have evidence to show that the universities were originally founded, not for educational purposes solely or chiefly, but for the advancement and preservation of knowledge. In the third report of the Commissioners for the Advancement of Science, we find that the witnesses examined were "on no point more united than in the expression of the feeling that it is a primary duty of the universities to assist in the advancement of learning and science, and not to be content with the position of merely educational bodies;" and the evidence quoted shows that this opinion was based on the fact that such was the original purpose of the universities—that, in fact, "the collegiate foundations of the universities were originally and fundamentally, although not absolutely and entirely, destined for" that object. "This object" proceeds the report, "is certainly not less important in modern than [it was] in ancient society. In the middle ages, knowledge would altogether have perished if it had not been for such foundations, and it appears that now, from other causes, the pursuit of knowledge and of general scientific investigation is subject to very real dangers, though of another kind than those which then prevailed, and which make it very desirable to preserve any institution through which scientific discovery and the investigation of truth may be promoted."

Granting, however, first the desirability of endowment for science on abstract principles, and secondly that the necessary funds either already exist, or can be easily raised, we find ourselves in presence of the practical difficulties involved in the distribution of such funds. Decision must be made: first, as to the scientific subjects which shall be selected for endowment; secondly, as to the persons under whose supervision the funds for this purpose should be distributed; and thirdly, as to the persons to whom these funds should be dispensed.

On the first point, it is to be noticed that, since, for a long time, the administration of endowment would chiefly rest with non-scientific persons, the question of the practical value of different scientific subjects would at first be of primary importance. It is not to be expected that the value which scientific researches possess, apart from all material benefits they may bring with them, should be generally recognized. A principle of selection would have to be adopted at first which men of science would regard as essentially unsound. Nevertheless, little direct mischief would follow from this circumstance, though many advantages would for a time be lost. The limitation would exclude subjects worthy of the highest consideration: but these are already excluded; and many subjects now receiving no public support would be admitted. I apprehend that the most unfortunate result of this state of things would flow from the fact that persons desirous of securing money grants for a scientific subject of the non-productive sort might be tempted, rather than allow the nation to neglect it, to imagine material advantages from its cultivation. I am not aware that many instances exist whereby to illustrate this point, or indeed that as yet any appeal has been made for special endowment save in a single instance. But this instance chances to illustrate my meaning exceedingly well.

It will probably be admitted that the practically useful applications of astronomy are at least as well provided for by the nation as those of any other branch of science, not excluding chemistry or pure physics. Occasionally, also, government has provided, not without generosity, for astronomical researches little likely to lead to results of practical utility. Recent eclipse expeditions, and still more the expeditions for observing the late transit, are instances in point, seeing that it is almost impossible to conceive that mankind can derive any direct benefits from a knowledge of the sun's surroundings, or of the distance, size, and mass of that luminary. But the nation makes no direct provision for researches into the physical condition and nature of the sun, the planets, stars, star-cloudlets, comets, the moon, and so on. Nor, probably, would an appeal for new observatories to meet this want receive general or effectual support at present. But, about three years ago, it was thought advisable, by two or three persons, to bring a scheme of this nature before the Astronomical Society, so as to secure the support of that body in submitting the matter to those in charge of the national purse. Of the fate of this scheme with the Astronomical Society I need say nothing, save that the Council were practically unanimous in rejecting it—only four voting in its favor. But I would direct particular attention to the nature of the argument used to obtain support for this scheme: "Permanent national provision," said its advocate, "is urgently needed for the cultivation of the physics of astronomy. If the study of the sun alone were in question, that alone would justify such a measure; for there can hardly be a doubt that almost every natural phenomenon connected with climate can be distinctly traced to the sun as the great dominating force, and the inference is unavoidable that the changes, and what we now call the uncertainties of climate, are connected with the constant fluctuations which we know to be perpetually occurring in the sun itself. The bearing of climatic changes on a vast array of problems connected with navigation, agriculture, and health, need but to be mentioned to show the importance of seeking, in the sun, where they doubtless reside, for the causes which govern these changes. It is, indeed, my conviction, that of all the fields now open for scientific cultivation, there is not one which, quite apart from its transcendent philosophical interest, promises results of such high utilitarian value as the exhaustive systematic study of the sun."[1]

It would be fatal to scientific interests if such a mistake as this were often repeated. Yet we can have no assurance that the Government would not again and again be invited to support science on the strength of unfounded promises, if any wide scheme of endowment were adopted whose administration should be intrusted to non-scientific persons.

If the administration of the funds for scientific endowment were from the beginning intrusted to leading men of science, it is probable that correct scientific principles would be adopted for their guidance. But then a difficulty would arise which might prove even more serious than the mistakes of the unscientific. No one acquainted with the history or present condition of science, and with the relations which have existed and continue to exist among science-workers, can doubt that scientific managers of endowment funds would be repeatedly called upon to decide on the claims of methods or subjects to which they had conceived objections, and to vote respecting the candidature of scientific men against whom they entertained feelings of personal hostility. The first case can be illustrated by example, the other not so conveniently. Suppose Leverrier had been called upon to determine whether any sum from an endowment fund should be given prospectively for researches into the subject of transits of Venus, we may be sure (his actual course in the matter leaves no room for doubt) that his prepossession in favor of that method of measuring the solar system which is based upon the planetary perturbations would have led him to decide against any such grant. Many cases akin to this will occur to those familiar with recent controversies in various branches of scientific research. As to personal animosities, we may follow the convenient example of those writers who trace the faults of persons in high places down to a certain date, and leave the present time to the criticisms of future historians. It will be admitted that both Halley and Flamsteed were faithful servants of science; yet if either had had to decide on any question of awarding to the other some post of influence or emolument, it is to be feared, from what we know of their actual conduct toward each other, that the result would not have depended solely on scientific considerations. It may be hoped that there has been a change for the better since then, and that matters will improve still more hereafter. The advocates of rival theories, the leading teachers of different schools of thought, will one day, perhaps, be constantly on good terms with each other. Dissensions will be unknown in our scientific societies. The older men of science will be well pleased to see younger workers gradually modifying theories which had formerly seemed established forever, and the younger workers will never give unpleasant expression to the feeling that "authority" is not an absolutely certain guide in science. Jealousies and rivalries among those working in the same departments will gradually become

things of the past. At present, all we can say is, that matters are improving at such a rate that... that they may be allowed, without disadvantage, to improve a little longer. If men of science were suddenly called upon to administer any extensive scheme of public endowment for science, this improvement might be checked, which would be unfortunate.

As regards the class of men who would come forward if science were endowed, much would doubtless depend on the position offered to the candidates for office, and on the qualifications demanded. In these days of competitive examinations, it seems probable that careful preliminary inquiry would be made into the proficiency of the candidates, at least in departments of learning associated with their special science. Again, it may be presumed that every office under the new system would have definite duties attached to it, even though matters were so arranged that ample time would be left for original research. It ought certainly to be arranged, moreover, that from time to time every holder of a salaried office should be called upon to give satisfactory proof that he was not wasting his own time and the nation's money. It would be unpleasant if a large salary were assigned for life to a zealous student of science, and then, by some accident, his zeal diminished. The mere loss of so much money annually would be of little importance to the nation; but the discredit to science would be a very serious matter. Unfortunately, those who ought to know assert that among the persons who seem most earnest in the cause of science, and who not only seem, but are exceedingly earnest in advocating the endowment of science, there are not wanting men who may be characterized as "scientific Micawbers, waiting for something to turn up." They may be recognized by men of discernment, because of their tendency to dilate upon their own work, to take credit for the work or methods of others, and to urge (anticipating, perhaps, the endowment of science) that large salaries should be given for the discharge of exceedingly indefinite duties. In any wide scheme for the endowment of research these persons would have to be carefully watched. The money wasted on them would be a matter of very little moment; but science would be degraded in the eyes of the world, and mischief, not easily reparable, would be wrought, if such men as these worked their way into the best-paid offices.

It may, perhaps, be urged that a system of payment by results might be established. Mr. Mattieu Williams, the ingenious author of "The Fuel of the Sun," in a letter commenting upon a leading article (mine, as it chanced) in the Chemical News for September 5, 1873, advances this as the only sound and natural principle of public endowment for science. The case seems very simple as he presents it: "If a fund for the payment of scientific research existed," he says, "the genuine worker might send in his bill with the paper communicating the results of his researches, and such a bill, after being fairly taxed, should be paid like any other honest account, in a simple and business-like manner. The toiler in the workshop of science who reveals a new truth is a benefactor to the whole of mankind, has a fair and honest claim against the whole human race, and is entitled to draw a bill accordingly, which should be accepted and honored by his own country at least. Decent gratitude and common honesty demand so much from the nation. It should be done, and may be done, without opening a door to jobbery or any multiplication of corrupt and idle pensioners." I fear that though this might, perhaps, be managed in Utopia or the New Atlantis, it could scarcely be effected in England or any other country at present existing. The accounts that would be handed in to the minister of science under any such system would present a strange medley of real and false discoveries. His time would be chiefly occupied in objecting to undue estimates of results, and in endeavoring (hopelessly) to settle rival claims of contending discoverers. Besides, it is absolutely impossible to devise any scale of valuation for scientific discoveries. Conceive the state of mind of the minister of science, who, after disposing of claims for the quadrature of the circle, the discovery of perpetual motion, new cosmogonies, schemes of weather prediction, and the like, should suddenly find himself called upon to decide the money value of some great achievement in science, such as Newton's discovery of universal gravitation, or Kirchhoff's interpretation of the solar spectrum.

Whether the intrinsic value of any result, or the time and labor it had cost, were considered, the difficulty of determining how much should be paid for it would be alike insuperable. If the former were the test, who should determine the intrinsic value? The discoverer might perhaps overrate it, or, if he were really an earnest student of science, he would either underrate it, or be unwilling to make any claim at all. Others would, for the most part, be unable to estimate the result at its true worth, if it were really a discovery of importance. For the discoverer must commonly be in advance of his fellow-workers in the department of research to which his discovery belongs. He alone knows the relation of his discovery to work already accomplished in the same direction. Let any specialist, who has just obtained some notable result, be asked to name half a dozen experts in his own subject to whose opinion he would be willing to submit his discovery, and it will be found that he will with difficulty name half as many, and those not specially eminent in that subject.

As to the amount of time and labor devoted to any subject of scientific research, it is tolerably certain that the nation would object to any system of retrospective endowment based on that criterion. The ardent student of science gives many more hours of his time to his favorite subject of research than any government would be willing to pay for, at the present day, or for many years to come.

Past experience, not in scientific matters alone or chiefly, but generally wherever state maintenance has been provided for work which before had been carried on independently of the government, suggests that the wisest course would be to proceed tentatively. It is almost certain that any general scheme formed at the present time would hereafter have to be greatly modified, if not altogether abandoned. The time, indeed, has not yet arrived when the nation would look with satisfaction on any wide scheme of scientific endowment even if Parliament could be persuaded to make adequate grants for such a scheme, or to authorize the employment for that purpose of funds available at the two universities. As to the action of our legislators, it may be remarked that possibly a favorable vote might be secured, if the more earnest supporters of endowment (who have shown considerable strategic skill in pushing their schemes) should choose a convenient season and convenient hours for bringing the matter before Parliament. But it is to be hoped that science will not be degraded by a line of action implying that the endowment of science requires to be urged as cautiously in Parliament as an act relating to contagious diseases. The most liberal grant would be dearly purchased by the disgrace which such a proceeding would bring upon science.

The nation is probably willing to see experiments made on the effect of endowment for special scientific purposes. If such experiments were made, we should gradually perceive whether wider schemes were likely to be advantageous to science, or whether dangers may not lurk in all such schemes. It might be found that endowment would tend greatly to increase the number of those entering on scientific pursuits, while widening also the range of scientific culture. It might be found, as some assert, that endowment would give the younger men a better chance of making good progress than they at present possess. Or, on the other hand, it might be found that the national endowment of science would tend only to advance scientific Micawberism, and that the real workers in science would be discouraged by seeing all the best rewards given for pretentious novelties, clever adaptations perhaps of their own discoveries. That, too, which Herbert Spencer has described as "the rule of all services, civil, military, naval, or other," might be found to operate with the scientific service also—the rule, namely, of "putting young officials under old," with its necessary "effect of placing the advanced ideas and wider knowledge of a new generation under control of the ignorance and bigotry of a generation to which change has become repugnant." This, "which is a seemingly ineradicable vice of public organizations, is a vice to which private organizations are far less liable; since, in the life-and-death struggle of competition, merit, even if young, takes the place of demerit, even if old."

It appears to me that those who really desire the advancement of science cannot too carefully or cautiously weigh the schemes now rife for the endowment of physical research. Unquestionably, the abstract proposition that science is worthy of national support must be admitted as just. We may agree with Sir John Herschel in feeling "prepared to advocate or defend" (on abstract principles) "a very large and liberal devotion indeed of the public means to setting on foot undertakings and maintaining establishments in which the investigation of physical laws and data should be the avowed and primary object, and practical application the secondary, incidental, and collateral one." It is hardly necessary for me to say that I recognize the full weight of those considerations which have been urged in favor of wide schemes of endowment. Such schemes have, indeed, had few warmer advocates than myself, nor has any one been more outspoken in their support. But practical experience has taught me, I must confess, that dangers—and serious ones—surround them. Even while as yet they were in their infancy, mischievous tendencies began to show themselves which had certainly not been anticipated by those earnest students of science who first supported the general principle that science deserves the recognition of the state. Greedy hands were stretched out for the promised prizes. Jobbery began its accustomed work; and those who sought to check its progress were abused and vilified. If this happened when schemes for endowment were but mentioned, what evil consequences might not be looked for if those schemes succeeded? Deterred by the consequences of the first few steps they had taken in the direction of endowment, many of the most zealous workers in science now stand aloof. Before long, however, the real position of affairs will be known. If the present desire for the endowment of research is prompted by genuine zeal for science, we shall find that the warmest advocates of the scheme are not those who would themselves profit by it. But if, on the other hand, it should appear that the persons who now speak most earnestly about the endowment of science are in reality eager chiefly for their own preferment, or desire to secure posts of emolument for personal friends and adherents, then every real lover of science must desire the failure of such schemes, seeing that the cause of science could not fail to suffer, nor Science herself to be degraded, should they prove successful.—Contemporary Review.

  1. I quote from a paper by Lieutenant-Colonel Strange, a Fellow of the Astronomical Society. Of course this would not be the place to discuss his remarks. It need hardly be said that no astronomer has ever sanctioned such views, though many astronomers believe that an association exists between terrestrial relations and the phenomena of solar disturbance. It may suffice to remark here that the influence of changes in the sun's condition, as manifested by sun-spots and other solar peculiarities, must be infinitely less than the influence of those changes of aspect which produce the seasons; and yet our acquaintance with these changes leaves the "uncertainties of climate" still unexplained. How much less must be the significance of the cycles of changes in the solar spots! The chief of these, again, are already known, yet we are as far as ever from being able to predict the weather. Even the theories which have been advanced as to the connection between rainfall, prevalent winds, etc., and the spot-cycle, compel their advocates to assume contrary influences for different regions separated by nodal lines of no influence, which lines must also be assumed to shift their position from year to year theoretical devices admitting of being most conveniently adapted to circumstances which would be fatal to any definite theory. Sir J. Herschel well remarks of such ideas that though "some rude approach to the perception of a cycle of the seasons may possibly be attainable, no person in his senses would alter his plans of conduct for six months in advance in the most trifling particular on the faith of any special prediction of a warm or a cold, a wet or a dry, a calm or a stormy summer or winter."