Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/July 1886/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
SCIENCE AND THE STATE.

IN this country we have no state Church; but, on the principle perhaps which, whether scientifically true or not, seems often to be illustrated in human affairs, that Nature abhors a vacuum, we have in its stead a very notable development of state science. In other words, our Government no longer assumes to point out to us the best methods for promoting our spiritual welfare; but it kindly, and in a most paternal spirit, undertakes to show us the true path, of intellectual and economic salvation. Formerly it was religion that could not thrive without state support; now it is science. Formerly it was the priest who undertook the solution of all difficult questions and who stood forth as the visible embodiment of authority; to-day it is the director of an official scientific bureau. In former days it was said that all roads led to Rome; to-day in the United States we are rapidly approaching a state of things under which all the paths of science at least will lead to Washington. There it is that a generous Congress—generous with the people's money—votes rich appropriations for work, the nature and scope of which not one member in twenty understands. There it is that the authority resides that can hire scientific labor in every part of the country, and provide a profitable market for all researches, observations, and theories that fall into line with the main doctrines of official science.

When evils reach a certain height they are apt to attract an attention and awaken a resistance that were lacking in their earlier and less threatening stages. A bill, a copy of which is before us, reported by the "Joint Commission on the Coast and Geodetic, the Geological and Hydrographic Surveys and Signal Service," seems to indicate that, as regards the Geological Survey, the point of danger is recognized to have been reached. It bears as its title, "A Bill restricting the Work and Publications of the Geological Survey and for other Purposes." The proposition is to confine the survey for the future to strictly geological work, such as may be necessary for the preparation of a good geological map of the country. According to the terms of the bill, it is not in future to expend any money for paleontological work, "except for the collection, classification, and proper care of fossils and other material." It is not to undertake the general discussion of geological theories, "nor shall it compose, compile, or prepare for publication monographs or bulletins, or other books except an annual report, which shall embrace only the transactions of the bureau for the year and the results thereof." It is further provided that in future "all printing and engraving done for the Geological Survey, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Hydrographic Office of the Navy Department, and the Signal Service, shall be estimated for separately and appropriated in detail for each of said bureaus."

Such in substance is the bill. In support of its provisions the chairman of the commission, Mr. H. C. Herbert, gives a summary view of the present extent and variety of the work undertaken by the Geological Survey and of its cost to the country. Taking the latter point first, he shows that, leaving the cost of publications out of the question, the present annual expenditure on the survey amounts to something over half a million dollars, or eighty thousand dollars more than is expended by Great Britain, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Russia, Belgium, Norway, Bavaria, Würtemberg, Finland, Canada, Victoria, and Japan taken together. These other countries understand by a Geological Survey, a survey undertaken for the purpose of establishing the main geological features of the national territory; and for this purpose they severally find a moderate expenditure sufficient. In this country a different theory has apparently prevailed. Here a Geological Survey is a bureau invested with authority, and provided with funds, to undertake not only the widest possible investigations of a geological kind, but also minute researches in paleontology, paleobotany, and lithology, together with the study of a variety of economic questions touching on the processes of metallurgy and the general use of minerals. The director of the survey states that there are in the survey three distinct corps of geologists engaged in the study of economic geology; that there are five distinct paleontologic laboratories; that there are three other laboratories—one chemical, one lithologic, and one physical; that there is an extensive geological library, the librarian having a corps of assistants engaged in bibliography; and that, finally, there is a division of mineral statistics, with a large corps of men engaged in statistical work, the results of which are published in an annual report entitled "Mineral Resources." The annual expenses of publication in connection with the survey are estimated to exceed two hundred thousand dollars. This, however, is exclusive of any expenditure on the geological map of the country, supposed to have been for some years in preparation, but of which no portion has yet been published. The minimum cost of this map is put at $1,690,000 for plates alone.

Now, to any reflecting mind it will be quite apparent that the Government can not undertake all this varied scientific work without discouraging the application of private effort and study to the same field. "There is no more reason," says Professor Agassiz, in a letter to Mr. Herbert, "why the Government should publish a history of the mining enterprises of the country than that they should publish a history of manufacturing processes." So with paleontology. "This," according to Professor Agassiz, "is just one of the things which private individuals and learned societies can do just as well as Government." Much of the matter, he further observes, which is published in official bulletins would be published by private individuals or societies if the Government did not lay hold of it; while, on the other hand, much of the stuff which the Government prints would not be printed by private individuals or societies even if they had the necessary finds at their command. The main result of Government interference would thus appear to be the unnecessary official publication of a certain amount of good matter and the wasteful publication of a quantity of comparatively, if not absolutely, useless matter. Professor Agassiz furnishes to Mr. Herbert a list of forty-eight publications of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Cambridge, and most significantly states that he had "a written proposition from a former Superintendent of the Coast Survey, offering to publish all this as appendices of the Coast Survey reports at Government expense"—an offer which he "respectfully declined to accept."

To show the value placed, in the markets of the world, upon the publications of the Geological Survey, Mr. Herbert calls attention to the fact that, though the law of its organization requires the survey to sell its publications, not exchanged, at cost, and turn the proceeds into the Treasury, the whole amount thus realized in six years was $1,543.10—testifying to an annual demand to the amount of $257.18.

We have thus far referred only to the Geological Survey; but the report before us gives a statement of the total cost of the several surveys organized by the Federal Government, exclusive of the cost of printing. The amount is close upon a million and a half of dollars. That no adequate return is being received from this really vast expenditure there is too good reason to believe; but that is not the worst feature of the case. The worst feature is that hinted at by Mr. Herbert when he opportunely reminds us of Buckle's conclusions as to the effects wrought in France by Louis XIVth's patronage of science and art; individual thought and private enterprise were repressed, science and literature were put into bondage and reduced to a state of abject servility. It is this evil, however ridiculous the idea may appear to some, with which we are threatened here. In the field of geology the vast operations of the Government tend directly to dwarf individual research; geology itself tends to become a purely official science. "We confidently appeal," says Mr. Herbert, "to the best literary and scientific thought of the country to come to our aid and join us in the effort to effect a reform and arrest this pernicious tendency." It is needless to say that "The Popular Science Monthly" most cordially and earnestly indorses this appeal. If we want to preserve our intellectual liberty and encourage individual initiative, we must see to it that we do not establish any scientific pontiffs at Washington. And if in an unguarded moment we have established any such, and given them the means of stretching the arm of authority into every portion of our territory and laying the foundations of the Church of Official Science, the sooner we proceed to recall the powers so dangerously conferred, the better will it be for the commonwealth.