Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/August 1905/Public Interest in Research

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By Professor JOHN M. COULTER,


THE subject I propose to discuss seems to me both timely and important. I recognize that to many scientific men it is a subject to which they are indifferent or which may afford them passing amusement. And yet, there appear in it certain possibilities that may be worth consideration. I do not refer to the general public, to whom information concerning research would be like 'casting pearls before swine' but to what may be called the intelligent public, the public that thinks and brings things to pass. To develop in proper order what I have in mind, I shall speak of public interest in research under three divisions: (1) its present condition, (2) its possible condition, and (3) its possible results.


1. Its Present Condition.

The most available index of the present interest in research is furnished probably by the newspapers and magazines, which try to respond to the desires of their readers. Even a cursory examination of the material they furnish, which may be said to deal with research, shows that it is scant in amount, sensational in form, and usually wide of the mark. The fact that it is scant in amount is a cause for congratulation if it must involve the two other features. The sensational form is a concession to what is conceived to be public taste; and while to a scientific man this form seems to exhibit the worst possible taste, the serious objection is that to secure the form truth is usually sacrificed. That the real significance of an investigation thus reported is usually missed is not to be wondered at, since the reporter is not the investigator and has no scientific perspective whatsoever. Some of the results of this kind of information are as follows:

Men engaged in research are looked upon in general as inoffensive but curious and useless members of the social order. If an investigator now and then touches upon something that the public regards as useful, he is singled out as a glaring exception, and is held up as an example for us all to follow. If an investigation lends itself to announcement in an exceedingly sensational form, as if it were uncovering deep mysteries, the investigator becomes a 'wizard,' and his lightest utterance is treated as an oracle. The result is that if the intelligent reading public were asked to recite the distinguished names in science, they would name perhaps one or two real investigators unfortunate enough to be in the public eye, several 'wizards' and still more charlatans. The great body of real investigators would be known only to their colleagues, thankful that they were not included in any public hall of fame. And yet the public is not to be blamed, for it is giving its best information; and the fact that it has even such information indicates an interest that would be wiser were it better directed. And this better direction is dammed up behind a wall of professional pride, which makes an investigator look askance at any colleague who has broken through it.

I have been especially interested in noting the rising tide of quasi-scientific papers in the leading magazines, seeking to inform the public of certain striking things and occasionally written by scientific men. These men are bold, if they have their colleagues in mind, but they may have something more important in mind. I judge that from the daily paper to the great magazine is the range of agencies by which research can reach the intelligent but non-scientific public; and the conclusion seems justified that while the daily press is as bad as it can be in this regard, it still voices an interest in such subjects; and that the leading magazines are becoming distinctly stronger in this feature. The intelligent public is certainly interested, but it is just as certainly not intelligently interested.


2. Its Possible Condition.

The present condition of public interest in research, as described above, does not seem to invite a large measure of hope that it can be improved, even if this were thought desirable. The desirability of a stimulated and intelligent public interest will be discussed later; for the moment the securing of such interest will be considered. The problem is to substitute information for misinformation, so that interest may become intelligent.

I have taken occasion to discuss this subject with managing editors of newspapers and magazines, and find a general opinion that many subjects of research would be of great interest to the intelligent public, but that such material is the most difficult of all to obtain. This does not mean that such subject matter is difficult to obtain, but that the necessary simplicity and attractiveness of presentation are usually lacking. These editors recognize that when the simplicity and attractiveness must be supplied by a 'middle man' the result is almost sure to be not only a series of misleading statements, but also a disappearance of the scientific atmosphere. This middle man who stands between science and the magazine public is a curious product of the present situation. He may simply interpret for the public, putting the language of science into the language of literature; but when he begins to observe for the public he joins the clan of 'poet-naturalists' who, as John Burroughs has said, hold the eye close to the facts and will not be baffled' It must be confessed that very seldom are they baffled. The judgment of the editors referred to, therefore, is that the middleman should be abolished, in so far as he is merely an interpreter. As for the poet-naturalist, he will cease to appear scientific when the middle men are abolished.

This means a distinct invitation to investigators to become their own interpreters, an invitation which will come to most of them with a distinct shock, if not as an absurdity. Taking it seriously, however, and waiving its absurdity for the moment, what is there in the way of accepting the invitation?

The readiest answer to this question is that it would be a waste of time, and under the present conditions the answer seems true. The investigator's chief concern is his investigation; and he does not see how it can be benefited by any information he may give to the public. If such a benefit is not evident, the invitation should be declined; for to accept it under these circumstances is to strain after a little cheap notoriety.

But the invitation involves a change of conditions, a change in the policy of editors, on the one hand, and of investigators on the other. If under the new conditions it can be made to appear worth while to accept the invitation, what is there still in the way? It is not to be expected that investigators in general will undertake to learn the art of popular writing, or will take the time to exercise it if they do not need to learn it. The only thing asked for is a simple statement, in terms that intelligent, but non-scientific, persons can understand, of the nature and bearing of an investigation. This would be authoritative, and would be used, so our friends, the editors, assure us, not only in checking the wild vagaries of the reportorial imagination, but also in bringing to the public a large amount of information which no reporter could discover. Emphasis is to be laid upon the bearing of an investigation, for, naturally, this is the point of vital interest to the public, and the point of importance, as I shall show later. For example, I might describe in perfectly simple English the results of some experiments I had performed with evening primroses or with pigeons, and people would simply wonder at the things that amuse some men; but if it were added that these experiments have a bearing upon the origin of species and upon heredity, the investigation at once assumes a dignity and an importance that even the public will be quick to appreciate.

One sees repeatedly in the public press joking, if not sneering, allusions to the immediate subject matter of some investigation, which seems insignificant or even ridiculous to the uninformed, when, in fact, it has to do with a very important general subject, which would intensely interest the intelligent. I presume that every investigation by an experienced investigator is suggested by its general bearing, the immediate material merely being that which is most available. It is this feature that the reporter always misses, and a strategic movement is represented to the public as a dress parade.

It may be well to intimate here that in all this discussion professional investigators are in mind, and not that host of still-born investigators whose first and last publication is a doctor's thesis.

Just how the clean-cut statements referred to may reach the public, and in what form, are matters of detail which purveyors to the public interest must work out. The general principle is that the investigator's own statement shall be available for such use.


3. Its Possible Results.

This is the vital consideration, for all the trouble and the outraged feeling involved must be justified. It means a campaign of education in reference to investigation, an education of the intelligent public. Perhaps it remains to be proved whether this public can become educated in this matter, but the interests at stake seem to make it worth trying. I shall put aside as of secondary importance the more just estimate of investigators that would result, the pulling down of some conspicuous names to a proper level, and the better leveling up of scientific men in general. The present situation in this regard may be irritating and even disgusting, but it is not of sufficient importance to justify what has been proposed. In my judgment, the justification will be found in two results, which, taken together, must seem important to every investigator.

1. It will show that research is practical.—I recognize at once, in using this statement, that if the universities have stood for anything, they have stood for what is called 'pure science.' I would be the last one to recommend a departure from this standard, for my thought is to show that pure science is the real foundation for any effective applied science; and that the 'practical science' of popular definition is the rankest empiricism.

A recent and conspicuous illustration in my own field may be cited. When Moore was busying himself with the study of algae, he would have been characterized by the public as highly impractical, for not only were his studies apparently foreign to human interest, but that group of plants is peculiarly within the domain of 'pure science.' However, when he was transferred to the Department of Agriculture, and began to apply his training, the problem of polluted water-supplies, which had cost empiricism, called 'practical science,' many thousands of dollars in attempting to solve, met with almost immediate and brilliant solution. The same training has devised inoculation for nitrogen-impoverished soils; and now the public regards Moore as a distinguished example of a scientific man who began to amount to something as soon as he abandoned pure science! The illustration is probably the more striking since the investigator himself applied his pure science; but it illustrates the fact that such practical results are reached most surely and most quickly from the vantage ground of pure science.

What the public needs to know is that an effective and economic applied science must root itself in pure science, just as a tree must root itself in the soil. It was with this in view that I laid emphasis upon the general bearing of an investigation as the important feature of its public report. It need not be a practical bearing, to use 'practical' in its conventional sense; for in many important investigations such a bearing is either lacking or trivial; but simply the real bearing, which, if it does not appeal to the current desire for immediate practical application, does appeal to that better desire for information about important things, to that delight in feeling that the great things are being sought after. The public must be taught that even research that merely means increased knowledge is immensely practical, for it means an attitude of mind, a method, a body of knowledge that must be available for every important problem, whether it happens to be one of economic interest or not.

Such education, as all education, will be slow, but the increasing number of investigators who are being drawn from pure science to applied science will give increasing illustrations of the necessary training for results.

2. It will secure endowment for research.—To show to an intelligent public that the investigations in pure science are the only kind that are fundamentally practical would not be worth while if it did not result in a better support of research.

It is clear that the question of adequate support for research is the most serious one that confronts American science to-day. Teaching and administration tax the time and energy of established investigators; the expense of investigation is becoming greater; the opportunities for it in the way of position and equipment are so few that there is no inducement for young men to become investigators. Not equipped for the men we have, the very desirable multiplication of men is impossible. And yet, such equipment as we have is dependent in certain measure upon our output of men. In spite of these conditions, the volume of research is increasing yearly, and young men are still found who will not sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. These conditions will continue to become harder unless some relief is found.

The Carnegie Institution was intended to furnish some relief. and the great flood of dammed up opportunities that broke loose when this chance offered itself is a matter of record. This endowment, vast as it seemed to any individual, proved to be a mere pittance as compared with the pressing needs of research in America. To choose among these needs was bewildering, and no committee could choose wisely in every instance. But whether the choosing was wise or not has nothing to do with the impressive illustration afforded of the pressing needs of research even in its present stage of development. There is no need at present of a fund. to stimulate research; what it needs just now is opportunity.

What Mr. Carnegie was brought to see, the intelligent American public must be brought to see, for one institution and one board of control can not hope to meet the need. The appeal to American interest is utility, and there is no need to blink the fact. If our relief, therefore, is to come from American interest, we must tell the public what we are doing and of what service it may be; and this is to be done, as I have shown, without any change in our subjects or methods of research. I may say in passing, however, that it has long seemed to me wise to select among profitable subjects of investigation, which are included in our immediate interest, those that may have some bearing upon human interests. Nothing is lost by such a choice, and investigation is strengthened thereby in public estimation. I have not the slightest sympathy with those who select subjects for public effect; but I have also no sympathy for those who avoid them when they come in the natural sequence of work.

Why should not the public expect some tangible service from the large body of men best equipped to render it? This is the question I was asked by a prominent business man. whom I was trying to interest in a botanic garden, and after I had explained that such an equipment would make certain important investigations possible that could not be undertaken without it. One may inveigh against this utilitarian point of view, but that it exists is a fact, and it does not alter a fact to despise it. Should it have been expected that this business man would break suddenly with the training of a lifetime, even when a botanic garden with an alluring corollary of experiments was presented suddenly to his vision? It was impossible to educate this particular man in a short time, but had he heard over and over again, for he is interested in horticulture, that the very experiments proposed made possible a better horticulture, he would not have asked such a question. An appreciation of the utility of purely scientific investigations must get into the atmosphere. An atmosphere of appreciation can be created for such non-utilitarian things as music and art, even in a commercially saturated environment, but it is not by keeping still about them or by only revealing them to the cult.

I am afraid that scientific training leads too often to idealism. We know the conditions we should have for our work, and we are impatient with those who do not recognize them. We act as though the suitable conditions should be offered to us freely as our right; and when they are not, we rail at those who could help us but do not. In fact, I have been surprised at the confidence shown in us by those who have no conception of what we are doing, and whom we do not take the trouble to inform. This argues well for the possible results of a persistent general campaign of education.

I have no large faith that there will be any such campaign, for in my experience investigators have cultivated indifference. Each man is anxious for his own investigation, but not troubled to the point of effort about investigation in general. My chief concern is to secure recognition of the fact that we are being treated about as well as we can expect; and that there is an opportunity for us to do better for ourselves, and far better for investigation in general, if we care to avail ourselves of it.

This is not a matter for organization or concerted action on the part of scientific men, but it is the cultivation of a general sentiment among them in favor of giving the public such information as has been suggested; a sentiment that acts when opportunity offers. This general sentiment is absolutely necessary, for, so far as I know, it is all the other way at present; and the man who sees his work reported in the public press shudders a little when he thinks of his colleagues. After all, it is the good opinion of his colleagues that a scientific man prizes most, and rightly; and he must feel them solidly behind him in any new departure.

The attitude of our colleagues across the Atlantic can not be taken as our guide in this matter, for our institutions and our people, whether we approve of them or not, are different. Besides, our European brethren are facing to-day the same problem, and with a much more hopeless outlook. I have been assured by my German colleagues that since their government has become deeply interested in world politics the chances for increased support for research have diminished, and they regard private support as hopeless. We have behind us a public more prosperous and much more generous, accustomed to support liberally what it is interested in. If this can be taken advantage of, there is no reason why research in America can not be developed to an extent that is without precedent.