Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/July 1875/The Endowment of Scientific Research I

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THERE are questions admitting, when viewed in the abstract, of but one answer, which yet, considered in their practical aspect, present difficulties that are almost, if not wholly, insuperable. Among them must be reckoned one which before long will attract, as it preeminently deserves, the attention of the nation—the question whether it is desirable that the investigation of natural facts, regarded as a vocation, should be publicly endowed.

When I say that but one answer can be given to this question, viewed in the abstract, I draw two distinctions: 1. I consider only the question whether science deserves public recognition; and, 2. I suppose the question submitted only to those who can properly consider it—those, namely, who are at least acquainted with scientific methods, if not versed in scientific subjects. To many it may probably appear a matter of small importance whether science advance or stand still. The general public scarcely recognizes the position which Science has already taken, still less the position she is about to take. Men do not perceive that the gradual advance of science must modify the condition of the human race, not in material matters alone, but even more by its influence on the feelings and emotions. In the course of time—and of no very long time, if future progress accords with present promise—the motives now most potent among men will yield to worthier influences, arising from clearer insight into physical, physiological, and psychological laws. Science, using the word in its best sense, has now a limited extension; but it is as a leaven in the midst, by which the whole lump will be leavened. In the mean time, men attend, as of yore, to matters which they regard as far more important than the growth and spread of knowledge—matters which have made up the history of the nations during many centuries, but have tended little to the advancement of mankind. Political plotting and counter-plotting, within each nation and among different nations; the preparation and employment of armaments thus rendered necessary; legislation by which class distinctions are strengthened and class dislikes intensified; the working out of social arrangements barbaric in origin and absurd in most of their developments; controversies over religious questions more or less closely associated with primeval superstitions—these and such as these are the occupations to which the world mainly devotes the energies not absorbed in the general struggle for existence. Science, in the mean while, conscious of its strength and certain of its future, can afford to wait, "Its development," as Tyndall has well said, "is as necessary and irresistible as the motion of the tides or the flowing of the Gulf Stream. It is a phase of the energy of Nature, and, as such, is sure in due time to compel the recognition of those who now decry its influence and discourage its advance."

That science is worthy of endowment will be admitted by every one competent to form an opinion. Yet I would remark, at the outset, that the reasons sometimes advanced by students of science in support of this proposition are not of the worthiest, though they may be those best calculated to secure the alliance of the unscientific. Even Tyndall has spoken of science as though its chief value resided in its quality as "a source of individual and national might;" and many have dwelt on its value as a means of adding to material wealth. It would be affectation to contemn such considerations, but assuredly they do not present the noblest qualities of science, the chief good which science is competent to work. It is as a potent means of culture that science is worthiest of recognition. The material gain derived from scientific research has no doubt been great; but it has been incalculably surpassed in value by the change which science has worked and is working in the minds of men. It is, indeed, precisely in this respect that unscientific persons most completely misapprehend the work which science is doing. They attach special value to those things which science is silently but certainly displacing. They are pained by the light which science is pouring on objects that had seemed venerable so long as their defects had been veiled under the gloom of ignorance. They are appalled when science would teach them to displace all false loyalties by the noblest loyalty of all—loyalty to the truth. But the student of science can deal with such errors as he would deal with errors of observation or with untrustworthy experiments. He is not concerned to war against them. To be angry with them would be as unscientific as to be angry with gravitation. The true teachings of science will be recognized in due time—with results easily foretold. It was predicted that the religion of mercy would bring, not peace, but a sword; the seemingly stern religion of truth will bring, not a sword, but peace into the world. To recognize the universal reign of law is to perceive the futility of lawlessness, no matter under what high or even sacred names disguised. The culture of man through the study of truth is the work of science in the future. And scientific research derives incalculably greater value from the fact that it affords material for scientific culture than because it may add to national or individual power, or become a means of increasing our store of material wealth. Even the benefits derived from those departments of science which tend most to ameliorate the condition of the masses, great though these benefits unquestionably are, must be esteemed small by comparison with those which will hereafter be derived from science as a means of mental and moral culture.

I am careful to deal with this point at the outset, because it removes any difficulty which might arise from the question of the relative value, commercial or otherwise, of various departments of science, or of different discoveries in any given department. Regarding science as a means of culture, all scientific discoveries are valuable, though not all equally so. Some which are least useful in the ordinary sense are preëminently valuable in this respect. To take an example from astronomy: Although it would be difficult to say that any scientific discovery cannot possibly confer material benefit on the human race, I suppose no discovery could promise less in this way than Sir W. Herschel's recognition of wide-spreading nebulosity in certain regions of the heavens. Follow out, however, the train of thought that this discovery suggests, and it will be found that the discovery has had an influence by no means insignificant in dispossessing ideas which have wrought in their day incalculable mischief. As Draper has well said, in his "Conflict between Religion and Science," the nebular hypothesis rests primarily on this discovery; and the recognition of the truth of that hypothesis compels us "to extend our views of the dominion of law, and to recognize its agency in the creation as well as in the conservation of the innumerable orbs that throng the universe." Is this recognition of the reign of law barren? Let the reader of the history of the last five hundred years consider only what would have been the influence, throughout that interval, of a clearly-defined and widely-spread belief in the dominion of law, and he will neither hesitate how to reply, nor question the value of such a belief in future ages. The doctrine of the universality of law, once understood by the masses, cannot but prove a safeguard against excesses such as have been and continue to be committed in the name of religion—a safeguard even against the very existence of the superstitions to which such excesses are due. The belief in universal law, regarded by many in these days as a rock ahead, will be one day recognized as a breakwater against seas which have been heavy and may be heavy yet again.

In this way of estimating the value of science, and therefore the importance of scientific research, we may find an answer to the difficulty which presents itself when we consider the actual position of scientific workers—the fact, namely, that the search for scientific truth affords the worker no direct means of maintenance. A man may give many years of labor to discover some great law of Nature, or some important scientific fact, and when he has achieved success he may find that his discovery is his sole reward. This, indeed, may be the sole reward he has wrought for. Indeed, I think the true student of science would wish to dissociate from his special subject of research all idea of material reward. Yet it is as true of the minister and interpreter of Nature as of the minister and interpreter of religion, that "the laborer is worthy of his hire."

If the scientific worker is wealthy, and therefore presumably has abundant leisure, he will seek no material reward (precisely as those scions of wealthy families who enter the service of religion seek I suppose, no payment for their ministries). But it has been well remarked that "there is unfortunately no necessary connection between wisdom and the inheritance of riches; and consequently it is always within the bounds of possibility that a man of property may subsidize in his own person, not knowledge, but error, a mischievous crotchet or a perfectly fruitless and impossible inquiry, and may employ the contents of a bottomless purse in compelling the attention of the world to it.... There is also no guarantee in the case of a private person.... that the investigator is sufficiently furnished with the preliminary knowledge or training to make his remarks fruitful. In short, work supported by private means is very likely to be amateur work, or duplicate work."[1]

Every man who desires to make researches in science, and who is not possessed of private means sufficient, not only for his support, but to provide for the expenses of his researches (in some cases necessarily heavy), must either select an occupation which will provide the required means without taking him from his special subject of research, or must simply withdraw from the scientific work he had proposed to undertake. The alternative may present itself to him at the outset of his career; or gradually as his scientific work becomes more and more difficult, through the pressure of other duties; or sudden losses may bring the alternative home to him, after original scientific work has already commenced. Of the third case I shall say little in what follows, as it is probably unusual, and, when it occurs, must, for the most part, lead to entire withdrawal from scientific work. In whatever way the alternative may present itself, the student of science who determines to continue his investigations is not troubled by any great difficulty in selecting the occupation which he will combine with the pursuit of knowledge. For the available occupations are few indeed.

There are some salaried posts to which light scientific duties (chiefly educational) are attached. But these are not commonly, I believe,[2] to be obtained at the beginning of a scientific life, nor readily by those who find the gradual pressure of expenses interfering with scientific labors. They are not, indeed, necessarily awarded to science-workers at all; nor, when so held, have they invariably been found to encourage steady work in science. I am speaking, be it understood, of offices, professorial or otherwise, where the special duties are light, and where therefore it is to be understood that those appointed are expected to devote themselves to original scientific research. Where heavy duties are attached to offices of this kind, scientific research is necessarily checked. We have an example of this in some professorships in America, the holders of which are compelled to devote so much time to the routine of class-work, that they are barely able even to keep themselves abreast of the scientific work of the day. But in Great Britain there are several offices which would seem to have been specially designed to afford means and leisure for original scientific research. Yet, if we consider the total number of men holding such offices, their abilities, and their opportunities, we must admit that the results they achieve are not collectively so great as might be expected. In certain instances, indeed, it would almost seem as though election to these well-paid offices had been the sole end and aim of work seemingly undertaken from pure love of science, so thoroughly has original research ceased, or become unfruitful, when the desired post has been secured. We must not close our eyes to this fact, nor suffer the zeal and energy of the few to blind us to the negligence of many who hold such offices. The point is one which would have to be carefully considered in any scheme for the endowment of research. If physical research is ever to be freely endowed, some plan would have to be adopted to obtain honest and faithful workers—not men who would regard scientific discoveries only as a means of securing salaried idleness.

But most of the salaried offices at present open to science-workers have heavy, or at least wearisome, duties attached to them. A professor of science who has to attend daily in the class-room, to consider how to make clear to dull minds matters altogether familiar to him, to prepare or emend text-books, and to take also his share in the control of large bodies of young men, cannot possibly give any great portion of his energies to original research, "In a few cases," as Mr. Appleton remarks, in the paper from which I have already quoted, "a little research can be done; in the majority of probably the best instances, all that is possible to the teacher is to keep himself abreast of that which is being accomplished by others; in too many, it is to be feared that even this is rendered impracticable by the exigencies of continual publicity," This publicity, indeed, must be of all others the most annoying hindrance to scientific research, I say must be, because my own course of life (except for occasional short intervals, at my own choice and under my own control) has been so completely that of the recluse, that I can only imagine the effects of a continued slavery to "the exigencies of publicity," Yet I have seen enough to feel assured that what Mr, Appleton describes as "the available store of nervous power" must be drawn upon far too largely, in most instances, to leave much energy for original research.

There remains, so far as the association of science and education is concerned, what may be called the literature of science. And here, I must confess, I do not share the opinion which has been expressed by some, that the purely scientific qualities must suffer in proportion as the expositional power is exercised. The habit of exposition developed by an educational calling may, indeed, as Mr. Appleton has remarked, "have a tendency to bring into prominence the element of form and phrase rather than that of substance," if, by an educational calling, we understand the routine of the class-room. Going continually over the same ground, the class-teacher must of necessity be unable to advance. But so far as the literature of science is concerned, even though the most elementary and popular forms of scientific literature be in question, this need not happen. The assertion that "the growth of the popular and rhetorical element—die phrase in der Wissenschaft—is almost always a symptom that the work of investigation is standing still," is not justified by facts. The most fruitful of our scientific workers are also those who have succeeded best in scientific literature. Sir J. Herschel, Lyell, Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, Grove, Lubbock, Tylor, Owen, Carpenter, Wallace: these are some among the men who have done most for the literature of science. They have not been checked in original research by the time devoted to such literature. Nay, I believe that every one of them would tell us that the hours so employed were among those most fruitful in suggestive thought, and therefore (by no means indirectly) in the advancement of original research. It appears to me—and here I speak to some degree from my own experience—that to write out a clear account of the results obtained during scientific work is so useful an exercise, that, apart from all question of the utility of popular treatises on science, the scientific worker should adopt the practice for his own sake. I feel sure that certain crude theories, which have been maintained by some who pride themselves most on avoiding the popular and rhetorical element, would have been abandoned had they been submitted to this process.[3] For my own part, however, I attach so much importance to the extension of sound scientific knowledge—so much more importance to this, I will even say, than to the results of the scientific researches of any man, or even of any body of men—that I regard as most earnestly to be deprecated all attempts to deprive our people of the literary services of those alone who can write effectively or satisfactorily about science—the scientific workers themselves. Too long what has been called the popularization of science has been attempted by unscientific persons. When men like Herschel and Lyell, Darwin, Tyndall, and Huxley, undertake the real popularization of science, we have at once the promise and the sign of progress. "But," Mr. Appleton says, "there is not wanting evidence that the popularization of science, in the best and most necessary meaning of the word, is in this country beginning largely to take the place of original study and investigation of truth." Where, however, is this evidence? Mr. Appleton must have been sorely pressed, when he can only find it in the fact that "in Oxford, where the business of education has been brought to a pitch of perfection almost unequaled elsewhere, the actual additions to knowledge that are made, in the course of a generation, in the old traditional studies of Latin and Greek philosophy, are, as compared with what is done in Germany, almost inappreciable." I am not concerned to deny this, or even to question it. It is the natural result of old traditional arrangements. But it proves nothing concerning the effect of the popularization of science in the best sense of the word—and as distinguished from what is often so called, but might more correctly be termed the vulgarization of science. It seems to me undeniable that the great improvement which has of late taken place in the work of correct scientific exposition has synchronized with a great increase in the amount of fruitful original research. I say simply that the two developments have synchronized; but I am strongly of opinion that they stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect. Not only does it appear to me that our Herschels, Darwins, Huxleys, Tyndalls, and so on, have gained as science workers rather than lost, by their work in popularizing science, but I cannot doubt that the number of science-workers, in the several departments to which their writings relate, has been largely increased by treatises which combine sound science with clear and elegant exposition.

There is another aspect in which the improved scientific literature of our time must be considered. It is unfortunate that modern scientific progress necessarily tends to increase the number of specialists. Not only is it impossible for any man to thoroughly master several departments of scientific research, but no man can be thoroughly master of a single science in all its developments. It is absolutely necessary that there should be specialists—nay, every real worker in science must be a specialist. But while each science-worker has thus, and should have, his special branch of his own science, it is very desirable that he should also have a correct general view of other sciences. If he ought to know every thing about something, there is no reason why he should not know something about every thing.[4] It is just this something which the student of one science learns from a sound exposition of another science by a proficient therein. Every true popularizer of science knows that among his readers, if not even forming the greater number of his readers, there will be men of science, working in other branches, but still bringing to the study of his treatise their scientific training. Writing for them, he will write in the manner best suited to popularize without vulgarizing science: "the coarser developments of sensationalism" will be avoided, even if the good sense of the scientific worker were not normally opposed to all such faults of style. The literature of science owes much to the recognition of this circumstance.

Some may question, however, whether scientific literature can be sufficiently remunerative to support science-workers, even though they should turn altogether from original research, and devote their whole time to writing about science. I do not think, however, that much anxiety need be felt on this score. Of course, scientific literature is not at present, and perhaps may never be, so remunerative as novel-writing, historical literature, biography, travels, and so on. Very few writers on science, however general the interest attached to their researches, have earned an income of (let us say) five thousand pounds annually for many successive years; and I suppose the successful novelist would regard such an income as contemptible. Probably, in the majority of instances, it would be only by an almost entire withdrawal from original work, that the writer on science could earn a steady income of half that amount; while that earnestness in the cause of science which can alone render scientific writings attractive would compel the scientific author to devote a large share of his time to unremunerative work. Yet there can be no doubt that many of our most successful workers in science have been able, without forsaking original research, to gain very sufficient incomes by scientific literature, or by the associated work of popular scientific lecturing. The chief objection, perhaps, to this way of rendering scientific research self-supporting consists in the fact that every hour devoted to

original work involves a pecuniary sacrifice, and the temptation must, in some instances, be strong to withdraw entirely, or for long intervals, from the real work of scientific research—even if this may not become, in many cases, an absolute duty.

Another source of remuneration for scientific workers depends on the value of scientific knowledge in certain departments of commercial enterprise. This means of support, however, though large in individual instances, is so limited in scientific range, that we need not stop to consider it in connection with the general question of support from workers in science. As Mr. Appleton justly remarks, "this source of maintenance is not only the exclusive privilege of physical science, but almost the exclusive privilege of one of the physical sciences. There is no commercial career open for a biologist, for instance; and the existence of a commercial career—and frequently a very lucrative one—for the chemist has the effect of starving all the other sciences for the benefit of one of them. One of our foremost teachers of biology complained to me not long ago that he was compelled to advise his best pupils, who were desirous of devoting themselves to a life of research, to give up their own study, and enter upon that of chemistry, as there was no prospect of a career for them in any thing else."

I have not spoken thus far of salaried offices which are apparently scientific but in reality involve continuous labor not tending greatly to the advancement of pure science. Such, for example, in astronomy, are the various offices, ruling as well as subordinate, in our great government observatories. The details of observatory-work are not, properly speaking, scientific. They involve, no doubt, the continuous application of scientific principles, but no such processes as are likely to lead to discoveries in science. The ordinary notion, for instance, that the large telescopes of our national observatories are employed in advancing our knowledge of astronomy, is altogether erroneous, as any one will perceive who examines the records of the work done in those observatories. All the original researches effected at Greenwich, since Flamsteed's time, would together form little more than a fair life's work for a single zealous student of astronomy, and would be incomparably surpassed in scientific interest by the work of either of the Herschels. The object for which government observatories are erected, in fact, precludes almost entirely the pursuit of original researches. The observations of the moon, for instance, which have formed so important a part of the work accomplished at Greenwich since Flamsteed's time, were not intended to add to our information about the physics of astronomy, though, of course, they have done so in a remarkable degree, studied as they have been by mathematicians (mostly outside Greenwich) from Newton downward. Their ostensible object was the improvement of navigation; and almost every observation made at Greenwich, until quite recently, was directed either to this end (the improvement of navigation as a science) or to secure continued time-measurements, magnetic data, and other information for the guidance of seamen.—Contemporary Review.

  1. Fortnightly Review for October, 1874: Mr. Appleton on the "Endowment of Research."
  2. In speaking about salaried and official posts, I rely on information derived from others, my own avocations not having led me at any time, or being at all likely hereafter to lead me, to seek direct information on such matters.
  3. Prof, Tyndall was, on one occasion, berated and underrated for one of his most useful treatises, by an opponent of rhetoric, a skillful mathematician, who had advanced a theory about comets which would have crumbled into nothing under the test of popularization. To popularize a theory one must present it clearly, and therefore one must conceive it clearly. (Boileau said well, "Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement.") But, to conceive a theory clearly, one must view it in so many aspects that, if it has any flaws, they are almost certain to be recognized. I believe every successful popularizer of science must have had this experience—that a theory which had seemed satisfactory under ordinary scientific tests has been found wanting when he has endeavored not only to describe the theory itself clearly, but also the arguments for and against it.
  4. "The specialists," says Wendell Holmes, "are the coral insects that build up a reef. By-and-by, it will be an island, and, for aught we know, may grow into a continent. But I don't want to be a coral insect myself. I had rather be a voyager that visits all the reefs and islands the creatures build, and sails over the seas where they have as yet built up nothing. I am a little afraid that science is breeding us down too fast into coral insects. A man like Newton, or Leibnitz, or Haller, used to paint a picture of outward or inward Nature with a free hand, and stand back and look at it as a whole, and feel like an archangel; but nowadays you have a society, and they come together and make a great mosaic, each man bringing his little bit and sticking it in its place, but so taken up with his pretty fragment that he never thinks of looking at the picture the little bits make when they are put together." This is true of specialists who are only specialists. But there can be no reason why the student of science should limit his attention to his specialty, though there is abundant reason why he should avoid any attempt to make researches over too wide a range of ground. His researches in his own special corner of science will lose nothing in value, but gain greatly, by an occasional survey of the work of others; only let him not pretend to take part in actual work in many parts of the field he thus surveys.