Essays on Science  .  Australian Science in the Making
Edited by R  W  Home.  Published in association with the Australian Academy of Science by the  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988. 413 pages plus xxvii. Index, Illustrated, hb, rrp ISBN 0 521 35556 7

These essays convey the impression of immense energy and industry. Clearly many people are hard at work in the archives preparing the way for future research programmes in the history of local science and technology. The book itself is a handsome and high quality production, combining some of the bulk and sheen of the coffee table volume with the compendious footnotes  of the doctoral dissertation. The notes average a hundred per paper, making this book an excellent starting point for further reading.

The aim of the collection is to 'open windows on to various aspects of Australia's scientific past' (xvii). It contains three chapters on the early days, five on science in a colonial society and seven on the passage to modernity. The papers in the first section treat the cosmology of the Aborigines, the French scientific expedition to Tasmania in 1802 and the difficult circumstances for the life of the mind in the early years of the colony.  The 'colonial science' papers cover the 'long arm of London', the factors contributing to the growth of science up to 1900, the activities of the botanist Baron von Mueller of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, a colonial echo of the great debate over the gorillas in our family tree, and the early employment of chemists for industrial research in the Colonial Sugar Refining company.  The third section has chapters on radiotherapy for cancer, the mobilisation of science during World War Two, medical science, plant introduction, early radio astronomy, recent progress in general astronomy and the modern history of the advisory bodies which contribute to science policy.

Inevitably  the collection is selective and readers may be pained to find that their favorite subject is missing. Those who yearn to read about our achievements in soil science and agriculture can find solace in the excellent two volume Plants and Man in Australia edited by D J and S G M Carr (Academic Press, 1981) and in C M Donald's superb 'Innovation in Australian Agriculture' in Agriculture in the Australian Economy (Ed. D B Williams, Sydney University Press, revised 1982).

Two matters cause concern, one of which is external to the book, the other internal. First, will the book find an adequate readership?  This question concerns the state of affairs in 'the house of intellect' as Barzun called it, in a book of the same name. He noted that millions are now literate, hundreds of thousands have higher education but it becomes harder to find a few tens of thousands to attend to intellectual matters. This problem is reflected in the meagre circulation of Search (under 4,000) which should be the leading Australian forum for discussion of the issues raised in this book.

The internal problem is one of theoretical development, namely the shortage of powerful theories to focus attention on significant details, to reveal unexpected connections and to open up new problems. Similarly there are too few common themes to link disparate studies and provide threads of continuity amidst the wealth of information and interesting stories. One theme which does surface regularly is the dearth of privately funded research in this country. Another is the failure of secondary industry to take advantage of local scientific expertise and mount effective research and development programmes.

  Though Australian science has attained a high level of achievement, Australian industry has failed to keep pace...[firms] limit their horizons to import-replacement manufacturing rather than looking to export markets" (xvii).

This may be contrasted with the relatively vigorous science-based industrial activity of the 1880s referred to on page xiii.  One is inclined to wonder what went wrong between the 1880s and the present day? As noted below, the answer is most likely the New Protection which came in shortly after Federation.

In view of the current agitation over education and science policy  two areas of investigation call for urgent attention. One might be called "the ecology of intellectual achievement". This concerns the personal, institutional and cultural factors which influence creativity and the growth of knowledge.  The other is a similarly ecological investigation of the influences which promote commercial application of research findings (the 'D' part of R&D).

It appears that pure and applied work can flourish in partnership if a number of conditions are met.  First, talented people are required who are interested in both practical and theoretical problems. Second, they should have high standards and high expectations of achievement. These attitudes tend to be assimilated by contact with gifted and inspiring teachers or colleagues early in life. They are killed by the inductivist, 'just collect the facts' method and the conformist, follow the Professor" ethos of Kuhn's 'normal science'. In each case the antidote is the Popperian spirit of conjecture and refutation.  Thirdly, institutional and personal linkages are required to carry ideas backwards and forwards between the study/laboratory and the factory/farm. 

Finally, to promote commercial application of ideas, industry needs to operate in a competitive environment, with the world as a potential market, instead of sheltering behind protective walls. Unfortunately most of the people who write about science policy start with the premise that more government involvement is required, more committees, more central direction to 'pick winners' for favoured (protected) treatment. It seem that the sad lesson of the New Protection (tariffs plus central wage fixing) has not been learned.

The chapters on medicine and astronomy in this collection show that Australians have  provided plenty of raw material for studies on the ecology of achievement.  These two fields, with agriculture and mining, show that the sporting arena is not the only place where Australians can defy the cultural cringe and perform at world standard.  The story of medical research shows a kind of boom and bust cycle with a surge of activity during the 1890s followed by relative stagnation until the advent of privately funded institutes, notably the Kanematsu Institute at Sydney Hospital and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.  Progress in the 1890s shows the effect of tackling problems with an eye to their practical and fundamental aspects (among them snake bite and temperature regulation by the native marsupials), the importance of early influences and the synergistic effect of collaboration between good friends. For a time these outweighed the negative influence of  isolation from the main centres of medical research.

The radio astronomy story shows the value of teamwork (again), overseas links, adequate resourcing and the sense of urgency engendered by the war effort. The good work continued post war, guided by the joint talents of Bowen  (Chief of the CSIR/CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory) and Pawsey, his right-hand man. These two exemplified a generalisation made by Rogers and Shoemaker in their Communication of Innovations (Free Press, 1971) to the effect that intellectual innovators often need a powerful and streetwise mentor to look after their funding and other organisational matters while their  ideas come to fruition.

All the essays in the volume deserve some favourable comments. The most significant criticism, overall, is not to be laid at the door of any individual because it concerns the rudimentary state of theory in the field. Small nuggets of minutiae are to be found - the French scientists preferring to arm wrestle with the native men rather than grappling with the women, the prominent dummy knobs build into experimental apparatus to thwart Pawsey's compulsive knob-twiddling, Joan Sutherland's first job as a typist in the Radiophysics Laboratory. In short a book to savour and one to draw to the attention of your local high school and public librarians.

Rafe Champion