The following is the Presidential address delivered before the New Zealand Institute, on 28th January, 1926, by Dr. P. Marshall:—
Research in New Zealand.
Situated as New Zealand is, with a small population, with relatively few resources, it is obvious that scientific research in general must be on a relatively small scale. So far as concerns the new problems of chemistry, physics, and other sciences which in their local features are also cosmopolitan, the small and insufficient equipment, the small number of workers, and the paucity of available funds, make it difficult to add to the progress of knowledge in any important degree.
It is natural and inevitable that in this country research should tend to be centred round the features and products of the fauna and flora, and round those industries upon which the prosperity of the country depends.
We all know that at the present time the scientific research which is at work amongst us is little organized, and advance is in the main due to the activity of individuals instead of to the coordinated effort of an organization of workers. There are amongst us some who work without any association with institutions or firms. There are others—lamentably few, I fear—who are employed by firms to study their methods and products with a view to improving them or of reducing the costs that are incurred in their manufacture.
Valuable research is carried on by the staffs of our University Colleges, but here again the smallness of our resources unfortunately makes it inevitable that the greater part of the effort put forth at these Institutions has to be devoted to teaching students, and the assistance available barely enables the Professor to complete the routine duties of his position.
Many of the Government Departments have felt the need of research work in the activities in which they are engaged on behalf of the State, and staffs are being gradually built up to grapple with problems as they arise.
In these different spheres there is a considerable total of active research-students who display energy and capacity in dealing with the problems presented to them.
Of late years the Government has given a small annual subsidy to the New Zealand Institute for payment of expenses incurred in research work the subject of which, as well as the investigations, have been approved by the Institute. In all cases the subject of study has been previously admitted by the Minister of Internal Affairs as one that justifies the expenditure of money by the State. By this action the Government has definitely recognised that the constitution of the New Zealand Institute is such that it is in a position to decide upon the subjects which are specially deserving of
research, and also to guarantee the qualifications of those who aspire to undertake the very important national work of this nature.
A report on the subjects selected and the work that has been done is presented at the annual meetings of the Board of Governors of the Institute.
It would certainly improve the prospects of successful research if the efforts of investigators in this country were more organized. At the present time it may often happen that overlapping takes place. One and the same subject of research may be attacked by two workers in different parts of the country, both of whom may labour long over preliminary observations and measurements without knowledge of one another's activities, and also without that encouragement and mutual assistance which results from comradeship—more especially in research than in other activities of life.
When the great war brought so prominently before the Government and the people the high importance of scientific work and the ultimate dependence of national existence upon the results of it, there seemed a prospect that scientific effort in this country would be effectively organized. At the request of the Government representatives of the Institute and of other scientific bodies prepared schemes for the thorough organization of scientific research. The time of national stress passed and a period of financial stress succeeded it. The attitude in regard to scientific research changed like a weather-cock. It was clearly thought that such work was a luxury, and should be most properly undertaken by those countries that were blessed with the most abundant resources and with long-established and well-endowed institutions where expert staffs possessed of wide knowledge and provided with all the equipment that money can provide would carry on investigations for the benefit of the world at large.
In a consideration of this kind one is necessarily led to estimate exactly what benefit our country is likely to reap from the scientific research which the Institute endeavours to instigate, encourage, and develop.
It is perhaps unnecessary at the present time to labour the well-established fact that scientific research, which ultimately in its economic applications may found industries and enrich nations, may in its inception appear abstract and academic. To the scientific man there are instances of this on every hand, and some of the more picturesque have been mentioned time and again at public meetings and have received prominence in the modern wonderful medium for distributing information of the most varied kind—the public press. The chemist working obscurely with test-tube and retort, and without expectation of anything but extension of knowledge, yet produced results that in the elaboration of the so-called aniline dyes has added immensely to the amenities of life. Women owe to him the resplendent colours of the slender costumes in which they enrobe themselves. He has beautified every home and added to the lustre and glory of the functions of regal courts.
What could be more of the nature of academic research than estimation of the latent heat of evaporation? What could be more of a scientific plaything than the cryophorus? Yet these researches
and playthings were definite stepping-stones in the development of methods that have ended in the establishment of the great industries which depend upon the transhipping of frozen goods from one end of the world to the other; industries that have enriched nations, have reduced the cost of living to the poorest in European countries and have enabled the crowded populations of over-peopled lands to enjoy wholesome food in abundance.
The study and classification of small and unpleasant insects is not usually regarded as scientific work likely to benefit mankind. The man who devotes himself to scientific research of this kind is regarded almost with suspicion as one who is harmless perhaps, but still rightly apart from the community at large. How many people think of him as one who may be assisting to benefit his fellows in most important respects. Yet some of these men have rendered important aid in gaining the information that has so greatly reduced the fatal malaria of tropical regions. If indeed, scientific methods were fully applied this disease would now be eliminated from those localities where it had been rampant and pestilential.
These are but three instances in which patient, obscure, and prolonged research has resulted in achievements which have vastly affected the well being of mankind — millions have been saved from a lingering death whilst still in their prime. The feeding and welfare of nations have been maintained, and the happiness and joy of life have been fostered. No man of knowledge and learning can dare to say that such and such a subject of research is useless and academic and undeserving of support from the resources of the State. All must recognise that research which appears dull and unprofitable in itself may blossom forth into some discovery which will vitally affect the comfort and well-being of all. It may provide a necessary detail which will be required in the building-up of a structure on which humanity will rise to a higher level of comfort, well being, and knowledge.
While it is thus a maxim with scientific men that no distinction can be drawn between pure scientific research and economic research, it still remains true that there are certain industries and pursuits that seem to require the aid of research in order to remove some difficulty in operation or to improve the quality of the product.
It is research of this kind that is most favoured and encouraged in New Zealand. While it is obvious that direct attack of the problem is the most promising, it may often be the case that the final solution will be obtained from some other line of research which may appear remote from the problem and devoid of bearing on it.
It may not be out of place to mention some of these subjects here. The condition of our frozen produce on arrival in Europe is a matter of constant concern. Our distance from the market is greater than that of any other country which supplies it, and for this reason alone extra care must be taken to ensure that every deleterious condition is entirely eliminated. Whilst confidence is always dangerous, it can be said that satisfactory condition has now been attained though some details still demand research and are now being attacked. This is particuarly true in regard to the conditions of cooling under which apples are transported overseas. It has been
found that extremely slight differences in the attendant conditions greatly affect the final result, and some of these have been definitely ascertained, and promising research still continues with the probability of a satisfactory result.
This question suggests also that much research is still necessary in regard to the conditions under which these substances which are placed on the Home Market are produced. Our pastures are far too haphazard. We are really ignorant of the actual details of any of them. We do not know accurately what association of pasture-plants in any one district will give the most satisfactory result. We do not know to what extent the nutritive value of the different pasture-plants differs in various parts of the country. We do not know how much they vary from year to year, nor the precise effect of the various fertilizers that are now somewhat freely employed. In these questions there is a vast field open for research which may well result in immense benefit to our country.
The great problem of bush-sickness has been capably attacked, and is in a fair way of being solved. The treatment of the pumice-lands and of the poorer clay-soils of the north is now understood, but it is probable that further advances still can be made in regard to them if more research is made into their peculiarities and possibilities.
Another aspect of this matter requires much and careful research. The trees and plants in our orchards and crops have in all cases been imported, and have in nearly all instances shown that the soil and climate suit them admirably, for they have thriven exceedingly. The same phrase unfortunately applies to the insect and fungus blights to the attack of which they are subject. Often enough these blights have come from the four corners of the world, and have been imported without attendant parasites or antagonistic organisms which have kept them in check in their native land. The natural result has been a rapid and alarming spread throughout the land with attendant serious loss and almost disaster to the orchardist. Much research is required in order to develop methods to combat these pests under the special conditions in this country. A good deal has been done, and within the last few years the introduction and distribution of natural enemies of some of the most widespread blights has greatly improved the position of fruit-growers. Here again continuous and careful research will benefit the country to an extent that will cause the increase of annual returns to completely eclipse the small expenditure that may be incurred in conducting them.
The one industry that is dependent upon the cultivation of an indigenous plant is that of the production of phormium fibre. At present little attempt has been made to develop a variety of the indigenous plant with an improved fibre. The export is almost entirely derived from plants that are still growing as nature planted them. It is well known that the value of the fibre is widely different in accordance with the locality where the plant has been growing. Systematic and continuous culture under careful control would be almost certain to develop a variety which would give a greater yield of fibre of finer quality than is now placed on the market.
Our timber producing industry has of late years benefited greatly from research, and though indigenous forest is still in many parts of the country being recklessly destroyed, research has shown what varieties of trees can be profitably planted in order to supply the needs of the future. Large areas of land otherwise unproductive have been planted and operations on an extensive scale are still in progress. Investigations on the growth of our indigenous trees are being undertaken by energetic workers, and it is hoped that important results will in time accrue.
There is a large area of beech forest on the mountain ranges throughout the country. The timber derived from it has not in general met with favour, and the forests are untouched. It seems that the wood is too hard for paper making. Is it not possible that research here might result in the foundation of an important industry? This seems the more promising as the beech forest is usually able to regenerate itself more readily than is the case in New Zealand with most of our indigenous forest formations. Whether the waste products of our timber-mills could be utilized has been the subject of a good deal of research, but so far without much beneficial result.
Not only have the conditions in New Zealand proved wonderfully favourable to the growth of insect blights which are more easily kept in check in other countries, but we well know that introduced plants relatively harmless in their own country have run rampant here and have overspread land in all directions and have even taken charge of large areas. The blackberry and the gorse are the most notable, and it is even said with some approach to truth that the West Coast of the South Island from the Karamea to Hokitika is one blackberry bush. The great Linnaeus, who on his knees thanked God for the glorious sight of an English gorse-bush in full blossom, would have thought himself removed to the regions of bliss had he been suddenly transported in the month of September to a gorse-covered hill in New Zealand.
So serious is the present menace that the Government has actually offered a bonus of £10,000 for any effective means of destroying these plants. Here indeed is a bonus placed on research, and it is hoped that some investigator will earn the reward which will surely be accompanied by the thanks of a grateful country.
Not insects, fungus blights, and flowering plants alone have shown surprising vitality when introduced. The rabbit has long been a curse in all areas of light soil in the less-favoured pastoral areas, and in attempts to reduce its numbers measures have been adopted that have unfortunately reduced many species of native birds to the verge of extinction. Deer also have increased beyond all expectations, and now threaten to destroy native forests over large areas. Even the increase of the opossum is viewed with misgiving by fruit-growers. Measures to reduce the rabbit-plague offer wide scope for scientific research, but the huge herds of deer can probably be kept in control by the removal of restrictions on sportsmen.
In the geological field efforts have been made since the earliest days of colonization to find deposits of valuable minerals, and these
efforts are still maintained. We know that there is a great variety of clays, and research amongst these would almost certainly reveal materials from which many types of pottery could be made. Sands suitable for glass-making are in abundance and can probably be employed with a minimum of research. It is perhaps in connection with the utilization of brown coals that work on our mineral resources has its most promising outlook. The fragile nature of these fuels when burning renders them unsuitable for use on the railways. Much work is now being done with the object of treating them in such a way as to render them of service for this purpose. Success would ensure the employment of much additional labour, and the firing of locomotives in the North Island at least would be less-costly.
The great importance that modern engineering methods have given to oil-fields has stimulated investigations into the question of a possible supply of mineral oil being proved in New Zealand. Seepages of oil have long been known in several districts, but so far no success has been attained by the efforts that have been made to discover large supplies; much geological research has been conducted in the more promising districts, but much more is required before any certainty can be reached in regard to the depth and extent of the oil-bearing strata.
Another possible source of supply is to be found in the distillation of some shales and brown coals. Investigations have been in progress for some time, and are being continued with considerable prospect of success.
A special problem in New Zealand, especially in the North Island, is the construction of suitable and durable roads for the transport of produce. Methods of construction and supply of material have been somewhat haphazard in the past, but it is recognised that greater knowledge and more definite methods of construction are required. A primary requisite is research in regard to the actual value of materials that are available for road construction. This is now being carried out and it is hoped that the information that is being gained will prove of great value in the formation of roads suitable for the more intense traffic of the future.
There is one subject calling out for detailed study, though it is not likely that any financial benefit would result from it. We have in the Dominion one of the most interesting volcanic districts in the whole world; —geysers, fumaroles, hot springs in infinite variety, sulphur waters, silica waters, with temperature always varying and contents largely unknown. There is yet no accurate description of the district. The best we have was written by a foreigner in 1864, twenty years before the great eruption occurred. It is almost incredible that this wonderful district should be advertised the whole world over and yet when visitors are attracted here to see it we are not able to give them any exact information about this extraordinary area for which we are rightly famed in all countries.
A great difficulty that is now experienced in much country in the back blocks is the development of “second growth” in relatively rough land where the rainfall is considerable and the re-
sources of the owner are relatively small. Here botanical and agricultural experts and the practical farmer must co-operate in making observations. It is reasonable to think that such conjunction of effort will save much of our land from relapsing to an unproductive state.
All the large departments of the State meet with special problems in the work that they undertake for the Government of the country. They are dealt with by the departmental staffs and often require considerable research. Bridge construction, harbour works, the building of railroads, irrigation schemes, have been standardized in various countries and have been studied in their minute details, yet it is often found that New Zealand conditions differ to such an extent from those that prevail in other countries that detailed observation and structural modifications are required before methods and construction that have proved satisfactory elsewhere can be suitably adapted to the requirements of this country.
Such research that is suggested above is clearly dependent upon a desire to improve industries or activities, and are prompted by the needs or difficulties of industries already in existence. Though the aim of any particular research is there defined and the conditions are fairly evident, it is often found that in large measure all the results that are obtained have to be based upon prolonged and painstaking work that has been done in past years by enthusiasts in the study of the natural objects and the operations of nature in New Zealand.
The full description and classification of the plants, a knowledge of the insect life, of rainfall, temperature, and of the quality and arrangement of the rocks, are all and each required before many of these definite objectives can be attained. This necessary information has been gained by workers plodding along academic roads, for many years conducting research that to the layman too often seems unpractical.
The foregoing statements, which in reality hardly touch the fringe of the subject, show what a vast field for scientific investigation there is in this country. Of this much is now being attempted, and a great deal of valuable work is being done. Workers, however, are mostly isolated and out of touch with their fellow investigators—there is little or no organization, and this must lead at times to duplication, overlapping, and even to failure to reap the full result of work that has been done. While it is impossible because of geographical difficulties and various other reasons to bring the different workers into contact and to make their efforts truly cumulative and mutually supporting, it is yet certain that much may be done to make the result more effective.
To me it seems imperative that there should be some organizer or director of effort who should from his office have the power and right to inquire into the nature and amount of research at the University Colleges, Government Departments, and as far as practical into the problems encountered by various industries, which should be helped in every possible way to develop their magnitude and scope, to improve their products, and to reduce the costs.
Such a man must himself have a thorough practical knowledge of the Dominion—its productions and possessions in the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms—he must be possessed of attainments in chemistry and physics. Energy and insight are necessary, and a personal acquaintance as far as possible with the institutions and individuals who are capable and willing to go forward. An elastic organization, the removal of the conditions of isolation, keeping scientific men in touch with one another and informed of the progress that is being made, and of the difficulties that are being overcome, will add much to the progress of our industries, to the advancement of our knowledge, and thus to the welfare of our country.
Our research must not begin and end in the pursuit of a definite object suggested by the needs of the moment. It is not in this way that the great advances of the present time have been achieved. Watt in his early construction of a steam engine did not have the vision of the intricacies of the mechanical world of to-day. The early and academic experiments which showed that a coil of wire became magnetic when an electric current passed through it, did not suggest the generation of energy which would distribute light, heat, and mechanical power over continents. The classification of mosquitos was not completed with any idea that it would be utilized in connection with the reduction of the great scourge of malaria in tropical countries. Marconi in his early experiments of transmission of electric waves could not have visualized the wonderful development of wireless and the great saving of human life that it would effect.
It is too late in the world's history to say that this or that research is impractical and not of any service to mankind. It is out of date to attempt to divide investigation into pure scientific research and economic research. Every fact that is added to the wealth of human knowledge has its value. It may rise from obscurity to national importance in the twinkling of an eye, and from a matter of detail to a fact of the greatest value.
The practical man welcomes the acquisition of facts of all and every kind, confident in the knowledge that each will in its time and place fit in the scheme of advance that will lead to the comfort of mankind and the development of industry and the well-being of nations.