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Volume 72, 1942-43
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– XXIX –

Presidential Address

My first, and very pleasant task, in addressing you from the chair is to thank you all very sincerely for the high honour you have done me by electing me to the office of President of the Society. I have felt that there were others who had merited the honour more highly, and who would have carried out the duties with greater distinction to the Society. My own hopes to have attended closely to our business and to our development and progress have been frustrated by events, but it is gratifying to be able to record how carefully and ably the Society's affairs have been handled by the Vice-president, the Standing Committee, and by Miss Wood, all of whom I thank sincerely on your behalf as well as for myself.

Two distinguished scientists whose names we were honoured to have on our roll of honorary members have passed away during the year.

Sir Arthur Hill, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, met his death by a riding accident which deprived the world of a great botanical leader at the zenith of his powers and influence. He was known personally to many of us, to those who had the privilege of meeting him during his visit to New Zealand and to those who had the added pleasure of enjoying his hospitality and benefiting by his kind interest and help at Kew. His papers on New Zealand plants have helped us to elucidate many of our own botanical problems, and his own charming personality influenced Empire students to co-operation and created international goodwill. The death of Sir Arthur Hill is mourned as a personal loss by many New Zealanders.

Sir William Bragg, famed British physicist, died in March of this year in London, at the age of 79. Sir William was President of the Royal Society of London in 1911–12, Vice-president from 1920–1925, and President again from 1935–40. He was Director of the Royal' Institution of Great Britain; Fullerian Professor of Chemistry in the Royal Institution, and Director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory.

With his son, William Lawrence Bragg, he developed the X-ray spectrometer, which revealed the interior architecture of crystals. For this work father and son shared the 1915 Nobel Prize. A famed, sound popularizer of science, Sir William once flatly told the British Association that man has a soul, declaring: “Science is not setting forth to destroy the soul, but to keep body and soul together.”

Both of our late honorary members have served their fellow scientists in double measure: by their distinguished researches they have gained the new knowledge that students always eagerly await; by their examples of unremitting labour and of co-operation and help to their colleagues and students, old and young, they have given real meaning to the fellowship of science.

– XXX –

In this time of national crisis, every group or society of citizens, like every loyal individual, will examine its present activity and its own contribution to national strength and security. Therefore the part that the Royal Society of New Zealand can play in these tremendous times must be a matter of concern to every member.

We know that many of our members are individually carrying out investigations at the request of the Government, but the Society as such has not been asked for its co-operation or advice as it was during the last war. When I observe that this seeming neglect of the Society to-day is the result of the recommendations made twenty-five years ago it should not be inferred that the advice given was bad or that it was not followed. In fact, it was ultimately followed to the very good purpose that within a few years the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research was established. Here is at least one beneficial result of planning during the last war; here is an organisation that, established to benefit a nation at peace, stood ready, at the outbreak of war, to organise scientific enquiry in furthering national preparedness.

As a matter of security it is inappropriate to enlarge on this; but it is not inappropriate to express our gratification that the organisation is there in full activity, and our confidence in the energy and ability with which it is carrying out its important task.

Before enquiring further as to the part the Royal Society can play in the national life to-day, I will refer to two aspects of highly organised direction of scientific investigation. One aspect is definitely an outcome of war conditions; the other may continue, indeed to some extent will prevail, in peace. To-day, national security demands secrecy in science, not only as to the results of research, but even as to the nature and direction of the investigations being made. Yet secrecy is the antithesis of the scientific spirit, whose aim should be to promote knowledge. Secrecy in science, as in any other study, breeds authoritarianism and traditionalism; these, instead of looking to the direct argument of observation and experiment, turn to rhetoric and rationalisation to solve problems and approve action, with resultant stultification of scientific progress. Here science finds its chief quarrel with Nazi Germany, where for years research has been prostituted to create secret machines and secret weapons for Germany's selfish advantage or for the destruction of other peoples. Unless extreme nationalism gives place after the war to a wholesome international attitude, we may fear a continuance of this deplorable condition. Another outcome of organised research, controlled team work, is in many respects as necessary and desirable in peace as in war. Here the individual student surrenders part of the freedom enjoyed by the lone seeker; his progress may resemble a march under discipline, but the words “study” and “discipline” are themselves correlates, if not synonyms, and in team work under an inspiring leader “discipline” and that fine scholastic word “fellowship” plumb a new depth of meaning.

– XXXI –

The organisation of scientific research will doubtless be extended and intensified after the war, and wise leadership alone will save officially sponsored organisations from becoming stereotyped.

Leadership in directed research should be more than planning. There is, in all joint research by a senior and junior worker, an important teaching element in their association, and the development of this desirable component of research fellowship in State or foundation institutions would perpetuate in them a real university life. It is equally desirable that research institutions should continue to teach the public, and thereby join with universities and learned societies in promoting knowledge.

Apprehension has been felt for the neglect of pure science by Government research institutes; but this fear has, I think, been allayed by the discovered dependence of applied research on the study of fundamental problems. The publications of the great research departments in Australia and New Zealand bear this out, and I myself had the pleasure last year of presenting the Hector and Hutton Medals to two members of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, awards generally recognised to have been made for pure systematic zoological and botanical study.

But why should remarks from this chair bear upon outside research departments; perhaps they were better applied to our own affairs. We have a Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand: it is a recognition of distinction in accomplished research conferred on a worker by his colleagues. Could it not be made something more? It is realised that the Fellows of the Society are scattered throughout the country; but there are at least four in each city. I submit that the Fellows, in accepting the distinction conferred upon them, have also accepted a responsibility to promote study and research, and to assist and encourage others as they themselves have been helped. May I suggest that the Fellows of the Society resident in each city meet together, confer with the Council of the local Member Body, and together promote the fellowship in science by which they are designated.

Returning to co-operative research during the war and the present need for concealing the results of enquiry in the interests of national security, there is a danger of this becoming part of national policy, and of information that should belong to science and to the world being withheld for application to selfish national ends.

A long and exhausting war will reduce our national strength and our resources, and may seem to impose upon us a self-protective policy of guarding or concealing our scientific discoveries. I do not suggest that any scientist, whether an independent student or one holding a government or university appointment would accept such a situation. Freedom to seek, to learn and to discuss are, for scientific enquiry, fundamental necessities which it is the duty of this Society and its branches, as well as of its individual members to safeguard. This is not merely to claim a democratic right; the maintenance of freedom in investigation is part of the first great


responsibility of the scientist, his responsibility to truth; for freedom in enquiry is in itself an assuring criterion of truth, which becomes distorted and unrecognisable in chains.

Scientists to-day are becoming conscious of a new responsibility, one that presents them with a difficult problem. The world is looking for a scapegoat; for someone, or something, to blame for present disasters. It has not been slow to look with suspicion at science, and science has an uneasiness that the world, though mostly wrong, may be partly right.

This world attitude is bringing the scientist to realise that it is not sufficient just to place the results of his investigations in the open fields; he is becoming aware of his responsibility for the best use or application of his discoveries for social betterment. Here he will soon sense his own limited understanding of the social effect of new discoveries; he may discern that, instead of conferring immediate benefits, inventions and discoveries may impose new and dangerous strains on economic and social stability. As he himself becomes aware of what Lord Stamp called the social impact of science, he will perceive the need to promote a greater knowledge of science and of the scientific method among his fellow citizens, who will have need to adjust themselves to inevitable changes.

To apply new discoveries to human betterment is to attempt to control both, whereupon a further difficulty confronts the scientist, who now finds himself passing from the familiar ground of quantitative recording of objective experience to the uncertain and, to him, unscientific field of values. Undismayed, he begins to estimate the possibility of applying scientific methods to the study of society itself, and quickly encounters new obstacles in the unmanageable and intractable nature of the material. Natural science seeks to record observed phenomena and to state the relations between them in simple causative laws. Social science encounters a multiplicity and complexity of actions and reactions between intensively individual human entities, and it is seemingly impossible to reduce them to simple, comprehensive laws.

Nevertheless, social generalisations have emerged and have prevailed among peoples as guides to conduct and action. It should not be beyond the scope of scientific method to enquire how these moral generalisations have found issue, in human consciousness, and to endeavour to determine how far they are the outcome of systematic observation and logical reasoning, to what extent they have arisen in some actively wondering mind by what is called intuition, or whether they have entered human consciousness by extra-phenomenal inspiration. Here we perceive a challenge to science to probe the fundamentals of human experience for, as Herbert Dingle has suggested (Nature, 20th September, 1941), we have now to consider to what extent science has become, not merely a description of an objective external world, but a formulation of the relations between experiences.

These wider fields of study now before us, and their deeper tillage, serve to emphasise the responsibility of science to cherish truth and to guard research from the too close control that may


ensue from over-organisation and direction. In natural science, this might take the form of arbitrary, though well intentioned, withholding of the results of research in the supposed national interest. In social science, with its new and as yet unproved techniques, and with its need for organised enquiry by teams of workers, there may be even greater danger from control by those who for the time being may hold political power.

Reasons for control can be proffered so plausibly—“the national interest,” “social betterment”; but mankind cannot thus hide and shelter from what he has discovered; he must brave the storms as well as enjoy the sunshine of his journey forward. It has more than once been asked if mankind is really fitted by his present standard of education and moral training, or by his mere mental capacity, to enjoy, or even to be entrusted with, the material results of scientific research; and recently a leading churchman, apprehensive of man's moral capacity, sought a ten years' respite from further enquiry.

Facing these questions and asking directly, “Can society absorb new material benefits?” “Has man the capacity to absorb new truth?” we also ask, “Shall truth as well as material benefits be withheld until man can, in the judgment of some not infallible human, assimilate them?”

Whatever may be the answer for material benefits which, too quickly introduced, may strain the social structure, with regard to truth the answer must be “No!” Man must experience, and, if need be, suffer, the truth.

So while, for the moment, national security requires us to accept closely organised direction of research, and even concealment of its results, we shall at this same present time continue to cherish our liberal institutions, and our educational and social ideals, together with our duty to pursue knowledge freely wherever it may be found; but let us at the same time promote true scientific fellowship in such manner that when, by victory, we have secured a just peace, we shall find that we have not only preserved our democratic liberties, but have also maintained and fostered a high responsibility, both to truth and knowledge, and to the ideal of service in applying the fruits of research to the betterment of mankind. The immediate need is not so much to have individual freedom, but to preserve the ideal of freedom, and even more to accept the responsibility of freedom. A true fellowship of science, fellowship between scientists and fellowship between scientists and our fellow citizens will help us all to bear and to share that responsibility.