Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 79, 1951
– lxxi –

The Proper Functions of the Royal Society

When the holder of this office of President has served for a year or more he begins to feel that he should not vacate the office without saying something about the Society itself. Normally, he would do this in the course of a brief address to the Annual Meeting, but the recent innovation whereby the address is delivered to a more widely representative gathering of members under the auspices of the Wellington Branch has made it necessary to develop some general topic as well. On the earlier occasions on which I have had the honour to address you, the topics dealt with were:


A Scientific Attitude to Conversation.


Our International Responsibilities in Science.

This year I wish to relate my remarks more closely to the internal affairs of our Society, and have chosen as a title: “The Proper Functions of the Royal Society.” “Proper” is used in the sense of “appropriate to”, and not in any reproving or corrective sense. Indeed, the remarks can only reflect some of my personal views, and they are offered as a small contribution to collective wisdom, not presuming to be a directive. The Royal Society of New Zealand is primarily concerned with the advancement of Science. In fulfilling that responsibility it has passed through the same stages as a parent or guardian in the upbringing of children. The early stage is encouragement and nurture, the second is guidance and wisdom in passing on the fruits of experience. As a matter of history, our predecessor, the New Zealand Institute, was founded to establish scientific practices that were nonexistent in a new colony. The country needed a Geological Survey, a meteorological service, a museum service, an analyst; and it was the job of the Board or the Manager to recommend and find the equipment and personnel necessary. To-day, these services expand without the aid of the Royal Society. The resources of government are such that new specialized scientific agencies also can be set up as the need for them becomes apparent. But I suggest that even here, though the responsibility of the Society may have narrowed, it has not entirely disappeared.

State Departments and even Boards are not set up to initiate or explore. They arise from demands formulated within the community in response to some recognized needs. Not infrequently it is a pressing problem confronting some industry—three fairly recent bodies of such origin are the Wheat Research Institute and the Committee concerned with tobacco and leather. In these and such cases organized bodies within the community are able to foresee results and present a case the merits of which can be readily understood. Where the vigilance of the Royal Society is required is more in the direction of formulating a convincing case for the prosecution of research in fields where results may be of such long-term fruition that they seem to be nobody's business, or at least not urgent. One such field in which the Society has maintained a lively interest is the

– lxxii –

co-ordination of conservation agencies and more fact-finding. Since I last addressed you from this platform just two years ago on the subject of conservation, other interested bodies within the community have given the matter continued attention; and there is convened for to-morrow by the Forest and Bird Society a conference on co-ordination at which the Royal Society will be represented. There also has been set up a valuable addition to existing fact-finding agencies in the Animal Ecology Section of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Until Effective co-ordination in conservation is achieved, however, and until there has been established the means for some zoological survey comparable with that now accepted as essential in geology, soil science, and botany, the Royal Society will need to exercise more than a mere watching brief.

The chief stumbling-block to advancement, as I have just said, is that initiative and experimental contribution cannot come easily from departments with policy pre-defined and budgets already committed. Another current example of the difficulty is one that I mentioned in my address last year, namely, New Zealand's needs and potential contribution in oceanography as it is developing to-day. Since then a limited opportunity has been offered by the presence in New Zealand waters of a naval survey vessel. By courtesy of the Royal New Zealand Navy and the commanding officer, some facilities have been offered for oceanographical studies and recording. To take advantage of this a small Committee consisting of representatives of two sections of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, of the Marine Department the Dominion Museum, and of Victoria University College has been set up. It is a good committee and a good opportunity, but is almost certain to be limited by the fact that each representative will be able only to indicate what his department hopes to get from the project, and none will be free to offer much in the way of equipment or comprehensive work programme because the scheme as a whole is still nobody's business. Now, in this and similar cases where is the much-needed vision and co-ordination to come from? Some day it may come from the kind of National Research Council envisaged by Sir Reginald Stradling in the constructive report on Building and Civil Engineering Research which he presented two years ago to the Government (Bull. 97, D.S.I.R.). It probably is not necessary to remind you that the appendix to that report, dealing with the financial control of research, is a bold and constructive plan to simplify and strengthen the organization of research.

National Research Council
S.I.R. Council Medical Research Council Agricultural Research Council University Research Council
(Sociological Research Council)

It is not here suggested that the Royal Society as at present constituted could play any direct part in such reorganization, although a series of unsolicited and thoughtful articles in a Wellington newspaper some months ago did suggest that the Royal Society might have an active part to play in the co-ordination of research if the principles of the Stradling report were ever adopted. At the moment,

– lxxiii –

keeping our feet on the ground and remembering our dependence on charity even for a roof over our heads, it may be enough to suggest that our corporate philosophy might so shape itself that we would be prepared for such changes. Research plans play too small a part in our deliberations. Our list of committees provide for machinery decisions, and some participation in other organizations but is otherwise almost static. To provide for progress (although not necessarily thus to ensure it) we need more committees comparable with the various standing committees set up at the Pacific Science Congress.

As matters stand, it must be admitted that the main constructive function which the Royal Society performs for New Zealand science is the publication of its Transactions, and I should like to emphasise the importance of this contribution and make some protest at the disabilities under which it is maintained. Firstly, as to its importance: It is often said that the Transactions, once the only medium for publication of scientific papers in New Zealand, is now only one of many, and that specialized journals gradually have reduced the field that the Transactions needs to cover. While that is perfectly true, it is also necessary to point out that the Transactions maintain in theory and usually in practice a tradition which is not always followed by specialist journals and departmental bulletins. It can too easily happen that a short circuit between author and editor avoids critical and refining processes which can improve the contribution and perhaps save labour, paper, printers' ink, and readers' time. If in Royal Society publication we follow traditional procedure faithfully, a paper is first read and, presumably, discussed at a meeting of a member body. It is then sent to the Editor, who arranges for suitable refereeing and then recommends it to the Standing Committee. The procedure has been criticised, and, in practice, has not always been followed, but I think that its general application has done much to establish the high reputation which the Transactions early gained, and still retains, abroad.

And that brings us to ask the question: “Is the service performed by the Transactions adequately understood and recognized?” Almost certainly not. As every member of the Standing Committee knows, the utmost economy is observed in preparation and editing of papers, processes expensive to authors and editors, but making no charge on the grant. In spite of further economy in format and printing, costs have risen to the point where a grant which still is below the pre-war figure is no longer adequate. It has been suggested by those who keep a watchful eye on Government expenditure that the deficit should be met by increasing the levy to members, a valid point, but only partly so in the case of a journal which is primarily not for restricted circulation within a paying membership, but for wide dissemination of our scientific results abroad.

In all that has been said above we have been dealing with the more official aspects of the functions of the Royal Society. But of equal if not greater importance are the functions of the member bodies. It is in the affiliation of voluntary member bodies large and small, and with varying proportions of professional scientists, amateurs, and merely interested people in their membership, that the Royal Society of New Zealand differs from its counterparts else-

– lxxiv –

where. In some of its Branches it still continues to foster amateur clubs of observers and learners from Nature—a function which can also contribute to the advancement of Science. We do well to remind ourselves of the role of the amateur in scientific work in a country yet relatively unexplored. These are the competent amateurs who have laid the foundation of much that is firm structure to-day. There are such names in every branch of natural science. In the history of botanical investigation one thinks of Leonard Cockayne and a number of others who made a great contribution in that science. There was Alexander McKay, field assistant and labourer, who made a substantial contribution as a geologist. Ornithology owes much to the leisure-time devotion of men like Walter Buller, H. Guthrie-Smith, and Edgar Stead. This list could be considerably extended to include such names as Haast and Hutton, although in these cases professional scientific posts were held. It is instructive also to consider the role in discovery and interpretation played by non-scientists who in some cases have made no claim even to be amateurs. In my own field of experience in the last few years I can think of at least three projects which have developed significantly but would have lain dormant without such initiation. Those of you who have read of the results of excavations at Pyramid Valley in North Canterbury, recently summarized by Mr. R. S. Duff in a booklet, will agree that the deposit of bones and associated remains in that small swamp may well be one of the most significant in the long history of field work concerned with Moa remains. It might have remained hidden unknown indefinitely had the late David Hope not recognized the probable significance of a single bone unearthed when a dead horse was being buried and communicated his ideas about it to the Canterbury Museum. In the field of Archaeology the pioneer work of Dr. H. D. Skinner and others of the Otago School has reached a spectacular climax in the work lately carried out by Mr. Duff at the Wairau Bar. The deposit in this small area has made it possible to define much that was obscure about the Moa-hunter period of Maori culture, and both the work and its results mark an important advance in ethnology. This site might well have suffered the fate of many others, namely, to have been scattered and picked over unintelligently by casual fossickers and curio hunters. More likely, it would have remained unknown. The discovery and first careful excavations were made by James Eyles, who at the time was a boy of sixteen years of age. Our most recent event in Ornithology has been the re-discovery of Notornis as a living bird in a practically unknown valley west of Lake Te Anau. This quite remarkable occurrence has attracted notice far beyond the bounds of our own country; and it is surely a cause for remark that the achievement stands to the credit of an amateur observer, Dr. G. B. Orbell, who has persisted with imagination and initiative for a number of years in his quest for the lost bird.

In that way we are in the fortunate position of having a certain amount of pioneering still to do in almost every field of natural science, and there is everything to gain and nothing to lose by encouraging such spirit of inquiry and awareness wherever it may be latent.

Another function which is exercised here and there, but often under fire, is the popularization of Science. Its justification, if it needs one,

– lxxv –

is that the system of living and community organization which we call democratic requires that people shall progressively gain an understanding of the processes by which they allow their affairs to be guided. It is surely essential that they should understand the scientific method that is responsible for the material structure of human environment to-day. Lately, this matter has been the subject of a thoughtful report by Dr. Gilbert Archey on the place of science in the adult educational organization for which the State is increasingly making itself responsible. I shall not extend the length of this address by quoting it here, but I would strongly recommend it as a supplementary reading. Science in formal education also has been rightly regarded as a field in which the Society should take an interest. It has performed this function in the past and results have followed. It may still have to retain an interest, if not now in securing more science, at least in seeing that there is better science in education.

The foundations of our Royal Society were well laid and with foresight. We shall do well if we maintain the vigour and spirit of service that has carried it through so many years, and at the same time seek always for new ways in which, under changing conditions, we may best assist the advancement of science.