« PreviousContinue »
When a violent revolution occurs amongst a highly civilized people, it can not fail to give a sudden impulse to their feelings and ideas. This is more particularly true of democratic revolutions, which stir up at once all classes of the people, and at the same time beget high ambitions in the breast of every citizen. The French made surprising advances in the exact sciences at the very time when they were completing the destruction of the remains of their former feudal society; yet this sudden fecundity is not to be attributed to democracy, but to the unexampled revolution which attended its growth.de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
The most brilliant period in the history of science in France followed close on the heels of the Revolution. In the stirring days of the First Empire, the Paris Academy of Sciences comprised in its membership the strongest group of investigators ever assembled. The intellectual life of the nation had been quickened to its depths, and in spite of the devastation of the Terror, which included Lavoisier among the victims of the guillotine, science attained a prestige far higher than it had ever known during the tranquil days of the old régime. The nation instinctively turned to the Academy for advice and assistance in the initiation of many new enterprises, and ministers, parliaments, administrators and state assemblies often sought its aid and accepted its decisions. The leaders of the Revolution, and subsequently Napoleon himself, reëstablished the old Academy on firmer foundations, and accorded it privileges never experienced under the monarchy. The distinguished company of scientific investigators included in the expedi
tion to Egypt proved that Bonaparte, who was soon to attain supreme power, fully recognized the value of science to the state.
The establishment of our own National Academy of Sciences during the Civil War, and its activities in the study of military and industrial problems for the Government, affords another illustration of the effect of war in promoting scientific research. The chief events of this period have been sketched in an address before the National Engineering Societies, and need not be repeated here. Nor is this the place to enter into a discussion of the relationship between science and war. Suffice it to say that de Tocqueville's statement quoted above probably applies, not merely to revolutions, but also to such wars as that of the present day. The intellectual stimulus accompanying great upheavals, however they originate, finds expression in unusual achievements in science.
At the present moment we are confronted by a fact which requires no general demonstration to bring it into view: throughout the civilized world the national importance of science and research is appreciated as never before. Even if there had been no intellectual stimulus, the present great war would have forced science to the front. In the first days of the conflict, the nations of the Entente were faced by problems soluble only through the aid of scientific research. Statesmen whose exclusively classical training had afforded them little or no means of appreciating the significance of science were compelled to summon investigators to their aid in order to overcome difficulties demanding instant solution. The question of manufacture, serious as it was, frequently held second place to the necessity for research. Thus in England it was evidently impossible for the glass factories to produce the special kinds of optical glass needed for periscopes, gunsights, field glasses, and many other military instruments, until the methods of making these glasses, previously worked out in Germany, had been rediscovered by British investigators. So with scores of other problems forced upon the nation under the stress of war. Scientific research was the first requisite, and both men and funds must be provided without delay..
No intelligent statesman, however, could meet such a situation without appreciating its obvious implications. Successful research demands trained investigators, and these cannot be produced in a day. It also demands adequate provision of funds, not merely during the feverish moments of war, but throughout those long periods of calm, when the foundations that underlie the success or failure of a nation are laid. The British people, in spite of wholly inadequate appreciation of science by former leaders of their government, have never failed to produce
INTRODUCTION: G. E. HALE
investigators of the highest type. Men like Newton, Darwin, Faraday, and Kelvin have appeared in unbroken sequence from the earliest times, and fortunately there are no present indications that this splendid succession will be broken. The great Cambridge school of mathematical physics, powerfully supplemented during nearly half a century by the Cavendish Laboratory, has been a foremost agency in the development of men qualified for research. But the means at the disposal of the universities have been sadly limited, and the government has persistently refused to recognize that no public funds are more productive than those that are devoted to advancing knowledge.
The recent appropriation of one million pounds by the British Government for the promotion of scientific and industrial research, and the large sums provided for the same object by the Governments of Canada, Australia, and other British colonies; the establishment of a great national laboratory of chemistry and physics in Japan; and the similar undertakings already initiated in France and Italy, and projected in Belgium, are significant signs of the times. It is plain that we in the United States must not fail to profit by an opportunity which other nations have already seen and grasped. Fortunately the way has long since been prepared, and the initial steps have been taken in a truly national movement for the advancement of science and research.
The National Academy of Sciences was established by Act of Congress, signed by President Lincoln on March 3, 1863. Its charter states that "the Academy shall, whenever called upon by any department of the Government, investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art.” Under this provision, the Academy dealt with many military problems during the Civil War, and since that time it has frequently been asked by the President, by Congress, and by heads of Government Departments to report on scientific and technical questions. In April, 1916, when the unwarranted attack on the Sussex had brought our relations with Germany close to the breaking point, the Academy offered its services to the President. He at once requested that steps be taken to organize the research agencies of the country, not solely with respect to the necessities of possible war, but also because of the importance of developing and utilizing them more effectively under peace conditions. This led to the establishment in September, 1916, of the National Research Council, a federation of governmental, educational, privately endowed, and industrial research agencies, resting upon the charter of the National Academy, and extending the scope of its activities into every branch of the mathematical, physical, and biological