Science and Society in the Post-War World


By JAMES BRYANT CONANT, President, Harvard University

Delivered at the Annual Dinner of the New York Academy of Public Education on the occasion of receiving the award of the Academy's Medal for Services to Education, Hotel Waldorf-Astoria, New York City, February 18, 1943

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 394-397.

I HARDLY need to tell you how deeply I appreciate the honor which your Academy has conferred upon me tonight. To be the recipient of your medal is a high distinction in the educational world and I am keenly conscious of the compliment you have paid me in awarding it to one who is not a resident of your own great state.

I value highly as well the privilege of addressing so representative a gathering of the New York educational fraternity. Yet I must confess that I approach this part of the evening's program with a certain diffidence. Chancellor Chase first suggested that I play the role of prophet and peer into the future to tell you of a changed world,—the result of new advances in science after the war is won. Such an assignment was far too high a hurdle for my talents. I am neither the seventh son of a seventh son, nor do I include among my paraphernalia a crystal ball. Therefore, I made the counter suggestion of the topic "Science and Society in the Post-War World." And now that I come to speak on this subject, I realize that I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. For while the first topic would have required a seer, my present ambitious title requires a truly Aristotelian vision. (And I am inclined to place the blame for my misfortune on the Olympian atmosphere of Washington, D. C. in which Chancellor Chase and I happened to confer about this evening's meeting.)

But a more potent cause of my embarrassment tonight arises from the fact that I speak both as a scientist and as a college president. My subject is primarily scientific, yet I face a distinguished audience of educators. Now if I fail to speak in praise of science, I shall call down upon my head the wrath of many a scientific colleague. If I fail to give a balanced picture of the role of both scientific and non-scientific disciplines in the United States of tomorrow,—if, for example, I should appear to extol chemistry and condemn history,—I know full well the harsh verdict of this jury of educational peers!

Yet, like many of the troubles which from time to time arise to plague those of us who are concerned with administration, how foolish is the whole idea of a dichotomy between science and the liberal arts. How unfortunate it is that for generations there have been those on every campus who wished to place the natural sciences and the humanitiesat antithetical poles. In recent years the old quarrels have tended to disappear, but now the war threatens to stir up the smouldering embers of a feud that should have died at least fifty years ago. Of course, the present necessary emphasis on scientific and technical training in preparation for war distorts completely our educational picture. Yet I cannot believe that in the post-war world the proper balance will fail to be restored. The challenge which lies before us as educators is not to adjudicate an issue as to which of two branches of learning shall stand at the top of the academic hierarchy. Our challenge is to find the ways of combining the study of both man and nature for the maintenance of the ideals of freedom on this continent for the generations yet to come.

This war is primarily a battle for freedom. In this battle applied science is a priceless weapon. For the moment, the engineers and physicists can make through their professions a special and invaluable contribution to the national effort. After the war is over, we as a nation shall also need the services of the applied sciences—not for war but to improve the arts of peace. But in that task if the scientist serves alone he fails. Technological advances based on the discoveries of science will be as essential in the future as in the past to provide the basis for the continuing growth of our modern civilization. Through many advances gained by science we may hope that as never before man may be free—free from want. But science alone, untempered by other knowledge, can lead not to freedom but to slavery. This the totalitarian countries have demonstrated beyond doubt or question. Therefore, at the root of the relation between science and society in the post-war world must lie a proper educational concept of the interconnection of our new scientific knowledge and our older humanistic studies. Teachers of the social sciences and the humanities can hardly relate their teaching to the present if they are ignorant of one of the forces which has reshaped our world. Those skilled in the natural sciences and their application, on the other hand, must be so educated as to understand not only how inanimate materials can be shaped to human usage, but how men and women can work together for the maintenance of a nation that is truly free.

It is not only the false antithesis between science andhuman values which we must hope to overcome; we must Likewise have a clearer understanding of the past relations between economic and political forces and the technological changes of the last century. Not long ago a distinguished philosopher stated that "by and large, the economic changes of recent centuries have been parasitic upon the advances made in natural science." I humbly suggest that he chose the wrong biological metaphor. If we view the history of science in relation to the history of society, we are led to characterize the relation of industry to pure science by the word "symbiosis," which means living together, not by the word "parasitism," which implies a host and a devouring parasite. I trust I am not insulting either your intelligence or your scientific training by reminding you that the common lichens on the rocks afford an example of symbiosis. A colorless plant akin to a fungus lives together with a minute green unicellular organism, an alga. The green plant manufactures the food for both by photosynthesis from the air; the colorless plant lives on this ultimate source of energy but, thanks to its tough tissue, protects and stabilizes the manufacturing unit. Without both you do not have a lichen. Which is more important, the fungus or the unicellular green organism? A meaningless question, if you will. But if you were either an alga or a fungus, you would feel differently about it. And from the implications of this fact arises perhaps the major problem in successfully operating a human order.

As a pure observer you can regard the vegetable world, at least, without prejudice and emotion. But when we come to the animal world, particularly the world of human activities, how different is the story. Which has been more important, the industrialist or the scientist? If this question were suddenly put to businessmen or scientists, I would foe willing to wager almost all would answer promptly. Very few would reply that the question had no meaning. It is a crucial point in analyzing the affairs of men that only by an extreme effort of the will can we judge a human situation without prejudice or emotion. And this is as much a fact as those regularities of inanimate nature with which we deal with confidence in our laboratories.

Perhaps you will grant me that the connection between industry and science is one of symbiosis. Still you may feel that the relationship is one-sided. If you are academic-minded you may argue that while pure science has affected industry to a great degree, the influence of industry on science has been almost negligible.

Let me give one example to combat this view,—a view, I would remind you, that has had wide circulation. Let me cite one way in which the development of science has been conditioned by advances in technology. Take the history of that awe-inspiring branch of physics known as thermodynamics. It is just about a hundred years ago, namely, in the 1840's, that Joule performed his famous experiments on the mechanical equivalent of heat. He was not alone in these inquiries. Many others at the same time wrestled with similar problems. Joule's biographer has an explanation for this sudden interest in one branch of physics. "To the locomotive," he writes, "must be attributed the birth of that philosophical interest respecting heat and work which immediately followed its general introduction. The locomotive is obtrusive, it will be seen; by 1842 locomotives had obtruded themselves well over Europe, demanding attention even of philosophers who had previously studied nothing lower than the planets." In this interpretation Joule's biographer illustrates a fundamental point. Here we see the conditioning of the development of even theoretical physics by current technological inventions. Here is another essential element in the interrelation of science and society.

So much for the interconnections through the path of industry. Now look for a moment, if you will, at another equally important aspect of this complex web of inter-relationships. Consider the effect on science of the form of society in which the scientist lives. Consider the influence of the type of political and social organization of a nation in which science is developing. Scientists often fail to realize the debt that both science and industry owe to that movement which gave us our present degree of personal freedom. They fail to appreciate, perhaps, how much we owe to the release of human energies,—a release made possible by the growth of free institutions in every Western nation. Since the fifteenth century three major concurrent developments in human society have gone hand in hand. These have been the rise of modern industrialism, the development of science, and the evolution of free institutions. There are a multitude of striking interconnections between these three paths of development of the western race,—industry, science and liberalism. Without science neither a business civilization as we know it, nor the nineteenth century social philosophy of liberalism could have come to pass. And, conversely, without liberalism science could not have blossomed and endured.

Now, it is my thesis that in one respect the future will be like the past. If we are to have a free society on this continent we must continue to have advanced in the fundamental sciences, and these advances in turn can take place only if man is free. The symbiosis must continue if this nation is to prosper. It matters little whether we argue for personal liberty so that science and other activities of the creative human mind will prosper, or whether we argue that only through a nourishing of such activities can we have continued freedom in this land. Only let no man who admires science or extols new industrial techniques look with favor on any abridgment of human liberty unless he wishes to encourage forces which will eventually destroy those things he values most. Likewise, let no one primarily concerned with the freedom of individuals attempt to check scientific progress unless he wishes to eliminate a vital part of the chain on which depends his most cherished aspirations.

If I were addressing engineers and scientists tonight, I would urge that as they value the future of their own enthusiasms they must be concerned with the social and political problems of tomorrow. For unless these problems can be solved, liberty will go. If I were addressing tonight only social scientists concerned with planning the post-war world. I would urge that they provide for a flourishing condition of research and development of new inventions. For I would say, without the products of such research, their post-war world cannot meet the conditions of survival. In short, in the post-war world a free society will require technological and scientific progress; research and development in turn will require a free society. Such is the essence of my argument,—of the small segment which I have carved out of my larger title to discuss with you tonight.

It is not for me to attempt here to suggest the way in which our industrial society must be organized to insure the maximum distribution of the goods we can now so readily manufacture. Though unless we have a proper distribution, our freedom will not long endure. Nor is this the time and place to discuss the difficult problems of arranging for a peaceful international order. Though a successful solution of these problems is likewise a prerequisite for the maintenance of our liberty. We cannot maintain a free society in a world in which we must face the terrible and disrupting burdens of modern war once every generation.

I am going to confine myself tonight to a discussion of the conditions which I believe must be met if scientific researchand the developments based on research are to prosper in the United States in the post-war world.

In the first place, if scientific work is to prosper we must recognize the prime significance of the exceptional man. Research and development of new scientific ideas is original work—a work in which only a few have the talent to be real leaders. Ten second-rate men are not a substitute for one first-class man. You cannot make up for lack of quality by increasing the quantity of scientific work. Therefore, it is of the first importance to provide a flexible organization for the research work of the nation. Those in each generation who can "turn the unexpected corner" must be given an opportunity to use their special gifts. Andrew Carnegie, in founding the Institution which bears his name, stated that one of the two aims of the new research foundation should be "To discover the exceptional man in every department of study, whenever and wherever found . . . and enable him to make the work for which he seems specially designed, his life work." I suggest this statement might stand as the first item in the aims of a country which wished to encourage science and engineering.

The second proposition which I should inscribe on a charter of a nation's scientific effort would be the necessity for scientific competition. In the days of peace we heard occasional laments about the duplication of scientific effort. That there was in certain areas reason for such lamentation we may perhaps admit. But few who worry on this score realize that unless a number of able teams of scientists are working in each major field, progress is almost certain to be slow. No single scientist is wise enough—not even the exceptional man—to see all the implications in the new facts which are daily uncovered on the frontiers of science. No one group is able enough to explore adequately all the new paths that open. And scientists are human beings subject to the same motivations as the rest of men. The spirit of emulation is strong—the desire to be first in the race is there. If society is to benefit from the zest of the adventure, we must provide a proper environment for research. We must provide that many groups of able men will compete with each other,—compete to see who can contribute the most to the advancement of their chosen field.

The third proposition relates to the fact that in almost all fields of the natural sciences the day of the lone worker with scanty equipment has long since passed. In physics, in chemistry, in biology, in medicine, in all the branches of the applied sciences we must have groups of men well supplied with laboratories and equipment. The sums of money involved are large. In the 1950's they will be larger still. It follows from this fact that the exceptional men who are the leaders of the competing teams must have adequate resources.

How is all this to be arranged? In part the answer turns on social, political and economic factors which lie beyond the province of my remarks. It does seem clear, however, that certain prerequisites can be outlined,—assuming, that is, that we desire a maximum development of the natural sciences and a maximum application of their results to the production of those things which civilization can employ.

At the base is a truly universal system of education which enables the gifted boy or girl to complete the long process of scientific education without regard to the accidents of geography or birth. Then there must be in every field at least several equally strong and able groups of scientists or development engineers. For in no field should one organization be allowed to dominate the research or development activities, be that organization a government agency, a commercial company, or a research institute. The competing groups should be small enough to be flexible, but large enoughto be powerful. And their organization should be such that young men can operate effectively while they are still young. The dead hand of the past must not dominate the scene. Ideally, one would like to see each research group dissipated at least every twenty years and a new one under a new frame of reference take its place. For one of the urgent problems is to keep a continuing flow of well-trained, talented youth from our universities and technical schools into organizations where they can rapidly show their worth. Tradition and continuity are of the utmost importance in many affairs of man, but not in the field of research or the development of new industrial methods or machines. We all admire Russia today not only for her incredible courage and fighting spirit, but because of her success in applied science and technology. But I suggest that we must remember one of the key factors contributing to that success is that throughout Russia every part of her organization of science and technology is new and almost without exception manned by young men and women.

There is a great deal of talk about the proper organization of a research institute, or a research laboratory, or a development division of an industry. Undoubtedly there are types of organizations which are better than others. But give me the worst organization and let me build it afresh with young men and I would guarantee that it will soon outstrip a better organized group grown old in service and touched by the paralysis of age.

Competing groups of exceptional men, always flexible and mobile so that those outstanding in each generation can rise quickly to the top—that is the ideal arrangement for pure or applied science. One thing more is required. There must be an interchange of ideas and new discoveries. The interchange must be rapid enough to allow the work of one group to influence the other, but not under conditions which prevent the organizations from having the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their creative efforts. Here we come to one of the most difficult and complicated problems of modern science and industry. In pure science publication in learned journals provides the medium of exchange. For industry the patent system was established with the same end in view. The aim is to provide the inventor with a monopoly for a definite period of years in exchange for having "told the world" the facts about his invention. The pure scientist needs no such protection. There is little fear that his continued activities will be jeopardized if others rush into the field. (Though there is an unwritten code of ethics which frowns on exploiting another's scientific work.)

With applied science the case is otherwise. Large sums are required for the development of an idea or discovery. No one will risk the capital necessary for this development work (the equivalent of research in the applied field) unless he is assured that a commercial rival will not enjoy the financial benefits which come from this investment. Either secrecy or patents, protect those who put up money for applied research and the attendant developmental work. There is little doubt that of the two recourse to patents is far better, for then before long the information can be freely given to the scientific world by the publication of the patent.

If free private enterprise is to be abolished, then, of course, the whole situation changes and patents have no meaning. But I am assuming that it is our aim to continue a system of free enterprise. For this purpose undoubtedly certain changes in the patent laws may be desirable. It is not a simple matter to devise a system which will operate in a world bristling with new inventions and discoveries and where interconnections between patents are of the utmostimportance to the development of an art which may be in turn of great importance to the general welfare. Is not the whole problem of the American system of free enterprise to make it really free? But a discussion of this problem again would take me too far tonight. Let me repeat that if only one powerful group is operating in a field, whether this group be a government organization or a private laboratory, we do not have satisfactory conditions tor the development of science or technology.

And now in conclusion just a word about scientific planning. Some observers, deeply impressed by the mobilization of science for the war, have suggested that recognized leaders in the sciences must be willing to promote a research program for the national welfare, as determined by effective and realistic national planning. I wonder. The vision of a scientific general staff floats before my eyes. For the specific end of war such a scientific staff might try to function. Yet even in dealing with the comparatively simple technical objectives in time of war, few realize how great are the difficulties of planning. And the goal is never clear-cut in times of peace. Let the advocates of scientific planning transplant themselves backward in history, decade by decade, in the last one hundred years and see if they could have planned the future. It is the essence of research that one is dealing with an unknown world.

Of course, everyone recognizes that in certain types of scientific work—public health, for one example; the development of improvements in agricultural techniques for another—a concerted attack on a problem by several agencies may be most fruitful. No one would want to discourage scientific cooperation in any field. Meetings, conferences,—yes, even committees—play a useful part in the progress of our knowledge.

My discussions this evening have been primarily related to research in physics and chemistry and its application through engineering to the industrial arts of peace. When we turn to applied biology, medicine, agriculture, forestry, the conditions are somewhat different. The relations to industry and to patents, for example, take on new forms. In these fields there is more need both for governmental bureaus—as witness our agricultural experiment stations—and more opportunity for a cooperative mapping of programs by several groups. The basic conditions of healthy research are, however, to my mind consistent. Obvious explorations can be carried out by a mass attack executed under orders from a coordinating committee; but the really new discoveries, the really epochal inventions will rarely come that way.

To sum up, I recommend to all who look with favor on post-war planning, one master plan for research which has five features: (1) Provide an educational system which offers real equality of opportunity. (2) Find the exceptional men among those given this opportunity while they are still in training. (3) Give these men every advantage and facility in the way of machines and helping hands. (4) Be certain that there are many rival and independent groups competing for scientific and technical achievement, and that no group can long perpetuate itself. And finally, (5) Beware in times of peace of coordinating agencies with dictatorial powers,—of ideas of a peacetime scientific general staff.

I hope that in what I have said this evening I have made evident my convictions that underlying effective scientific progress are the ideals of a free society. I should like also to make it clear that I do not believe we can have a free society on this continent by trying to return to the past. Is not our hope, rather, to provide new adjustments in our social and economic framework to meet the conditions of a changed and mechanized world to the end that we may continue free? Is it too much to expect that we can maintain at one and the same time free enterprise and mobility within our social structure,—a condition under which no vested interest of governmental clique nor private group will survive for long? To the extent that we approach our ideals, I believe the symbiosis of science, industry and those who work for freedom will prosper and endure.

To forward such ideals is surely the duty and the privilege of our schools and colleges. I urge you then to set your eyes ahead—ahead to the time when our institutions may return to the teaching of the arts, the letters, and the sciences with a full understanding of their interrelations and their social implications for the days of peace to come.