HC Deb 10 June 1856 vol 142 cc1261-73

said, he would beg to move for a Select Committee to inquire what public measures could be adopted to advance science, and improve the position of its cultivators. London was remarkable as a great centre of science, and was distinguished by many scientific societies. It was with great pleasure he was able to say that Government had given considerable attention to the subject. In the department of geology it had instituted a school, and it had formed a department of science and art, which was placed under the control of the President of the Council. Science was thus brought into connection with the general education of the country. There were schools already established, of which the most important was the School of Mines, in Jermyn Street, which was especially intended to instruct persons who had the control of mining operations. Many persons, he understood, had derived considerable benefit from an attendance at that excellent institution. The British Government had imitated, in this respect, the conduct of other Governments; for instance, that of Saxony, in which country great progress had been made in consequence of the establishment of a school of that nature at Freiberg. He considered that we were much indebted to the gentlemen who had been placed at the head of those departments, and, in particular, he might allude to the late Sir Henry De la Beche, and to Sir Roderick Murchison. Amongst other institutions of this kind he might mention the Sailors' School at Poplar, in which instruction of a really practical kind was given to a number of industrious persons. Notwithstanding all this, however, there was in this country a great want of scientific instruction. He believed that at Magdalen College, Oxford, it had been recommended by the Oxford Commissioners, that a considerable portion of the college revenues should be set apart for the reward of science in scholarships and fellowships. He trusted that the same thing would be done at Cambridge. It was observed by Professor Liebig, when in this country, that England was remarkable for paying no attention to anything that had not a practical tendency, and that they neglected abstract science, while in Germany the contrary was the case. He considered that they had a most important duty to perform in endeavouring to promote science as much as possible. There was a scientific department which Government had established, in connection with the Board of Trade, under Captain Fitzroy, which was likely to prove exceedingly beneficial, and this was done in imitation of the American Government, who had a similar department under Captain Maury. It was to be wished that the various scientific societies of London should be collected in one spot, and Government had purchased Burlington House, which was to be devoted to that object. It was found that the British Museum, at the present time, was overflowing in various departments, and especially in natural history. They had recently placed Professor Owen over that department, and had given directions that he should give lectures. There was no lecture-room at the Museum, and he would have to give them in Jermyn Street; so that the specimens would have to be carried backwards and forwards. He believed that the British Museum was so overflowing that it would be to the public advantage that there should be a division of its stores, and he thought the natural history department might be removed to the west end of the town. He was exceedingly anxious that scientific men should have a better standing in the country. He did not think that their merits were appreciated by the Government or the public. He did not wish to depreciate others; he thought that, in case of war, Generals, and Admirals, and others who distinguished themselves ought to be honoured, but scientific men were not recognised in any way. He was very much in favour of some Order of Merit being established for persons in civil departments. With a view to the advancement of science, he would also strongly urge the expediency of some alteration in the system of fees for taking out patents. At present a payment of £25 was required from any person taking out a new invention, and many individuals were not in a position to command that sum, and it appeared that the Attorney and Solicitor Generals received from that source a very large proportion of their salaries. The salaries of those officers ought to be paid out of the Consolidated Fund, and patentees ought to be charged a lower sum. He thought it very important that a Committee should be appointed to inquire into these points, and especially on the subject of education; and without further detaining the House, he would move for the appointment of a Committee on the subject of science.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire what public measures can be adopted to advance Science, and improve the position of its cultivators.


said, he was as much inclined to give every possible encouragement to science as the hon. Gentleman who had brought forward this question, but he would ask the House to consider, before going to a division, what would be the result of assenting to it. According to an old and trite saying—Poeta nascitur non fit, and certainly the men who most distinguished themselves in any particular branch of scientific inquiry were not those upon whose education the largest sums had been expended. To be a scientific man there must be a talent for science. A large amount of property was devoted in this country to the encouragement of the science of mathematics. In the University of Cambridge especially, great mathematical attainments led to fellowships and to livings; but, although the University had produced Professor Airy, and two or three other individuals who were an honour to it from their scientific attainments, how few of its members had arrived at any eminence in mathematics, notwithstanding the advantages they would derive from proficiency in that science. If men of eminence in mathematics could be produced by bestowing wealth upon those who studied mathematics, the members of the University of Cambridge ought to be the first mathematicians of the world. But was that the case? No. The majority of them had very little mathematical knowledge, and the science of mathematics was cultivated to a much greater extent in France than in this country. The conclusion he drew from these facts was, that science was not advanced by having a large amount of property devoted to its encouragement. The two greatest men of science whom this country had lately produced were neither of them members of the University. Neither Herschel, the discoverer of the Georgium Sidus, nor Brunel, the constructor of the Thames tunnel, belonged to the University of Cambridge, or to any great public seminary. They both attained eminence by their individual genius alone. Look at the two discoveries that had been lately made, and which had raised this nation to the highest position among the nations of the world—he meant the application of steam to railways, and the application of electricity to communication. To whom were those discoveries owing? To men of talent, to civil engineers, several of whom were Members of that House, but none of whom had been educated at public seminaries; but whose ability and genius had placed them in the distinguished station in which they now were. An application of the public funds for the purpose of the cultivation of science appeared to him to be perfectly useless. Give the public a general education, and those persons of genius who especially cultivated it rose at once to notoriety. Having been a member for twenty-five years of the Royal Society, he certainly did not think that, as a public body, it did much good either in promoting men of literature or of science. It appeared to him that the society consisted rather of men who had already become eminent in science or other attainments, and who had since become its members, than of men whose knowledge had been enlarged or whose discoveries in science had been stimulated by their becoming members of that society. There was nothing definite in the Motion, and it would require a great deal of discussion in Committee. There would be no harm in that, to be sure, but still, he objected to a proposed Vote to take money out of the public purse for the promotion of science.


Sir, in the object of the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, which is to advance science and to improve the cultivation of it in this country, I feel certain that there is no Member of this House who does not cordially sympathise. But that is not precisely the form in which it presents itself to our acceptance. The hon. Gentleman does not propose any specific measure for that object, but he asks us to assent to a Motion for a Select Committee to inquire what public measures can be adopted to advance science and to improve the position of its cultivators. Now, Sir, without explaining what is the nature of the measure he would recommend for the promotion of that object, he asks us to appoint a Committee, not to consider a plan which he is already prepared to submit, but to investigate generally the means that might be adopted to accomplish the object he has in view. In the course of his speech the hon. Gentleman went through a long list of institutions which have been established for the promotion of art and science. He, at the same time, showed that many of them were for the promotion of certain scientific purposes and for the facility of various national scientific objects. The hon. Gentleman might most truly have added that large sums of the public money had at different times been expended on scientific voyages and travels, and that in that manner the pursuits of science had been largely assisted. But the question really resolves itself into this—whether it would be possible for the Government, by a judicious application of the public money, to give assistance to the cultivation of science. It is true that science does not in general afford any remuneration to those who cultivate it. It is not, like many branches of literature and of art, a remunerative pursuit. But those who cultivate it do so for the love they have for science, and not for the sake of any pecuniary gain, as making that their chief and direct object. But I am not aware that it is possible by any application of the public money to increase the resources of science beyond what are already afforded by the patronage of the Royal Society and the numerous other public institutions that exist—such as the collections in all the various departments of zoology, mineralogy, and natural history, which are under the superintendence of Professor Owen, whose original researches and application in those departments, together with his development of the science of comparative anatomy, are known throughout the whole civilized world; the Botanic Gardens at Kew, where there is a collection of the rarest plants for the study of those who feel an interest in the science of botany; in short, I am not aware that there is any want of the materials of science in any department, whether as regards the collections of specimens of scientific objects, or of works of scientific pursuits. If it can be shown that there are other things required for promoting the cultivation of science, then, as I understand the object of the hon. Member is not merely the diffusion of a knowledge of science, but the cultivation and improvement of it, I doubt, Sir, very much whether any practical benefit would arise from the appointment of a Committee without some more definite subject of inquiry than that which my hon. Friend proposes for its investigation. If he would come forward and say, "Here is a certain plan or certain suggestions for the advancement of science and the improvement of the position of its cultivators, which I submit to the House and wish to be made the subject of examination before a Select Committee"—that would be matter, no doubt, which might reasonably demand our assent; but when he merely proposes that a Committee should be appointed to consider whether something cannot be found for the promotion of an object which every one admits to be laudable and useful, I confess I entertain great doubts whether any advantage would arise from acceding to his Motion. I confess I rather agree in the speech of the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Mackinnon) who spoke second in the debate, and which speech appeared to be delivered for the purpose of showing the impropriety of the Motion. Under these circumstances, I trust that my hon. Friend (Mr. Heywood) will not think it necessary to press this Motion to a division, until he is able to propose something definite to the House, but that he will consider his object sufficiently attained by the discussion that has taken place.


said, he wished the House should thoroughly understand the object of the Motion. It originated with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, who, when they met at Glasgow, expressed a strong desire that the question should be considered, and they had twice referred the subject to a Committee in the very terms of the Motion now before the House. On the part of the British Association he distinctly protested against the impression that money was the thing wanted; what was wanted was some means of advancing science. On this subject Professor Liebig observes, in a letter to Professor Faraday, dated February, 1845, and cited in Lyell's Travels in North AmericaWhat struck me most in England was the perception that only those works that have a practical tendency awake attention and command respect; while the purely scientific, which possess far greater merit, are almost unknown. And yet the latter are the proper and true source from which the others flow. Practice alone can never lead to the discovery of a truth or a principle. In Germany it is quite the contrary. Here, in the eyes of scientific men, no value, or at least but a trifling one, is placed on the practical results. The enrichment of science is alone considered worthy of attention. I do not mean to say that this is better, for both nations the golden medium would certainly be a real good fortune. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer asked that some distinct plan should be suggested. Well, in the pamphlet which he held in his hand, which was the Report of the Parliamentary Committee of the British Association, the plan was distinctly shown. It required that a Board should be constituted, which Board should consist of all the leading men of science in this country, and before whom all plans should be brought that might be proposed for its advancement. This Report also stated that the Royal Society might not be in itself sufficient to answer the questions that constantly arose in connection with science, though it was well known that hitherto the Royal Society had met all the matters submitted to them to the satisfaction of the Government and the public; but still a larger body in the nature of a Council of Science was required to meet the increasing wants of science, and the main object of this Motion was to promote the establishment of such a body. Questions were continually occurring where such a body would be eminently useful. It could be established without any unreasonable expense; probably it would only require the mere expenses attached to keeping up the office of a paid secretary; and when so established, it should be the quarter to which every scientific question should be addressed, and to which the Government should have access at all moments. Mr. Tite, in conclusion, deprecated the idea that men of science were anxious for merely decorative distinctions. On this subject he entirely agreed with Dr. Faraday, who, after speaking of the distinctions, both national and foreign, which may even now be earned, writes— I cannot say that I have not valued such distinctions; on the contrary, I esteem them very highly, but I do not think I have ever worked for or sought after them.


said, as it appeared to him that the House was not inclined to enter fully into the subject at present, his observations should be very brief. He believed that there was a great deal of force in the objection of the right hon. Baronet the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the hon. Member who introduced this subject had no specific measure to propose. As far as his (Lord Stanley's) experience went, he did not believe that an inquiry could be well conducted by a Committee, unless there was some distinct proposition submitted for approval or rejection. If the House appointed a Committee merely on the principle of asking all the scientific men who could be collected together to give generally their opinions as to what was best to be done for science, a risk would be run of having a very vague and indefinite inquiry. There was also another objection to the appointment of a Committee now. The middle of June was at hand, and the Session was far advanced, but an inquiry, of the nature proposed by the hon. Member for North Lancashire, to be productive of any useful result, ought to be conducted, not in haste, but in a manner so that the whole country might have ample notice of it. Such being the case, he rather hoped that the hon. Member would not press his Motion at present, but take the opportunity of the coming recess, which doubtless was not far distant, to consult with the most eminent scientific men as to the exact nature of the measures which they might think desirable to be adopted, and submit them in a substantive Motion to the House. That was all he should have said but for one or two remarks which had been thrown out in the course of the debate, and which appeared to him to rest on misconception. He quite allowed that, in the case of the University of Cambridge, there could not be a better mathematical education, up to a certain point, than was there given. He agreed also in the remark, that in point of the practical application of science to mechanics and such matters this country equalled, and probably exceeded, other nations. But between these two points there lay a wide intermediate space, which was not touched. The mathematics of the University as taught were, generally speaking, pure science, and not applied science. Then it was said that a mathematical genius or an inventive genius could not be made by any amount of patronage. That certainly was true; but he thought that there was some confusion as to the distinction between original invention and the diffusion and application of knowledge already existing. As regarded original invention, he allowed that they could not hope by the application of Government funds very greatly to increase the amount, though even in that respect there was probably a number of men qualified for scientific pursuits who were prevented from following them, principally in consequence of the want of means for obtaining that early education which was necessary. But invention was one thing, and the diffusion and application of knowledge already attained another.


I am sure, Sir, the House will believe that any Government must be anxious to promote the diffusion and advancement of science, because that is an object so eminently connected with the best interests of a country—its intellectual progress, its material prosperity, and its commercial advancement—that no man who had found his way to high office in the State could be insensible to the advantages derived from the furtherance of such an object. The difficulty, however, lies in determining how that advancement of science is to be promoted, and I confess I do not think that the appointment of such a Committee as is now proposed by my hon. Friend (Mr. Heywood), particularly, as was suggested by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Stanley), at this late period of the Session, would be likely to lead to any such result. Two modes of accomplishing the desired end have been indicated in the course of this discussion. One, which was immediately disclaimed, is by a grant of money from the Government. It has been said that money is not wanted. But money is wanted in a certain way; that is to say, there are men of science zealously pursuing their investigations, but who have not the means of providing instruments or books from their own funds, and of properly following these researches. To men of that sort there is no doubt that any aid afforded through the Royal Society or other channels must prove of great service, and that the interests of science are thereby advanced. Then it has been suggested that a Board of scientific men should be established, to which questions connected with doubtful points of science might be referred. Now, I confess, Sir, that I have great doubts in my own mind of the advantage of corpo- rate bodies with reference to intellectual improvements. If there is one department of intellect in which a corporate body might perhaps be more expedient than another, it would be in that of painting, because such a body might collect models, encourage the study of those models, provide lectures, and afford great advantage to those who practise the art. At the same time it is well known that there exists a diversity of opinion even upon that point, and I have great doubts whether the establishment of a Board of scientific persons would be productive of any great advantage in the promotion of science. A remark made by Professor Liebig has been quoted, to the effect that there is a great difference between England and Germany in this respect—namely, that while here we look to the practical application of science, in Germany they look more to the theoretical advancement of the principles of science. Well, but it seems to me, Sir, that this is a contrast more striking in words than in things, because, how are you to carry forward to any great extent, and to any successful results, the practical application of science if yon do not make advances in the theory upon which that practice is to be founded? Practice without theory is only, in other words, theory without the grounds upon which theory should be founded; and, therefore, I think Professor Liebig's observations have not the force which my hon. Friends behind me would attribute to them. We are certainly an eminently practical nation, and we study the theory of science not with a view simply to abstract reasoning, but with a view to its application to the purposes of life and to the material interests of the country. I can only say that the Government will be at all times most thankful to any persons who can suggest to them anything within the competence of Government to propose or within the scope of Parliament to entertain, which can tend really to the advancement of science; but I think, as my hon. Friend has drawn the attention of Parliament to the subject by his speech, and has elicited the opinions which have been expressed in the course of this debate, he will, perhaps, think he has done enough, at all events in the present Session, and that it would not be advisable to press his Motion to a division, the result of which would be to involve the appearance of a difference of opinion where there really exists no difference at all.


in reply, said, he did not wish to divide the House upon the subject. He would have brought the question earlier before the House if an opportunity had offered itself. With regard, however, to the fees paid for obtaining patents, he must point out that the present system was a gross injustice to those individuals who followed scientific pursuits. That was a great impediment in the way of science. The great proportion of the fees paid went into the pockets of the Attorney and Solicitor Generals, and that might in some degree be the reason of the repeated attempts that had been made to count out the House that evening. He therefore hoped the salaries of those officers of the Crown would be put upon a better footing. He would now beg leave to withdraw his Motion, and would endeavour to bring it forward at an earlier period in the next Session.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.