Opening of the New Science Building: Thomson
Article reproduced from The Leys Fortnightly, Vol. LII, No. 909, Dec. 15, 1927.
SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY.We have to thank the Editor of the Daily Telegraph for his courtesy in allowing us to reprint this article.
Exceptional importance attaches to the judgments passed by the Master of Trinity, Cambridge, upon the present state of Science in the educational and industrial systems of this country. For Professor Sir J. J. Thomson is not only the leading physicist of the age, with a world-wide reputation; he is also in close touch with the finished products of the secondary schools, viz., the pupils whom they send up to the Universities. We are so used to hearing of the deplorable shortcomings of the British – and more especially the English – public school and secondary school, and most of all of their dismal backwardness in the matter of Science, that it comes almost as a shock to and this most distinguished scientist declaring at the opening of the new of Science Laboratories of The Leys School that he has "now nothing whatever to complain of concerning the position of Science in the vast majority of English schools. There is scarcely a school in which every boy is not taught some Science, and in which boys with special aptitude have not an opportunity of getting thorough and adequate training." And then he added: "I think that secondary education in England is in a highly satisfactory state." After the unnumbered castigations administered to those responsible for what is taught in our secondary schools, and particularly for the manner in which Science is taught, such an encomium will be grateful indeed to those who have had to bear the smart, which, in recent years at any rate, has been largely undeserved. Science to-day does not hold an inferior position in the curriculum of the secondary schools. In the great majority of them – counting numbers only – it holds the foremost place. In the leading public schools, where the old classical tradition is still strong, its place may be second, but even there the badge of inferiority has long been cast aside, and it is an open secret that as "a soft option" Science has lost whatever attraction once attached to it, when the pleasing theory was in vogue that every boy could be made to take an interest in his studies if he were released from bondage to the dry-as-dust Latin grammar and were let loose in a laboratory to learn the nature and causes of things. There is hardly a school now where a boy can escape at least a formal introduction to one or two Sciences, though he may drop such casual acquaintanceship a few terms later if he succumbs to the lure of the "more humane letters."
Nor is Science taught in the schools in a perfunctory manner. On that point also the Master was most emphatic. He observed that next month about a thousand boys will be competing at Cambridge – and a similar number at Oxford – for scholarships at the various colleges, all of whom will show "quite creditable acquaintance with their subjects, or they would not enter the lists, while from 100 to 150 at each University will attain a standard which may not be paralleled in any other country."
That is the most flattering public testimonial which the secondary schools have received for a long time, and it is conclusive as to the quality of the work done by the secondary school teachers. It is still open for anyone to say that there are not enough secondary schools, though the net even now is cast very wide to catch the promising boy or girl who cannot go on to a secondary school without assistance. The number of big fish left in at the end depends more on the size of the mesh than on the size of the net. But while the Master spoke thus highly of the state of Science in the educational system of to-day he had a less flattering tale to report of the relationship of Science to industry. As one who for long had been concerned with a Government Department which endeavours to promote the union of Science and industry, he was of opinion that the attitude of many of the leaders of industry was "not altogether satisfactory." This is an old story. The schools, in obedience to the pressure of public opinion, have "gone in for Science"; the older Universities are becoming more and more scientific day by day: and the new Universities are nothing at all if they are not scientific. Hundreds of fully-qualified scientists take their degrees, and having taken them go into the market-place to be hired. This is where the educational ladder becomes most obviously defective. There are not enough posts on offer to go round, and it is notorious that a large majority of the openings which are available carry with them remuneration on a scale just as little commensurate with the cost of the young scientist's previous education as that of a curate.
There was a time when industrialists replied to the criticisms of those who urged them to a more generous recognition of Science by saying that there was no available supply of men with the requisite training. That is not true to-day. The supply is over-abundant compared with the demand. Yet, as the Master of Trinity observes, "We cannot run the industries of to-day on the Science of yesterday. If industry is to flourish, there must be close consultation between Science and industry."
Some of the most prosperous industries of to-day have been founded on that close consultation. Without the scientist the dye industry would have remained in the primitive state of a century ago, and the electrical and art-silk industries would never have been born. If there is a British industry which at the moment conspicuously demands that "close consultation" as the first essential of its recovery from the slough of depression into which it has sunk, it is the coal industry–given, of course, the bold internal reorganisation which is no less palpably required.
Science in these days is on the side of the big industries and of the big amalgamations, if only for the reason that many a small business cannot afford to carry exclusively the salary of a scientist on the staff. That helps to explain why the scientific movement in industry has been retarded in a country which till lately was mainly composed of prosperous individual businesses which continued to run along smoothly – if at a decreasing rate of progress – in the old groove. Only those with real initiative and energy broke out of the easy rut of their own volition so long as the returns were reasonably good. Amalgamation, however, is the order of the day, and with any amalgamation worth its name Science must take a high place in the work of direction, and the cost of the scientists and their laboratories rank among the overhead charges which are reckoned vital and essential to the prosperity of the undertaking. That, broadly speaking, is the new outlook in industry. It is also the ultimate justification of Science as a practical and utilitarian subject in the curriculum of the secondary schools.
Republished by A.P.Harmsworth, Head of Physics, December 2005