Skip to content

Gerhard Herzberg and the idea of “Science and Society”

September 12, 2011

In a 1973  lecture at the University of Saskatchewan for former history of science professor Stewart Baterfield, Gerhard Herzberg – Canada’s third Nobel Prize winner (in Chemistry)-  discussed some ideas surrounding how the federal government ought to go about developing a centralized science policy. Some of the words in this lecture beckon our attention when we think of contemporary issues surrounding science. When we recall. for example, how Stephane Dion and the Liberal Party of Canada ran on the idea of the Green Shift in 2008 and lost to the Harper Conservatives over the idea that the former party’s proposals to address climate change “ screw the economy” it merits our attention to look at the relationship between state funds, the demands of the scientific community, and the possibility of bettering society.
Herzberg pointed out  “the cultural aspect of science” during the post-war period and suggested that the period was one that saw huge government expenditures in science. As a result, he acknowledged that taxpayers weren’t always keen on what they got out of their money. “The cost of scientific research has increased tremendously in the last fifty years and the only way to raise the funds required is from the government, that is, from the taxpayer,” he noted. “Naturally the attitude of the taxpayer is whoever pays the piper calls the tune.”
When we see in our own times government and corporate rebranding of tar sands oil “Ethical Oil” or attacks on the arts community by Sun Media talking head Krista Erickson – some of Herzberg’s sentiments sound pretty familiar when it comes to the worst of taxpayer sensitivities to arts and sciences. Herzberg pointed out, for example, that with the field of science making huge advances in a large number of fields after the war, it became a question for government as to how and where to limit spending.  He suggested that government’s main role was to “find and support good scientists” on an individual basis and to allow for such figures the freedom to see where their experiments would lead them. I’m sure this idea would be torn apart savagely by the Sun Media “news team”.
Herzberg argued, however that it was only through such a process that the ultimate goals of  lifting the human spirit and better understanding nature could ever be achieved.

At the same time, however, Herzberg admitted to the great risks of governments investing in individual scientists and called it “a gamble.” He suggested that this was because the results discovered by a scientist might never return what the governing party or the taxpayer had initially intended. In Herzberg’s words, at least with government control over a scientific project,a thick annual report that can be presented to the taxpayer.”

Other minds from the period made an equally compelling case, however. One of them that I have come across was by Leslie Howlett, the former head of the applied physics division at the National Research Council. In a May 1966 issue of Chemistry in Canada, the author pointed out that taxpayers had every right to choose where their money was going in terms of science research. The only way to properly conduct scientific research, then, was to have a centralized science policy. Further, Howlett suggested that a small country such as Canada had to expect limitations. While “the scientist has the right to all possible freedom in his creative effort,” he added that “society too has very definitely the right, and even the responsibility, to enquire, before giving financial support, as to the purpose and aim of research and its likely profit to society as against the same money spent in other ways.”

The points that both thinkers raised ought to fascinate the follower of Canadian politics and those interested in bettering the environment, the country’s society, and the economy as a whole. On one hand we must be vigilant not to spend too much on huge projects that may go array, but on the other hand we must support our scientists in their efforts to expand research and hopefully attain the ultimate benefits for society’s progression. It is finding the necessary balance and to what extent the government of the day is trying to achieve this point, which has triggered my interest in starting a new blog.
I hope in the following weeks to gather ideas from progressive public figures on how the government can meet these challenges and where we might do better. Hopefully a context can be built through my work which will allow readers to see the need for Canada to uphold its heritage as an Innovation Nation.

Pictured above is a 1971 promotional brochure from the John Arnold Canada Science and Technology Museum Collection. Gerhard Herzberg became a prominent member in the CSTM’s Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame for his work in molecular spectroscopy.

Herzberg’s speech can be found in “Science and Society” (Regina: University of Saskatchewan, 1973).

The debate surrounding the science policy views of Howlett and Herzberg can be found in the A.A. Dunn Fonds, Volume 1, Museum of Science and Technology, 1965-1966, File 2, “Chemistry in Canada” (May 1966).

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: