Government funding for ‘pure’ research: an extremely brief and gappy history

Once upon a time, what we now call scientific research was undertaken by a) those with sufficient time and personal wealth b) those who convinced private patrons that their work was interesting/useful/showy enough to be supported and c) those who could make money through patents or the sale of related goods or labour. Things haven’t, of course, changed all that much, except that, since the late 19th century, government and business have taken over private interest as the major sponsors of scientific research.

Another fundamental shift that took place alongside this development was the rise and rise of the argument that ‘basic’ or ‘pure’ research should be supported by government because it would, in the long term, provide as-yet-unknown benefits to mankind or, at least, the nation. Then, as now, this argument was made by pointing to examples of research done that led to serendipitous discoveries or new applications. Today’s favourite example seems to be the internet, replacing yesterday’s favourite example, non-stick frying pans. In 1830 Charles Babbage pointed to some slightly less familiar examples of the tardy application of fundamental principles such as Stevinius’s hydrostatic paradox or Joseph Black’s discovery of latent heat.

His point was that the applications could make money for their inventors, but the “abstract truths” uncovered by these men of “powerful genius” did not. Because the individuals capable of furnishing “abstract principles” were less common than those capable of applying them, it was essential that they were supported: “unless the government directly interfere, the contriver of a thaumatrope may derive profit from his ingenuity, whilst he who unravels the laws of light and vision, on which multitudes of phenomena depend, shall descend unrewarded to the tomb” [Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), p. 19].

In the 1830s Babbage’s call for government funding for “pure” science, unconnected to teaching positions or with an eye on applications, was something of a voice in the wilderness. In an age of small government and voluntarism (sound familiar?) most simply did not see support of speculative science as the business of the state. Most suspected that, if money were made available, it would go, not to the most deserving, but those in political favour. Babbage was, in this view, being strangely naive in, on the one hand, attacking the corruption of Royal Society patronage (his chief target) but, on the other, claiming that men of science would not be sacrificing independence by taking money from government.

However, the nature of government and the shape of society underwent such dramatic change over the next half century that the call for government funding of pure science became a commonplace, certainly among the Scientific Naturalists such as John Tyndall. But, despite the fact that government was now involved in support of science and people’s lives in a way that would have been inconceivable at the beginning of the century, “the notion of ‘abstract’ scientific inquiry as a career, supported by the State, was no more than a vision” before the 20th century. This quote is from Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life [p. 43], which is fascinating for charting how this change took place. Many remained firmly opposed: George Airy, Astronomer Royal from 1835-1881, always maintained that any work for which the public paid should be demonstrably utilitarian.

Airy was, however, speaking for an earlier generation, and by the first decades of the 20th century the idea that funding should be available for what is variously called speculative, disinterested, fundamental, basic or pure research (on some of these terms see Sabine Clarke’s recent article in Isis)  became uncontroversial, although debates about the extent to which government rather than business or other interests should be the provider of those funds have continued. Likewise, there is no real agreement over the process by which pure science research becomes usable (two interesting pieces on this are David Egerton’s ‘The “linear model” did not exist’  and this article ‘In defence of the linear model’) In addition, there has been plenty of discussion over whether science can or should be undertaken without consideration of the potential applications or ends.

In these days when the ‘Impact’ of research must be itemised, and economic cases have to be made, it is unlikely that anyone can get away without thinking of ends. However, there are moral as well as pragmatic reasons to give genuine consideration to as many potential uses of ‘pure’ research as possible. There are some who have claimed that freedom from considering future applications is necessary for good science, and others who absolve themselves, or science more generally, from responsibility for negative outcomes. An interesting critique of this rhetoric is Milton Leitenberg, “The Classical Scientific Ethic and Strategic-Weapons Development” (Impact of Science on Society 21 (1971), 123-36, sadly not available online), which essentially blames the classic scientific ethic of disinterestedness for the development of weapons research.  On which note I must quote Tom Lehrer, who, as so often, encapsulates a point with a neat rhyme: ‘“Once the rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down./ That’s not my department” says Werner von Braun’…

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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18 Responses to Government funding for ‘pure’ research: an extremely brief and gappy history

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  2. This is really interesting! I knew Babbage had been involved in trying to reform the Royal Society, I hadn’t realised that he was also lobbying for government funding of science.

    Pre-19th century I get the impression that universities were much more about teaching and were largely privately funded i.e. by fees from students. Is that correct?

    Also I suppose that in this earlier period there would be no equivalent of a large “impersonal” corporate R&D lab (such a Bell Labs in the US), industrial research would have happened at a smaller scale and be much more and individual effort.

  3. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Babbage’s main target was certainly the Royal Society, and his views on government funding were not very well-thought-through. He was, of course, a recipient of government grants for his calculating engines, so not entirely disinterested either, but his rhetoric is clear enough. Brewster probably went further than Babbage on the topic, and he was particularly critical of the Scottish university system which, well into the 19th century, had professors making all their money through student fees (Brewster failed to get a professorship, partly because he was not a good lecturer, but afterwards claimed he didn’t really want one anyway because it would leave no time for research). The English system was different – famously Babbage never lecture red as Lucasian Professor.

    And no, large corporate R&D to speak of, although something like it beginning to develop in areas like the dye industry. Scientists otherwise more likely to act as consultants than be employed directly by either government or industry.

  4. Will Thomas says:

    A little further context to note that Babbage and Brewster weren’t thinking ex nihilo. The dissolution of the Admiralty’s Board of Longitude in 1828 was an influence on their dour assessment of things; and, of course, the relationship between the work of the Academie des Sciences, institutions like the Ecole Polytechnique, and the French state was a longstanding model. The Board and the French system weren’t the NSF exactly, but, then, the difference engine wasn’t exactly the law of gravitation.

    While there is no doubt that support for research expanded and deepened as time went on, state support in the 19th and earlier centuries did extend beyond the most practical activities. That it did not extend to the most abstract territories belies the fact that only a small percentage of deep-thinking scientific figures limited themselves to purely abstract activities, then or since.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I didn’t touch on the Board of Longitude, partly because you’ll probably hear a lot about it from me over the next few years, as I am one of the team on this project. The Board was a subject of attack from Babbage and others before its abolition, largely because it was controlled by Joseph Banks and the Royal Society coterie surrounding him. It was essentially replaced by three scientific advisors to the Admiralty, also picked by Banks and the Royal Society Council, to Babbage’s deep anger.

      The Board was a source of government patronage, but for a clearly defined end and discrete projects. Only one person really managed to make a living from it – John Harrison.

      The French case is, of course, very different, and an example to which Babbage and others liked to point.

      • Will Thomas says:

        I thought it was peculiar we didn’t get a Board of Longitude mention from the National Maritime Museum. I very much look forward to future elaboration along these lines!

      • Thony C. says:

        Tobias Mayer’s widow did quite well out of The Board!

      • Thony C. says:

        Having written my last comment it occurred to me that your Board of Logitude research project will, of course, have to research Tobias Mayer, which means that you can come to Nürnberg to conduct said research and I can give you my history of astronomy tour of one of the most impressive North European Renaissance towns 😉

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        Sounds good! Sadly my German is non-existent, so may have to bring a research assistant too.

  5. You should take a look at the National Portrait Gallery’s current display of Royal Society folk from the 1660s. They were busy trying to get government (ie Royal) funding from Day 1 but, unlike the Académie française, failed.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I do not mean to deny that philosophers, artisans and men of science received patronage from rulers and governments before the 19th century. But, as with the Board of Longitude (see above) it was mostly about defined utilitarian schemes and not about speculative research and making a career. These really were relatively late developments.

  6. Thony C. says:

    Very nice post Becky, you and Will are setting a standard for Mr Whewell’s Aethereal Phantasm that other contributors will find difficult to equal. You are of course quite right to point out in your comment that Babbage had a vested interest in governmental research funding because of his calculating engines which of course ties in with Will’s comment on the dissolution of the Admiralty’s Board of Longitude, as Babbages first engine , his Difference Engine, was conceived to calculate and print logarithm and trigonometry tables for navigation purposes.

    100 bonus point for yourself (or Babbage) for attributing the hydrostatic paradox to Simon Stevin and not, as is usual done, to Blaise Pascal.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Thank you for your kind comments! And yes, the calculating engine is absolutely all tied in with navigation – and with contemporary criticisms of the Board of Longitude, the Royal Observatory and the Nautical Almanac. It seems an oddity that the Board of Longitude did not get involved with the calculating engine, as the grant came, I think, via Treasury. I have read one biography of Babbage that suggests things might have been different if it had been the Admiralty that had taken on the project…..

      Babbage gets the bonus points, of course, not me!

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