The Irish Experience

Irish scientist and engineers tend either go abroad and become famous, like Mulvany(33), who designed and partially completed the Shannon navigation, on a generous scale, and then went into political exile to Germany (he was a Fenian), where he canalised the Ruhr, laying the basis fo German industrial supremacy based on the cheap movement of coal and steel.

Or thay stay at home and are marginalised, like Callan(34), whose invention of the induction coil had priority over Rhumkorff; this was only recognised in the 1950s.

There are many other models; for example Tyndall(10) and Bernal(7) became influential in science policy development at institutional and State level in Britain.

Fitzgerald(11) stayed at home but managed to achieve world fame.

Fitzgerald, though he made it to 'universally acclaimed' status outside Ireland, and did his work in Ireland, has not got at home the credit he deserved. There are no streets named after him, as there would be in Paris if he had lived there. He was caught up in the politicking that led to the foundation of the NUI, from the basis laid by the Royal University and the Catholic University as founded by Newman.

Fitzgerald put his energy into the setting up of technical colleges in Dublin. The Dublin Institute of Technology are now beginning to recognise him as among their founding fathers. He opposed strongly the Catholic University concept, from a liberal Unionist standpoint. If Parnellite Home Rule had won through, he would have been uncomfortably conscious of the Rome Rule threat.

The perception of Home Rule being Rome Rule (which aphorism, I have heard it said, had originated with Tyndall(17) some decades earlier) arose as a consequence of the banning by Cardinal Cullen of access by Catholics to the Queens Colleges. This historic disaster prevented the Irish scientific elite from being enriched with a Catholic component for generations. The first flush out of the NUI only emerged at about the time of the First World War.

There are many other examples; for example Tyndall and Bernal both became influential in science policy development at institutional and State level in Britain. Their influence in Ireland during their lifetimes was not great.

It can be argued that there was a sort of Faustian pact with the devil, an implicit deal between the Irish scientific elite and the British imperial system and its associated military-industrial complex. It should have been top of the agenda for the post-Treaty Irish government to replace this deal with a mission related to the survival and development of the emerging nation, making use of the talent available and turning it to good use.

The decline of the Irish economic situation, relative to comparable countries like Denmark, in the post-Treaty period, may be attributed to this failure to keep up the available scientific momentum and divert it from British military to national objectives.

Post 1921 however the Irish Free State was not an imperial country, and did not have military aspirations. The traditional role for Baconian scientific institutions was in support of the major European imperial States.

The Irish mini-Baconian system was an offshoot of the British Empire; it has had its occasional dallyings with national aspirations on the American colonial pattern; it has helped to set up all the Baconian institutional trappings of European nation-statehood: the National Museum, National Library, Botanic Gardens, Ordnance Survey, Geological Survey etc. All these were in existence before the State was established. The infrastructure existed for the continuation of a vibrant scientific culture, and its conscious development towards the national interest.

What happened? Nothing. There was no attempt made to replace the imperial objectives of the old system with new national objectives, to develop a post-Baconian system in which science was dedicated to supporting the development of the new nation, and to serve the people. The infrastructure was simply allowed to atrophy, under a scientifically illiterate Civil Service.

This neglect persisted right up to the 60s, when in the light of a somewhat scathing OECD Report(28) the State set up a National Science Council. This however was an appointed body, and science policy has since then developed on the basis of State centralism, with appointed boards etc.

The old Baconian institutions, with their basically healthy traditions of peer-review and democratic structures, have been allowed to persist with a somewhat nominal existence; they never assumed with the State in Ireland the status that the Royal Society has with the State in Britain.

There is however more recent evidence of the rediscovery of their relevance in the Irish context. Tyndall has even been associated with a 'summer school'(36), and Bernal's influence can be traced in the 1964 OECD Report under the influence of which the Irish State at last got around to seriously funding scientific research, with the setting up of the National Science Council in 1969(37).

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