Scientific Federation

Nature (January 1887)

[289] In an article on "Science and the Jubilee" a week or two ago, we referred to the possibility that the Royal Society might feel it desirable to consider whether it was feasible to signalise the present year of Jubilee by any new departure. It so happens that quite independently of the proposed celebration a very appropriate extension of the Society's usefulness to our colonies has been suggested and has already been accepted by one of the Australian colonies. This suggestion, and the action which the Royal Society has already taken upon the question submitted to it, really raises the whole question of the desirability of a scientific confederation of all English-speaking peoples.

The suggestion to which we refer was made in Prof. Huxley's Anniversary Address to the Royal Society little over a year ago, from which we make the following extract:–

"Since this Society was founded, English-speaking communities have been planted, and are increasing and multiplying, in all quarters of the globe,–to use a naturalist's phrase, their geographical distribution is 'worldwide.' Wherever these communities have had time to develop, the instinct which led our forefathers to come together for the promotion of natural knowledge has worked in them and produced most notable results. The quantity and quality of the scientific work now being done in the United States moves us all to hearty admiration; the Dominion of Canada, and our colonies in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, show that they do not mean to be left behind in the race; and the scientific activity of our countrymen in India needs no comment.

"Whatever may be the practicability of political federation for more or fewer of the rapidly-growing English-speaking peoples of the globe, some sort of scientific federation should surely be possible. Nothing is baser than scientific Chauvinism, but still blood is thicker than water; and I have often ventured to dream that the Royal Society might associate itself in some special way with all English-speaking men of science, that it might recognise their work in other ways than by the rare opportunities at present offered by election to our foreign Fellowship, or by the award of those medals which are open to everybody; and without imposing upon them the responsibilities of the ordinary Fellowship, while they must needs be deprived of a large part of its privileges. How far this aspiration of mine may be reciprocated by our scientific brethren in the United States and in our

colonies I do not know. I make it public, on my own responsibility, for your and their consideration."

It would appear that the matter was at once considered the Council of the Royal Society, because the next year (1886) Prof. Stokes, the present President, referred to the subject in the following words:–

–In his Presidential Address last year, Prof. Huxley suggested the idea, I may say expressed the hope, that Royal Society might associate itself in some special way with all English-speaking men of science; that it might recognise their work in other ways than those afforded by the rare opportunities of election to our foreign membership, or the award of those medals which are open to persons of all nationalities alike. This suggestion has been taken up by one of our colonies. We have received a letter from the Royal Society of Victoria, referring to this passage in the address, and expressing a hope that, in some way, means might be found for establishing some kind of connection between our own oldest scientific Society and those of the colonies. The Council have appointed a Committee to take this letter into consideration, and try if they could devise some suitable plan for carrying out the object sought. The Committee endeavoured at first to frame a scheme which should not be confined to the colonies and dependencies of the British Empire, but should embrace all English-speaking communities. But, closely connected as we are with the United States by blood and language, they are of course, politically, a foreign nation, and this fact threw difficulties in the way of framing at once a more extended scheme, so that the Committee confined themselves to the colonies and dependencies of our own country, leaving the wider object for some future endeavour, should the country concerned seem to desire it. The scheme suggested was laid before the members of the present Council, but there was not an adequate opportunity of discussing it, and it will of course come before the next Council. Should they approve of some such measures as those recommended by the Committee, they will doubtless assure themselves, in some way or other, that those measures are in accordance with the wishes of the Fellows at large before they are incorporated into the statutes."

What the Council of the Society has already done in the matter is of course unknown to us, as it has not yet been made public; but it is unnecessary to point out the extreme fitness of some such action as this being taken this year, if it is to be taken at all.

Undoubtedly the scheme foreshadowed by Prof. Huxley, if carried out in a proper way, may lead to a great many advantages. It is not unimportant that all the scientific organisations of Greater Britain should be welded into a homogeneous whole, so that, if at any time a common action should be necessary on any subject, the work could be done promptly and with the least strain. If any scientific organisation in a colony were affiliated with the Royal Society at home, there can be no doubt that it would be in a stronger position; that its standard of scientific work would be raised; that other kindred institutions would be more likely to be formed, on which a similar status might at some future time be conferred also. Such an organisation, too, would have a cachet conferred upon it, so that colonists would consider it a greater honour to belong to it, and would have a greater inducement to work for it, and to aid in all its efforts.

We can imagine some possible criticisms of Prof. Huxley's suggestions. For instance, it may be asked, Why should not Scotch and English and Irish organisations be treated in the same way? We think there is a very good answer to this objection. Any member of any of the British Societies, by taking a little trouble, may obtain any of the privileges which the Royal Society might confer upon colonists. To a great many British [290] Societies the publications of the Royal Society are sent gratuitously; there is no difficulty in obtaining access either to the libraries or to the reading-rooms when the members are in London, for the reason that all necessary knowledge as to how these privileges are to be obtained is of course possessed by those at home, whereas the member of a colonial Society who finds himself in England is in a very different position. He may know nobody, he may not know even of the existence of the facilities afforded, and he may leave England without having been present at any meetings of the Society, and without the knowledge that almost anyone who chooses can attend them. We are glad that on these and on other grounds that the question has been raised, and we believe that great good may be accomplished by acting on Prof. Huxley's suggestion.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University