Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Monday, 24 December 2007

Season's Greetings

Christmas tomorrow, marking four months exactly since the first post on this blog. Now, 25 posts later, Rafe and I are still feeling our way.

This is quite a complicated blog to develop simply because of the combination of a vast canvas with limited time. In 2008 I hope that we will be able to add further contributors, thus speeding the content creation process.

To our still very small number of visitors, season's greetings from Rafe and I. We hope that you have a peaceful and happy Christmas and a great new year.

Friday, 21 December 2007

History of the NSW HSC English syllabus

In November I mentioned a post that Neil Whitfield had written on Professor Sam Goldberg and the Leavisite tradition. Now Neil has written another interesting post looking at the history of the HSC English syllabus in NSW.

Don't be put off by the title - Right wing education critique is historically inaccurate and perpetuates myths. While Neil has put this post in his rants' category, the historical material is interesting.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Rural Research in Australia - a note

Another short companion piece, this time to Rafe's story on Jim Vincent. I found the story interesting for a number of reasons.

To begin with, it illustrated how much science has changed.

Our previous scientists lived in a constrained world, one in which scientific endeavour had to be restricted to very limited budgets. The total Australian university spend on scientific research at the time that Jim Vincent began his work was probably less in real terms than the spend today at a single Australian university.

Is this significant? I don't know. I only know that it has struck me a number of times when I read material on Australia's earlier academics and research scientists.

I was also struck, again, by the scale of Australia's success in early applied science.

At national level, the need for an Australian national research institute was first raised in debates about nationhood in the late 1890s. However, the first serious attempt to create a national research institute began in 1916, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ Government established an Advisory Council of Science and Industry to advise on the establishment of an Institute of Science and Industry.

The Institute was launched in 1921 to undertake scientific research, review existing research and disseminate scientific information. The Institute had limited funds and failed to develop.

In 1925, under the influence of Deputy PM and Country Party Leader Earle Page, Prime Minister Bruce convened a conference. He invited Sir Frank Heath, head of the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to advise on the reorganisation of the Institute. Their reports led to the passing of new legislation in 1926 to establish the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

With an Executive Committee of George Julius, David Rivett and Arnold Richardson at the helm, CSIR was to become one of the most comprehensive scientific organisations in the world.

Many Australians forget just how much Australia has contributed to scientific research. The national payback and especially in agriculture has been huge.

Modern Australians also forget that debate about environmental issues, about land degradation and improvement, is not new. Wadham and Wood's pioneering study on land utilisation was in fact published first in 1939. Today's debate replicates many elements of the earlier debate.

The description of pasture improvement struck a chord, too. In 1950 in New England the carrying capacity on native pastures was one sheep per acre. Fifteen years later it was three sheep per acre.

We can debate issues associated with the replacement of native pasture. The reality is that in 1950 you could make a decent living off 1,000 merino sheep. Twenty years later you needed three times that number just to survive.

Science allowed Australia to grow so that we continued to feed and cloth more than seventy million people world-wide. Today we debate whether or not this can continue.

My personal view is that we have barely scratched the productive land-mass of the Australian continent. At this point I do not want to debate this, beyond saying that the continued work of scientists such as Jim Vincent are central to our future.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Jim Vincent, one of our quiet achievers

Dr Jim Vincent made a fleeting appearance in Australian literature as the model for the schoolteacher 'Bill Sinclair' in Kylie Tennant's prize winning 1935 novel “Tiburon”. This was set in a small country town where the P&C of the school wanted more emphasis on cultural studies rather than the practical arts championed by 'Bill Sinclair'. In real life Jim Vincent's first job after graduating from Sydney University in 1933 was to teach Agriculture at Canowindra in the central west of NSW.

In 1986 Vincent's colleagues honoured his 75th birthday with a conference and the papers were collected in a memorial volume. This is a testament to the world-class achievements of Australian research in microbiology, and also to the impact of a fine teacher and researcher who provided inspiration and guidance for much of the local work in this field.

In soil-plant relations and agricultural science generally Australian researchers have a wonderful record. Their efforts have fed through into practical developments and farming practice has been transformed by successful research and development, with massive implications for the economy and thus for the welfare of all Australians. It is widely known that the Australian economy rode on the sheep's back (and lately on the backs of wheat farmers and miners as well) but it is not equally well known how much this ride depends on applied scientific research by Vincent and others like him.

Those who think that Australian farming is based on soils of great natural fertility need to think again. Much of the continent can be described in the terms applied to the site of the first farm in the colony "the bulk of the soil is shallow and sandy with outcrops of rock at too frequent intervals". Almost all the soils in Australia are low in natural fertility, lacking nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, the three major nutrients needed for plant growth. Many also lack one or more 'trace elements', which, like vitamins, are required in minute quantities for healthy plant and animal growth.

Phosphorus in the form of 'super' (superphosphate) is provided out of a sack but nitrogen has so far been too expensive to supply in this manner over large areas. The answer has been provided by special strains of bacteria which colonise the roots of legumes such as subterranean ('sub') clover and extract nitrogen from the air for the use of the plant. This 'fixed' nitrogen then builds up the fertility of the soil when the clover dies or is eaten by animals.

Some decades elapsed between the discovery of the potential benefits of sub clover and its widespread use in improved pasture because the performance of the clover was at first highly unreliable. This is where Vincent and his colleagues came in. The situation improved dramatically when the role of the bacteria in the root nodules came to light, followed by techniques to inoculate the seed with compatible varieties of bacteria.

A 1990 interview with Jim

Jim, the purpose of this interview is to draw attention to some of the outstanding Australian work in rural research and to some of the distinguished agricultural researchers who are only known to the narrow circle of their associates.

Well I don't regard myself as especially distinguished, just a good middle of the road scientist.

In any case, the work of "good middle of the road" biological scientists does not get the public recognition it deserves.

Yes, and this lack of recognition is reflected in recruitment. Agriculture just does not have the financial pull of accounting and law. This is shown in the cut-off mark for entering schools of Agriculture and the situation with Science is worse. Vetinerary science is not so bad because people expect to make a good living in private practice.

How did you come to be recruited into agriculture? Did you come off the land like so many of our rural researchers?

I didn't actually come off the land, though I was born at Narrabri [a small country town]in 1911. My parents had a small shop that was burnt out in a big fire and they came to Sydney when I was a few months old. Some of my mother's relatives share-farmed and we stayed with them sometimes so I got to know about the hard lot of the share farmer.

I went through Parramatta High School and I don't recall having any special interest in agriculture. Late in my final year Waterhouse (Professor of Agriculture) sent out letters to all the high schools to tell prospective university students about his department. This letter was posted on the board at school and it took my fancy. So along with three other students on teachers scholarships I went off to study Agriculture at the University of Sydney.

Most successful people can look back and identify a "significant teacher" early in their career.

At Sydney University it was Waterhouse. He was not only a very good teacher but he was very good at research on the applied side.

And in due course you became a school teacher.

After graduation I was posted to teach Agriculture at Canowindra District Rural School. This was a lower level high school which did not take people through to matriculation, though they may have taken a certificate at the end of year 9.

Your career as a school teacher did not last very long.

In a little under 2 years I was back to fill a vacancy for a lecturer in Biology at the Teachers College. This was just one of the many fortunate events in my life. At the time I was the youngest lecturer ever appointed.

Two years later Waterhouse had another hand in my career. He recommended me for one of the Pawlett Scholarships that were awarded for studies overseas.

I was supposed to do a post-graduate diploma course in Soil Microbiology at Kensington but when I arrived the course was no longer running. They sent me on to the School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine where I took on a new and demanding discipline of semi-micro analytical work.

In the second year I did the Postgraduate Diploma in Bacteriology. This was a very prestigious school with two world leaders, Topley and Wilson on staff. At the time they were developing serological techniques to classify the various strains of Salmonella. (Salmonella was a big public health problem at that time).

When did you start work on root nodule bacteria?

My interest in Rhizobium firmed when I went from London to spend a semester at the University of Wisconsin which was then a leading area for the study of root nodule bacteria. Two of the staff, Baldwin and McKay, wrote the standard text for the area and some good early work on the biology of nitrogen fixation was done in the department.

How did you find Sydney when you came home?

Back in Sydney in January of 1939 there was a heatwave. The roads were melting when I reported in to Sydney University and nobody much was there. I had a small financial problem, with no pay until the end of the month and daily expenses to meet. Waterhouse lent me some money to tide me over.

The question was, what sort of work to get on with? It had to be simple because the universities had next to no research money in those days, just a lot of manpower (your own). Waterhouse helped out, yet again, by giving me a small centrifuge, not a very sophisticated machine but it was my pride and joy.

For teaching purposes I wanted to demonstrate various serological tests that I learned in London and but I didn't want students playing about with Salmonella so we moved over to Rhizobium.

What was the focus of this work?

I concentrated on root nodulation work, improvising a greenhouse by stacking tubes by the window and so on. I grew Rhizobium on slopes during the day, harvested in the afternoon, took the material home and did tests in the evening. This involved carting tubes and serum around, and an agglutination bath borrowed from the medical school (it never went back). My mother was staying with us at the time and she helped by washing out the tubes during the day so they were dry for the evening.

What was the purpose of the tests?

To rapidly establish the compatibility of various strains of clover with different strains of Rhizobium.

Can you explain a little more about the importance of compatibility between the plants and the bugs?

To obtain nitrogen fixation in the field the clover plants must first of all be infected (invaded) by Rhizobium bacteria. Then these have to form active colonies in nodules on the roots. This is where the actual nitrogen fixation occurs. A natural soil may contain up to twenty varieties of Rhizobium and only a few may be compatible with a particular species of legume. In addition to the matter of compatibility, infection depends on adequate numbers of Rhizobia and on various characteristics of the soil, especially on its degree of acidity, which must not be too high.

The immunological techniques that I learned in London were important to rapidly establish which strains of Rhizobium were compatible with various plants such as white clover or sub clover.

I understand that you had to stop this line of research during the war.

Early in the war there was a certain amount of agitation especially among young scientists to be put to work more effectively in the war effort. This intensified after the bombing of Darwin as the Japanese seeemed to be coming rapidly closer on all fronts and Australia suddenly became very civil defence minded.

Eric Ashby, later Sir Eric, was then Professor of Botany at Sydney. He egged on the Government to do something and one of the results was that I went to the Research and Experiment section of the Commonwealth Department of Home Security.

My job was to go around and talk to scientists and get them involved in various committees where their expert advice could be useful. A great deal of material was coming from the UK on civil defence precautions but a lot of it had to be modified for local conditions.

For example you wanted engineers, physicists and human physiologists to work on slit trenches. The thermal and ventilation requirements for trenches here are quite different from Britain. It was very hard to work out the heating-up characteristics of air-raid shelters because the temperature gradients in the vicinity of shelters are described by very complex mathematical equations. Fortunately we found a man in Tasmania called Jager who knew all about these things.

I gather from your Noel Foldsworthy Memorial lecture "Lab Coat and Gum Boots" that not all scientists are equally at home with the "gum boots" of applied research.

The lab. coat is often the more favoured attire. It was interesting to see the differences between scientists in their capacity to grasp the essence of practical problems that required quick and simple solutions. Some had a quick practical focus, others just wanted to do esoteric research on what they regarded as the fundamentals. Of course what is required is a balanced dual contribution between fundamental investigation and application. These two sides of our science are needed, like the head and the tail of a coin, for it to have value.

You also moved into other areas, like the milk supply.

Milk and also the microbiology of food preservation. One of the senior men in London had worked on the quality of British milk. Back in Sydney I inquired about the local situation and I was horrified to learn that they only tested an occasional sample using methods that were many years out of date. I wrote to the Milk Board and at first received no response but I kept at them and a couple of years later they helped to set up a Milk Board Research Scholarship. The first incumbent was Bob Morton, just back from the Navy and one of the most brilliant students we ever had.

You mentioned that Waterhouse obtained research money from the millers and the wheat growers. It seems that the rural industries have been quite good at supporting R&D in contrast with the general failure of business to back these things.

The Commonwealth Bank had a section to foster rural research. When there was not enough money in the wheat pool to be worth distributing to farmers they would allocate the interest and some of the capital to research, some of which came to our projects at Sydney University. Other funds came more directly from the various industry levies - wool, wheat, meat, dairy. I managed to obtain grants from most of these.

You were good at writing grant applications?

Maybe. More to the point, I was fortunate in being able to show a striking response to innoculation of legume seed on the North Coast and the North-west area. After that my work was not limited by funds. It was small budget work and at that stage in the 1950s it was possible to do a lot of work with simple equipment.

What was the nature of your work on the North Coast?

In the Lismore area they were introducing sub clover by seeding directly into the established Paspalum grass. If the sub did not form effective nodules to fix nitrogen from the air then it had no chance in competition for soil nitrogen against the grass. It was quite easy to pick the plants that did not have nodules because they turned red or yellow with the classical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.

Where did this lead?

It led to the major innovation of innoculating clover seed with a suspension of the appropriate Rhizobium. Then the seedlings did not have to depend on bugs from the soil.

Innoculation of clover seed with Rhizobium was a step in the right direction but it did not always work?

I was called in to help with a problem where supposedly inoculated clover seed failed to form nodules. Nobody had checked the quality of the inoculum. The strain in use by the Dept tended to mutate to a non-nodulating strain and over a period of time the cultures became practically useless.

The valuable lesson that emerged from this was the need for continuous quality control on the inoculum. This recognition led to the establishment of an agency to regularly test the inoculum being provided by commercial firms to the farming community. Some of the standards devised in the course of this work became accepted world wide.

Three commercial seed firms provided funds, the State Department did the field testing and obtained material. The University of Sydney housed the facilities and one or two people were employed to work in the agency. After ten years or so the whole unit moved to the Department and assumed Australia-wide responsibilities for testing and quality control on Rhizobium.

You worked in an area where Australia had a high international profile.

There was a time in the 1960s when Rhizobium work in Australia was leading the world. The monographs produced during this period were dominated by Australians.

The US pioneered much of this work but they did not need to set the same standards because their soils are naturally richer in Rhizobia and there is less need for inoculation. During the time of "the great antibiotics hunt" the American micribiologists all went looking for new antibiotics and the area of nitrogen fixation fell into a rather sad state. Since then the US has caught up due to weight of numbers and funding.

The Rhizobium Newsletter was a significant innovation, first edited by Kevin Marshall in 1956. He is at present in the Chair of Microbiology at the University of NSW. This was a vehicle for informal communication of preliminary findings and work in progress. At first it circulated locally and later it went world wide. The last edition was in 1981 when cost increases, especially in postage, helped to kill it.

You and your colleagues had a hand in the International Biological Programme.

This was the biological counterpart of the International Geophysical Year, except that it ran for more than a year. The subject was defined as 'The Biological Basis of Productivity and Human Welfare' and a major aim was to lift agriculture in the countries of the Third World.

Biological nitrogen fixation had a good representation in the programme with two major volumes of papers. I also wrote a little book (IBP Handbook No 16, A Manual for the Practical Study of Root-Nodule Bacteria). This was published in 1970 and was later translated into Spanish and Chinese.

All of this is a fair record of achievement. Do you have any general thoughts on the attitudes and habits required?

I suggest that young graduates need to be prepared to adapt and develop into areas of responsibility quite different from those envisaged during their time at university.

When I went into teaching I had no idea that I would do anything different. And I threw myself into it. When I went back to the Teachers College that was tremendous and things just fell out of that.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

A Note on the Orr Case

In my short post on Philosophy at Melbourne University I mentioned the Orr case.

By way of background, Sydney Sparkes Orr was appointed as professor of philosophy at the University of Tasmania in 1952. In 1956 he was summarily dismissed on the grounds of misconduct, including allegations of sexual misconduct. From then until near his death in 1966, Professor Orr campaigned for reinstatement.

The Orr case raised great passion because of its linkages to academic freedom. However, I was not aware of the complex institutional background, including Professor Orr's immediately preceding agitation for a Royal Commission into the governance and management of the University of Tasmania.

Those who are interested can find information about the history of the University here written from a perspective sympathetic to Professor Orr. W D Joske's ADB entry on Professor Orr provides a harsher perspective.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Australian Legend - a personal note

Rafe's post looking at some writing on the Australian Legend raised some interesting issues. I thought that I should write a short companion piece, adding context especially for readers not familiar with Australian historiography.

Published in 1958, Russel Ward's Australian Legend remains one of Australia's best known history books and was republished back in 2003. The SMH article in the cited link provides an interesting context to the book, while the Australian Government's Cultural Portal provides a short if incomplete and partial introduction to the bush legend.

I have a direct interest in Russel's work at several levels.

He was one of my teachers at the University of New England and in fact forms one element of the New England intellectual tradition that I started to explore in a yet to be completed series. I was also fascinated then and now by the Australian character, although my interpretation was a little different from Russel's.

I do not have time in this short post to write a detailed historical analysis. Instead, I just wanted to point to a few threads that interest me.

All groups, nations included, have their own legends, constructs that they use to interpret the past.

In recent years I have worked mainly as a management consultant. Part of my work has focused on understanding the nature of organisational change and renewal. Central to this has been the nature of organisational cultures, the way in which this impedes or facilitates change.

I make this point because I sometimes feel that in this post-modern world in which the study of history has fragmented and lost a degree of relevance as a consequence, historians have become very uncomfortable in dealing with legends. They want to critique the legend itself, rather than looking at what is.

Take, as an example, the Turner frontier thesis, a thesis that formed a building block in Russel's thinking. In simple terms, Turner argued that the American culture and character had been formed in a positive way by the moving frontier. Russel adopted this concept to some degree and applied it to Australia.

Today, at least in Australia, this type of thinking makes us very uncomfortable because we see the moving frontier through a prism set by indigenous-non-indigenous relations. How can we attribute positive attributes to something so maligned? Yet the frontier thesis has an existence at several levels independent of any questions of Aboriginal-non-Aboriginal relations.

To say that something - the moving frontier - has negative elements, should not deny its broader features, including its role in influencing and supporting intellectual ideas.

Then, too, Russel was writing from and influenced by a particular tradition, one that still retains some mythic powers.

In an earlier work that I have not been able to check so am writing from memory, Professor Moses suggested that there had been three main schools in Australian historiography, old left, new left and imperial.

Russel belonged firmly to the old left stream. Influenced by Irish Catholicism as well as ideas coming out of England, this school saw the creation of a new Australian identity as a central issue. This is the world of Eureka, of trade unions and the 189os strikes, of sometimes rampant Australian nationalism.

Russel's emphasis on mateship, on egalitarianism, comes in part from this world. This is also the world of Bernard Smith, whose pioneering work on the history of Australian art argued that the history of Australian art lay in part in the creation of a distinctive Australian identity.

The position was always far more complicated than Russel allowed. The books that Rafe referred to in his post draw some of this out, including the influence of city based intellectuals and writers. Many of these in fact came from the country, but they formed a distinctive radical group. Much more was involved than just the itinerant bush worker.

Russel also ignored what Moses called the imperial stream in Australian historiography, although Russel himself with his Adelaide connections, with his moustache and formal manners, really came from part of the Australian establishment.

The imperial stream saw Australia and the evolution of the Australian character in the broader context of the history of Great Britain and the Empire. This is the world of Mary Grant Bruce in children's writing, of Charles Chauvel in film.

The imperial stream was just as Australian as the old left tradition. Whereas the old left tradition saw Australian identity evolving in some ways in opposition to the mother country, the imperial tradition saw the Australian identity as part of but better than that holding in England. A selection of the best from home plus Australia's own unique elements.

This view was in fact mirrored in the UK in both official and popular writing where the tall, lean, laconic competent colonial became a popular figure.

There is a strange analogy here to the Australian Aborigines.

All groups measure themselves to some degree by the way they are perceived by those around them.

The constant negative presentation of indigenous problems, as was pointed out in an Oceania article back in the 1960s, affects Aboriginal perceptions of themselves. Australians as a whole were far more lucky, because their presentation in the broader Imperial environment was largely positive from the very beginning. This fed back into Australian perceptions of themselves.

In all, Rafe's post opens up some very major topics!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Checking out the Australian Legend

For a lot of the 20th century the image of the Australian bushman exerted a deal of fascination in some intellectual circles and it certainly resonated with me, growing up on a farm and thinking of myself as a bushman and a pioneer. This is a review of three books that look critically at the Australian legend from different angles.

John Docker's book on the 1890s is a revelation. Those who think that the bushmen, pioneers, radical nationalists and male chauvinists of “the legend” dominated the scene will be amazed at the picture that emerges. Feminism, anarchism, socialism, republicanism, and anti-religious free thought in various forms were running strongly, with other more esoteric currents of orientalism and mysticism. One of these was the myth of Lemuria created by Madame Blavatsky of the theosophists. This was a theory of a Golden Age on a lost Southern continent where the spiritually elevated Lemurians created the wisdom that pervaded the ancient cultures of India and the Levant. According to Docker’s account these ideas spawned a batch of Australian novels and joined with the works of Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker to inform much early Australian science fiction writing.

John Carroll and others also demolish quite a few myths about the national identity and especially the legend of the Bushman. A paper on the nomadic tribes of urban Britain identifies the pathological roots of some bushman characteristics such as restlessness and irresponsibility which were modified or idealised for the purpose of the legend. A chapter argues that some superficially attractive features of the semi-nomadic bachelor existence ascribed to the bushmen were projections by alienated urban intellectuals who occupied a “sleazy urban frontier” of boarding houses, pubs and radical meeting places. Maps indicate the concentrations of boarding houses in central Sydney of 1890 and the close proximity of the premises of various socialist, republican, land-reform, freethought and literary organisations.

Boris Frankel was trying to reshape the political culture. That was a few years ago and I am not sure where his project got to after this book, published in 1992. Frankel was brought up on a radical nationalist version of the Australian legend and his concern was to find a more up-to-date vehicle for the radical reforms that he desires. He ssw himself as a custodian of the Enlightenment project of emancipation and this book sets out to defend humanist values from a number of deadly enemies - cultural relativists, cynical postmodernists, economic rationalists and the Old Right.