— Charles Babbage
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Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes (1830)
Contexto: If we look at the fact, we shall find that the great inventions of the age are not, with us at least, always produced in universities. The doctrines of "definite proportions," and of the "chemical agency of electricity,"—principles of a high order, which have immortalized the names of their discoverers,—were not produced by the meditations of the cloister: nor is it in the least a reproach to those valuable institutions to mention truths like these. Fortunate circumstances must concur, even to the greatest, to render them eminently successful. It is not permitted to all to be born, like Archimedes, when a science was to be created; nor, like Newton, to find the system of the world "without form and void;" and, by disclosing gravitation, to shed throughout that system the same irresistible radiance as that with which the Almighty Creator had illumined its material substance. It can happen to but few philosophers, and but at distant intervals, to snatch a science, like Dalton, from the chaos of indefinite combination, and binding it in the chains of number, to exalt it to rank amongst the exact. Triumphs like these are necessarily "few and far between;", nor can it be expected that that portion of encouragement, which a country may think fir to bestow on science, should be adapted to meet such instances. Too extraordinary to be frequent, they must be left, if they are to be encouraged at all, to some direct interference of the governemeɳt.
The dangers to be apprehended from such a specific interference, would arise from one, or several of the following circumstance:—That class of society, from whom the government is selected, might not possess sufficient knowledge either to judge themselves, or know upon whose judgment to rely. Or the number of persons devoting themselves to science, might not be sufficiently large to have due weight in the expression of public opinion. Or, supposing this class to be large, it might not enjoy, in the estimation of the world, a sufficiently high character for independence. Should these causes concur in any country, it might become highly injurious to commit the encouragement of science to any department of the government. This reasoning does not appear to have escaped the penetration of those who advised the abolition of the late Board of Longitude.
The question whether it is good policy in the government of a country to encourage science, is one of which those who cultivate it are not perhaps the most unbiased judges. In England, those who have hitherto pursued science, have in general no very reasonable grounds of complaint; they knew, or should have known, that there was no demand for it, that it led to little honour, and to less profit.
That blame has been attributed to the government for not fostering the science of the country is certain; and, as far as regards past administrations, is, to a great extent, just; with respect to the present ministers, whose strength essentially depends on public opinion, it is not necessary that they should precede, and they cannot remain long insensible to any expression of the general feeling. But supposing science were thought of some importance by any administration, it would be difficult in the present state of things to do much in its favour; because, on the one hand, the higher classes in general have not a profound knowledge of science, and, on the other, those persons whom they have usually consulted, seem not to have given such advice as to deserve the confidence of government. It seems to be forgotten, that the money allotted by government to purposes of science ought to be expended with the same regard to prudence and economy as in the disposal of money in the affairs of private life.