The laying of the foundation stone

2 May 1958

Professor John Eccles

The Right Honourable the Prime Minister, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasant task this afternoon to preside on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the Academy building. I would specially like to welcome our distinguished representatives on the platform, the Prime Minister, Mr Makin representing the leader of the Opposition, Professor Gaddum officially representing the Royal Society of London.

I am going to speak briefly on the Academy itself. It is remarkable that the whole history of the Academy has occurred in Canberra. In 1951 a meeting of leading scientists, technologists and industrialists was held in Canberra to discuss the future of science and technology in Australia. This conference clearly established that there was an urgent need for the establishment, at the highest level, of a national organisation of scientists. The Royal Society of London had long played this important role in Great Britain, having there a position of unquestioned authority in all matters pertaining to science and the applications of science. This conference served to enthuse some of the leading scientists of Australia, notably Professor Oliphant and Dr D F Martyn, with the idea of founding a national academy that would do for Australia what the Royal Society was doing for Great Britain. Fortunately there were resident in Australia 11 Fellows of the Royal Society of London and in order to make a sufficiently representative body these Fellows selected a further 13 scientists to help in the task of founding the Australian Academy of Science, as it was to be called. In July 1952 there was a memorable meeting with the Australian National Research Council here in Canberra and the Officers of this Council, under the Chairmanship of Professor Elkin, with great magnanimity, agreed to recommend to their members that the Australian National Research Council be dissolved in order to make way for the Australian Academy of Science, provided that the new Academy assumed responsibility for the various duties and functions of the ANRC. The stage was thus set for forming the Academy of Science and petitioning for a Royal Charter. A council of 10 was set up with Professor Oliphant as the first President.

In response to representation to the Prime Minister an annual grant of £10,000 was made to the Academy and the Prime Minister also facilitated the negotiation in respect of the Royal Charter, but the Academy will always be especially grateful for the historic occasion on February 16th 1954 when her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II founded the Australian Academy of Science in a private ceremony attended by the President of the Academy and members of the Council. The historic character of this occasion will be appreciated when I inform you that this is the second occasion on which a reigning British Monarch has personally founded a scientific academy. The first occasion was almost 300 years earlier when Charles II founded the Royal Society of London.

After the founding ceremony the infant Academy set upon a vigorous policy of development in order to fit it for its self-appointed task of developing and applying science in Australia. Undoubtedly the first concern of the early Academy was to ensure its growth and development by election of Fellows having the highest level of scientific and technological attainment and also of Fellows who have rendered conspicuous service to science and the application of science. But already the Academy has an impressive record of achievement. Firstly, I would mention that it has caused the scientific community of Australia to know itself so that there is more friendly cooperation and understanding and less antipathy.

Secondly, I venture to think that the possibility of election to the Academy provides an incentive to young scientists. We are all human and I believe greatly in incentives at all levels.

Thirdly, the Academy has represented Australia internationally on many occasions. Our greatest task in this respect has been the International Geophysical Year where we have been entrusted with a major share of Australia’s efforts in a spectacular and worldwide project. During the last year we have also been responsible for Australia’s representation at the Pacific Science Congress and the Pan Indian Ocean Conference. At present we are making plans to have international conferences in Australia in specially appropriate fields. Thus Australia is rightfully taking its place at a high level in the fields of scientific endeavour.

Fourthly, the Academy has been vitally concerned in the application of science to many local problems of great practical value to Australia - scientific manpower, water resources, the Kosciusko Tops and erosion problem, man and animals in the tropics, oceanography and so on over a wide field of applied science. It has been responsible for meetings and symposia on these important problems, employing to the fullest extent experts in the various fields. Whether Fellows of the Academy or not they have given devoted service.

Well now, that is just an account of what the Academy stands for and what it has done and I now have great pleasure in calling upon Professor Oliphant to tell you something about the building. Professor Oliphant.

Professor Mark Oliphant

Mr President, Mr Prime Minister, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. An organisation, for whatever purpose it is created, must have a home. The Academy of Science, founded under such auspicious circumstances by her Majesty the Queen, has sought to provide itself with a home, a headquarters for science in Australia. A national home for a national activity as important in the future of this country as is science in Australia, might well be expected in these days to be provided by the Commonwealth Government. However it is well known that men of science are independent folk and often extremely cussed people and the feeling that the Academy should be as separate from the functions of government as possible was reinforced when those two outstanding figures in the development of Australia, Mr W S Robinson and Mr Essington Lewis, were elected to its Fellowship. Encouraged by our first Treasurer, Dr Hedley Marston, Mr W S Robinson was able to persuade (perhaps I should say blackmail) many leaders of industry into the recognition of the fact that they should support the claims of science for a national headquarters and very generous donations were received from the non-ferrous metal industries, from the oil companies and from the motor car manufacturers. Mr.Essington Lewis ensured that a notable contribution came from the steel industry.

Meanwhile Dr Marston and I had approached other industries and we found the same generous response from the paper manufacturers, the glass manufacturers, the trading banks and many others. We are very happy to have with us today representatives of several of our major benefactors. Recently we received our first donation from the primary industries of Australia which have probably benefited so much from the application of scientific knowledge to their many problems; indeed, benefited more perhaps than any other section of Australian industry. Australian Estates Pty Ltd, a Company with its headquarters in London, by the way, has made a donation of £1,000. We hope that further support will come from those primary industries which are the backbone of Australia. At the present time we have received a total of £115,000, towards a goal of £250,000.

Nevertheless, the Academy has had sufficient faith in the public appreciation of the outstanding significance of science in Australia to decide to go ahead with its building program. It has sought to provide a fitting, but modest headquarters which will symbolise the meaning of science and the spirit of the search for natural knowledge. In this task we have been aided enormously by the architect, who we were lucky enough, perhaps I should say wise enough, to choose to design the building. The Department of the Interior made available to us this magnificent site with its semi-circular frontage to the Institute of Anatomy and adjacent to the National University and to Canberra University College. Mr Roy Grounds, of Grounds, Romberg and Boyd, with remarkable insight into our needs and with the boldness of the true contemporary artist, has designed a building which we believe will prove to be one of the great creations of this period of architecture. The round conference room, which is behind those seated here, to seat about 250 persons under proper conditions for serious discussion of scientific and technical matters, is the core of this building. Offices and reception rooms are arranged around it under a dome of copper-clad shell concrete. The whole will be surrounded by a cloister and a decorative moat and the grounds will be suitably landscaped. The Academy has been fortunate too, to have as the contractors for its building so experienced, so well equipped and so skilful a firm as Civil and Civic Contractors Ltd. The work which they have done to date is good and we are sure that the completed building, which should be finished in about one year from now, will be a credit to the architects, the builders and we hope a very suitable home for science in Australia.

I call upon the Prime Minister, having laid the stone now to briefly address us. The Prime Minister.

Robert Menzies – Prime Minister

Sir, Mr Makin, Your Excellencies, and ladies and gentlemen. I was about to utter the mystic words “I declare this stone well and truly laid”, but come to think of it, I think it is a little bit off true. Anyhow, now doubt I am wrong and this is off true. I think perhaps I ought to tell you that I have been enriched with some information about this stone. This is like me, it comes from Melbourne and has been planted now here and it is one of the old piers of the Melbourne Observatory, dating back to 1870. I was very kindly forwarded with the history of it, which I read with immense pleasure, particularly when I discovered that at the time when they were discussing establishing an Observatory in Melbourne and this stone became one of the piers supporting it, the Committee in Melbourne, it’s to be admitted, recommended that the Observatory ought to be established in that City, not only because of its geographical position, but because of the clearness of the air; a quality about Melbourne that I have always asserted but which I find constantly denied by those people unfortunate enough to be born in other places. And here it is, a souvenir, a very impressive souvenir of that Observatory in Melbourne, the old Observatory, the foundations of which run back really to the initial discussions in about 1852 and I like that, sir, if I may say so, because it’s a very good thing, indeed it’s one of the things aimed at by this Academy, that we should not fall into the error of thinking that science began this morning. We’re a little bit tempted to think that way in many aspects of life, you know ‘Here today, gone tomorrow. Everything that we know is quite new, everything that was known before was irrelevant’. It’s a very good thing to be reminded occasionally that we’re not only the creators of some things, but we’re the inheritors of a great number more and therefore there is a tradition in science, there is a body of knowledge in science of which these distinguished men who belong to the Australian Academy are at once the inheritors and the expositors and to which they themselves undoubtedly are adding material volumes of knowledge.

And so continuity, as in many other things, indeed as in all other things, is of the essence and therefore, sir, I rather like the idea that this stone, simply inscribed then placed in that form, is something that serves as a nexus between this most modern of buildings, as it will be in an older day when buildings of this kind were perhaps never thought of.

One other thing, or perhaps two other things, I would like to say because I don’t want to make a long speech to you. I am very proud of having had some association with the formation of this Academy. It’s quite true that on each occasion of the two on which I was brought into it I was the victim of the persuasive faculties of Professor Eccles and the downright capacity for, well, what shall I say, of Professor Oliphant. They came to see me in the first place, they expounded their views about an Academy of Science and we had a very fascinating and, of course, highly intellectual discussion about it and then I gave them some advice, very good advice I thought, anyhow, in a broad way they acted on it, I waited, waited for the blow to strike. You know, waited for Oliphant to say ‘That will cost you so many thousand pounds’ but with the skill that he is rapidly acquiring in this city, he said nothing that day. That was indoctrination day. That was ‘getting me interested’ day and then of course, the moment I committed myself to say ‘Well, now look, I don’t mind giving you some advice as to how about getting a Royal Charter and all that kind of thing and a few notions about the rules that have to be observed’. It was only the next morning when I woke up and looked back and knew that I was lost. And, of course, it was quite right because a fortnight later Oliphant, with the most ingratiating style, came along to me and in the homely phrase ‘Nipped me’ and then ever since then I have remained ‘nipped’, but very proud I am to have been nipped because I think that the day will come when in Australia those who were associated, and there are some very famous men have been referred to here this afternoon, those who have been associated with the establishment of this Academy will be greatly envied by those who, at that time, will realise what great work this body has done.

Its task is not easy – perhaps you will allow me to add this before I conclude – its task is not easy, it must be completely selective in its membership because it’s of the essence that its standards should be high. There was never a time when high standards were more needed than in a world in which, as has been truly said, there is the constant danger of the mass mentality created by mass means, either of instruction or of entertainment and therefore the standards must be high, they must be selective and yet at the same time they are not to be narrow, they are not to be conservative, they are not to exclude from consideration people who have something good to do for the future of science. We are all tempted when we get to my age to become a little defensive about our own ideas about our own particular knowledge, about our own particular skills, whatever they may be. That is to be guarded against because if there’s one thing that shines out in the history of this century it is the enormous capacity of science to expand its boundaries. The degree to which matters of the greatest complexity have been evolved and built on in our own lifetime is not only fascinating, but positively bewildering and he would be a very dull soul, I think, who didn’t realise that by the end of this century, when most of us will not be here as first-hand witnesses, but will have, I trust, a good view from on high, by the end of this century it is quite clear that the boundaries of knowledge to the activities of scientists will have been pushed back to places as yet unseen and unimagined and in all that in our own country this Academy, established by the finest body of scientists this country has ever had, adding as it will in the future to its own numbers men of corresponding faculty, men and women of corresponding gifts and enthusiasm, is going to make a contribution to the body of scientific knowledge in the world, which won’t be just confined to Canberra, but will extend over the world. Indeed, sir, let us all remember, as temporary or permanent residents of this small city, that there is a temptation in Australia to think of Canberra as something remote, as something detached, as something unaffected by the pulse of the life of the nation. The more we do of this kind, the more will that fallacy disappear, the more will it be understood that this is not merely the Capital of Australia by Act of Parliament, but is the centre of Australia in many of the great intellectual activities in which the people of Australia will have to engage.

Sir, I declare the stone well and truly laid.

Professor John Eccles

I think we have all listened to a most remarkable and memorable speech by our Prime Minster, for which, on behalf of the Academy, I thank him very much. I also thank him for officiating on this ceremonial occasion on a stone which has had a long history and which is at last, we hope, permanently resting here as an historic exhibit of the early days of Australia, bringing, as he said, memories of the past up to the present. I now declare this occasion at an end. Thank you very much.

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