p Irish Time Column

Century of Endeavour

The Irish Times Science and Technology Column

(c) Roy Johnston 2002

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

In the mid-80s I made a selection from this column, and worked it into a book, which I felt might be of use to science policy people concerned with developing countries. There was a publishing house called Tycooley, which serviced the UN development agency market; Sean MacBride had a hand in it. They accepted it for publication, under the title 'In Search of Techne', but unfortunately at about this time the publishing-house collapsed, and I was left with an unpublished work, with an identified target market, and no publisher. The Irish Times at that time had lost interest. It is however worth resurrecting here in this context, I think. Note, by the way, that the notes and references were written circa 1983. Where I have found it necessary, I have updated them. I would welcome any additional anomalies being drawn to my attention.


A structured collection of critical essays relating to the development of science, technology and society in Ireland, written during the period 1970-1976.

Roy H W Johnston


Preface by T P Hardiman

I am happy to provide a foreword to Dr Roy Johnston's collection of critical essays 'In Search of Techne'.

Dr Johnston sets out to 'try to bring about a situation in Ireland such that the best scientific brains would be permitted to fulfil themselves scientifically and to earn a living in their native country, contributing to its technological and economic development'.

In this collection of essays he explores a wide range of issues relevant to this theme - scientific advice to Government, support for Higher Education research, postgraduate degrees, the inability of politicians and civil servants to deal effectively with EEC technical directives, - particularly focusing on the period between 1970 and 1976.

These essays clearly reflect much background research. Dr. Johnston also draws on his own considerable experience both in research and in the field of university-industry co-operation. His views are frank and forthright and - even though one may not always agree with them - are a helpful contribution to our understanding of the issues and to the debate on the most relevant policies.

Dr Johnston was perhaps best known to the general public for his column in the Irish Times, a column which, often provocative, brought home to readers the fact that science and technology, far from being remote subjects, dealt with topics which intimately affected their lives.

This collection of essays prompts the question as to why there is no topical column on the broad field of science and technology appearing regularly in Irish newspapers today. This absence is more surprising because of the wide appreciation among administrators and the general public of the increasing dependence on science and technology in our development process and the contribution science and technology can make to economic, industrial and social progress.

The harsher competitive environment that has come upon us in the past few years emphasises our need for a closer involvement with and deeper understanding of the changes which are determining the very basis of our society. Dr Johnston's essays are necessary reading.

TPH / 13.6.83

Author's Introduction

This is a record of a personal crusade. The object was to try to bring about a situation in Ireland such that the best scientific brains would be permitted both to fulfil themselves scientifically and to earn a living in their native country, contributing to its technological and economic development. Prior to about 1970, the normal career-pattern for the young Irish scientist involved emigration, in many cases (most cases in some disciplines) permanent. The best-known Irish emigrant scientist was, perhaps, John Desmond Bernal, to whom can be attributed the identification and naming of the 'Brain-drain' process as a characteristic of the imperial-colonial relationship.

The raw material of this book appeared in the form of a 'Science and Technology' column in the Irish Times which ran from the beginning of 1970 to the end of 1976, a period of seven years.

This was a time when the Irish State was beginning to recognise that science and technology were important factors in the national economic development process. The Lynch-Miller report 'Science and Irish Economic Development' had been commissioned in 1963 and had come out in 1966, recommending the setting up of a National Science Council to advise the Government. This took place, let it be said, as a result of the outside influence of the Organisation for European Co-operation and Development (OECD); there was no way whereby such an innovatory approach could have been developed within the impervious walls of the Civil Service without a strong external influence of some kind.

The Column, while it existed, had a philosophy which can perhaps be summarised by asking the question: 'How best can scientific discoveries be creditably transformed into useful and appropriate technology, in the context of a small developing nation attempting to assert its identity in the neo-colonial aftermath of a global imperial system?'

By a process of continuous critical chipping away at the pillars of the imperial legacy, a certain amount of consciousness was aroused in the Irish scientific community, to the extent that when the Column terminated in January 1977 its lack was noticed and commented upon. These comments continue to this day, in a high proportion of encounters by the writer with people whom he has not met before, in which his role in the Column period is looked back upon with nostalgia. This restructuring of the Column material is an offering to these sometime readers, in the hopes that they may find it useful or stimulating. It may also prove to be of interest to those concerned elsewhere than in Ireland with the initiation of creative State policies for science and technology in developing countries; where possible this has been borne in mind when selecting and structuring the material.

All I have done is picked out sequences of contributions to the contemporary discussions which took place within a set of themes or channels as suggested by the chapter headings. In some cases a coherent evolving picture emerges, in others a sequence of loosely-related snapshots..

In most cases the problems treated are still with us, so that I think I am safe in saying that the material has not become dated. Readers can amuse themselves by updating the record mentally in the fields that they know. Mostly they are likely to share my impression that the basic rate of change, in spite of activity which in some cases seems frenetic, is really rather slow.

I have tidied up the stylistic infelicities which resulted from the need to meet a weekly deadline and have corrected errors drawn to my attention at the time. I have not done any more research into the topics covered; to do so would have been prohibitive, as well as changing the whole character of the exercise. It does not claim to be a scholarly work and should not be regarded as such. If there are errors of fact which escaped the contemporary control-loop, I apologise for them. They can, if necessary, be cleaned up in a second edition, if such turns out to be merited.

Where I have amended substantively the text, it is in the light of information available to me at the original time of writing; I have avoided retrospective cheating. Where retrospective comment is called for, I have added it via the explanatory notes at the end of each chapter. I have also sometimes used the latter as an aid to generalising the experience outside the Irish context.

I must take the opportunity of thanking Mr Douglas Gageby, who as Editor of the Irish Times provided me with the chance to begin the regular column at the end of 1969. This, for him, was a 'shot in the dark'; there was no precedent in Irish newspaper tradition. The cross-channel precedent (Crowther and the Manchester Guardian in the 1930s) was unknown in Ireland.

I am also indebted to Trinity College for the period of funded research leave which made this possible.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999