Scientific Culture and National Identity

Roy H W Johnston


This is an attempt to draw the attention of historians of science and technology to the importance of the role of this aspect of human culture in the process of the formation of independent nation-States in the aftermaths of the collapse of imperial systems.

It poses questions rather than answers them, though in some areas it attempts to outline an approach to how an answer might be obtained. It also constitutes an attempt to draw the attention of those intersted in the politics of nation-building to the importance of the 'practical arts' in the achievement of their objectives.

Most of the insights on which the essay is based are derived from the experience of the breakaway of Ireland from the British Empire, a process which remains to be completed.


This hypertext work has been developed by a process of integration of ideas from three essays published, or in process of publication, elsewhere.

The first was published in Planet (the Welsh bimonthly review, April/May 1995) in response to some questions raised in the same publication by Professor Phil Williams, of Aberystwyth University Physics Dept, about the role of science in Welsh culture.

The second exists as an introductory chapter of a projected book, in which I attempt to relate the experience of science in Ireland to the global experience of science and its mainstream development, primarily in Europe and in the USA, but also 'at the periphery' in Central and Eastern Europe, and in the Third World.

The third is a condensation of the second which was accepted for publication by Studies, but for some reason never got published.


Thanks to Seamus Heany we have been reminded that his predecessors from Ireland as Nobel Laureates in Literature were Beckett, Yeats and Shaw. We are occasionally reminded that Sean MacBride won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Rarely if ever does Ernest Walton's Nobel Prize in Physics (1953) become newsworthy.

What follows is an agenda for what I think historians should be looking at, if they are to help us to gain an understanding of how societies develop national identities, and how nations perceive their own cultures.

The lack of perception by nations of the importance of the scientific component in their culture constitutes a barrier to the development of economic viability through the mastery of productive processes which depend increasingly on the application of science-based technologies.

Some readers may find it useful to remind themselves of the Baconian background to the scientific tradition, and how it has evolved in Britain (and Ireland under British influence), on the Continent, and in America.

We consider first some current theories of nation-building, and attempt to relate these to current thinking in the historiography of science and technology. I suggest how some aspects of the history of science in Ireland might be fitted into this general background picture, and draw some parallels with the 'third world'. I conclude by suggesting a model for the development of a science culture in a developing nation-state, in the context of the emergence of a national elite.

The theoretical basis of nationality is not well developed, but it appears to be emerging that the concept of the 'nation' is relatively recent, owing much to literacy and the written word, generalised by the invention of printing.

  • There is a Protestant component, associated with the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.
  • There is a subjective aspect, in that people tend to identify with a group as 'us' and with the expansion of printed media in the vernacular this becomes wider than the clan or the tribe.
  • There is an objective aspect, in the development of a market within the boundaries of a State (this is the Marxist angle).
  • There is talk of the Nation-State, but this also is an ill-defined concept, in that the States of Europe are mostly multi-national.
What Gellner homes in on is the concept of an elite 'high-culture', which people look up to. In the case of the core-European States, those which asserted themselves imperially, this 'high-culture' undoubtedly included science.

In the case of the fringe-nations, the aftermaths of the break-up of empires, the cultural elites tend to be 'verbal' and not to understand the importance of science in their nation-building process. Their scientific communities tend to be marginalised on their home ground, and to look to the core-elites for peer-esteem. The overall Irish experience of this phenomenon needs elaboration.

This aspect of the history of science tends to be neglected by scientific historians, who rend to a reductionist analysis of the evolution of science within fissiparous disciplines, without regard for the specific significance of scientists in their socio-economic environments.

The actual contribution of the science and engineering communities to nation-building in Ireland is substantially less than it might have been. The Irish have tended to produce talented people for export in the service of other States, mostly the British Empire, though some stayed at home, enough to establish a significant scientific presence.

The classical national attitudes to science are to be found in France and Germany, where streets are named after famous scientists, and priorities are hotly disputed, as a matter of national pride. This is less the case in Britain, where the 'gentleman-amateur' tradition prevailed, and science was late in professionalising. (This was Tyndall's crusade). The First World War caught Britain unprepared scientifically. They had to lay on 'crash courses'. The scientific community was however heavily engaged in work related to the British Empire.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a sort of transitional state between the core and the fringe of science in the German sphere of influence. This has been analysed by Crawford(14). The British situation, with Ireland included, is in some ways analogous. De Valera picked this up, without I think understanding its significance, and imposed a pathological model on the Irish system when he founded the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. It is usually disastrous to implant or copy slavishly institutional models from abroad.


The Third World is going to have to face up to the problem of how to educate a scientifically and technologically competent elite who are motivated to apply their knowledge to building up democratically their post-colonial States. They will need to learn to be critical of the mode of application of science as it has evolved in the West, while remaining within the scientific tradition.

There is no point in trying to invent an 'Islamic science'(35), for example, although there is a role for learning to respect the Islamic tradition in the applications of science in Islamic countries.

It certainly is not enough simply to import advanced technology and simply train people to.use it, though this process has a role in an overall more complete strategy. There is a legacy of negative perception to be overcome, based on the real damage that imperial science has done to third-world countries. There are also however benefits, and these must be understood and build on, to help generate a new democratic 'post-Baconian' science, dedicated to serving the needs of emerging peoples.

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