Sir Albert Howard in India

By Louise E. Howard

Chapter 8
The Position of the Scientist

The Influence of Practice on Science

It is part of our general conception of science to assume that if a new scientific discovery is made it will eventually influence practical life: is there indeed any new scientific advance which does not do so? The effect may be immediate and revolutionary, or gradual and remote, but all new scientific discoveries bring some material changes in course of time.

The opposite idea, that practice enriches scientific discovery, first by revealing problems and then by suggesting solutions, is unusual. It is not commonly agreed that the farmer is capable of pointing the way to the physiologist, botanist or chemist. Yet a little reflection will show that this is bound to happen in a field like agriculture. No doubt Sir Albert Howard's strong predilection to stress the importance of the farmer's role induced him to dwell on this idea. At a time when the gulf between science and practice was a good deal wider than it is now, he was concerned to show the scientist that there was a debt owing to the practical man. (Cf. Chapter 7, Relations with Cultivators and the Treatment of Labour.)

In his Presidential Address to the Indian Science Congress in 1926 he starts with reminding his scientific audience that in the past farmers have sometimes done very well without the scientists.

The example of rice was often cited by Sir Albert as an instance where practice had outstripped science, empiric means for keeping this crop growing on the same paddy fields having been evolved of which no explanation was forthcoming from the scientists. Since then such explanations have in part been arrived at, but it remains a fact, that as regards this immensely important world crop, practice has preceded science in what might be termed invention and adaptation of method: the traditional methods of growing rice are indeed in many parts of the world very wonderful.

Even when the scientist and the farmer did conjoin their efforts it was not always the scientist who led in the choice of problem. As long ago as 1908 Sir Albert had pointed out that the amount of attention being bestowed on cotton investigations was due to the fact that cotton was being increasingly grown within the Empire; the choice of investigation being thus settled by the growers, not by the scientists, since, but for the increased cultivation of this crop, these investigations would not have been begun. (Report of the Board of Scientific Advice for India, for 1907-8; 'Economic Botany', p. 1.)

On consideration it will appear obvious that this is what usually happens. The agricultural scientist is almost always confronted by some immediate problem which he is asked to solve. This is true also when he is directed by some administrative authority to devote himself to a specified task, as indeed at the outset of his career Sir Albert was instructed to investigate the Indian wheats. Such directives or instructions are the outcome of an actual situation within an industry, and it is part of the genius of a good administration to know what problems are of importance to its public and to guide the services of the scientists in that direction.

But almost as soon as this is done official guidance ceases and the scientist starts his work as a free agent: it is his business, and his business alone, to 'put the question'. It is just this capacity for putting the crucial question correctly which marks the true researcher; for when it has been once properly put, half the battle is won and the answer is in sight. And here again the scientist joins hands with the practician.

The agricultural scientist, who in some respects has such heavy difficulties to contend with, is specially favoured. He has at his elbow a very experienced set of helpers, men who have farmed all their lives and whose fathers have farmed before them and whose inheritance is a very rich and varied traditional accumulation of knowledge. Not many occupations can offer such outstanding help, and it was part of Sir Albert Howard's chosen role -- himself the son of farmers -- to lay stress on this service rendered by practice to science.

In this one respect he criticizes Liebig, whom otherwise he acknowledged as a very great scientist.

The Role of Science in Agriculture

That Sir Albert was at the same time a firm believer in the capacity of science to improve practice is obvious from his whole life, which could not have been devoted to this end had he not had this faith. He takes considerable trouble to describe the vast benefits which India was receiving from the efforts of the scientists, and goes into the question in detail, giving estimates and figures, in a twenty-page chapter in his small book, Indian Agriculture, written some three years before leaving India. He and Mrs. Howard took a leading part in supporting the Indian Science Congress, and he was very gratified to be elected President of this Congress in 1926. That he remained in intimate touch by correspondence and by visit when on leave with scientists at home in his special field, more especially with Professors Wood and Biffen at Cambridge, hardly needs stating.

Nor did he in any way cavil at the position assigned to the Experiment Stations and the claims made on their behalf. On the contrary, he was a convinced believer in their functions, influence and usefulness, and in the book just mentioned, in discussing rural reconstruction, says:

But even in this very definite statement he lays down his conditions: that, in addition to the usual laboratory work, land must be cultivated and, in fact, cultivated to begin with according to the traditional methods of the indigenous populations to be served. In giving a little later the list of official institutions serving agriculture in India, he gives in each case the exact acreage attached for the use of the various agricultural officers, and not many other details, showing unconsciously the direction his mind invariably took -- work on the land.

But if he declares that the importance of research work, provided it was done on such lines, 'cannot be over-emphasized', that it is the basis of all improvement, so that if research is starved 'the flow of fertile ideas will cease', nevertheless it was while he was in India that he began to express himself as dissatisfied with the way in which such research was being conducted.

The Meaning of Economic Botany

There was more than one kind of research to be considered. The first necessity was to have a clear conception of the aims to be pursued. The universally accepted objectives governing research at a university were not necessarily those which the 'economic botanist' should carry with him to his appointment in the field under some one national government to serve a named community, however vast that community might be. The title 'economic botanist', though perhaps not very attractive, is quite definite and its implications are clear: it presupposes botanical knowledge applied to the economic needs of the country.

This Sir Albert grasped from the outset and never relaxed his firm hold on this essential point. In an early letter conveying the first rough sketch of the lay-out of the precious seventy-five acres he had secured at Pusa there is a scribbled marginal note to the effect that the 'economic' plants, e.g. the fibres, would be grouped together, 'not by natural orders'. This was perfectly correct in view of the aims of the Research Station, but it was an unusual departure from academic convention, and not every scientist would have seen the need for it. From this start there was no going back: the same principle shaped every effort. The methods used were those of the most exact scientific achievement: the aims were to improve the crops of India.

The two investigators were completely at one on this point as on all others. A few weeks before she died Gabrielle Howard was making notes for a textbook specially designed for the training of Indian students in research on agricultural botany. She did not live to complete it and Sir Albert refused to continue the project, which was entirely individual to his wife and based on her own ideas. Some notes survive and a short analysis of part of these is included here. This is the best statement made by either husband or wife of the true difference between the university scientist and the agricultural researcher. The notes were written at a period when Mendelian investigations were engaging the attention of most scientists.

The notes continue into what was to be Part II of the book, Technical Aids, with a number of excellent suggestions on the small practical details which the student plant breeder should train himself to master in working in India.

It is clear that these principles are exactly those which had for the past twenty years guided the Howards in their work; the insistence on the extreme necessity of discarding valiantly a great mass of material (which from the theoretical point of view might have been very interesting) is found emphatically stated years before in the book on Wheat in India. The notes have been quoted because they show how very definite, precise, and clearly thought out were the aims which the Howards pursued, how determined they were to keep faith with the terms of their appointment, to seek the practical advantage of the peoples of India, and never to yield to the lure -- so tempting to the highly-trained scientist -- of pursuing knowledge into the infinite.

Errors in Organization

The failure of other workers and above all of the directing authorities to accept and be guided by this delimitation of aims led to permanent difficulties. Applied research into the agricultural problems of India was treated as though it were the same as research into pure science -- or rather into the many departments of pure science. The Research Institute at Pusa itself was divided into no fewer than thirteen different sections, the heads of which were not supposed to trench on each other's duties. Again and again Sir Albert tilts against this 'fragmentation'. To the end of his life he never ceased to castigate an organization which set one research worker to look at plant varieties, another at the botanical growth of the crop, another to analyse its chemical constitution, a fourth to investigate the soil in which it grew, and yet others to consider its enemies, one man dealing with fungous attack only and another again with insect or virus onslaught; there might finally be a marketing officer to inquire into the disposal of the harvest. The character of the plant as a living entity could not possibly survive.

Mrs. Howard was equally emphatic on the point: it may be remembered that the very earliest formulation of the idea that the plant was a natural whole defying the man-made divisions of science had been due to her. She was entirely in accord with her husband in attacking every problem on the broadest basis, not excluding the final preparation of the product for the market, a direction in which some might feel the scientist had no obligations. It was suggested that 'team work' would solve the difficulty. By team work is meant the assignment of a large problem to a group of workers who agree, or who are directed, to work at it simultaneously: the results which each arrives at will, ex hypothesi, contribute to a comprehensive solution. Sir Albert argues that team work has a very limited application. It is useful as an apprentice system, when a group of eager students follow the indications of some acknowledged leader in research and work under him; this implies two things, a suitable institution for such an arrangement, e.g. a University, and a leader to direct the team: so that in the end the whole idea comes again to depend on the man and not the organization. Any who have had any experience of team work will agree with Sir Albert that without an outstanding leader in whom all have confidence team work is utterly useless. In other circumstances, states Sir Albert, it breaks down; in no case is it any help to the investigator who can stand on his own feet.

Though this question of fragmentation remained the basic problem, to solve which, to Sir Albert's dissatisfaction, no attempt was made and which he encountered in even worse form on his return to Europe, a more immediate difficulty occupied the minds of the authorities, this was the division of the work between the central and the provincial services. The difficulty was not only in India but felt throughout the Empire. It was suggested that a proper division could be made by taking note of the nature of work to be done respectively at the two types of institution: while provincial stations handled local results, the central station should devote itself to 'fundamental' or 'long-range' or 'wide-range' problems: all these terms were used. Sir Albert exposes the futility of this argument. The central Experiment Station cannot for ever confine itself to supplying scientific explanations of what is being accomplished at the smaller stations. Unless it wishes to have its grant revoked, it will not be able to escape the call for practical results. But as soon as it begins to enter the practical field it duplicates the work of the provincial stations and renders the whole idea nugatory.

Errors in Approach

Such might be the errors in overhead organization. An infinitely more important matter was the way in which the scientist set himself to work. Sir Albert had his own very definite ideas on this subject, and they differed widely from what was generally held, and is still held.

This topic is stressed again and again. Two further citations are given to show what great importance the Howards laid on their method of closest observation of the crop as it grew. It was the very foundation of their work, and in their opinion, however 'exasperating' and apparently erratic, of infinitely more moment than any preceding laboratory tests. Both citations are from addresses to the Indian Science Congress, in 1916 and 1923.

Finally, the scientist was wrong in his approach to his audience. It was no doubt true that the work to be done was often elaborate; it could only be achieved on the basis of a wealth of data arranged and classified to illustrate some small advance or discovery; the utmost accuracy was essential. But this is the method, not the outcome of research, which should be a very different thing. It was noted in a preceding chapter that Sir Albert set himself against the professional vanity which hastened to publicize a stream of small and often very similar results, thoroughly confusing to the minds of recipients not trained to appreciate the fine differences involved. This was true for all agricultural communities, but when it came to a peasant population like that in India, there was the added difficulty of illiteracy. Only the standing crop, the implement at work, or the harvest as gathered, would convey anything at all to such an audience: only masterpieces should be presented to them.

The Question of Statistics and Views on Artificial Fertilizers

Possibly on no topic was Sir Albert Howard so decided in his objections as on that of the application of statistical method to agricultural research. The extraordinarily vivid conception he had of plants as living things placed in a living, changing environment caused him once and for all to reject the use of statistical method in the biological field. It has already been abundantly made clear what stress he laid on observing the plant grow; the investigator's 'watching brief' should be all in all to him. What he is looking at is constantly changing: no one moment in the existence of any living organism is the same as the preceding or as the following moment. Yet statistical analyses of their nature are records of a momentary condition, and of such an instrument only very limited use can be made in a field like agriculture.

Unfortunately agricultural investigation now began to take the form, advocated by Rothamsted, of the 'randomized' plot and 'replicated' plot. It will be a mystery to future generations that this extraordinary system has attained so great a vogue; to the reader not familiar with these curious terms some explanation may be useful. The basic idea is that of correcting errors due to natural variation by dividing the research project into a number of scattered ('randomized') and repeated ('replicated') areas, and subjecting the collected quantitative results to statistical correction: this can only be done by a trained mathematician, and is a laborious process. Sir Albert refused to see the necessity for thus subjecting agriculture to what he called 'the fastidious approval of the higher mathematics'. An investigator who could not interpret his results correctly without such a prop was not worth his salt: the method was a bolstering up system for the inefficient. But the disadvantages did not end with this. Even the good investigator was being deprived of his greatest asset, the chance to read his practice in the plant: each randomized plot would necessarily differ from the next and a general impression could not exist. Such a method, which under no circumstances could convey its own visual lesson, was hopeless. The determination of good agricultural varieties was quite often a question of viewing a crop in the mass, the small but important variations being only then revealed. By the randomized method the investigator crippled his own efforts. What was even more fatal was the final repudiation of any attempt to show results broadly to the visiting farmer. Here Sir Albert spoke with authority, accustomed as he was to instruct an audience largely composed of the illiterate, who used nothing but their eyes -- and very good eyes too -- to judge results. Applied to India the system was in truth an absurdity and marvellously calculated once more to open the gulf between scientist and peasant which Sir Albert had been at such pains to close. It gave full scope to that pretentious vanity of the research world which he had spent a lifetime in attacking. It was not, however, until his return to Europe that he realized the full force of the intrusion of statistics into agriculture: his most vigorous utterances were made in these later years.

On the question of artificial fertilizers Sir Albert's opinions were at first much like those of his colleagues. He certainly had no objection to them, for a long time taking them more or less for granted, indeed, quite in favour of their use in a general way. There is no reason to attribute to him anything that can be called an initial prejudice against them. He does, however, seem to have made but little use of them in his experiments, and the argument for this abstention cannot be considered open to criticism -- he avoided their use for the simple reason that he knew the peasants of India could not afford them; indeed, they were scarcely to be procured at the bazaars. (According to the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India, issued in 1928, there was a very small production of sulphate of ammonia in India itself as a by-product at the Tate Iron and Steel Company's works, etc. In 1919 of the 4,4336 tons produced only 472 tons were used in the country and in 1925 of 14,771 tons only 6,395 tons, the rest being exported. The Commission notes the prospects of increased imports and use.) However, he made some use of ADCO, the synthetic activator sold by Rothamsted, in his composting experiments, but, as already noted had found this substance a good deal less satisfactory than animal dung; the compost thus made tended to break down unevenly and remain lumpy and finally to lose nitrogen; a number of pot experiments with ADCO compost also gave less good results than those with farmyard manure compost. However, in his final summary, Sir Albert does not depart from the current view of the value of artificials. He does not hesitate to state that 'the full possibilities of humus will only appear when the dressings of compost are supplemented by the addition of suitable artificials. The combination of the two, applied at the right moment and in proper proportions, will open the door to the intensive crop production of the future. Humus and artificials will supplement one another'. (The Waste Products of Agriculture, p. 112.) One proviso he does make, and it is an important one, that a fair state of fertility, built up by organic matter, must precede the use of these fertilizers; artificials can 'never be the whole story'.

One passage only, written rather early in 1916, points in an opposite direction. It has been quoted at the end of the chapter on 'Soil Aeration and Irrigation', and the reader is asked to turn back to it. It is a most interesting statement and argues with great clearness against the use of artificials as sheer waste of money. It is pointed out that the soil possesses in its own bacteria and fungi an ample mechanism for providing the plant with necessary nitrogen or phosphate. It ends by repudiating the idea that we need anything more than the natural surface of the earth -- 'a vast nitrate and phosphate-producing factory' -- to enable us to feed the world. (See Chapter 3, Soil Aeration and Irrigation.)

Possibly those ideas remained always in the background of Sir Albert's mind. He was so engaged in thinking in terms of green-manure and compost, organic matter generally, of which there is endless mention in his writings, that he probably scarcely thought about artificials, as something of no importance to what he was doing. Eventually two types of knowledge, the Eastern and the Western, contrasted and compared, provided almost too much food for reflection: what had not been apprehended while so hard at work in the tropics became sudden and final realization on return to the West. (There is a discussion of the question of the relative advantages of artificial manures and natural organic manures for India in Crop Production in India, pp. 39-41. The question is there put as one which has still to be solved, and it is stated that there was controversy in India itself on the point. Sir Albert does not attempt to deliver a verdict, but argues that 'a good deal of careful experiment' will be needed to determine the matter. He suggests taking up two areas of land and working them on the two types of manure (artificials and compost made on Chinese or Japanese methods), with keeping of costs, results, and records of the nitrogen balance sheet. He remarks that the results will be 'exceedingly interesting'.)

The Ideal Investigator

In spite of the public appreciation of his great services to agricultural science, Sir Albert felt himself somewhat isolated before he left India. There is a strong touch of idealism, idealism mixed with uneasiness, in the utterances of the last years: idealism, in that he knew what colossal advances could be made in India if only the right arrangements would commend themselves in the right quarters, uneasiness because of the realization how slender were the chances that Government or public would have the sense to probe the situation as he had probed it. Here is his own contribution to the decidedly difficult problem of dividing the work between the big Experiment Stations and smaller centres.

He is careful to say that demonstration work should be 'an honoured profession', but that research ranked highest in his mind cannot be doubted. In refusing to the workers at the smaller centres the right to do research, Sir Albert was cutting through a situation full of falseness and pretensions. It was already becoming the policy of governments, perhaps more at home than in India, to recruit an army of inexperienced workers, mostly young, and to tempt them into service by calling their work 'research' and indeed expecting research from them. Sir Albert held very strongly that it is not possible to presume the existence of so many individuals endowed by Nature with the brains and the personality needed for true research in so difficult a field as agriculture. The recruitment of a large cadre could only mean the recruitment of mediocrity, which would have mattered less had there not been that convention that each worker so recruited must produce some tangible evidence of his investigations. A vast mass of unimportant records without synthesis or direction, making no contribution to practical solutions, filled the learned journals -- urgent problems were thrust aside while quality gave way to quantity. On this point Sir Albert was later very bitter.

Who, then, should be the research worker? Sir Albert's requirements are severe.

There follows one of Sir Albert's many protests against the fragmentation of science, which, while necessary for the teaching of science in a University, should be discarded as soon as the student ventures on a career of research in agriculture, where 'the work of the plant... has no separate existence in terms of botany, chemistry, or physics'. He then continues:

Two years later, in his Address to the Indian Science Congress in 1926 already mentioned, Sir Albert referred rather more definitely to the two opposing tendencies which must be reconciled in the teaching of science: the integration of several sciences in training recruits for applied work like agricultural research, and the pursuit of the specialized knowledge needed for the advancement of pure science. (Presidential Address, ad fin. See also the notes made by Mrs. Gabrielle Howard for her book on the training of students, above.) There is no need to cite the passage here; it is only necessary to refer to it in order to make plain that Sir Albert was quite as well aware of the claims of the single sciences pursued as ends in themselves as any who devote their lives to such a task. All he was at pains to do was to show the distinction between this accepted ideal and another ideal, that of the application of science to practical life, which was too apt to be thrust aside as a secondary objective.

The Investigator's Reward

Although in his discussion of this topic Sir Albert boldly entitles his chapter 'The Ideal Investigator', he had his feet too firmly on the ground not to be well aware that all research workers, however idealistic their ultimate aims, are bound to be affected by the remuneration given to their efforts; more especially is recruitment of clever young men influenced by the future chances of generous rewards. The agricultural research worker would get little academic recognition. Once it is agreed that applied work is different from what is done at a university, this follows logically: for academic distinction must go for academic effort. What comparable reward could the worker in the applied field then look for? The passage in which Sir Albert discusses this is rather interesting, for he shows up a difficulty which has not yet been solved and which is of considerable importance.

It was always to the 'best talent' that Sir Albert looked for advancing the cause to which he was devoting his life. Such workers require freedom: and this is the final point to which all discussion must return. It is, of course, necessary to have public control of public funds but in their actual operations scientific workers cannot be guided by official opinion. (Sir Albert favoured the Development Board as the kind of body which could administer such funds without unduly hampering the worker; Crop Production in India, p. 193.) In such work 'official views do not exist. At any moment in research, a discovery may be made by the last joined recruit which amounts to a revolution in ideas, in outlook, and in methods of investigation'. The claim thus is for release from the trammels of over-organization, for opportunities to 'follow the gleam' and prove worthy of the task; the corollary to the choosing of ability must be a permitted independence in doing the work.


Agric. Journ. of India, Special Indian Science Congress No. , 1916: 'The Application of Botanical Science to Agriculture'

Postgraduate Training in Agriculture, 1922.

Agric. Journ. of India, Vol. XVIII, Part III, May 1923: 'The Role of Plant Physiology in Agriculture'. (Presidential Address to the Section of Botany, Indian Science Congress.)

Crop Production in India, 1924, Ch. XX: 'The Ideal Investigator' Ch. XXI: 'The Organization of Research'.

Agric. Journ. of India, Vol. XXI, Part III, May 1926: 'Agriculture and Science'. (Presidential Address to the Indian Science Congress. )

Indian Agriculture, 1927, Ch. III: 'The Organization of Agricultural Research'.

Agric. Journ. of India, Vol. XXIV, Part III, May 1929: 'The Improvement of Plants'. (Presidential Address to the Section of Agriculture, Indian Science Congress.)

The Application of Science to Crop Production, 1929, Ch. VII: 'The Organization of Agricultural Research'.

MS. Notes of Mrs. G. L. C. Howard for a textbook for Indian students researching in agriculture.

Next: Final Remarks

Back to Contents

Back to Small Farms Library index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us