Should We Rename the Marsden Fund?

Revised version of a letter to Royal Society Alert 374, 20 May, 2005

Keywords: Miscellaneous;

I am a fortunate recipient of a grant from the Marsden Fund, administered by the RSNZ, fortunate because there are so many deserving researching who are missing out because of the limited funds. My good fortune has led me to recognise a problem with the Fund’s name.

My subject is globalisation, which involves considerable interaction with overseas colleagues. When I mention I am Marsden funded, they look blank. (The one exception was a Sydneysider who wonder what missionary Samuel Marsden had to do with research.)

The Fund is named after Ernest Marsden (1889-1970). I think of him every day, when I switch on a radio or cell phone inside a room,. It is Marsden’s 1909 measurements from which his supervisor, Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) deduced the nuclear model of the atom, which suggested those solid looking walls are largely empty. Rutherford described the findings “as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you”.

The Fund’s naming commemorates Marsden’s role in founding the DSIR which, ironically, was dismantled just before the Fund was established. But neither feat is known to my international colleagues nor, I expect, to most of those with whom other Marsden grantees are interacting. Marsden should be honoured for his contributions to New Zealand science, but perhaps it is not in the interests of the science he so fostered that our premium general research fund should be named after him.

There are a number of possible titles. To progress the discussion I suggest it be renamed ‘The Rutherford Fund’, instantly recognisable to scientists all over the world and to all New Zealanders. (He is already acknowledged by the Rutherford Medal, the highest award instituted by the Royal Society of New Zealand, There is already a Marsden Medal.)

Rutherford’s international status is an appropriate reason for naming a fund which enables researchers to engage with their international colleagues. But there are also domestic reasons.

The highest value note of the realm is the Rutherford. The fund is top dollar research. Yet the note is only $100, reminding of Rutherford’s “We don’t have the money, so we have to think”.

Even more pertinently, in 1916 he said he thought it would not be possible to efficiently unlock the energy of the nucleus. By the time he died, the research program which he was an integral part of had shown it was possible and, of course, Rutherford had changed his mind.

The point here is not that science is about making mistakes and correcting them, true though that may be. Rather, Rutherford was driven by a curiosity about the world. Yet the understandings his, and others’, curiosity generated led to practical applications which transformed the world we live in. I can think of no better justification for the curiosity driven research with which the Fund is concerned.

John Campbell helped me checking Rutherford’s facts. He may not agree with the content though. The Rutherford website

The following was in the Royal Society Alert 382, 14 July, 2005.

A couple of months ago we published a letter from Brian Easton MRSNZ suggesting that the Marsden Fund’s name, which commemorates Ernest Marsden’s role in founding the DSIR should be renamed as Marsden’s name is not widely known in international circles.

Two or three readers agreed with Brian’s comment, As one said: “Marsden” does take quite a bit of explaining, and even the explanation can be soon forgotten by those who don’t quite take it in the first time! However, the article provoked a comment in reply from Sir Ian Axford, who wrote:
“The choice of Marsden as the name of our research fund was made because, although born in Lancashire, he made a very great contribution to the development of scientific research in New Zealand. In contrast, Rutherford, although born here, left at the age of 23 with a Master’s degree. Marsden can be fairly be regarded as having pushed New Zealand into science whereas Rutherford did little more than recommend some of his students to chairs at our Universities.

New Zealanders have a serious problem with their forelocks. We like nothing better than to tug them deferentially towards their countrymen who have made good in the world outside, if they are remembered, even when they retain only a slight connection with New Zealand itself. Thus we revere not only Rutherford but other icons such as Wilkins, Popper, Wilson, Tinsley, Pickering, Buck, Mansfield, Gillies and Condliffe, who lived and worked abroad, but have neglected Aitken, Comrie, and Williams. We knew Ernest Marsden too well to offer a forelock to him.

Marsden’s name was chosen for the Fund, not because he was a great scientist but because he made science work effectively in New Zealand. The 1990s it is true, saw the end of Marsden’s DSIR but, since businessmen (and economists no less) had suggested that we might be better off to ‘purchase’ our research abroad, it was also a time to remember that good things can be done in New Zealand.”