Experts Ought To Be On Tap and Not On Top

Winston Churchill? Harold Laski? George William Russell? Gertrude Mathews Shelby? Felix Frankfurter? Salvador de Madariaga? Robert Cecil? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When a government or organization faces a difficult decision, its leaders must consult with expert thinkers and scientists; however, the resultant actions should not be dictated solely by the experts. Capable leaders are generalists with high-level comprehensive viewpoints; whereas, experts typically have insightful but overly narrow perspectives. Here are three ways to express this notion:

  • Experts must be on tap, and not on top.
  • Specialists should be on tap, never on top.
  • Scientists should be on tap, but not on top.

This adage has been attributed to statesman Winston Churchill, influential economist Harold Laski, and Irish writer George William Russell. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in a Dublin, Ireland periodical called the “The Irish Homestead” in 1910. George William Russell was the editor, and he wrote a piece about legislation that included the following. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Our theory, which we have often put forward, is that experts ought to be on tap and not on top. We have had during our career a long and intimate knowledge of experts, most interesting men in their own speciality to which they have devoted themselves with great industry and zeal. But outside this special knowledge they are generally as foolish and ignorant as any person one could pick up in the street, with no broad knowledge of society or the general principles of legislation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1912 Russell published “Co-operation & Nationality: A Guide for Rural Reformers from This to the Next Generation”, and he reiterated the cogent statement: 2

Experts ought to be on tap and not on top. The official classes will, I believe, be much happier serving the public than in setting snares, or inventing schemes, to control industries and movements they had no part in creating, where their interference would be fatal to any fine idealism or noble humanity.

In 1914 a writer in “The Catholic World” of New York printed a version of the saying that referred to “specialists” instead of “experts”. Russell received credit: 3

As Mr. G.W.E. Russell so happily put it not long ago, “Specialists should be on tap, not on top.”

In 1918 the “Monthly Bulletin of the Canadian Mining Institute” printed the saying with an ascription to Russell: 4

I am rather inclined to subscribe to George Russell’s pregnant saying that experts should be “on tap and not on top.” I do admit, however, that it would be a very foolish kind of government or minister who did not do everything that was possible to encourage specialism, and not only so, but be ready so far as his limited intelligence permitted to be guided by that expert’s advice when it was clear that the expert advice was needed.

In 1920 an article by Gertrude Mathews Shelby in “Harper’s Monthly Magazine” employed the key phrase from the expression: 5

The Occupational Council is, then, the group of executive experts who are “on tap but not on top,” who really occupy the position of an advisory staff to “sovereign citizens.”

In 1923 the “Harvard Alumni Bulletin” in Massachusetts printed an anonymous instance with the word “never”: 6

Somebody has said that experts should always be on tap but never on top. That rule may apply to the religious as well as the secular life.

In March 1924 Felix Frankfurter, future member of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote a book review for the “Harvard Law Review”. Frankfurter ascribed the adage to Æ which was the grapheme used by George William Russell as a pseudonym: 7

These safeguards largely rest in a highly professionalized civil service, (always remembering Æ’s wise dictum that “the expert should be on tap but not on top”) . . .

Also, in 1924, Harold Laski sent a letter to Supreme Court member Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. containing a harsh description of bureaucrats. He used the adage without attribution: 8

. . . the habits of bureaucracy. The things which distinguish it are these: 1. Its members all say the same thing. 2. They cannot understand that their expert knowledge is open to independent enquiry. If I may so phrase [it] they do not see that the business of an expert is to be on tap and not on top. 3. They have complete contempt for all outside their charmed circle.

In 1927 “The New York Times” reported on a speech delivered by Spanish diplomat Salvador de Madariaga who ascribed the saying to British statesman Robert Cecil, later winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: 9

“The League of Nations is virtually obligated to call a disarmament conference in 1929, and in this conference the people should make their feelings felt. If it is dominated by experts it will get nowhere. As Lord Robert Cecil said recently, ‘Experts should always be on tap, but never on top.’

In 1932 a version of the saying with “engineer” instead of “expert” appeared in the New York periodical “Forum and Century”. Credit went to A.E. instead of the grapheme Æ: 10

A.E., the Irish poet and economist, somewhere says, “The engineer should be on tap but not on top,” . . .

In 1944 the journal “Science” published a note from an unhappy individual who referred to a version of the saying that used “man of science” instead of “expert”: 11

An eminent English economist has recently said that “the man of science should be on tap but not on top.” This statement sums up the totalitarian view very nicely, as it does the position of the professional physicist in society. It looks upon the great man of science not as a creative spirit who achieves those virtues unique with man—reason, detachment and understanding—but as somebody to be used by society when the need suggests it.

In 1946 influential journalist and commentator Max Lerner applied the saying to military generals: 12

Generals may know how to fight a war, but our problem is how to avoid one. Generals may know how to crush social unrest in a depression, but our problem is how to prevent one.

Generals are experts. As such, they should be on tap, not on top.

In 1959 Chemistry Professor and incoming President of the University of Saskatchewan, John William Tranter Spinks, ascribed an instance of the saying to Winston Churchill: 13

While crediting the rolling phrases of Winston Churchill with bolstering the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain. Dr. Spinks recalled that Churchill said scientists “should be on tap but not on top.”

In 1964 Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston Churchill, participated in an interview with Clive Irving, managing editor of “The Sunday Times” of London. The text appeared in the book “Twenty-One Years” by Randolph Churchill. In the following except, the son ascribed the saying to the father: 14

Irving: Your father had a lot of people round him in the war who today would be called managers, who were at the time some of them unorthodox.

Churchill: Well, he once said “scientists should be on tap, but not on top”—a little-known remark of his.

In conclusion, QI believes that George William Russell deserves credit for crafting this adage based on the 1910 citation. Over the years many other people have employed versions of the expression including Harold Laski, Gertrude Mathews Shelby, Felix Frankfurter, and Salvador de Madariaga. In addition, there is substantive evidence that Winston Churchill used a version tailored to scientists.

Image Notes: Stylized depiction of a library database from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)


  1. 1910 December 31, The Irish Homestead: The Organ of Irish Agricultural and Industrial Development, Volume 17, Number 53, Notes of the Week: Fair Play in Legislation, Start Page 1087, Quote Page 1087, Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Dublin, Ireland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1912, Co-operation & Nationality: A Guide for Rural Reformers from This to the Next Generation by George W. Russell (George William Russell), Chapter 11: Farmers and the State, Start Page 74, Quote Page 81, Maunsel & Company, Dublin, Ireland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1914 March, The Catholic World, Volume 98, Number 588, A Philosophy of Social Progress by W. E. Campbell, Start Page 721, Quote Page 728, The Office of The Catholic World, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1918 April, Monthly Bulletin of the Canadian Mining Institute, Number 72, The Annual Dinner: The Speeches, Start Page 347, Quote Page 350, Published by Authority of the Council of the Canadian Mining Institute at the Secretary’s Office, Montreal Quebec, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1920 April, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Extending Democracy: What the Cincinnati Social Unit Has Accomplished by Gertrude Mathews Shelby, Start Page 688, Quote Page 689, Column 1, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1923 March 15, Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Volume 25, Number 24, Section: Short Book Reviews, Book Review by A.P.B. of “The Understanding of Religion” by Edward Tenney Brewster, Start Page 722, Quote Page 722, Published for the Harvard Alumni Association by the Harvard Bulletin, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1924 March, Harvard Law Review, Volume 37, Number 5, Section: Book Reviews, Book Review by Felix Frankfurter of The Growth of American Administrative Law by Ernst Freund et al, Start Page 638, Quote Page 641, The Harvard Law Review Association, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1963, Holmes-Laski Letters: The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski, 1916-1935, Volume 1, Edited by Mark DeWolfe Howe, Abridged by Alger Hiss, Chapter 4: 1924, Letter from: Harold J. Laski, Letter to: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Quote Page 429, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  9. 1927 December 29, New York Times, Says People Alone Can Disarm Nations: Former League Chief Declares Governments Are Powerless Without Public Opinion, Quote Page 5, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1932 May, Forum and Century, John N. Garner: Presidential Possibilities—IX, by Clinton W. Gilbert, Start Page 312, Quote Page 312, Column 3, Forum Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  11. 1944 October 20, Science, New Series, Volume 100, The Threat to Pure Science by Alexander W. Stern, Start Page 356, Quote Page 356, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. (JSTOR) link
  12. 1946 October 25, The Gazette and Daily, Shall We Have A General For President? by Max Lerner, Quote Page 25, Column 2, York, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1959 February 20, The Edmonton Journal, Scientist Slated To Head University Of Saskatchewan, Quote Page 28, Column 2, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1965, Twenty-One Years by Randolph S. Churchill, (Randolph Spencer Churchill), Chapter: Epilogue 1964, Quote Page 140, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)