What history says on science, innovation and growth

The experience of being on the Science Question Time panel on ‘Science and growth’ was a great deal more pleasurable than I had feared in my dark moments of imagining delusioned scientists throwing cabbages, and economists and policy experts laughing at me. While it wasn’t necessarily easy to bring history into a conversation that was, naturally, focused on the present and near future, I found the conversation fascinating and managed to throw in a couple of points by way of perspective.

You can read the tweets from the evening here, and you can check back at the main page linked above for details of the podcast or any other comments.

It is a topic that I will undoubtedly come back to, but I thought it might be interesting to say a little on how I prepared myself for the event. Here is some reading, focusing on the 20th century rather than my 18th-19th-century comfort zone, and a handful of axioms that armed me for the fray. Because the rest of the panel and most of the questions were extremely well-informed, there wasn’t much need to spend my time puncturing traditional myths, but it may be interesting to see their opposites in black and white, and bear them in mind when I come back to the theme.


The introduction to Jon Agar’s new Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond and his framework of ‘working worlds’ was very useful in thinking about the relationship between science, technology, innovation and government without getting bogged down in discussions about ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ science.

John Krige, ‘Critical reflections on the science-technology relationship‘, Transactions of the Newcomen Society 76 (2006), 259-69 [thanks @ali_boyle for the suggestion] is a very useful introductory outline to the issues and previous approaches.

Edwin Layton, ‘Mirror-image twins: the communities of science and technology in 19th-century America’, Technology and Culture 12 (1971), 562-80 [thanks to @thrustvector for the suggestion] has a nice case-study of the separate spheres in which science and technology develop.

David Edgerton, ‘The linear model’ did not exist: Reflections on the history and historiography of science and research in industry in the twentieth century‘ gets beyond the obvious point that there is no linear model (science->technology->growth, or variants) and points out that earlier commentators could be a lot more sophisticated, and that too much history of science and policy discussion gets fixated on the tiny world of academic research.


  • All science is not academic science
  • Most science is not publicly-funded
  • Most research is not academic
  • Most science is not research
  • Technology builds on technology, science builds on science
  • Science benefits more from new technologies than vice versa
  • Science was never pure

While there may be counter-examples, and differences across time and nations, I think that most of these stand up, and are helpful when thinking about science in the past and the present and, more than likely, the future too.

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