The Longitude Prize Committee: a new Board of Longitude?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

The Board of Longitude brought to life at Greenwich Theatre in 2005.
The Board of Longitude brought to life at Greenwich Theatre in 2005. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The new Longitude Prize has nothing to do with longitude: that particular problem is long since solved. Yet it has a Longitude Committee that, like the original Board of Longitude, includes the Astronomer Royal. Lord Rees has borrowed the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act and the idea of an incentive prize in the hope of turning money and talent toward a new challenge.

But, apart from the Astronomer Royal, what are the connections between the new committee and the old? And what do the differences tell us about the two schemes?

The Commissioners

The 1714 Act appointed a number of Commissioners of Longitude, either by name or by position, from political, maritime and scientific worlds. By making several positions ex officio, the authors of the Act ensured – by accident or design – that the Commission could continue in perpetuity. It also marked a first by bringing key scientific positions directly into government decision-making.

The political positions were: the Speaker of the House of Commons, the First Commissioner of Trade and, in 1714, ten named Members of Parliament. The maritime and Admiralty representation was: the First Lord of the Admiralty; the First Commissioner of the Navy; the Admirals of the Red, White and Blue Squadrons; and the Master of Trinity House.

The scientific men were: the President of the Royal Society; the Astronomer Royal; and the SavilianLucasian and Plumian Professors at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Later the Lowndean Professorship, founded in 1749, was also added.

The Commissioners do not seem to have met before 1737, when they deliberated John Harrison’s first reward, by which time many of the named MPs had died. The left the ex officios, the best-known of which attending in 1737 were Edmond Halley and James Bradley. Halley was Astronomer Royal, although he had previously been a Commissioner as Savilian Professor. Bradley was there as Savilian Professor, but was to remain a Commissioner when he succeeded Halley as Astronomer Royal. It was a small world.

The Board

The Commissioners of Longitude were not known as the Board of Longitude until around the 1760s. By then business was considerably more bureaucratic and regular and the core team had settled down as the Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society, the professors, the first Lord of the Admiralty and the secretaries to the Board and the Admiralty.

Things changed again when, under the influence of Joseph Banks, the Board was reorganized. It had already become concerned with all navigational issues, not just longitude, and now the ambition was to become a scientific advisory board to the Admiralty. The 1818 Longitude Act appointed three Fellows of the Royal Society and three salaried Resident Commissioners on top of the professors. This was, apart from packing the Board with Banksian sympathisers, a way to include other scientific fields.

The Committee

I can’t comment on the internal politics but, despite obvious differences, there are some interesting similarities between the Board and the Longitude Committee. Firstly, of course, there is Lord Rees, who as Astronomer Royal links the two groups. (A few years ago, Rees had positions that would have earned him a seat on the Board of Longitude three times over: Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society and Plumian Professor).

Oxbridgian scientific gravitas remains, with Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge, and Kay Davies, Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy at Oxford. Also present is is Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at Southampton. The range of disciplines shows that, while longitude was seen as a mathematical and astronomical matter, the breadth of potential challenges this time around requires a broader mix. The presence of women also reveals social change, although at 4/18 of the Committee, perhaps less than we’d like.

Engineering had no academic or institutional presence in the early 18th century, but in the 21st it is clearly a field relevant to solving technical problems. Thus, rather than the President of the Royal Society, we haveMartyn Thomas, Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

A novelty of the last century is the appointment of scientists directly to government. On the Committee are Chief Scientific Advisor Mark Walport, Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies and David Mackay, Regius Professor in Engineering at Cambridge and Chief Scientific Advisor to the DECC. Otherwise, the connection to government is down to John O’Reilly, Director General of Knowledge and Innovation (there’s a title!) at BIS.

From here the differences are significant, starting with those linking business, charity and government. In 1714, men who made their living through trade would not, unlike the propertied gentlemen MPs, have been seen as disinterested enough to guarantee their trustworthiness. In 2014, however, we have David Gibson, Head of Innovation at GlaxoSmithKline; Andrew Dunnett, Director of the Vodafone Foundation;Iain Gray of the Technology Strategy Board; and Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of the prize organisers Nesta.

Also included are individuals known for championing and communicating science. There is Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association; Roger Highfield, journalist and Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum; and Andrew Cohen, Head of the BBC Science Unit. Spanning different ends of science and technology publishing arePhil Campbell, Editor in Chief of Nature, and David Rowan, editor of Wired Magazine.

The public

While 18th-century Britain had many significant popularisers of science, they would not have been Board members. Plenty was said about providing something of public utility, not to mention saving lives at sea, but there was no interest in consulting more widely. Indeed, it seems that the call for longitude rewards came from the scientific community – potential winners of money – rather than from mariners.

The role of the public has, therefore, changed. While in 1714 an interested public was the source of potential solutions, with the large reward of £20,000 designed to spread the word and catch the eye, in 2014 there is little sense that answers will come from outside a trained and professional group of scientists or engineers. Thus the public is brought on board to help (a little) with a choice from the six potential challenges.

What the result of the public choice is, and the response to the challenge, time will tell. Given that, unlike the original Commissioners of Longitude, the Longitude Committee has not been appointed ex officio, we might assume they hope it will all take less than half a century.


There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize #2

I am reposting part of this post from the Longitude Project blog, as a timely reminder, because there *is* now such a thing as the Longitude Prize. It is also on Twitter and much in the media as it heads toward official launch next week. The six potential challenges for the new £10 million prize will be explored on Horizon on 22 May, in a programme that will also look back at the original longitude story. I will appear briefly as a talking head in a film on challenge prizes on The One Show tonight, failing to make the points outlined below. [Update: just heard that my contribution has been cut from the brief film – boo!]

Despite having, back stage, had some impact on how Nesta have been thinking about their prize, the media focus remains on the story of a “prize” that was won by John Harrison. Having just done a talk last night pointing out that Newton was right to say longitude was “not to be found by Clock-work alone” – and that, in fact, the timekeeping method could never have taken off without the complementary lunar-distance method working in tandem with it – I turn back to this post. There was no prize. Harrison did not win it. He did not solve the longitude problem single handed. It made sense for the Board of Longitude to back both methods.


There was no such thing as the Longitude Prize. From the beginning, as well as using the term “reward” not “prize”, the Longitude Act offered a range of sums depending on the accuracy achieved. Later on, with subsequent acts, the possible rewards proliferated, initially with the realisation that Harrison needed to be supported with ‘grants’ of money while developing his clocks and, by the 1770s, with knowledge that a handful of sea watches was not a complete solution and that benefit would be gained by offering further rewards for improvements to techniques and hardware.

Derek Howse’s article on the Finances of the Board of Longitude reveals what was spent by the Commissioners. Between 1714 and 1828, rewards accounted for only 33% of spending, while overheads (23%), expeditions (15%) and publications (29%) made up the rest. The total spent on rewards was £52,534, of which £22,000 went to Harrison. This sum was made up of a number of payments between 1737 and 1764 to improve and test his timekeepers, £7500 paid in 1765 (a further sum being on offer to take this up to a £20,000 reward if two more sea watches could be made, one by Harrison and one by another maker) and £8750 was awarded by an act of parliament in 1773.

It’s a matter of interpretation as to whether this process constitutes receiving the maximum reward. A number of the payments to Harrison had required additional acts (in 1762, 1754 and 1765) and, ultimately, all the money came from government as a result of the original Act of Parliament. However, the final payment did not appear in the Board’s accounts, which confirms the fact that this final move took place outside the Commissioners’ decision-making process.

More interesting to me is who received the other £30,534. Happily, Howse’s article lists all the reward recipients in an appendix. The bulk of the rewards post-date 1765, when the Board played its hand and divided out rewards between the two successful methods, timekeeping and lunar distances. While Harrison received his £7500 in October 1765, in May:

  • Leonhard Euler was paid £300 “for Theorums furnished by him to assist Professor Mayer in the Construction of Lunar tables”
  • Maria Mayer was paid £3000 as a posthumous reward to her husband Tobias “for his having constructed a Set of Lunar Tables” and to her for making them property of the Commissioners
  • Catherine Price, Edmond Halley‘s daughter, was paid £100 for handing over several of Halley’s manuscripts, which the Commissioners believed “may lead to discoveries useful to navigation”.

While Harrison’s work was the cause of the Commissioners beginning to meet, keep minutes and spend money, there were other pre-1765 pay-outs. Christopher Irwin received £600 in 1762-3 for his marine chair (designed to allow observations of Jupiter’s satellites on board ship) and way back in 1741, William Whiston was paid £500 “For procuring a new Sett of Astronomical Instruments for finding out the Longitude on the Coasts of this Kingdom with the Variations of the Needle and for enabling him to make Observations with them”.

Harrison was certainly the biggest single beneficiary of the Longitude Acts, but balanced against that are the many involved in lunar distances. There are the rewards to Euler and Mayer, but 1765 also saw the beginning of investment in the computing work (£35,559 to 1828) and publication of the Nautical Almanac. There had already been expenditure on lunar-distance-related hardware, salaries for trials and expeditions and later sums were paid out for work on astronomical tables, for example £1537 between 1770-93 for Charles Mason‘s efforts and £1,200 to Josef de Mendoza y Rios for his longitude tables in 1814.

Post-1765 there were numerous rewards, mostly of tens or hundreds of pounds. The largest, after Harrison’s, was divvied up among the officers and crew of HMS Hecla and Griper in 1820, who received £5000 for reaching 110°W within the Article Circle, after discovery of the North West Passage became one of the Board’s interests in the 1818 Act. The Arctic voyages also led to Edward Sabine being given £1000 in 1826 for his pendulum experiments. Those who helped develop the chronometer as a commercial product, John ArnoldThomas Earnshaw and Thomas Mudge, were each rewarded with £3000.

Although there was in the 18th-century a sense of competitiveness and occasional reference to a longitude prize (of which more in a later post [since published here]), suggesting that there was a single pay-out that Harrison did or did not win misses both the richness of the history of the Board of Longitude and obscures the way that longitude solutions were developed and used.


Astronomers Royal, scientific advice and engineering

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 12 September 2013.

The collapsed Tay Bridge

This evening, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, will weigh into the debate about climate change and geoengineering in an address at the British Science Festival.

Finding such fixes, as well as more efficient forms of alternative energy, may well be problems focused on by the new challenge prize that Rees has helped set up. That he, as Astronomer Royal, will be judging what has been called a new ‘Longitude Prize’, seems appropriate, but the innovations under consideration may be a long way from his own field of astronomy and cosmology.

Today the post of Astronomer Royal is honorary. It means simply, as Alok Jha’s article on Rees’s speech suggests, that he is “one of Britain’s most senior scientists”. Like a Chief Scientific Advisor, or the head of a scientific society, the Astronomer Royal can be expected to give all sorts of opinions about science and science policy, straying at least occasionally, if they wish, well beyond their area of research.

Was it always like this? Yes and no. Until the 1970s the post of Astronomer Royal was synonymous with director of the Greenwich Observatory (at GreenwichHerstmonceux and then Cambridge). Before the 19th century, the AR was also an active observer, in fact only one of two observers in the institution.

Nevertheless, Astronomers Royal were often called upon to make judgements and offer advice in areas that did not relate to making observations or managing an observatory. Because the Royal Observatory was funded by government, being under the administration of first the Board of Ordnance and then the Admiralty, there was potential for them to be asked to consider a whole range of technical and scientific issues.

For much of the AR’s history, the most obvious place in which this happened was the Board of Longitude. While many of the ideas under consideration were astronomical (involving knowledge of astronomical theory, mathematics, optics and instrumentation), others were based on geomagnetism or, of course, horology. Understanding clocks and timekeeping was essential to astronomy, but the specifics of horological theory and manufacture would have been beyond the AR’s experience.

ARs also advised on areas like cartography, instrument design and weights and measures, that involved techniques closely allied to astronomy. But they were also asked to consider a wide range of fields of interest to the Admiralty and other branches of government, simply because they ended up being their available scientific expert.

One of the ARs who most obviously became the government’s go-to scientific and technical guy was George Airy, who was in position from 1835 to 1881. Airy covered a great deal of ground, intellectually and practically. Unlike all his predecessors he was not much involved with daily observations and he had a significantly larger workforce at the Observatory, onto which observation, calculation and even management could be delegated.

Airy, for example, did a considerable amount of work on the effect of iron ships’ hulls on compass use and design. He also advised, like many other ARs, on education and he was involved in the organisation of the Great Exhibition. He was, perhaps most intriguingly, called in to advise the Great Western Railway on track gauges and the engineer Thomas Bouch about the pressures that might be exerted by wind on the planned rail bridge crossing the Forth.

That latter advice got him into trouble. It was first applied by Bouch to the Tay Bridge and, when that collapsed in 1879 [see image above], Airy was called in by the enquiry. He claimed that his advice had been specific to the circumstances of the Forth and the design for that bridge (which was now speedily discarded). The enquiry agreed, suggesting that Bouch had “must have misunderstood the nature of [Airy’s] report”.

Airy did know quite a lot about engineering. He was, apart from anything else, closely involved with the design of large instruments and their mounts at Greenwich. Times and the nature and range of expertise have changed considerably since the 19th century, however. Lord Rees is not an Astronomer Royal who can offer specific or technical engineering expertise, rather he is calling for research and funding. Whether or not you agree with his statements is a different matter.

Will David Cameron’s ‘Longitude Prize’ for innovation achieve its aim?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 14 June 2013.

Detail of John Harrison's H3 sea clock

Today we will hear from the prime minister, David Cameron, about the launch of a new “Longitude Prize”. The £1m top prize is, he will say, intended to help the search “for the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web”, according to the BBC report. Lord Rees, the current Astronomer Royal, will head a “Longitude Committee” to judge ideas.

It seems likely that, as we hear more about the design of the competition, the foci of the scheme will be narrowed and, I hope, that some ongoing means of aiding potential competitors will be brought in. We, and they, should recall that the original Longitude Prize was focused on one very specific problem with a number of understood technical challenges. In addition, as I have written elsewhere, John Harrison’s timekeepers would not have been produced without long-term financial investment. A prize is not enough.

Nevertheless, the public face of this project is interesting so far for its hugely wide range. Part of the competition seems to be coming up with a good challenge: what is it we actually want to have solved? Cameron will be asking, “What is the biggest challenge the world faces in the coming years, and how do we solve it?”. The other key theme, of course, is the very obvious connection with the longitude story.

The timing of the prize coincides with the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act next year. I assume that Cameron and Rees would like to have their problem defined and perhaps solved rather quicker that the century it took for the astronomical and timekeeping longitude solutions to become “practicable and useful at sea” – the demand of the 1714 Act.

As I have written elsewhere, though, there was no such thing as the Longitude Prize, and the Longitude Act may actually have had very little effect in speeding up the process of innovation. The history of longitude suggests that new ideas and technologies depend on communities of educated and/or skilled people, on the ability to share and discuss ideas, the possibility of making use of others’ skills and sufficient time and funding for research and development. New products either need a ready market or they must be supported and subsidised.

Nevertheless, as one of the team researching the history of the Board of Longitude, I am fascinated by the notion that a new Longitude Committee will be formed. Having the Astronomer Royal on board is entirely appropriate. All the Astronomers Royal between the 1714 Act and the closure of the Board in 1828 were key individuals for longitude projects to approach. All were ex officio Commissioners of Longitude and some, most especially Nevil Maskelyne, were essential drivers for all the Board’s activity.

For most of the Board of Longitude’s existence the most active members beyond the Astronomer Royal were the President of the Royal Society, the Oxbridge (later also London) professors of astronomy and mathematics, the First Lord and Secretaries of the Admiralty. Late in its life, after the penultimate in a long line of additional Longitude Acts was passed in 1818, there was an attempt to transform the Board into a scientific advisory committee, including paid positions for six advisers, three of whom were chosen from among the Fellows of the Royal Society. For more technical and practical knowledge, expert instrument makers and practical seamen might also be called as committee members or witnesses.

Who, apart from Lord Rees, will be included in the new committee? And what might a comparison of the Board then with the Committee today tell us about where authority and expertise – or good PR – rest today?

Advising government: did Isaac Newton get it wrong?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Just as today, governments past took advice about science. Isaac Newton gave evidence on solving the longitude problem. Was his advice as counter-productive as many have said?

Isaac Newton

There have been a lot of posts lately in the Guardian Science blogs about the role of the new chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport. While finding myself in the novel position of attempting to offer some thoughts to this incoming chief, I have also been co-writing a book about the search for longitude at sea, much of which revolves around issues of the relationships between skill, expertise, government and the public.

It turns out, of course, that advisers to government have often drawn flack, usually from those who stood to lose out financially as a result of their advice. Sometimes, though, that criticism comes as a result of hindsight. Given posterity’s tendency to condescend, that criticism is not always fair.

When the first Longitude Act was passed in 1714, the Walport equivalent was Isaac Newton. Although most often thought of as a solitary genius with apples falling on his head in Lincolnshire or writing an incomprehensible but revolutionary book in Cambridge, Newton was also to be an MP, Master of the Mint, President of the Royal Society and adviser to government.

When parliament considered a petition that asked for rewards to be offered to those who could help solve the problem of finding longitude at sea, Newton’s evidence was very clearly incorporated into the Act as written. As, thereafter, an ex officio Commissioner of Longitude, Newton also became one of those who judged submitted ideas and advised on whether they might be worth supporting.

It has become common to blame Newton for deflecting the commissioners and British government from what has been judged as the “correct” path to a successful outcome. It has been suggested that Newton was naturally biased to favour astronomical solutions and had little time for or interest in clocks as the way forward.

It seems clear that Newton did think that astronomical methods would – at some point – provide a successful solution. He believed that his evidence about their potential accuracy was reflected in the several levels of reward offered in the 1714 Act. In addition, the fact that the Act indicates that a reward might be payable after a single successful trial may show an assumption that the answer would lie in something universally applicable, like astronomy, rather than a machine.

Usually seen as most damning is the fact that Newton stated several times that longitude was not to be found by clockwork. He also suggested that clocks put forward for reward should be examined and trialled by others before the commissioners need meet to consider them.

Such facts have led some to declare that “even Newton could get it wrong”. Such a view has been put forward in histories of longitude and, unsurprisingly, by those writing the biography of John Harrison, whose disputes with the commissioners and well-rewarded sea clocks are well known. However, it has also been stated in Richard S Westfall’s biography of Newton that (p. 837)

His deprecation of clocks may have helped later to delay the acceptance of Harrison’s chronometers [sic], which did in fact offer a practical determination of longitude at sea.

Leaving aside the fact that Harrison’s unique watch left the British public a long way from possessing a practical solution, is it fair to say that Newton was prejudiced against clocks and retarded the putting of government funds into this method? Nope. Not really.

Firstly, Newton was dead right that longitude “is not to be found by Clockwork alone”, so long as astronomical methods were the only way of checking that an on-board clock was behaving itself.* As he said, a clock might be able to keep track of longitude but, should the clock stop or become erratic, only astronomy could help find longitude again. This essentially remained true until wireless radio signals could be used to compare a ship’s local time (determined astronomically) with a broadcast reference time.

Newton was also not so prejudiced against clocks that he did not wish to be bothered by applications from their makers, or at least no more than he was by any other such applications. In the case of astronomical methods, too, he advised that they be examined by other experts before being presented to the commissioners.

We also know that, several years earlier, Newton had been interested in Henry Sully‘s ideas for making a longitude timekeeper – something he went on to do in the 1720s – and had encouraged him, even passing on information about another horological novelty that he had come across.

Newton certainly could be wrong – I am sure that everyone can think of a few examples – but not really about this.

The difference in longitude between two places is equivalent to the difference in local time.

Did the Longitude Act speed up the solution to the longitude problem?

Cross-posted from The Longitude Project Blog.


I recently did a brief talk for some of the staff at Nesta, including their Centre for Challenge Prizes, on our project and  outcomes of our research. During the discussion, someone asked what is, particularly for them, a very pertinent question: “Did the Longitude Act speed up the arrival of a solution?”.

My answer was something along the lines of “sort of, possibly, probably no…”. It is not the kind of question that we historians are necessarily very good at answering, involving as it does the counter-factual world in which no such Act was ever passed by the British parliament. Still, it’s an interesting idea to play around with.

All the things that first came to my mind were the reasons why it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference. For a start, it was not the only potential reward available for whoever should come up with a viable longitude solution. As well as the earlier Spanish reward system, the Dutch version was still on-going, as were prizes on offer from the French Académie des Sciences. Had there not been the 1714 Act in Britain there might have been another one or initiatives organised through private individuals or institutions like the Royal Society.

Even without these schemes, plausible navigation-related ideas were always a potential means of gaining patronage and, if successful, could lead to honours, rewards, customers and a viable business. While the Longitude Act held out the possibility of a very large reward, it was certainly not the only or – for most people – the most likely way to make new ideas around longitude pay.

The question of “speed” is an interesting one. It is impossible to predict how long new ideas should take to develop, but when we consider that it is two decades before the Commissioners of Longitude met as a group, and another three before serious money was dispensed, it doesn’t sound particularly speedy. The 1714 Act had looked for a “practicable and useful” solution for the public, but there wasn’t anything widely available until a century later.

Something else that disrupts the idea of a prize having a quick and direct impact is the very international and collaborative nature of the potential solutions. The astronomical knowledge and mathematical tools required to make the lunar distance method workable were the product of many minds, in several countries. It was a process that might have been sped up by much larger sums of money being thrown at observatories to employ many more astronomers, but probably not by the possibility of a future prize.

The timekeeping method was also more international and collaborative than is often remembered. While a single clock can seem obviously the work of an individual, it incorporates the skills of many piece-workers and collaborators, knowledge of predecessors and availability of particular materials. These things are specific to time and place, meaning that new technologies only become possible in those circumstances. If the time was ripe for Harrison, so too was it for Ferdinand Berthoud and Pierre Le Roy in Paris and (possibly, or in time) for Thomas MudgeLarcum Kendall and John Arnold in London.

However, it is certainly true that the Longitude Act gained lots of attention and provoked lots of interest. It would also seem that the key players in the story – like John HarrisonJohn Hadley and Tobias Mayer – were, it not directly inspired to look at the problem as a result of the Act, certainly quickly interested in making contact with the Commissioners. Over time, their work was also to become of greater public interest and, therefore, better known as a result of the fame of the Act and all those involved in it.

It is probably also fair to say that Harrison would not have had the time or money to dedicate so much of his life to the problem without the financial assistance of the Board. I would also argue that investment in the later 18th century in the two methods – through the Nautical Almanac and other publications, trials, further rewards, training and so on – probably did speed up or at least allow their wider adoption. This, however, was only through new Acts and a changing understanding of the Board’s purpose.

All in all, my view is that had the 1714 Act, Harrison, Hadley and Mayer not existed, others would very probably have (and sometimes did) come up with similar solutions to the problems they tackled within somewhere around the same time frame. However, this is not necessarily a conclusion that I would claim for the progress of all reward schemes and challenge prizes. Things would be different should a prize, for example, highlight an issue people were unlikely otherwise to be working on or in a period with a much larger and more professionalised workforce than in the 18th century.

But that is only my view and, like all counter-factuals, probably begs to be shot down. I’d love to know what others think.

The benefits of hindsight: how history can contribute to science policy

By Rebekah Higgitt and James Wilsdon and first posted at The H Word blog. It is an edited version of their contribution to the book Future Directions for Scientific Advice in Whitehall, which is free to download here.

Long-term support, not a one-off reward, allowed John Harrison to build his sea clocks. Could research on the history of the Board of Longitude inform our thinking about science policy? Photograph: National Maritime Museum
Long-term support, not a one-off reward, allowed John Harrison to build his sea clocks. Could research on the history of the Board of Longitude inform our thinking about science policy? Photograph: National Maritime Museum

It is easy to chant the mantras of evidence-based policy, but less straightforward to determine which forms of expertise and evidence should count. There is now a welcome recognition across government that many policy problems benefit from multidisciplinary perspectives. But implicit hierarchies between disciplines persist, which are rarely explained or written down.

There have been several efforts to demonstrate the value of the humanities to policy in recent years, including helpful contributions from the British Academythe Arts and Humanities Research Council and individual humanities scholars.

Some progress has been made, but as the historian Roger Kain put it in his October 2011 oral evidence to the House of Lords inquiry into chief scientific advisers (speaking on behalf of the British Academy): “The term science and engineering seems at the moment to not exclude but marginalise the humanities and social science in relation to advice and expertise: culture, history, language, psychology, and political science”.

The potential contribution of a number of “marginalised” disciplines merits discussion. Here we want to focus on history, and call for the evidence and expertise of historians to be taken more seriously in policy – particularly science policy – alongside evidence from the natural and social sciences. Given Sir Mark Walport’s support for the medical humanities and the history of science during his decade as director of the Wellcome Trust, we hope this is an agenda where he will want to demonstrate some leadership during his tenure as government chief scientific adviser. We suggest that one way he could signal his commitment to the value of historical methods and insights in science policy would be to pilot a “hindsight project” within the government’s existing Foresight Programme.

Finding a place for history in science policy

In science policy, history often plays a role as example or justification, based on assumptions about how science is done or how innovation occurs that misrepresent our knowledge of the past. As Virgina Berridge notes in her study of history in health policy, there can be a “totemic role” for historians, where historical messages are “misunderstood or used for particular policy purposes”. Historians, naturally, aim to mediate the history used in the public sphere, ensuring that is not completely divorced from their research, most of which is publicly funded.

Initiatives like History and Policy are focused on encouraging historians to see the potential relevance of their work and, through policy-friendly reports, aim to show that “historians can shed light on the causes of current problems and even suggest innovative solutions”.

Historians have occasionally found a role within policymaking through research focused on topics of recent history and obvious relevance. One example is Catherine Haddon who, having produced a thesis on Whitehall and cold war defence, is now a research fellow at the Institute for Government. Similarly, there was interest in historian Abigail Wood’s work on foot and mouth disease, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis of 2001.

However, there is a role for broader input from the history of science and allied disciplines, if a mechanism can be found to bring this evidence into the policymaking process. Last month, the case for historical advisers in government departments received a high-profile endorsement from Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary. “Those who take major policy decisions in ignorance of relevant history,” he wrote, “are like a driver who commits to some manoeuvre in the road without looking into the rear mirror.”

His timing was deliberate: with momentum building around the use of evidence in policy and new initiatives such as the Cabinet Office’s network of “what works” centres, historians feel they are in danger of being undervalued as an asset to the policy process.

Dispelling myths and challenging assumptions

History of science can provide insights that may have general agreement within the discipline but sharper divergence from more popular accounts. Historians are good at judging the interests that lie behind differing interpretations of the past, as well as exploring their validity. One example is the work of David Edgerton, who has highlighted a number of areas in which common assumptions in science policy are shown to be problematic. These include challenging the perceived economic and technological significance of publicly funded research, and cherished notions of researcher autonomy such as the “Haldane Principle”.

Although Edgerton has shown that the so-called “linear model” of innovation is a recent academic construct, created as a foil to better models, there is frequent recourse, both by science lobbyists and austerity-juggling politicians, to economic arguments for science funding that sound suspiciously similar. The argument that pure scientific research is the best means of producing new and unexpected technologies dates back to the 19th century and has been corralled into support for increased state funding of science ever since.

Historical research has, however, shown that what is classed as “pure” science can often be seen as the product of work focused either on specific outcomes, or existing within what Jon Agar has called “working worlds” or “projects that generate problems”.

Historical myths, assumptions and analogies frequently find their way into policy announcements and, even if merely as throwaway devices to help frame a speech, can by repetition serve to cloud important issues. One example is the persistent myth of Britain being good at discovery and poor at supporting innovation, referred to in a 2010 speech by David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, as “that old British problem of failing to make the most of our own discoveries and inventions”. James Sumner pointed out that his example – Joseph Priestley, Johann Jacob Schweppe and the production of carbonated drinks – completely undermined Willetts’s point.

Eyes on the prize

One opportunity for the input of historical expertise to discussions about science, technology and innovation is in the recently established Centre for Challenge Prizes within Nesta, the UK innovation foundations. As the Centre’s Landscape Review explains, one of its activities will be research into the effectiveness of challenge prizes, past and present.

The emblematic example of challenge prizes is the 1714 Longitude Act. The meaning and usefulness of this choice is something that a current AHRC-funded research project on the history of the Board of Longitude, based at the University of Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum, is well-placed to examine. While the well-known version of the story appears to back claims about the efficacy of one-off inducement prizes, research shows that in order to provide a practical solution to the problem of finding longitude at sea, the Board was necessarily much more flexible in the range of funding mechanisms they used.

Given the focus on challenge prizes as economically efficient, perhaps the most problematic claim is that they “generate commercial activity”. It was the already-thriving commercial activity surrounding instrument making in 18th-century London that enabled production of potential longitude solutions, rather than the large reward acting as an incentive to commerce. Where the Board of Longitude was particularly significant was not in a one-off reward but through long-term support, as the longitude solutions were gradually accepted, embedded and made commercially viable.

The idea that financial risk can be limited “by awarding a prize only when the challenge is successfully met” raises pertinent questions, which troubled the Board greatly, about how to judge success. As well as paying out smaller rewards for promising ideas, the Board paid Harrison a very large reward despite the fact that his single, expensive and complex product was a long way from solving the problem for every naval vessel. The lessons to be learned are that prize criteria must be drawn up with extreme caution, and organisers must be clear about how much money is worth risking on a potentially prize-winning but not problem-solving solution.

The longitude case is one in which the history is partially known, in ways that are informed by erroneous assumptions about the nature of innovation. Familiar stories of geniuses who work alone to produce products that solve problems, more or less at a stroke, could hardly be less useful. Harrison was remarkable, but he and the successful longitude solutions required the skills of others and long-term support. Similar stories can be unearthed about other, more recent examples of challenge prizes and should be incorporated into thinking about what can be expected from such initiatives.

Hindsight enriching foresight

Of course, historians are not likely to be welcomed to the party if their only contribution is “but it’s more complicated than that.” An ability to unpack assumptions, myths and the lost contexts in which particular policy ideas were formed can be particularly useful. Dealing with nuance and complexity in evidence, and how perspective changes its interpretation, are commonplace skills in historical research and could be invaluable for mitigating potential policy failures and controversies, for example around new and emerging technologies.

As Geoff Mulgan has argued in this series of posts, historians and political scientists have also made important contributions to the field of “evidence about evidence”, helping policymakers to understand how knowledge is formed, exchanged and used in policymaking.

All of this leads to our modest concluding proposal. As Sir Mark Walport takes over at the Government Office for Science, one small but significant way in which he could signal his commitment to the value of historical methods and insights would be to pilot a “hindsight project” within the existing Foresight Programme. Adding one or two historians of science to the policy mix could provide the Government Office for Science, and the wider science and engineering profession in Whitehall, with the “rear mirror” on which, as Lord Butler argues, every good driver should rely.

Science, the public and the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word blog. This post relates to the Twitter spat that took place between various scientists, science advocates, historians, philosophers, communicators at the end of last year. For some context and links to other related posts, see Peter Brok’s post, notes and comments.

Icebergs and Ice Bits Near Kangilerngata Sermia Glacier, Disko Bugt (Disko Bay), West Greenland

Some Twitter-types may have noticed that the New Statesman editorial by Brian Cox and Robin Ince on science, evidence and policy provoked some discussion and debate between the authors and various people loosely within the fields of History and Philosophy of Science and Science and Technology Studies.

One interesting post on the piece has been written by Jack Stilgoe here in the Guardian. Let me say straight up that, like Stilgoe, there was plenty I agree with in the piece. Particularly the meat of their article, in paragraphs 4 to 7, including the clear acknowledgement that science is work-in-progress and that it cannot be the only thing that policy-makers take into account.

Likewise, most of those engaged in the Twitter discussion would have been in complete agreement that science is an excellent way of producing evidence vital for informed policy and that the scientific evidence on climate change is clear.

So why the fuss? It was an opinion piece that discussed the nature of science and the role of science in society. These are areas that people in HPS and STS have devoted their careers to researching. The view of science that was presented here does not chime with the current consensus within these disciplines, and that naturally provoked a reaction – just as scientists are provoked to react by those who reject or ignore their research.

Both sides of this discussion have more in common than not, and the criticism was made in good faith and with a genuine belief that science, science communication and the use of scientific evidence in government policy, would benefit. We aim to aid, not to jeopardise understanding of scientific evidence, by following the evidence uncovered by our disciplines (and, yes, there are other kinds of evidence than scientific).

Broadly, my objections fall into two categories:

1. The piece suggests that science is separated from the “moral, geopolitical and economic components”, even if they rightly acknowledge that it must be part of policy-making

2. Some large and a-historical claims are made regarding changing attitudes to science and technology

On the first, I agree with what Stilgoe has written: “Climate science cannot be separated from climate politics”, for scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.

While there are lots of good phrases about this in the piece, it remains the case that we have scientific evidence on one side of the equation and everything else on the other. It is right to say that scientific evidence “should not be seen or presented … as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged”, and yet it and “the scientific method” are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion”, and they explicitly see a border between science and politics, even if it is portrayed as an unclear one.

The second issue arises in the article’s framing, especially the big opening: “The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method”. This was bound to get the historical and philosophical radar twitching, even if it seems peripheral to the focus of the piece.

“[U]nparalleled human advances” is questionable, for almost any other 100-year period can give a similar sense. In the West in recent centuries, science and technology have certainly played a huge part in those changes, but claiming that the kind of technological innovations Ince and Cox are referring to are due to “the scientific method” is something most scholarship in the history and philosophy of science rejects. Firstly, there are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological. Secondly, new technology tends to lead to new scientific research, rather than vice versa.

This is fairly trivial in the context, however galling to those who carry out research that demonstrates these points. However, more problematic is the fact that the piece goes on to claim that our cushy life and unquestioning consumption of incomprehensible technology is leading us to be less impressed by and accepting of such novelties. Apparently we are devolving:

The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.

In fact, historical research suggests that levels of “believing complete drivel”, like those of greeting innovations with “excitement and awe” or boredom or suspicion have not changed a great deal. There is no evidence that “humbug and charlatanism are able to creep into our lives with greater ease”, and I have yet to find anyone arguing that “we are no longer obliged to continue the scientific exploration of nature” or that “scientific progress is no longer desirable or necessary”.

It is untrue and unhelpful to claim that those who question or ignore certain scientific findings are opposed to science in general. Such statements set up unnecessary dualisms and a “you’re either with us or against us” feeling. Frankly, if people only accept part of the package, better that than none. We need to avoid situations where people, who for whatever cultural, religious or personal reasons are unconvinced by scientific arguments in one area, find themselves forced into taking sides in a science/anti-science dichotomy.

How are we to proceed? We should simply accept that “It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so”. But the trouble is that people do challenge, and being told that they can’t isn’t likely to stop them. There is no call here to improve communication with those who have doubts about the message. In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us”.

Finally, I do think that scientists are better at science than me, and that successful science communicators are better at communicating science (to a large audience, if not to all audiences). I also think that when scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.

Science prizes: what are they for?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Detail of Harrison's H4 sea watch
Prizes can recognise achievements (like the Nobels) or induce researchers to focus on particular problems. John Harrison’s 1759 sea watch was a result of the latter approach. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

On Tuesday, the Nobel prize for physics was announced. Like all the Nobels, it will attract considerable interest, publicity and debate. But what are the roles of prizes – as rewards or as incentives – in science?

Because of the large amount of money involved, and the international remit, the Nobels have become hugely prestigious, if often controversial. Yet they are an oddity, founded on an individual’s whim, with no consultation with governments or institutions, and resting, as the Guardian’s Ian Sample puts it, “on the words of a secretive bunch of Scandinavians”. Despite this, the Nobels are typical of the many prizes established within science that reward success, mark approval, consolidate a sense of community and, often, create public interest.

Although numerous, the very notion of prizes in science can be controversial. Making choices about winners and losers is bound to encourage dissent, but prizes also seem to undermine some of the basic assumptions about how science works. They stimulate competition in an endeavour that is often celebrated as collaborative. Sometimes they act to focus minds on particular problems, implying that serendipitous discovery through “blue skies” research is insufficient in meeting society’s needs. Finally, offering money suggests that financial success through the market may be elusive, or that the joy of intellectual discovery is not necessarily sufficient reward.

The way that prizes have been awarded and publicised can offer clues about the status of science through history. The Royal Society, which now offers a huge number of prizes and honours, first awarded its Copley Medal in 1731. The list of winners is wonderfully eclectic, and shows that in the early days the “most important scientific discovery” was often judged to relate to a practical problem. It shows a Society that was keen to demonstrate the public utility of science.

This was typical of the period. The Society of Arts, for example, offered premiums for specific challenges, such as improvements to machines or techniques in agriculture and navigation. Similarly, in 1796, the American Philosophical Society announced rewards for “the best performances, inventions, or improvements” in ships’ pumps, calculating longitude by lunar distance, stoves, preventing decay in peach trees, studying native American vegetable diets, and street lighting. Famously, Napoleon offered a prize for the invention of a method of food preservation that would facilitate the feeding of his armies.

Such challenge prizes did not disappear, although, in the following centuries, the most high-profile were offered by individuals and companies and focused on exciting and popular areas of innovation like railways and flight. The X Prize, for commercial space flight, is clearly of the same lineage as the Orteig Prize for flying non-stop between Paris and New York.

Increasingly, though, as science began to offer careers rather than haphazard opportunities, institutional and governmental rewards for science recognised outstanding achievements, rather than attempting to push people and teams into working on particular problems. In part this resulted from the rise of the notion that science benefits mankind as the unpredictable (but nevertheless ultimately assured) result of undirected, curiosity-driven research.

Recently, however, we seem to have stepped back into the 18th century.Nesta, which has set up a Centre for Challenge Prizes with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, sets the tone in this overview of the history and recent rise of challenge prizes. It points to the findings of a recent report that “before 1991, 97% of the prize money offered took the form of recognition prizes for past achievements. Since then, 78% of new prize money has been offered for the future solution of problems.”

Inducement prizes are proliferating, and the UK and the US governments are showing increasing interest. They are a particularly good way of getting attention from both public and STEM community, while being seen to be making positive noises about important problems or opportunities, all at a cost greatly lower than that of fully supporting and investing in the required R&D. The winners of the X-Prize put in far more money than they got back and, adding in the amount invested by other competitors for this or, for example, the Saltire Prize, we might see this is a bargain. But is this really how things work?

Nearly every time such prizes are mentioned, as if in proof of their effectiveness, the great granddaddy of them all – the so-called Longitude Prize – is alluded to. In 1714 the British government offered a great deal of money to anyone who could find a practical and more accurate means of finding longitude (i.e. east-west position) at sea. The sum specified, £20,000, was ultimately given to John Harrison for his sea watch. Bingo! Significant issue resolved as the result of a one-off inducement prize.

Well, yes and no. As I have written before, the story is more complicated and the Commissioners of Longitude and Admiralty had to be considerably more flexible in their approach. As far as the development of Harrison’s clocks goes, long-term financial support, in the form of a series of smaller rewards between 1737 and 1764, was probably more important than the distant carrot of the ultimate reward. Likewise, it was subsequently necessary to invest in further product development and basic infrastructure to make the use of timekeepers and the (necessary and complementary) astronomical techniques a practical possibility.

If the Longitude Act of 1714 is to be an inspiration for current initiatives, then prize-givers should recall these facts and be in a position to offer a mixed funding model. Unless backed by grants, profitable companies or other institutions, researchers will not have time and leisure to develop new ideas. And those ideas are nothing without further investment. Without these other elements, challenge prizes will reward the already-successful, just as Nobels and other recognition prizes do.

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.