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.

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.

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.

Science and growth: your ideas please!

With a little trepidation I have agreed to sit on the panel for next week’s Science Question Time, run by the Biochemical Society and the Campaign for Science and Engineering. It will be at the Institute of Physics on Monday 18th.

The blurb goes:

Since David Willetts’ first speech as Science Minister, the coalition has been pushing ‘science for growth’.

But can the government pick winners? Are their policies joined-up enough to deliver? Is the state committing enough to long-term investment, or is too much store being set on narrowly defined versions of ‘impact’? Are businesses really on board?

Perhaps we need to think in different terms entirely – should we be looking to technology for sustainability, rather than growth? Is an unrelenting focus on growth a bit irresponsible?

I was pleased to be suggested and asked for the panel and think that some of the stuff I have been working and blogging on recently are relevant to the discussion. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the discussion and meeting the panel and audience. But I sadly don’t have the whole of history (not even the whole of British history of science!) at my fingertips.

I thought, therefore, that ahead of Monday’s discussion I would ask any historians of science reading this if they have any useful ideas, case studies, hints or readings they can share with me relating to the theme. If you do, please comment here, or feel free to email me at rebekah [dot] higgitt [a] gmail [dot] com.

Thanking you in advance!

David Willetts and the history of science

There has been an interesting discussion on Mersenne, the history of science listserv, prompted by James Sumner, who has kindly allowed me to post his email to the Mersenne subscribers.

Dear Listmembers 

Those of us keen, for whatever reason, to gauge the attitude of the current UK government towards the history of science might find enlightenment in the thoughts of David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, as presented at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on Monday. Or possibly not. His speech begins as follows: Read More »