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Clarke on Research and Science in Prewar Britain July 20, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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Coming off this blog’s discussion of Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in 19th-Century America,” I would next like to look at Sabine Clarke’s “Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916-1950” (abstract + paywall) from the most recent Isis.

Lucier’s piece delineated important distinctions and connections between 19th-century American and British vocabularies of science, with an attendant examination of important issues to which the American lexicon was applied.  Reading that work, I found myself not really willing to believe that the subject matter had not been previously parsed that way, and am still half expecting someone to pop up with some obvious reference that tells all about it — it’s really useful stuff.

Clarke’s piece seems to offer more of a clarification of certain points of vocabulary, rather than an important new delineation of historical ideas, but it is successful in the task it sets out to accomplish.  The actual ideas discussed — the relationship between “research” (as in “research and development”) and “science” — should already be familiar to those with a serious interest in the relationship between scientific research and technological development in the industrial era.  What is of primary interest here is the search for appropriate language to describe this relationship.

The idea we should all already have in mind is this: “research” connotes any form of investigation that is not immediately directed toward the development of a new technology or industrial process (henceforth, simply “technology”).  Over the past couple of centuries, research entailed developing an understanding of, or even just exploring, certain classes of phenomena — the properties of certain classes of materials, for example.  This research was often inspired by efforts to improve existing technologies.  Sometimes, it might well have led to deeper developments in scientific knowledge, but did not necessarily need to do so.

Institutionally, because research subjects and problems of technology development are expected to be linked, contact and coordination between researchers and developers may be desirable.  In some regional institutional frameworks, universities may not be desirable places for this research to be undertaken.  University researchers’ academic interests may not prompt them to pursue problems of industrial interest, and when they do, weak university-industry relations might prevent the implications of their research for technology development from being seen.

In the early 20th century, there was a great deal of anxiety that such an institutional framework existed in Britain.  Industries were thought not to undertake sufficient research for the nation’s firms to produce competitive goods, and universities, pursuing a “pure science” ideal, could not make the necessary contributions to Britain’s economy.

To bridge this gap, it was thought that the government might take responsibility for encouraging research of benefit to industry.  This talk resulted in the creation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) in 1916 (just as World War I had revealed certain technological gaps in Britain’s home industry, augmenting existing anxieties).  DSIR was to run certain government laboratories.  It would, for instance, soon take over the National Physical Laboratory (previously mentioned here).  It would also fund research, and oversee a series of “research associations” through which industrial firms would fund and undertake mutually beneficial research.  The DSIR’s story has been told a number of times.

Clarke’s piece elucidates the vocabulary deployed by DSIR’s proponents to describe its activities.  At first, DSIR used the term “pure science” to distinguish its contributions from the typical activities of industrial workshops, but the term, in turn, failed to distinguish DSIR activities from university science.  Some critics feared DSIR would simply support academic research irrelevant to British industry.  Meanwhile, proponents of the idea of “pure science”, such as Nature editor Richard Gregory, were likely to tout the primordial foundations of technologies in scientific discoveries (e.g., electromagnetic induction as prerequisite to telegraph and telephone).  Emphasizing the inherent unpredictability of scientific progress, they were skeptical of DSIR’s ability to plan the research programs that would lead to improved industry.

Responding to these difficulties, the DSIR soon adopted the terminology of “fundamental research”, as distinct from “pure science”, to emphasize the character of research that could be inspired by industrial concerns as well as fruitfully subjected to bureaucratic direction, and that, while beneficial from a national standpoint, might not otherwise be done in industry or universities.  This point modifies careless historical literature that suggests the terms, as well as terms like “basic science” were interchangeable.

In making this observation, Clarke adopts two methodological slants.

First, “In its focus on language this paper is a contribution to a body of scholarship that has sought to investigate the strategies employed in scientific discourse to construct and disseminate knowledge claims, demarcate science from non-science, and assert the cultural value of science” (286).

However, I would distinguish this article from that literature, because the terminology adopted in DSIR relied on no firm demarcations being drawn — just the opposite, it bridged otherwise misleadingly demarcated domains.  No one would have claimed that “fundamental research” represented an unimpeachable category into which DSIR work had to be pigeonholed to legitimize state support.  The rhetoric served more as a clarification of intended bureaucratic function.

While it’s true this clarification did serve in some ways as a defense of DSIR’s work against some criticisms of what constituted proper state activity, that is a somewhat different concern from the sociological and historical literature on demarcation and boundaries, wherein much is taken to depend on the epistemic purity of domains and the integrity of boundaries between them.  One could plausibly argue that clarification nevertheless fits into the literature on historical demarcation, but if nearly any act of description for the sake of facility in communication and purpose is an act of demarcation, then the potential analytical power of that literature is substantially diluted.

The second methodological slant runs somewhat against the first.  Clarke astutely points out, “The more general problem with many accounts of the DSIR has been a tendency by scholars to focus on making an assessment of its success or failure that reflects the concerns of the particular writer, rather than focusing on any debates that occurred at the moment of the DSIR’s establishment.  In addition, evaluating the contribution of the DSIR to British science policy, or to state and science relations, misses the point that the DSIR was specifically concerned with research, not science per se” (289-290).

In other words, the reason why DSIR has been a historiographical focus is because the instantiation of an industrial research organization within the state apparatus has been taken as a moment when some action was taken in bodies responsible to the public to address the aforementioned anxieties over the British nation’s institutional framework (in their roughest form, expressed as a national problem with “science” — a rhetorical legacy dating at least to Babbage).

In fact, though, fundamental research flourished in Britain prior to, and regardless of, the contribution of DSIR or, for that matter, a clearly expressed concept of “fundamental research”.  “David Edgerton and Sally Horrocks have … shown that the picture of absolute neglect by British industry to be misleading.  British firms were conducting scientific research before World War I, notably the United Alkali Company, Cadbury, Noble, and Vickers, and it has proven difficult to substantiate the claim that British industry was far behind that of Germany in its spending on research” (289).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the article for me is the insistence of British Marxist scientists, such as J. D. Bernal, Hyman Levy, and Lancelot Hogben, on not distinguishing “pure science” from “fundamental research” in view of their commitment to portraying all scientific work as inextricably the product of its social-economic milieu, which served their goal of seeing the state provide a forum for the coordination of scientific work in view of potential industrial-technological contributions to social welfare.  Clarke might also have mentioned their predilection for the term “scientific research worker” rather than “scientist”, which also nicely links this article to the concerns over the terminology of the “man of science” vs. “scientist” noted in Lucier’s piece.

Importantly, Clarke acknowledges how loosely critical rhetoric mapped onto historical practices, and thus how toothless it was: “this paper shows that the ideal of pure science promoted by public scientists [I dislike this term, by the way — too vague] around the time of World War I exercised very little influence on the character of policies that were being developed for the funding and organization of research….  A close examination of the texts of the DSIR reveals that actors had more nuanced understandings of the interplay between research and practice [technological development?] than they sometimes have been credited for, and that they also knew the difference between the rhetoric of official documents and journals, and the nature of scientific work in practice” (287).  Edgerton’s important paper “The Linear Model Did Not Exist” is profitably cited here.

My feeling is that the disconnect between rhetoric and practical considerations somewhat undercuts the impact of the paper’s extended analysis of the use of the term “fundamental research”, but that the forthrightness about this issue augments the paper’s credibility and utility — an all-too-rare restraint in a literature often seemingly determined to mine profundity from the tea leaves of historical rhetoric.

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