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Minor Reform and Epochal Narrative: Wartime Coordination of Research with Practical Needs May 23, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in Operations Research, Technocracy in the UK.
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I am currently working more-or-less full time again on my book, which is about what I am now calling the “sciences of policy” (operations research, management science, systems analysis, decision theory….). But, while I was doing the spade work for my new project on experts in and around the British state (focusing initially on agricultural and food expertise), I found some interesting parallels between my old and new projects. I thought one of these parallels might make for an interesting post, since I am unlikely to put it into print anywhere else in the near future.

Some of the early parts of my book deal with what, in my present draft, I characterize as “a series of important, but ultimately minor bureaucratic reforms proposed by a small group of scientists and engineers between 1939 and 1941.” These reforms were the establishment of scientific advisory posts and “operational research” (OR) teams in the British Army’s Anti-Aircraft Command, the Air Ministry, and the Royal Air Force.

(Patrick Blackett, “Scientists at the Operational Level” memorandum, 31 October 1941. n.b. “O.R.S.” = “Operational Research Section”)

To that time, all scientific advisory positions had been attached to the military’s research, development, and supply arms, rather than within the military hierarchy itself. As I write, “These reforms were justified by reference to specific wartime shortcomings in military suppliers’ ability to design technologies that met the services’ requirements, and in the services’ ability to formulate their technical requirements clearly and to develop effective techniques and tactics for using the equipment available to them.”

These justifications were generally well accepted by the military, and the reforms duly made. However, I go on to argue that “the reformers also saw their proposals as representing the more general cause of ‘science’, which linked these proposals to others with a more uneven history of acceptance. Taking this perspective allowed the reformers to see and portray their successes as limited but righteous triumphs in a long and onerous struggle to perfect the relationship between science, the state, and society. This narrative would allow them to portray further suggestions as clearly progressive steps in advancing an ostensibly worthy cause.” I then discuss in some detail the “politics of science and its coordination” as they developed during the war.

Historians who have addressed the history of these particular reforms have more or less accepted the narrative that the reformers had a stake in conveying. In fact, these historians have not generally been interested in the reforms, per se, so much as they have been interested in the narrative they were purported to represent. The title of Ronald Clark’s The Rise of the Boffins (1962), an early secondary account of these and other reforms, is self-explanatory (assuming you know that “boffin” means “scientist” or “expert”).

The reforms also play a revised role in other, generally more recent works. These works abide by the terms of the larger narrative, viewing the reforms as indeed indicative of an ascendancy of scientists, or a scientific or rationalistic mindset. At the same time, they may aim to subvert the narrative’s tenor, questioning its apparent progressivism. Sometimes the simple fact of the ascendancy is of interest — the subject of Paul Edwards’ The Closed World (1996) is the rise of a “discourse” of observation and control. Sometimes the ascendancy is taken to be a key to understanding specific knock-on changes, as with the rise of rational agents in neoclassical economics portrayed in Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams (2002).

I would go so far as to speculate that this particular wartime-era narrative-building about a shifting relationship between science, state, and society — initially transmitted through intellectuals such as the Marxist J. D. Bernal (1901-1971) — is a key contributor to present lines of thought in the history of science and science studies community, albeit filtered through a few generations of intellectual mutation and hybridization. I’d still like to fill in some of the intermediary steps before I would say anything definite on that, however.

These wartime bureaucratic reforms are not exactly widely known, but the fact that they have been written about as much as they have is almost certainly a result of their being lodged within these broad narratives. Interest in them can be contrasted to an understandable lack of interest in the functionally similar Agricultural Improvement Council, which was established in 1941 — at the same time as many of the reforms from my book project.

The AIC had a three-fold objective: 1) to investigate what agricultural research could be profitably applied to agricultural practices, 2) to suggest by what means that research could be translated into practice, and 3) to ascertain what problems there were in existing agricultural practice that researchers might address. As with the scientific advisory posts and OR groups in the military, the council was supposed to facilitate constructive interaction between researchers and technologies’ “users” (or, in this case, farmers).

The AIC was envisioned as a parallel body to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), which had been established in 1931. Although the foundation of the ARC was intended to result in agricultural improvement, its members were only tasked with overseeing the expenditure of funds on worthy research projects. They had no formal obligation to consider how research would actually result in improvement. In fact, much of what has been written by historians on the ARC has focused on the debates (following the earlier Development Commission’s) that resulted in the ARC’s emphasis on supporting intellectually rather than practically interesting projects (though the two were not mutually exclusive).

As I discussed in my earlier post on it, the AIC comprised both scientists and high-profile farmers, and in this respect was similar to committees with both scientists and military officers, and the network of liaison relationships between government research establishments, academic researchers, and the military that was so central to the wartime politics of coordination.

The AIC’s work was initially divided into three committees, organized according to the three tasks enumerated above. The first and third tasks involved building means of surveying existing research and agricultural quandaries and problems. With such surveys the AIC could help match research to problems. The second task involved understanding how ideas in fact moved in the agricultural world, through media and social interaction. An early AIC report by that committee makes evident that such problems had already been considered in some depth by the Intelligence Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

At that point, it was abundantly clear that ideas moved by giving farmers a chance to question experts vigorously, and by the influence of local “progressive farmers”. And it was clear that farmers, industrial representatives, local educational institutions, experiment station researchers, and county and ministry officials formed a local community, which was somehow responsible for winning confidence in whatever reforms in farming practice might occur.

One could view the establishment of the AIC as a sort of “lost” episode in the narrative of interaction at the border between “science” and “agriculture” as a subset of a science-society narrative, but I prefer to go with the idea that this sort of narrative was always pretty much an unhelpful load of bull. I believe that histories of things like bureaucratic reform have been systematically and unnecessarily dressed up as components of histories of grand ideas and ideologies, which cannot explain the intricacies of the history.

Ultimately, if you want to understand the history, you have to parse the dirty details. Wartime bureaucratic reforms may not have been the scenes of an encounter between “science” and the “state”, but if we care to be interested in them for their own sake, we can see that new attention was paid to problems of coordinating research work with practical needs across very different fields, and that this was important apart from whatever epochal significance they were supposed to have had. Being able to point to such intricacies is one step on the road to a more powerful, and perhaps in the long run, a more relevant historiography.

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